Daniel Johnston is an influential folk musician and artist. He now lives in Waller, Texas where he is currently working on a new record and an art show.
Epilogue: What are your favorite stories and themes?
DJ: Triumph over evil. And there’s a lot of characters that I’ve made up that I’m always thinking of and
I draw em' in different situation. And I someday want to put them together in a comic book.
So I’m thinking along those lines.
What kind of comics are your favorite?
I love early Batman. I love Superman. I got a lot of books recently on tour of that kind of stuff, and a lot of Jack Kirby books too. These reprints these days are unbelievable. They’re all over the place! They’re expensive, but they’re worth it. Batman, Superman, everybody. Captain America…I’ve been buying those up on tour. That’s more or less the reward I get when my brother takes me on tour, my brother’s the tour manager, and I get to go comic book shopping. And I came back with a lot of comic books! So that’s more or less
my pay for doing the shows.
Do you have any super-rare comics? Superman #1 or anything like that?
I don’t have anything that ancient. I have a lot of comics going, a lot of 12-cent comics, I have thousands.
Favorite themes in comic books?
I wanted to do a comic book of Captain America and Casper in sort of a team-up, right? And I worked on the ideas for a long time and I still might try to do that sometime, too.
Are there characters from the comics that show up in the music?
You know my song “ Hey Joe,” “You’re Gonna Make It Joe,” “Keep Punching Joe,” and then there’s Joe the Boxer in the cartoons a lot. So that’s sort of a character that comes from the songs too.
So it works both ways?
I’ll go and draw for a while, then I’ll play piano, then I’ll watch a movie, then I’ll eat, then I’ll draw, then I’ll play some music, then I’ll watch a movie…I’m sort of like a wandering Jew.
What are your favorite types of movies?
Old-time horror movies. I’ve been watching a lot of Lon Channing Jr. movies: “The Man Made Monster” and “The Indestructible Man.” It was really scary at the end, it looked like he got shocked to death and his skin was all ripped up and everything it was scary looking. I love “The Wolfman” and “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman.” Those are my favorite. “House of Frankenstein,” “House of Dracula,” House of Dracula is hilarious, you have a hunchback lady nurse. I’ve seen those a lot. I love the horror movies too. The more recent horror movies are a little bit, sometimes too gory. I don’t really go for that gory of a movie. You know I do enjoy spooky movies too. I got a lot of musicals too. If I see anybody at the video with some music in it I’ll buy that too.
What’s your favorite theme?
Triumph over evil. It’s up in the air now, there’s no real comic book, but just a bunch of drawings we’ve put up on the internet you know, just a bunch of ideas I haven’t put together yet. Be within me, that good will triumph over evil. In my own life I’m trying t o make it work out that way. I’ve been out of mental hospitals for like 20 years and I feel a lot better. I’m on the right medication, I get into no trouble again. I mean, I had a fight with cops one night, been in jail, so I’m trying to stay out of trouble (laughs)
What was your initial reaction to the movie, “The Devil and Daniel Jonhston”?
Well, at first I didn’t know what to think, with a title like “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” it’s pretty serious. We didn’t know that was the title until a couple weeks before it showed. We went to Utah to see a festival, and so it was kind of steering that way, but I think it’s very very funny. I’ve seen it in theaters a couple times and people in the audience were laughing a lot. There was a lot of humor to it. The director put it in, that there was sort of this psycho humor or something, I don’t know what.
I have this theory that all good art must have a sense of humor. Is that something you agree with?
Yeah. Oh, for sure. That’s what I’m going for. I’m not necessarily a stand-up comedian, I’m not telling jokes. But there is a sense of humor. That’s what I intend with my songs. Sort of like a dumb madness. So, you know, singing about funeral homes but I’m glad to say that we have some new releases coming up I got a new album with my band Danny and the Nightmares that we plan to put out sometime. There’s other projects we’ve got in the works.
Some of your early recordings are very lo-fi. Do you ever try to recreate that?
New recording in some very good studios. Back in the early days when I was making tapes for my friends I wasn’t trying to be novelty. All I had was a tape recorder, I had a piano at home and loved it and I would record it on piano for my friends and made tapes. This is how these songs would survive, because they had tapes. I never even made tapes for myself. It’s just that I had made copies for my friends. Then when I moved to Texas with my brother all I had to play was a chord organ, my nephew’s little chord organ, and because there was no piano and I didn’t play guitar, that’s why I ended up with the chord organ. I had to write, I had to play, but I never could’ve realized that those tapes could be this famous or not that I’ve earned a living off of it. Most of my living has already been on stuff that I did before I was in the studio so…
What’s different about your newer music?
It’s sort of scary rock n roll. It sort of bleeds over from the horror movies.
I know you are a huge Beatles fan, did you see that the Beatles are releasing their long experimental track “Carnival of Light?
Oh, no, I hadn’t seen that!
What do you think about that?
Wow, that’s great. That’s great! I’m happy about that. It’s pretty cool the different releases they’ve had, like the Anthology which is like the world’s best bootleg. And when they used the tapes and sang “Free as a Bird” with John it sounded like the best beatles ever! I was so happy about it!
Other artists with similar effect?
Bob Dylan, Neil Young were three of the ones I listened to a lot.
Favorite Bob Dylan album?
"Shot of love." It was great. I loved it a lot. I saw him around that time on tour. "Slow Train Coming."
We’re even building my own studio in the back of the house. That’ll be great so I can record all the time, it will be a lot better than ever.
Ever lose the urge to create?
That’s the urge I live for. If I’m not doing anything, I get really depressed, I’m looking at the piano, and it just doesn’t connect. (Play the Piano) just looking at it smoking, then I realize “I’ll play the piano!” takes a lot to get going sometimes.
My sister has me going for an art show. And I’ve been doing a lot of artwork for that, looking forward to that.
Favorite Beatles song?
“I am the Walrus.” “Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye” that is the greatest line in poetry.
And I loved it. That was one of my favorite songs. And that song is so complicated; you could listen to it forever and never quite get it.
Some of the Beatles stuff is so complex.
There will never be another Beatles. Unless it’s the Beatles themselves!
You are a big Jack Kirby correct?
Yeah I like Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb, Paul Gulacy, Jim Steranko, Gene Colan, Frank Robbins, I like Curt Swan, just listing a few. Every time I go around I get a lot of comic books. There’s more released brand new comics than ever! You go to a comic book store and three walls will be brand new comic books out this month. That is really weird and it was never like that when I was a kid.
Like those artists I mentioned, they are really artists that don’t do anything anymore. It’s all the new comics have different artists and the only artist I know is Paul Gulacy, he’s my favorite.
What is the perfect song?
Well there’s a song called “Grievances” that I wrote. It started out as sort of a silly song but I kept work at it and was real serious about it and it took a while for me to write it and it just about summed it all up for me at that point. And I often refer to it, lyrics from it, titles for songs from the different verses, like the Beatles.
Daniel Johnston Interview
Photo by Tim Broddin