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Any discussion of Daniel Johnston's music is usually prefaced with a mention of his bipolar disorder. That can overshadow the impact of the uncomfortably fragile, eerie, bare-bones chord-organ songs he's recorded for the past three decades, but it can't necessarily explain them. True, his condition has been a lifelong struggle that's only recently gotten under control—his struggles were chronicled in the 2005 documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston—but the singer-songwriter has built a career around perseverance in spite of absurdly incredible odds: He forced his way onto a 1985 MTV special in Austin, survived a self-inflicted plane crash after playing South By Southwest in 1990, and has released a dozen albums since. Before Johnston came to town, The A.V. Club spoke to him about whether his condition gets more attention than his music, why his documentary is actually a comedy, and what he spends his money on.
The A.V. Club: Are you tired of people asking, "Hi, how are you?"
Daniel Johnston: [Laughs.] When I was growing up, it seemed like everybody would say, "Hi, how are you?" Did you ever hear that before you heard of the album? It was just the common thing to say. Then I worked at [Six Flags] AstroWorld in 1983, and I was walking past a garbage can. It had this cardboard box with rubber frogs. A frog [was] saying, "Hi, how are you?" I thought, "Hey, that's pretty cool!" I already had this frog character I'd been drawing, so that ended up on the cover.
AVC: What does the frog symbolize?
DJ: I called it the "innocent frog." It represents me in my mind, sort of like an innocent that saw with two eyes, and everything seems normal. On the back cover was his guardian angel that was a little bit evil, because he had more eyes. He saw more, and [that] made him more evil. And, also, he was a boxer. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did your time with AstroWorld influence your songwriting or performance style?
DJ: Well I worked in AstroWorld in 1983, I was writing Yip/Jump Music on a chord organ because I didn't have any instruments, I didn't have a piano, I didn't really play guitar yet, so I borrowed my nephew's chord organ. I know it's ridiculous, but that's all I had to play. That's silly. And my tapes were made originally just for my friends. But I didn't take it ever so seriously. You know, I never really thought that it was going to be an album that was going to be sold to the world—I thought it was just another tape for my friends.
AVC: How did the documentary change your life?
DJ: Well, it really did, you know? Now, I go to the grocery store and girls will say, "Hey, there's that guy from the movie." That's pretty cool. It was on Ebert & Roeper. They gave me two thumbs up, and I thought, "Hey! That's great, 'cause I always watch that show, and it was really great to see that—two thumbs up!"
AVC: You've said the documentary would be better with a laugh track.
DJ: It was kind of humorous. I think people think it's a little bit funny because when I come out at the beginning, I get an introduction, and the guy says, "Now: The greatest songwriter in the world!" And I come out, and I'm so fat. It's unreal. I haven't always been fat, except for the last few years. I was always the skinny guy and I never got used to it, but I just thought it was funny how fat I was. [Laughs.] Like a heavyweight champion.
AVC: That "greatest songwriter" intro wasn't your idea?
DJ: They said it themselves. It was funny to me, because that was the fattest I've been. It's like Abbott and Costello. Fat dudes—somebody to laugh at. The whole film, I looked like some kind of monster. [Laughs.] I'm trying to lose weight, and it really makes me mad, because I haven't been able to. I want to get some girls and try to look all right. I'm drinking diet soda and everything.
AVC: Is that because of your medication?
DJ: Well, I don't know. I do take medication, but hey I take just medication, and it's been years [since] I've been in the hospitals and had medication. I'm suffering from manic depression. But they've finally found these [antidepressant] pills and stuff. It's been five to 10 years, and I've been out of the mental hospitals, and they've finally started giving me the right drugs. I feel just great! I'm always working on my art and I'm trying to practice my songs and stuff. Whatever they're giving me, man, makes me feel great, 'cause I used to feel so depressed. So it really is magic that they've finally found a cure for it.
AVC: How has your life changed since the documentary?
DJ: We've got a lot of offers. I'm working on some new material now. I'm working on a couple of albums at the same time, me and my band. Oh, it's a lot of fun!
AVC: Some have complained that the documentary didn't focus enough on your music, but focused on the more dramatic episodes of your life. Do you feel those two are linked? The drama and your music?
DJ: I've been in trouble before. But I've got my own home, and I'm living right next door to my parents. Things are going a lot better. When I lived in Austin, I was always getting into trouble. I got into a fight with the police. I'd end up in the hospital. I was in jail twice. One time I was just walking around and this cop took me and put me in jail! It was a nightmare. I thought, "Man, how am I going to get out of here?"
