Few, if any, living musicians can boast that their songs have been covered by a more diverse constellation of indie stars as can Daniel Johnston: Beck, The Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, Karen O, Sonic Youth, Dead Milkmen, Yo La Tengo, The Flaming Lips, The Butthole Surfers, Death Cab For Cutie, The Eels, Half Japanese, and Bright Eyes, among others, have all cut versions of the diagnosed bi-polar’s originals. Hell, Johnny Depp even did one. As if these weren’t enough feathers in his cap, the pop songwriting savant is also a Whitney Biennial-featured visual artist, the subject of an acclaimed Sundance documentary and upcoming Hollywood bio-pic, and a cult hero to his many indie rock acolytes.
The raw emotional intensity of this chord organ wizard’s charmingly lo-fi recordings, most self-released, have been compared in their wrenching honesty to everyone from Robert Johnson to Bob Dylan. Oh yeah, and he still lives with his mom. He recently was gracious enough to speak to LMC editor Andy Gately prior to his performance tonight at the Austin City Limits music festival. Here is part one:
AG: Tell us a little about your new record, Is And Always Was. Did you have any new collaborators?
DJ: It was all that one guy [Jason Falkner] and I playing all the instruments, we recorded each song, and then when we went back, we recorded karaoke style, that’s what it sounded like, you know, I just sang along with the tape. I like it alot, it’s completely different than anything else I’ve done.
AG: How so?
DJ: Well it’s just, the sound to it is really good, and it’s just different a lot, you know? I have another one coming out called The Death of Satan, which I did with Danny and the Nightmares.
AG: Are those the kids who stumbled upon you on the side of the road one day when you were being attacked by some dogs?
DJ: Yeah, exactly, that’s right! (laughs) They just drove by and saved my life.
AG: And they happened to be musicians?
DJ: That’s right. When I met him, he said, “Hey, I live in Waller,” that’s this small town, and I said, “Ooh, do you play guitar?” And he said, “Yeah,” (laughs) and we got together right away and started recording and playing.
AG: Like it was meant to be.
DJ: Yeah, you know it.
AG: I hear you sell some of your art work and donate proceeds to the Austin State Hospital?
DJ: Yeah, I do lots of artwork for different people.
AG: Your art at times reminds me of comic book artist R. Crumb, are you a fan of his?
DJ: Oh those are some great ones, that’s for sure. I bought a whole bunch of the different “weird” comic books that they had, and he’s the greatest, he really is cool.
AG: Ever get to meet him?
DJ: No, not yet. It’d be cool to see him sometime.
AG: How did your music end up in the Larry Clark/Harmony Korine cult classic Kids?
DJ: Well it was kind of funny, it was like a little kiddie pornography movie that they made, and then when they used the song in the movie, they got violent and they were beating up this one kid (laughs), and they were playing “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” at the same time, with the chord organ, and I didn’t realize the music made people feel that way.
AG: Maybe it was a little joke they were having, with the character named Casper in the movie?
DJ: Yeah! (laughs)
AG: Didn’t you play some music on the Henry Rollins Show, too?
DJ: Yeah, when I was on that show, he wasn’t there, ‘cause they had it like, pretend like he had said something, and then I’m supposed to answer, and then they re-edit it later (laughs).
AG: One of your songs mentions Roky Erickson, do you guys hang out?
DJ: Yeah, he was one of my friends, I used to go to his house and we’d watch horror movies and stuff. He was a big fan of monster movies, much as I am.
AG: Like what?
DJ: We saw The Last House On The Left.
AG: That’s a scary one.
DJ: Yeah it sure is. We were watching this other thing that was like a bunch of trailers, right? And it came to a part where all these vampire girls were in it naked and jumping around, and I was like, “Hey, look at this,” you know, in my mind, and he turned it off because he thought it was sort of too much (laughs).
AG: Do you feel your best music was created when you were the happiest or the unhappiest?
DJ: Well, it’s happy or sad, it all depends on how I feel, you know?
To read more from Andy’s interview with Daniel Johnston, go HERE.