Daniel Johnston

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

Photo by Jeff Feuerzeig

BY Kevin HaineyPublished Jun 1, 2006

After 26 years spent pouring his innocent perspective onto a four-track in near seclusion, it's certainly heartening for artists and listeners everywhere to witness whimsical Texan lo-fi cult hero Daniel Johnston as he continues to rise in prominence for his at turns gleeful and depressing tales of "Caspar the Friendly Ghost" and "Walking the Cow."

Despite being a life-long sufferer of a chronic mental illness that sometimes finds him slipping into dangerously delusional states, 2006 is already shaping up to be a pretty amazing year for the little big man, what with Sony Classics and scores of critics backing the documentary film The Devil and Daniel Johnston (directed by Jeff Feuerzeig), his drawings being featured in this year's prestigious Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art (as well as being forged for sale on eBay), and no less than three new albums rolling onto shelves this spring.

Welcome to My World: The Music of Daniel Johnston, co-released by High Wire and Johnston's own Eternal Yip Eye, compiles highlights from his 26-year career, while Lost and Found, on Sketchbook, brings rare old tracks to light, and The Electric Ghosts, on Important, finds Johnston collaborating with his tour manager, Jack Medicine. Austin, TX's Mayor Will Wynn even went so far as to declare the day May 5, the day The Devil and Daniel Johnston opened, as Daniel Johnston Day. All of this news should come as a great joy, because you really couldn't find a soul as deserving of such accolades.

What are you up to?
I'm getting along pretty good these days, I'm doing a lot better than ever before really, and I've got a lot of projects going on with music and I'm having a lot of fun. I have a band of my own now, Danny & the Nightmares. We played out for about three years, and now we're planning to start playing out again, and then we have some other projects that I've been working on with Brian Beattie and some other people that will be eventually released that we've been doing in our spare time.

What are your current fixations?
Well, I like comic books a lot, and I watch a lot of DVDs, and it's fun to, you know, watch a movie, you know? I watch a lot of DVDs. Let me think, um... the Ramones! Yeah, it was great, yeah…

What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig?
The MTV appearance, in 1985, was phenomenal. The house was packed with college kids, and they didn't really know who I was at all, and I just kind of won 'em over, you know, just playing, and it was a lot of fun. You know, it meant a lot to me to be on MTV.

Why do you live where you do?
Well, I live right next to my parents. I had a house built and things are going, you know, just fine.

What have been your career highs and lows?
Well, it's been pretty high the whole time just to have records out, you know, it was a lot of fun just thinking that I was entertaining people with my music or something, you know, and so I just — it's been for the longest time, I haven't worked since 1986, and now I'm earning a living from it, so, you know, it's a lot of fun.

What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
Oh, someone trying to blame me for the deaths of famous rock stars. Too often — I don't know, I'm just joking.

What should everyone shut up about?
I think there's too much evil. They should just shut up and pretend to be good, or something like that, you know? You can't be evil without it leading to death, I think.

What traits to you most like and most dislike about yourself?
Well, I just don't seem to have enough time to get into my music. I'll play, but not enough. I'm trying to get back into it like the old days, and I know I will, but it just takes — I'll start playing and then I'll, you know, stop, you know, so I'm just trying to get back into the groove again. And in the meantime I have enough songs for three or four albums unrecorded yet. But I wanna get back into writing because that's my joy, you know, and once I'm doing it I'll get back into it.

What advice should you have taken, but did not?
Uh-huh, well... My parents told me not to do drugs. And I really didn't do that many of 'em until I joined a carnival once and I had some and I went: "Man, this is unreal!" You know, I couldn't believe it, I was so happy! Because I was a little bit depressed when I joined the carnival and it sure cheered me up, but uh, I've since pretty much given it up.

What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
And/or bed! Well, I have never done that, you know, but I've had people leave, from the bed or from the band, you know, both, but it wasn't no fault of mine, everything was just fine, you know, we'd get along just fine, and then they would decide to move on to something else, so we've had different members in our band and I've had different girls and you know, they left me usually first, you know. But I've had a lot of girlfriends over the years. And I try to get in contact with my old girlfriends, and I have like a fantasy of seeing 'em again, and then, you know, it's hard to do, so…

What do you think of when you think of Canada?
Well, I think of Canada... I was there a couple years ago, we came to do a show and... are you from Canada? Yeah, it's really nice. It's cold, too, and I'm from West Virginia so I was used to the winter cold, you know, and it was really cool. I'd like to come again some time to do a show or something.

What is your vital daily ritual?
Well, what it's all about is art and music. I try to keep it going as much as I can, you know, but I do enjoy, like once during the day, a DVD or something to entertain me, you know, keep me going, you know. You know, I just have basically a pretty good day and behave myself and then once or twice a week I'll go shopping with my relatives and stuff, to get more DVDs. So, uh, yeah, that's about it, you know, I guess. Besides eating 'n' sleeping.

What are your feelings on piracy, internet or otherwise?
Well, I'll tell ya — I love a bootleg. You know, if I can get a bootleg of Queen or the Beatles or something, you know, I'm in heaven, I love it, you know, and I wouldn't go against bootlegging — 'cause sometimes we got some pretty good tracks.

What was your most memorable day job?
I worked at McDonald's in Austin and everybody knew me and they'd come in and see me and stuff and I'd be working the tables, you know, washing the tables. Those were the good ol' days.

How do you spoil yourself?
Um, just about everything I can buy, from popsicles to uh, fruit juices.

If I wasn't playing music I would be…
Drawing pictures.

What do you fear most?
I fear myself most.

What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
Weight loss. I'm trying to be on a diet to lose weight.

What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
Well, David Bowie was at an art show that I had — and I missed him by about five minutes! He came to look at it, and they said he was there, and when I went he was already gone. And so that's about it. I've never really had that much of a brush with celebrity.

Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
Well, uh, cheese and macaroni. I guess. Just my friends.

What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
Well, mom is a bit sceptical about my art at times I think, but she uh, she knows I'm making a living from it, so she doesn't really complain that much.

Given the opportunity to choose, how would you like to die?
My head chopped off by my love.

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