When someone says that a song can save you, I think of how it feels to listen to a Daniel Johnston song. He can simultaneously sever and mend your heart and challenge you — artist or not — so hard it hurts, getting you to question your own honesty when it comes to expressing how you feel. With an eerie simplicity he peels back the layers of superficiality, singing lyrics that cut through comfort zones, revealing captivatingly raw personal stories that traverse beyond the average singer-songwriter territory. Since 1986, as chronicled in the 2006 documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, he’s inspired artists from Kurt Cobaine to M. Ward to Sonic Youth, and battled mental illness, attempting to go beyond the status of cult underground hero.
In-between winter and spring tours via phone from his home in Texas, Johnston shared his thoughts about the 2006 documentary and how the new musical based on his song “Speeding Motorcycle” was created. And as I waited for Daniel to pick up the phone — once his dad and manager, Bill, told I him I was on the phone — I heard the fizz as Daniel twisted the top off a bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper and wondered if this was the same Daniel who was at one time the unofficial spokesman for Mountain Dew. But when he picked up the phone and we began to talk about dealing with stage fright, touring with his brother, learning fake chords from the Beatles, and his upcoming album, it was clear that Daniel Johnston hasn’t changed a bit.
Thanks for taking the time. How are things going?
Well, to tell you the truth things are going down the toilet [chuckles]. We’re trying to have a good time, trying to practice but everything’s going crazy.
Looks like you’re between tours right now. And you’re headed to Canada next?
Yeah, we went to Canada last year, and we’re going to hit the road in about a week but I don’t know where we’re headed.
How was the recent tour?
It was a lot of fun, we went to Canada during that tour and we were on MTV up there. That was a lot of fun, too.
Tell me about this new musical drama Speeding Motorcycle that’s based on your songs.
Yeah, it started in Houston and just recently it was going on in Austin. It was pretty wild, I thought it was pretty fun to see.
How was it created?
They came to me and asked me if I would write a rock opera and I said, “well, I don’t know.” They talked a little bit to my dad and paid him some money but I didn’t have enough money to do the whole thing myself so I made them a tape of some of my favorite songs and one new song that I like a lot. I wasn’t ever really able to be there when they put it together, but they did a pretty good job with it anyway. And I think they could even make a good movie out of it if they tried.
Did you look at any other rock operas when you made the tape for them or was there any specific thought in the way you sequenced the songs on the tape?
No, not really. I didn’t get to think that deep into it or write the songs in any way that was like a play. All I did was make the tape for them because it all happened really fast and I had to give it to them pretty quick — and they had it all really fast. So they put the songs together with a funeral home theme and worked in reciting some of my jokes that I tell on the tape I gave them. There was a Casper, a frog, and even a Captain America so it was pretty good [chuckles].
What are some of your favorite parts about the musical?
I love the way they did the graveyard scene; that was pretty funny. They also did a good job recreating one of my new songs, “Loving Feeling,” but I was really telling them that they should make it into a movie and make more sense of it and I could write more songs or dialog for it.
What do you mean when you say movie? You had the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston that was released in 2005; were you thinking something along those lines or more of a fictional-type movie?
The musical expanded a lot on certain moments of my life. They did a lot of imagining, like they had this scene with me in a mental hospital and if they did make it into a movie I would like to write additional script for scenes like that.
What did you think of the documentary?
Yeah, that sure is a funny film. I get people saying “hey, there’s that guy from the movie” when I go out to the grocery store. People also tell me that they’ve watched it over and over again [chuckles]. I haven’t watched it that many times, but the film sure is a riot with all my friends saying things about me; there are a lot a of really funny things in it.
What do you mean by “funny”?
Well, it focuses on every problem I ever had and it features my music for about a minute. The music starts and stops and then I’m in a mental hospital and then on to the next scene. There’s only one complete song. I just wish it had more music in it.
Maybe they can do that if they make that movie you hope to make.
If I ever did something like that again, I wouldn’t want it to be a documentary. I would want it to be a musical and do some new recordings with my friends and it would be a lot of fun.
You mention you were frustrated while you were working on some new songs. What have you been writing lately?
Well…I’ve been trying to write lately. But like I said, I’ve been kind of depressed lately and unable to write so I hope I cheer up and write some new songs for the shows coming up or something.
I saw your show in Chicago and it was a great show full of emotional connection with the crowd. You have a unique connection with your fans that’s not like most rock shows or singer-songwriter shows.
