Interview: Daniel Johnston
Johnston has been making music and art for over 20 years. While his records have ranged from spotty to brilliant, the pieces he's given us have slowly detailed another place. It's a place made of clichés gone awry, and populated by comic book heroes and headless torsos. Here, the struggle of good vs. evil is always raging, but love is all that matters. After more than twenty albums and countless collaborations, Johnston has told us enough about his world that he's become a legend in ours.
I met up with Daniel at Atomic Books in Baltimore (where he bought a bunch of dirty comics) before heading across the street for pizza. He bought us all Cokes. Then, on the way to the club, we had to stop at a 7-11 so he could buy another Coke. When we arrived at the club and finally sat down to talk, Daniel stated in a very serious tone, "This is all we've got," and opened a third can. "Are you thirsty"?
Pitchfork: You've been to comic shopping everywhere. Did you like Atomic Books?
Johnston: Yeah, it was pretty cool, they had all kinds of collectors'... rare magazines and stuff. You know, I got some cool stuff.
Pitchfork: So who's your favorite?
Johnston: I like Jack Kirby comic books. Today I got a bunch of real cool Robert Crumb comic books at really good prices, but you know Jack Kirby is my favorite artist.
Pitchfork: Jack Kirby's the first guy that did Captain America, right?
Johnston: Yeah, he invented Captain America. Yeah, he started... now I'm really into Salvador Dali. I mean, I always was, but recently I got a bunch of Salvador Dali books and I bought some postcards and started hanging them on my walls. And like I'm listenin' to the Beatles, smokin', you know, and I'll be looking at these little postcard Salvador Dali paintings on my wall just freakin' out! They just look like they're movin'! When I'm high on...
Johnston: And I'm looking at the wall, it just freaked me out! I mean, those paintings are so loud.
Pitchfork: Your own stuff can be pretty surreal, too.
Johnston: Yeah, well, I love surrealism. I was into Salvador Dali when I was younger, of course, but mostly all my life has been more dedicated to Jack Kirby, because I was into comic books. And when I mean into comic books, I mean I'm talking, like, I started looking at comic books when I was young. I was maybe 13, 14 years old. I might be gone for four or five hours just looking at comic books. That's how far gone I was.
Pitchfork: So let's talk about music for a little while, and then we can get back to drawings. I read that you learned to play the piano from learning every Beatles song.
Johnston: Well, I already knew how to play. And I was into Queen-- the old Queen. You know what they call the old and the new Queen. And when I learned how to play I was always trying to write with Queen, listening to Queen. And I was always thinking, "Well, I have an overdub here, and an overdub..." but I could never quite get a song. And then I started listening to the Beatles and got more into the knack of songwriting. And then, finally, my dad bought me a book called Complete Beatles, and because I knew what the chords were at that time, from piano, I knew, I played every song in that book again and again, and I did develop a rapport with the Beatles songs. I began to re-work because of what Ringo said in an interview. He said, "We took other people's songs and rearranged their chord structures to write songs," and I go, "Wow!" and I started doing that with their songs. And it was like magic, rearranging the chords. It was like a mathematical situation.
It was just a phenomenal theory for me. Of course, if the Beatles heard about this today they'd roll over in their graves, but you know, that's what I did and it was revolutionary to me and that went on forever. This book was like a bible to me and I knew all their songs and I played them, and then I kept doing this again and again and again. I kept writing with the Beatles theory over and over again. Millions of songs.
Pitchfork: Do you have a favorite Beatles song?
Johnston: Oh yeah, for sure. I wouldn't do without any of them from... well, I wouldn't know what to say. From "Yesterday" to "I Am the Walrus" to... "Yer Blues"... to so many. I wouldn't do without any of them. I love the Beatles, they are my favorite band. It's like Jack Kirby's my favorite, and the Beatles, on and on.
Pitchfork: The first time I heard a tape of yours it reminded me of "Rocky Raccoon."
Johnston: Well, when John Lennon wrote that song, he had a book called Enter in the Words, where he would play around with words and everything was hilarious, and that really was a big influence on me. I had a song called "Never Relax," and I was playing around a lot with words that way. And it took a long while for John. I mean, in the early days, he was writing songs-- love songs-- and those where great songs, and at the same time he was writing really hilarious poetry. But it took him until Revolver to take that hilarious poetry and work it into his songs.
