Occult Following

Songwriter Daniel Johnston talks to

In 1990, Daniel Johnston’s father was forced to crash-land a small plane after his son removed the keys from the ignition and threw them from a window. Johnston was in the throes of a manic episode, his mental health having deteriorated during the recording of his first studio album, and was committed to a mental hospital.

He currently has five albums planned, having resurfaced in the 90s on new kinds of medication. I call him in Kansas at three in the afternoon where he’s just woken up and had a popsicle. “We’re coming to England pretty soon – I guess about a week from now. It’s some kind of show they’ve got lined up for us. I don’t really know what it is yet.”

Johnston seems generally unconcerned. His music is a reflection of this outlook, a remnant of the New Sincerity scene that ran counter to the irony and cynicism of early 80s punk bands. Over the years, he’s developed a cult following of loving fans, including Tom Waits, Beck, Matt Groening, Sparklehorse and Kurt Cobain, who tried to promote Johnston in interviews and at public appearances by wearing a T-shirt featuring the cover image of one of his albums.

I asked him about working with Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, who committed suicide last year – they spent time with each other only a few months ago. “We were on tour together, all joking around and talking about recording together again. So it really couldn’t be worse news – I loved Fear Yourself, the album he produced. When I heard it, I started writing new songs just to do a Sparklehorse album. I had some of my best songs saved up, and then when he wound up dead there was nothing I could do. No matter who I record with I don’t think they could do as well as they did.”

It was as a teenager that Johnston began to write and record his own songs, singing about love and cartoon characters with a childish, off-key vocal. He would swap his tapes with friends and give them away to pretty girls on the street. At the time he was working in McDonald’s and playing shows with his friends almost every night – “they were like a dollar a show.” Then MTV came to town and featured them in a show. “I went backstage and they were yelling and screaming so much that I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to walk out in front of everybody. I had to go to another place – to another show, I guess, so I jumped out the back window. I had to get away from those screaming fans.”

Though he didn’t really write much music until junior high, he was listening to records from a young age and drawing the cartoons that would appear on the front of his tapes. More recently, this artwork has become an important part of his operation. Originals are on sale for thousands of pounds, and many exhibited in galleries across Europe and America. He started by drawing “dead dog’s eyes”, an image he got from the Beatles song I Am The Walrus. “I thought – that’s really cool, so I started drawing dead dog’s eyes. I was drawing them all the time, and I had a rock group so I said – I’ll call them The Eye. Then I started drawing eyes with bat wings and stuff like that. The Beatles would just do that to me.”

As with the Beatles, Johnston gets excited when talking about comics. He has a massive collection, and is almost finished working on his own comic, something he’s wanted to do for years. “Space Ducks is what it’s called. They find Satan’s HQ on a mountain somewhere and the ducks have got armies and stuff, and they just go in there and slaughter all these Satans for about 20 pages.” He laughs about the idea and says – “it’s kind of a comedy”.

Unlike other (self-consciously) lo-fi indie artists, Daniel Johnston doesn’t mind saying that he’d like fame and some money. He seems almost completely unhampered by social expectation, looking at everything from behind innocent eyes and singing his thoughts with an endearing and unnerving simplicity.

I already have an idea what the answer will be when I ask what he enjoys about writing music. “I like to goof around. I like to experiment. I just like to play – it’s fun.”