His first album was simply called Hi, How Are You?, but meeting Daniel Johnston isn't as easy as his innocent trademark phrase appears. Johnston suffers from a unique strain of mental illness, his exact diagnosis never publicly disclosed, though it shows striking resemblance to the disorders shared by fellow musicians Brian Wilson, Wesley Willis and Rory Erickson.
So, for anyone who's admired Johnston's primitive, brutally naïve canon of inspired songwriting throughout the past 20-plus years, actually speaking with him may cause its own brand of low-grade anxiety.
There's a well-traveled, almost mythic aura to Johnston's back-story.
Beginning in mid-1980s Austin, Texas, Johnston has followed a surreal and often harrowing path, from quirky darling of MTV to coddled hero of the biggest names in underground and alternative rock. His songs have been recorded by Beck, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth and many others. And Kurt Cobain seemed to live for a time in a T-shirt honoring the infamous, hand-drawn cover of Johnston's Hi, How Are You? album (you've seen it, the one depicting what looks like an alien frog).
Despite all this adoration, it took a documentary film to bring Johnston's strange talent to a broader audience. The 2006 critical hit The Devil and Daniel Johnston revealed a middle-aged man-child with an at-once charmed and cursed story arc: The former slacker who worked at McDonald's while being interviewed by Spin magazine. The indie-rock hero who got lost in New York City while under the “care” of Sonic Youth—and ended up in a mental hospital. The eventually redeemed casualty-slash-inspiration, now touring to adoring, obsessive crowds—and still living with his parents, his dad managing his career out of the family home.
“He's doing really well, obviously, having his dad and his brother manage his career now,” says Jason Falkner, the latest to collaborate with Johnston, in a line stretching back to Jad Fair of Half Japanese and Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers.
“But I can see how you might have been a bit concerned,” Falkner tells me when I confess I wasn't sure what to expect. “I got to see the two sides of Daniel myself, during our sessions for the new disc.
“Apparently,” Falkner continues, “Daniel thought our vocals sessions were for a new batch of demos, not vocals for the others. He wasn't interested at all in the demos I had spent so much time creating. He just wanted to get to the new songs he had.”
Falkner's a self-described “one-man house band” producer, and on Johnston's latest collection, Is and Always Was, he turned Johnston's typically crude but sweetly personal demos into full-blown pop productions.
“I was very concerned, myself, about messing with Daniel's appeal, so to speak,” says Falkner. “It's such a pure world, musical world, that Dan comes from.”
Falkner needn't worry. Speaking with CityBeat from his parents' house in Texas, Johnston puts to rest any fears his songs are being exploited by the big-time producer from Los Angeles.
“I'm really happy with it,” says an upbeat Johnston. “It's recorded in L.A. The production is quite well done. It sounds like The Beatles playing.”
Johnston says he thinks the vocal sessions turned out fine. “Actually, I recorded the demos on the first trip to L.A., and then when I came back for the next session, he had all the music recorded and I just had to do the vocals. Sort of like a karaoke thing,” he says with a chuckle.
Johnston's usual topics as a lyricist—lost or unrequited love, cartoon characters—are revisited with a less-obsessive point of view than in the past, though his sense of humor can be as quirkily charming and unique as ever. On “Fake Records of Rock and Roll,” he even gives pop-culture demons the back of his hand, injecting several shouts of “Look out!” over rockabilly breaks.
His love of music, he says, along with his vast record collection of discount vinyl, inspired the song's contrarian title.
“Um, what I sort of meant was music that just doesn't make it, you know,” he explains. “Like on the radio. The really good music just doesn't get to be heard. We just get this same stuff crammed down our throats again and again and again.”
What he hasn't tired of, however, is watching the story of his own life on screen.
“Yeah, that was a crazy movie,” he laughs, when asked what he thought of The Devil and Daniel Johnston. “You know, every time I watch that movie I notice something different. When they used a lot of the home movies, they talked about some strange things.”
At that, he laughs, but the laugh turns into a throaty cough before he can continue.
“It turned out pretty hilarious!”
Johnston says that if the movie is what prompts people to come to his shows or listen to his music, then it was successful and he's grateful. He agrees that the film marked a resurgence in his career—and his minor-celebrity profile.
“When I go to the grocery store, people will say, ‘Hey, that's that guy from the movie,'” says Johnston, who wraps up the first leg of his tour at the end of October in San Diego. “So that's a lot of fun to meet people, you know, who've seen the movie. It's fun to meet people, anyway. Wherever I am, it's fun to meet people.
“I hope I get to meet you at the show.”
Daniel Johnston plays with The Hymns and Vision of a Dying World on Friday, Oct. 23, at 'Canes Bar & Grill. www.hihowareyou.com.
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