Daniel Johnston interview by Jonathan Bond from 2001

Been a while since I posted here, but I’ve been meaning to put some of my music journalism up for a long time. The sad passing of Daniel Johnston on Wednesday, Sept 11 2019 at the age of 58 prompted me to post this interview with him from 18 years ago which was published in a long-gone (even largely for the Wayback Machine!)  Tastemaker music blog basement-life.com that predates Stereogum and the prominence of Pitchfork. (I may also add links to other places I published interviews or stories about Daniel over the years.) I saw him play and spoke to him several times over the years, a few times in person, and each time it was a revelation of play, mental illness, enthusiasm and confusion, sometimes at once. He was a great and made an inimitable contribution to music and art, and though he will be missed, I know he’s in a better place.

The article, design-wise was created for basement-life.com as a series of images with the text embedded. I’ve included the images below but in this format it’s basically impossible to read the font, so I’ve included the original text from the article here. Thanks for reading, and please feel free to comment on your thoughts about Daniel.

Jonathan


Jonathan Bond asks Daniel Johnston “Hi! How are you?”

and they uh, have a lot of fun.

 

Discovery

It was 10:53. We closed at 11:00pm. The customers wouldn’t budge from the bins even after the requisite sarcastic 20 minutes warning and the pleading 10-minute warning. We had a solution to this problem at Rockaway Records, and it was time to go for the jugular. This usually meant putting on Metal Machine Music, some delicate selection from Yoko’s solo work or maybe one of the lovelier tracks by Coil or Psychic TV.
I left the selecting to my co-worker and went person to person in the store asking, pleading for them to leave when I was struck by a musical tractor beam, abducted by the sound and couldn’t move.
“They shot him down. They shot him down /they thought he was a monster but he was the king/ they came to his island and they brought her with them/ they wanted to get his picture but they were surprised by his enormous size/ and when he saw the woman he took her without question /because after all he was the King “
Some lunatic little boy was speaking/singing the entire plot to the film King Kong, a cappella. It was a dangerously emotional ode to the fallen giant in which every plot point, every nuance was sung by the broken child’s voice, from the perspective of the King no less.
When the song was finished, this confessional, home recording of one man-child’s love for a huge monkey was finished, a mere five minutes and forty threes seconds later, the store was empty, and I had heard something I would never forget.
That was a little more that ten years ago, (in 2001 – now nearly 30, sigh.) and it still stands as a watershed moment in my personal musical lexicon.
The album was Yip! Jump music by Daniel Johnston. His chilling child-like voice, the emotional range a single song could express, the simple melodies produced by pounding on a chord organ and the lo-fi recording (before that was even a term) had me hypnotized. Passionate songs about Casper the Friendly ghost, the Beatles, unrequited love and god, the strange drawings that were all over the CD made me want to better understand what it all meant. It was all fun and games until the songs planted themselves firmly at the base of my skull and began to grow.

Manifestation

Austin, SXSW 2001 St. Patrick’s day/night 1am

Daniel Johnston is playing with a punk backing band made up of high school age kids. He is large, Grey haired and internal, as if he were at home alone singing songs. He stands precariously behind a music stand, staring hard into a notebook. He grabs the mike stand with one hand; perhaps for balance, maybe to feel more grounded. Another hand occasionally flares out in a quiver that speaks of years of pharmaceuticals, drugs that help and hurt at the same time.
The band plays average punk rock and he sings songs we don’t know, often out of time. There is a strange woman to the right of the stage, balanced in a squat that isn’t natural, somehow able to hold this pose and rock back and forth and side to side with a stare that says, “I am not here”. At one point she passes out onstage, only to return to the same catatonic poses a few songs later.
Daniel stares at the notebook and nowhere else. It’s as if he will disappear if he looks up or acknowledges his loving audience. He breaks into “Speeding Motorcycle” from Yip Jump music and we loose all control.
Somehow the show is over, and I am face to face with Daniel Johnston. I have two beers in my hand; he has a six pack of diet coke. At this point I am not going to try and out-cool any of you and say I was removed and unimpressed by his presence. I was a slobbering, love-filled rabid fan, asking to look in his notebook, seeking out a key to the mystery. “It’s just my songs,” he says with a wobbly searching look. At this moment, my impairment meets his eyeballs and for a second Johnston looks something like his signature drawing, Jeremiah the bullfrog. I hug him more than once and generally make a fool of myself. Yeah.