Well, it’s been a lot of sell-out shows and now that my brother is going with me, we’re playing a lot bigger gigs and places than I used to play. Touring also gives me the chance to go comic book shopping which means a lot to me.
Do you have any favorite shops you look forward to hitting when you come into a city you’ve played before?
Oh, there’s a lot but I always manage to find something I’m looking for. I always go to the record shops, too.
Is there a certain comic book that you been trying to find when you go into the shops?
I’m looking for anything and all kinds because it’s so exciting because you never know what they’re going to have. I just go crazy for comic books when I’m on tour. I love it! That’s what makes the whole tour worth while. I love Jack Kirby and I could collect his work forever.
You’ve mentioned that touring has increased for you.
Well, last year we went on tour a lot and we’ve been on tour a little bit less this year. I didn’t want to go overseas again because you’re always catching trains and missing trains and then getting stranded. So I like being in the United States, where you can rent a car and drive around once you get to the bigger cities.
How’s it been touring with your brother?
It’s been great. He’s been managing along with my dad and he helps put the show together, too.
You said you were working on some new songs. Is there a new album coming soon?
Yeah, me and my band are working on a new album and I have high hopes for it. It’s called The Death of Satan. We’ve been working on it for about a year and we hope to release it eventually.
Is your brother part of the band you’re working with, or are you playing with the band you’ve used before that is mentioned in the documentary?
Well, what happens is that I play with a friend who plays guitar, but I write most of the songs, and then when we go on tour I usually hook up with a local band from that area. They play with me at that show since my songs are pretty easy to learn and they can pick them up pretty quick before the show. Doing it that way makes it really exciting and fun and different each time.
I guess that’s where some of the excitement and intensity comes from when you’re playing live because your show in Chicago was pretty amazing, both your performance and the intense rapture of the crowd with your music and songwriting. Can you explain what it’s like for you on stage when you’re performing?
It’s a lot of fun. The audiences are responsive and it is a nightmare in a way to be up there in front of an audience and as soon as I get up there on stage I’m thinking “I wish I could get off the stage”.
So what keeps you on stage?
I just start playing and I’m thinking “I gotta get this over with and I can’t believe I’m up here” [laughs].
Stage fright is a big thing to overcome but it seems that once the music gets going the nerves subside and everything takes care of itself.
So what is the new album going to sound like? By the title I can sort of guess what the lyrics might be like but can you share a bit of what it might sound like?
It’s going to have a lot of rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelic scary music. It sounds like Buckwheat singing on some tracks, too [chuckles]. We’ve done a lot of recording and we’re going to try and put it together sometime this year.
Are you recording it in your home studio?
Yes, and we’re also working in a town near here.
How are the drawings and the art shows going for you?
They’re going great! Because of the internet I’m able to have art shows going on all across the world and it pays for my groceries so I get some pretty great food because of the art.
What are you listening to right now?
Well, I like a lot of different stuff and especially the big major artists like the Beatles. And when an artist gets the chance to be in the big time and they have the money, the time, and the studio… And I like the underdog, too, I’m an underdog, but I want to be in the big time so I can have the best studios, producers, engineers, and the best bands so I can make it, too, and not just be in the underground like I am now.
So are you trying to go in that direction with this new album?
We think this album will be a college radio type album and we’ve been saving some songs so we can work with a really good producer so we have a lot of songs that we haven’t recorded yet but we do play live with.
Your music and songwriting is very simple, but has a emotional vulnerability and has a childlike rawness to it that draws you in. Can you explain how you write your songs?
I use a lot of fake chords out of music books that are not the real chords to the song, and I found out by listening to and studying the Beatles that they would experiment with chord progression books, and so I would do the same thing and mix up the chords and try different keys and then I just start playing and mumbling something and then the song starts to grow. It’s a process that I don’t do enough and I’m never higher than when I write a song, that’s when I’m the happiest. I love to write more than I love to practice. I hope I eventually have that time to write because if I don’t I might get lost… if I don’t do something soon. I’m getting old [chuckles]. Yeah, now I haven’t got my Born to Run or my Sgt. Pepper’s yet, so I have to do something about it. I have a lot of friends who are engineers and I’m trying to win, not like football, and I’m not really competitive in my mind but I would really love to have a hit single and have enough money to continue on. But I haven’t had to work since 1986, so that’s pretty good.
Daniel Johnston: www.hihowareyou.com