AVC: Do you think your condition gets more attention than your music?
DJ: Yeah. In the film, that's true. It's more like Hard Copy. [Imitates Hard Copy theme.] In the hospital. In jail. It hardly mentions my music, and every time I try to play a song, it stops. I never make it through a song. I wish it had complete songs on it. It would have been a lot better.
AVC: Ultimately, how do you feel about the documentary?
DJ: I've seen it about 10 times. I really do like it. Except they were originally gonna call it Yip/Jump Movie, and that sounds pretty weird. Then two weeks before it was released, they told me it was gonna be called The Devil And Daniel Johnston. I thought, "Oh man, this is terrible!" 'Course, there was a movie, The Devil And Daniel Webster. But I thought, "Man! That couldn't be worse. That's a nightmare title!"
AVC: What would you have called it?
DJ: Songs Of Pain? I don't know. But The Devil And Daniel Johnston sure is very scary. To have my name up in lights with the devil's name. [Laughs.]
AVC: You've said you believe in spiritualism more than you like to. What does spiritualism mean to you?
DJ: Yeah, I believe in spiritualism. It's like, when you listen to music or something and then you're sort of primed. If you're an artist, you're sort of primed and inspired, and you start drawing, you sort of have the spirit of what you're listening to, still in you. You just have sort of an inspiration. Or a feeling, would probably best describe it. You have a feeling from the music, so you start drawing and it's an influence. That's spiritualism.
AVC: Your original tapes have been re-released as CDs.
DJ: Yeah! I think it's great. There are a lot of bootlegs that have come out. Somebody brought to my house about 15 Daniel Johnston bootlegs I had never heard. It was live performances. I started to get suspicious. Maybe they stole some tapes from my house? "How'd they get this tape?" It was like a lottery bootleg. I was real happy because they had really cool covers of just my drawings.
AVC: Do you usually start with an idea for your drawings, or do you just sit down and start drawing?
DJ: I work in a kind of naïve "whatever it turns out to be" thing. There's only a certain amount of characters that I draw. I just draw my characters in recent years. I start drawing something, and it turns into something.
AVC: You've said some of your drawings scare you.
DJ: Oh man, I was so scared of my drawings [of] that vile, corrupt guy boxing, I was scared even to draw it, when I first was doing it in 1985, drawing pictures in the boxing ring with the devil, and I was scared to death. "What am I drawing?" [Laughs.]
AVC: You kept drawing, though.
DJ: I kept drawing it. It was like I couldn't stop. It's that way with everything. You know, it is scary, to me, those types of drawings. They're not so scary to me these days.
AVC: Why was it so scary for you at the time?
DJ: Well, I guess I was drawing and was like, "This is me in my dreams!" I go, "What a nightmare!" Good vs. evil, you know. A boxing match. [Laughs.]
AVC: Have you gotten any closer to your goal of becoming a comic-book artist?
DJ: I really want to, but I've been lazy. In my life, I always thought that I could make a living from it. That's what I was shooting for. When I was writing songs, I always thought I'd make more of a career out of the drawings, the comics even more than the music. When I moved to Austin and recorded Retired Boxer, I was thinking, "Hey, I'm going to try and get into the underground comic-book scene here," 'cause of ['60s comic Fabulous Furry] Freak Brothers. Then I found out about the live venues my friends would play their original music. I met them and started doing shows with them. I was on MTV, The Cutting Edge, with all my friends. They came to town and just filmed us all. I was working at McDonald's at the time, and I was like, "Hey man, I'm on MTV!" [Laughs.] And I wondered, are you doing an article?
AVC: Yeah, this is will be a straight Q&A; with a short intro.
DJ: Oh, cool. I'm wondering if you could put in the article, like, publish my address and say if they want to buy a drawing, a colored drawing for $20, to just write to this address and I'll get it to them. Could you do that? It's—
Margie Johnston: [Cutting in.] I'm sorry. This is Dan's sister Margie. We—if he gets cash in the mail, he orders things from the pizza place. He doesn't put the money in the bank. We cannot have him selling stuff at his address. Yeah, it's not a good idea. He has a guardian for his finances because he doesn't have good judgment about how much things should cost. So if you wouldn't mind not doing that
DJ: Sorry about that. That's my art manager. I was just trying to earn some extra money. They sell my drawings on the Internet for hundreds of dollars, and I get my groceries for free. I was just thinking, "Gee, if I could get money in the mail " But that was just wishful thinking. You can still publish my address, so if people write to me, just to say "Hello." I'd like to have gotten away with it. She just happened to be in the house at the time. [Laughs.]