Songs of the sorta rich and famous

by Philip Brasor

Daniel Johnston is apparently napping. His father, Bill, who answers the phone, says to someone, “Tell Dan it’s his interview from Japan.”

His father apologizes. “Daniel is getting himself a drink of water before he sits down. He drinks constantly. One of his medicines is lithium salt, and he’s thirsty all the time. If he knows he’s going to be on the phone for half an hour he always has a drink handy. He’ll drink all the ice water and diet drinks you’ve got over there in Japan.”

“Hey, how ya doin’?” Daniel’s voice is suddenly on the other end. High-pitched, breathy, and a little rough, it’s the exact same voice you hear on his records, wavering and boyish. He turned 42 last week.

“It’ll be a thrill to come to Japan,” he says enthusiastically. “I’m a fan of Japan and Godzilla. And the age of computers and all that. We hear a lot about Japan here, the innovative and computer-age Japan. I’d like to buy some Japanese comic books, and see the music shops.”

Johnston repeats himself a lot, and he slips off on tangents that don’t go anywhere. He’s manic-depressive and has been institutionalized a number of times, but the scattered conversational style has more to with his natural volubility than anything else.

“I write one song every day,” he says, and it’s easy to believe. There isn’t much standing between Johnston’s thoughts and his desire to communicate them.

The trick is to write a good song every day, and the reason Johnston is an underground hero is the quality of his tunes. A serious Beatles fan and dedicated record collector, Johnston has absorbed his influences so thoroughly that he’s able to re-create them without actually copying them.

“I also practice older songs everyday, adding lyrics, changing them around.” It’s the normal creative process, but whereas many songwriters tend to worry their songs to death, Johnston coaxes his to life.

Daniel was born in California and grew up in West Virginia before running off to Austin, Texas, where he engendered a cult in the late ’80s with his numerous homemade cassettes. He was championed by Sonic Youth and Kurt Cobain; his songs were covered by Yo La Tengo, Sparklehorse, and the Butthole Surfers.

This underground success (which didn’t make him any money) messed with Johnston’s already fragile head, and for a number of years he was in and out of mental hospitals, all the while releasing collections of songs on various storefront labels.

His parents moved to Waller, about 80 km outside of Austin, Texas, in the mid-’90s and Johnston has been living with them ever since. “My parents won’t let me go,” he admits with a slightly embarrassed chuckle. “My dad’s my manager and my mom is my caretaker. I plan to get a house, eventually. I’ve saved and I’ve got enough but they want me to stay so I’m not complaining. I get a lot of work done, singing, playing, drawing pictures and stuff. It’s really a help to be staying home with my parents.”

The proof is in the product. His last two albums, “Rejected Unknown,” released in early 2001, and the new “Fear Yourself,” contain the most consistently satisfying music of his career, and certainly the most carefully crafted. Despite the rattling quality of his vocals and his unsteady instrumental tempos (he plays both piano and guitar), the songs are rock solid. Emotionally, they tend to embrace romantic cliches, though more intensely than most pop songs. “It’s as if I’m already dead and in my grave I lay,” he sings in “On a Mountain Top,” inconsolable at the loss of “her loving touch.” But that doesn’t prevent him from rocking the song full speed ahead. The contradiction is perplexing; the passion undeniable and infectious.

His philosophy is more apparent in the cartoons that comprise his album art than in the songs. It’s a mix of Christian fundamentalism and the right-wrong dichotomy presented in superhero comic books.

“One time I made up a game show called ‘Fear Yourself,’ ” he says, explaining the idea behind the title of the new album. “Contestants would come on the show and fear themselves. My feeling is that everyone lives their life and sometimes they get a hint they’re doing something wrong. But most people don’t take the hint. They do whatever they want, keep feeding their egos, keep making the same mistakes. So I say, ‘Fear yourself,’ but what they really say is, ‘Obey yourself.’ I say you can’t just do whatever you want. Do what’s right. You can’t just feed the monster inside. Otherwise you’ll end up dead.”

Jack Kirby, creator of some of Marvel Comics’ most enduring characters, has probably had as much of an impact on Johnston’s life and art as the Beatles have:

“I always identified with The Thing [the huge rock-encrusted member of the Fantastic Four],” he says. “I read that Jack Kirby favored The Thing and thought of himself as The Thing.” He says he tries to follow new trends in comics, but admits he’s stuck in the past. “There’s so much great art to keep track of. But the art that today’s kids love is a different style than I’m used to.”

Johnston’s professional attitude is also a throwback. Being a cult star doesn’t have the same meaning for him that it might have for a younger musician right now. He has ambitions beyond being the outsider darling of the underground.

“There were four people in my band, but now there’s five. Our old guitar player joined up again the other day. We want to get on a major label again and be produced by Paul Leary [of the Butthole Surfers, who produced Johnston’s only major label record, ‘Fun,’ in 1994]. It’s the first time I’ve been with a band this long. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done. We’re hoping we can break into the big time before I get too old [laughs].”

Johnston won’t be bringing his band to Japan. (He’ll be accompanied by Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson at his Tokyo show.) They also weren’t on “Fear Yourself,” which was produced, arranged and mostly played by Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous, another indie star with a history of depression. Is Linkous the reason the album has a darker sound than “Rejected Unknown,” which was recorded in Johnston’s garage? “Yeah. Those guys were like vampires,” he says. “When they wanted to rock ‘n’ roll, it was like a vampires’ night out on the town.”

He’s already completed his next album, which is tentatively titled “The Lost Recordings,” though, as he readily admits, “they aren’t really lost, I mean, we definitely have them.” Much of the material was written during the six-year “hiatus” between “Fun” and “Rejected Unknown,” the title of which reflected Johnston’s frustration at not being able to find a label, indie or major, to release his new songs.

Though he’s not the star he wants to be, he feels blessed, and not in the religious sense. “I’m, like, a thousandaire. I mean, I feel rich. I’ll go into town and I’ll buy two or three hundred dollars worth of records. I’m surviving, and that makes me happy.” And while he still doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp of his position in the music world, he at least understands what the job entails. “I appreciate the interview,” he says before hanging up. “I hope I was halfway entertaining.”