Validation

It is the same voice I heard in the record store that fateful night but deeper, more world-weary though still childlike. Johnston nervously titters after many of his responses. I really have no idea how this interview is going to go, but from the start I sense that as long as I am honest and real there is no way he won’t attempt to respond to any question I ask him. After I look back at the conversation on paper, I realize he is very willing to answer the questions, but not always in order and not always the question you have in fact just asked him. There is no sense correcting him or repeating the question most of the time, because the odd answers, the answers that don’t fit the question just posed, are just as valid and fit perfectly in our discussion.
Daniel Johnston’s album Rejected Unknown is about to come out. After two years of basically sitting in the can (there was a small pressing of about 2000 before this) the album is set to be released October ninth on Gammon records. It is a return to form for Daniel. It was recorded in he and his parents home, in the garage, recorded on equipment that longtime associate, producer Brian Beattie, lugged to the Johnston house on occasional weekends.
It is a polished recording, well produced and string induced, but it still has all the Johnston signature sounds and moods. It is clear that Beattie, a Johnston supporter since Johnston appeared in Austin in the early eighties, understands and knows how to nurture the delicate and raw muse that is Johnston. It is not hard to declare Rejected Unknown the best offering from Johnston in at least 10 years.

DJ- Well I ran a ride. I was the announcer on the river of no return. It was a lot of fun.
JB- what kind of a ride was that?
DJ- it was like a boat and I was the announcer I had a big microphone and I told jokes. All these people would get on the boat and they had like props and stuff. There was like a big head of King Kong and a skeleton and I would say ‘there’s Sonny Bono’. I was trying to tell these jokes real corny type jokes. So that was what I did when I was there (in Houston) besides just flipping burgers.
Daniel is talking about when he worked as Astroworld in Houston. This was a time when he was having a lot of fun. But judging from our conversation, Daniel is pretty much having a lot of fun all the time. (This is a good thing) When I say that Rejected Unknown is pretty much back to form, better than the overproduced misguided Fun, he says “well yeah fun was fun. It was a lot of fun and it’s been a long time since then so you know (laughs nervously).” When Daniel says, “it was a lot of fun”, and he says it nearly every third sentence, it seems to be partially a nervous tick tacked on the end of a sentence. While this may account for some of the large tally of fun having he wishes to talk about, it is very clear that he is jazzed about his current station in life.
This is something striking about speaking with the man. He has been through a lot, he has the right to sing the blues for the rest of his days, but he doesn’t. He’s not the slightest bit bitter, and while he appreciates humor, I didn’t find a trace of irony. He wasn’t blaming anyone for anything, he didn’t rely on his hardship to explain his behavior, he just was. How refreshing compared to reading an interview with junkie millionaires complaining about the ravages of fame and how they had a no so great upbringing.
I asked Daniel about Rejected Unknown and how he and Beattie made the recording. “I have a little room where I practice, I have my piano and everything. Brian Beattie, the producer would bring his equipment out,” says Johnston. “It’s portable studio equipment, and uh for a period of about three years we recorded a lot, and we have enough material even for another album we plan to release later after this has been out, after Rejected Unknown, we have plans to release another album of stuff for the same sessions. We had a lot of fun recording and what he would do, we would lay down basic tracks here, and he would bring in musicians, drummers and guitar players and everything and he would take the tapes back home and add strings and saxophone and stuff like that. So we had a lot of fun.”
I asked him how the string arrangements came to be and he is quick to share the credit for the sound:
JB- The string arrangements, were they yours or did he help you with them?
DJ- Well, we would discuss things over the phone, basic ideas, but a lot of times it was his arrangements to backup things. Background music and stuff was his stuff.
JB- It’s a good sounding record and I like the fact that it kind of encompasses both the early stuff and the more produced material.
DJ- It’s really the most produced record that I have been involved with. It’s really cool. I really love it a lot.
JB- Its’ great.
DJ- yeah. (Laughs)