But that was an influence on me, in writing lyrics. You know because John was hilarious with his lyrics, and you know, we miss him. But I believe the Beatles are still alive, and with me, because I can put on any record at any time and there they are, because they are still alive with me. And so the Beatles mean a lot to me, and I listen to them a lot. They're my main influence. And I just acquire anything I can get a hold of, from bootlegs to solo albums to whatever.
Pitchfork: So, on Friday you're playing with Mary Lou Lord. You know I saw her singing "Speeding Motorcycle" at a subway stop once.
Johnston: Oh, really?
Pitchfork: Yeah, I think she tries to stay in touch with how she started out, but it seemed really premeditated because she was set up at a station that was filled with everyone leaving a Beck show.
Johnston: Is Mary Lou Lord the one singing it on the commercial?
Pitchfork: The commercial?
Johnston: Yeah, there's a commercial. Because I heard that name before recently, and there's a commercial for Target Department Store, and a girl is singing, and someone said Mary Lou Lord recently, and maybe she's the one singing it in the commercial.
Pitchfork: It's possible.
Johnston: They're using my song in the commercial, and someone said Mary Lou Lord recently. I think that's the name that they said. It might be her.
Pitchfork: Yeah, everyone covers that song. Actually, I the first time I heard of you was after hearing Yo La Tengo's cover of it.
Johnston: Oh, really?
Pitchfork: Yeah. I love the recording of you with them on WFMU.
Johnston: Yeah, I played live with them once about a half year ago. And they were gonna do "Speeding Motorcycle," and when they called me out to do it, there were like 3,000 people there maybe-- one of the biggest audiences I ever sang for. And they called me out and said "Daniel Johnston!" and everyone was like [roaring crowd noise], and I just felt like Bruce Springsteen. It just seemed like a Bruce Springsteen incident. I was just singing it, but it just sounded like a pop song and everything. It was all improvised, but they were playing it like some synthesized pop song. It was hilarious!
Pitchfork: Do you want to talk about Rejected Unknown?
Johnston: Well, I'm very excited now that Rejected Unknown's been released, because we waited about three years. There were two record companies that went under. It was released in England under Pickled Egg, and I went on a European tour to support that and that went really well. But finally Gammon put it out, first in the United States and then internationally, and that's what this tour is all about, to advertise and everything. And I really think it's a great record. It's produced by Brian Beattie from Glass Eye, and there are more instruments and it sounds real good.
Pitchfork: It has a fuller sound, which often creates a kind of fantastic disconnect between the music and resigned lyrics...
Johnston: Well, it's about the Funeral Home theme... I've been dragging that theme for many years. And there were some improvised songs and others we worked hard on. There was one song in particular that we were gonna have on the album, but my dad and mom didn't want to have on the album because it mentioned marijuana. We're trying to work on my dad now to see if we could manage to have it on the next album, because it was really the best song that we had. It sounds like a hit. Whether or not it would be a hit, I don't know. I don't know if he'd permit it to be hit, but we're going to ask him if we could please have it on the next record. Because it it's such a good song we're gonna try to get permission to have it on.
Pitchfork: So the song "Billions Rock" was actually recorded in Los Angeles in the year 2961?
Johnston: Oh, is that what it says?
Pitchfork: Yeah, do you like the future?
Johnston: It says billions of years from now, it says that, but you know it's kind of a fantasy. We were just all standing around and we started playing some kind of weird rock music and I was just kind of talking and mumbling. And then they started playing some rock and roll, like they were possessed by the Beatles, and I just started screaming and that was it. It was totally improvised and kind of funny.
Pitchfork: Are you going to go to Europe for your art show in Berlin?
Johnston: I loved for a long time to go and play when I had art shows, but I don't always now because I'd rather go on tour and play more shows in different cities like bang, bang, bang. Rather than doing one show and hanging around a city for a few days.
Pitchfork: Your drawings have so many characters and themes that keep returning. Not only borrowed characters like Captain America, but your own. I've always looked at your sketches like they could be snapshots from a long surrealist comic strip. Do you see the drawings as part of something larger?
Johnston: It's true, they look like part of a story, the missing panel or something. I always think that. That this would be good part of a story. And in my mind, a lot of times it's like a story I'm working on. Like I just took like a snapshot of part of a story. I do that a lot. A lot of times it's part of a story that I'd actually like to write, but I never do it. I used to sell them for about $20 a piece. You know, the funny thing is, I sell those for next to nothing to some of those people, and they sell them for like $100 a piece. Then this guy called and started buying them for $100 a piece. And I went bonkers, man, I got rich!