While Rejected unknown is the most commercial project Daniel has been involved in years; he also equally loves his other recording forays. Very prolific and always recording, Daniel not only has another whole albums worth of materials from the Rejected Unknown sessions, he has released an album with his high school age band Danny and the Nightmares, a four track local affair. There are things about this group that he seems to love as much as the proper album, and he is excited about the prospects with the young band. When I tell him that I saw him at SXSW with the band, he gets very animated and explains exactly what they mean to him:

“That was a lot of fun! That’s my band. We still play, we plan to be produced by Paul Leary and we’ve been waiting for him, he’s been working with U2, you know, the BAND, and he’s been producing them and he agreed to produce Us so we’ve been waiting for him to be done with that. When I asked him if he would be interested in producing us, he said ‘Anything for you Dan’ so it was cool. We’ve been working on songs for forever we’ve done a lot of shows, last year we used to do shows forever and it was a lot of fun and we’re still together and hope to be produced by Paul Leary …
JB- how did you hook up with the kids?
DJ- One time I was doing a show and uh the guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I live in Waller’ and I’m from Waller and he said ‘I heard your from Waller’ and I said ‘Yeah. Do you play guitar? And he said “Yeah” and I said ‘Great all right!’ and we just started playing music together. . . We made a CD four track record right away and we put on it ‘produced by god and Satan’. We called ourselves Danny and the Nightmares. Its like the funnest experience, especially since I never had the experience where I would spend that much time working on songs with someone with a band. Usually if I am working in the studio with a band, or something, we just work it up right away and then record. With my friends here (Danny and the Nightmares) we’d work on a song like for all year long so it really makes a difference, you can tell when we play live that we have worked on it a lot so it’s a lot of fun. And in the band I don’t play an instrument when we play out, I just sing, and so I can concentrate on my singing. So that is a lot of fun. I’m really glad I ran into them. I was living a really isolated life here, I didn’t have any friends in town and I didn’t have a car. I was doing a lot of shows solo, and boy I just felt like I was bombing. Even though the audience was supportive because they all thought they “love my music” or something, I just felt like I was bombing, I was playing by myself on guitar, right, night after night when I would do shows I was never happy about it. When I finally got with them and I started playing with the nightmares, I was happy. I had a band and I was really happy about it. So it makes quite a difference.

Early into our rather circular discussion, Daniel reveals that if everything works out, He will be touring the major cities of the United States behind Rejected Unknown. While Johnston has been venturing out much more in the last year than he has perhaps ever, the fact that he is well enough and feels like touring the country is truly great. When he dropped the tour bomb on me I had to find out if he was coming to Phoenix, where I live, which resulted in a very funny little interchange. It seems Daniel shares the same opinion about my desert home that many in the music industry do:

DJ- They are sending me on a tour when the record is released of all the Major cities of the United States.
JB- Oh really!
DJ- I am going to drive around with one of my friends and I’m very excited about that.
JB- Are you going to come to Phoenix?
DJ- Phoenix, Arizona? Hmm, I don’t really know. Is that a big city?
JB- Yeah. It’s the sixth biggest.
DJ- It’s one of the sixth biggest. Well, maybe so. I’ll have to ask the guy that’s arranging it.
JB- If so I could point you to some good clubs.
DJ- Okay. I’ll have to… I didn’t even know too much about Phoenix Arizona. I’ve heard of Phoenix Arizona but I don’t know if that is one of the one’s we were thinking about, but I’ll have to ask him.

So it’s not a great music town. Mr. Mister came from Phoenix, Mister!

Daniel has also completed a soon to be released record with like minded/ vocal soul mate Jad Fair. This time around they are calling themselves “Lucky Sperm’ and the album is entitled ‘Somewhat Humorous”. The album will be released on JagJaguwar, the same people that recently re-released their first effort together. When is the record coming out? On this topic Daniel is downright cryptic “it’s coming out after soon”
Also recorded in the Johnston home, Jad Fair and musician Chris Boltman stayed in the Johnston home for two weeks. Johnston describes the visit like so:

“It was a lot of fun. (natch –Ed) They came here and stayed at the house for two weeks and Jad had like a 12 track machine and we rented a drum-set and we all took turns playin’ drums and playing piano and guitars and it was a lot of fun.
JB- your parents don’t really mind all this?
DJ- Oh no. They ah…It’s pretty much a rock and roll hotel here every now and then, we have recording stuff here they really enjoy talking to people when my friends come over to play music. My parents enjoy talking to them. My friends come into the living room and talk to my parents; they turn off the television and talk to my parents for a minute. My parents appreciate my friends. It’s a lot of fun. It’s pretty cool for them. They enjoy talking to my friends.”
This idyllic Norman Rockwell moment plays until you realize that his parents are deeply religious and very conservative and members of the “greatest” generation. So you have the Johnston’s, getting on in age, peacefully watching Wheel of Fortune or whatever and suddenly Jad Fair drops in for a chat about the day and the day’s divinity. That is when the record beings to scratch and makes all those cat fight noises. . .
Some other recent developments speak to the fact the Daniel has every reason to be having a lot of fun. DJ is the subject of a new book, aptly titled “Hi, How are you”. His art is selling well in galleries and on the internet as prints. Oh yeah, Johnston recently took part in an experimental film having something to do with King Kong. He and his father were flown to Johannesburg for the shoot at the request of the director. Rather than trying to explain that experience, let’s just let the man speak for himself:

“This experimental film expert guy that’s suppose to be kinda famous (Daniel couldn’t remember his name and I couldn’t find out) wanted to make this film about King Kong. So we went over, me and my dad and they had a gorilla mask and he filmed me singing the song (King Kong) from Yip! Jump music over and over again and there were a bunch of kids there in a park and I had them chanting ‘Long Live King Kong’ it was hilarious. And then I was wearing a gorilla mask playing piano. That was pretty cool and then I was acting like King Kong, being scary, that was pretty funny too. They were rich and they were paying us a lot of money, it was ridiculous. There’s suppose to be this big premiere in London, and me and Dad are suppose to fly back just to see the premier. So they’re making a big deal out of it, so it’s pretty wild. We went on safari and all these big time rich fancy restaurants and everything. It was outrageous. It was a lot of fun. “

What more, really can I add?


Pull Quotes

Section One:

Some lunatic little boy was speaking/singing the entire plot to the film King Kong, a cappella. It was a dangerously emotional ode to the fallen giant in which every plot point, every nuance was sung by the broken child’s voice, from the perspective of the King no less.

For section two:

At this point I am not going to try and out-cool any of you and say I was removed and unimpressed by his presence. I was a slobbering, love-filled rabid fan. . . I hug him more than once and generally make a fool of myself. Yeah.

For section three:

DJ- Well I ran a ride. I was the announcer on the river of no return. It was a lot of fun.
JB- what kind of a ride was that?
DJ- it was like a boat and I was the announcer I had a big microphone and I told jokes. All these people would get on the boat and they had like props and stuff. There was like a big head of King Kong and a skeleton and I would say ‘there’s Sonny Bono’. I was trying to tell these jokes real corny type jokes. So that was what I did when I was there (in Houston) besides just flipping burgers.
DJ- They are sending me on a tour when the record is released of all the Major cities of the United States.
JB- Oh really!
DJ- I am going to drive around with one of my friends and I’m very excited about that.
JB- Are you going to come to Phoenix?
DJ- Phoenix, Arizona? Hmm, I don’t really know. Is that a big city?
JB- Yeah. It’s the sixth biggest.
DJ- It’s one of the sixth biggest. Well, maybe so. I’ll have to ask the guy that’s arranging it.
JB- If so I could point you to some good clubs.
DJ- Okay. I’ll have to… I didn’t even know too much about Phoenix Arizona. I’ve heard of Phoenix Arizona but I don’t know if that is one of the one’s we were thinking about, but I’ll have to ask him.

“There were a bunch of kids there in a park and I had them chanting ‘Long Live King Kong’ it was hilarious. And then I was wearing a gorilla mask playing piano. That was pretty cool and then I was acting like King Kong, being scary, that was pretty funny too.

dj1dj3dj2dj4

dj5dj6dj7

J

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~ by 15wattLasVegas on September 13, 2019.

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