Pitchfork: Wow, good job!
Johnston: For a long time I was not making that much money, and then I started selling my old notebooks for $200 a piece, I couldn't believe it.
Pitchfork: Would you like to keep the characters you've been using with you?
Johnston: Yeah, I do. I used to make notebooks and stories a lot, but I don't do that anymore. But I do plan to do comic books someday. The ideas are very easy to come up with, but the money for drawings is better. So I just goof around and make a drawing, because I always like to buy new comic books and new records to listen to, because I love to keep myself entertained, and I love to write, too. So that keeps me entertained, too.
Pitchfork: Why does the one guy have his head cut off... Joe?
Johnston: Yeah, Joe the boxer, yeah.
Pitchfork: Why is his head like that?
Johnston: Yeah, I don't know why he got his head cut off. I started out drawing torsos and I was really drawing torsos from those ancient Greek sculptures that somehow they got defaced through history. I used to always see that in the history books at the library because I was an art buff. I'd take the books out and draw pictures of paintings and sculptures and the torsos were always there with no heads, no arms and legs. So I'd draw them just like that.
It started it innocent enough. And the more I was just drawing torsos because I couldn't... I wanted to draw girls but I couldn't draw the arms and the legs and the heads that good. So I just was drawing torsos and then I started drawing guys and they were missing the tops of their heads for some reason, you know? Sort of like a torso. So that's how it got started. Now I draw girls with the arms and their legs because I can draw better. But that's really the way it started. I didn't want to insult girls by drawing them without any heads-- it wasn't intentional.
Pitchfork: A lot of your self-portraits have the heads cut off like that. Are you Joe?
Johnston: Well, I was supposed to be Joe, but in my nightmare it's already over. It was just a cartoon sketch. Believe me, I was suffering, because Vile Corrupt and Joe were really the same person. Vile Corrupt was the monster that Joe was boxing against, and they were both the same person. It was two parts of my personality in the cartoon that I was drawing, and I was really suffering. My good side and bad side were fighting to the death. Joe won. The good side won, so I'm really alright now. So that's what it was all about.
Pitchfork: So all the endless struggles between good and evil in the universe that you drew were really all about you?
Johnston: Yeah, I'm really so sorry. Whatever misinterpretations everybody got from it, I'm sorry. And if they suffered because of it, I'm sorry, but it was really my own cartoon. I never meant to sell them or whatever, but they got in the wrong hands, I'm sorry.
Pitchfork: Well you've kind of answered my next question. After September 11th, all of a sudden a lot of people started talking about good and evil, even on the news. It seems like a lot of people are struggling now to figure out if good and evil are real. Do you see that struggle at all outside of you?
Johnston: I think so. For sure, it's always been that way between good vs. evil. But good triumphs over evil, I'm certain of it. Or there wouldn't be a building left standing if that wasn't true. WWII, for instance, who won that war? America! The U.S. of A! Adolf Hitler was a man, he was a big man, but god was bigger and Japan and Germany surrendered at the war. How could you get a bottle of soda pop? If good wasn't winning, then how could you get a good bottle of soda pop? Of course, god loves us, and it's not that bad. But the worst thing is depression-- if you're not entertained, depression will get you.
Pitchfork: I guess you help a lot of people out that way.
Johnston: I try.
Pitchfork: So how was being the subject of a documentary?
Johnston: Yeah, they made a film documentary about me. They interviewed my parents and myself, they filmed me playing with my band, and I played a lot of songs on piano. They drove around and interviewed me in a black Cadillac type car that they rented. They also filmed me talking over old home movies that I had. Ah, I don't know how it's gonna turn out, I just don't know. They had me there and on film. And once those lights went on, they had me. I was like a chained rat under lights and they were like, "Did you... did you have sex with that girl?" and I'm going, "Wha?! I love that girl! What?!" There was nothing I could do, man, there were lights, a camera, and I was on film. There was no escape. We were talking about the funeral girl who I was in love with...
Johnston: "Did you have sex with her?" "Ahhhhh!!" There was nothing I could do. It was a nightmare. If she sees that, if that's in the film, I'll die. Or she'll kill me. Or something.
Pitchfork: Do you still talk to her?
Johnston: I talked to her last year.
Pitchfork: Do you have any interest in making other films?
Johnston: Sure, it was fun. We went out to eat a lot, so it was fun."
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