Daniel Johnston is a one-of-a-kind American gem, so original and real that no one could have dreamed him up. An adult wunderkind verging on genius, this man-child (now 41) has forged a unique place in the annals of music. Johnston first gained attention in the fertile music community of Austin, Texas in the early '80s on the strength of his ultra lo-fi cassette recordings. These early tapes, fashioned in various basements around Texas, recorded on a mono boombox and handed out to local bands in Austin, are seeds of pure creativity.
The early cassettes, hand-made, hand-recorded and each adorned with childishly simplistic line-art drawings created by Johnston, were first embraced as a voyeuristic novelty in the music community. His chilling child-like voice, the emotional range a single confessional song could express, the simple melodies produced by pounding on a chord organ or piano and the no-fi recordings were at first sought after for their sheer strangeness. The songs are an honest portrait of a truly tortured soul, trying hard to grasp love and loss, God and the Beatles, sometimes all in one track.
Once you get past the bizarro aspects of the presentation, the music itself evokes something very special, a kind of skewed beauty. People in Austin began to understand that Johnston's music was valid on several fronts. He started getting gigs opening for other Austin bands he had sought out and soon he was selling the tapes, not giving them away.
Long story slightly truncated, these raw, rough and perfect cassettes finally got into the hands of the right people and Johnston's "proper" music career began.
Johnston has slowly ascended to the status of cult hero, with many bumps in the road. He watched his MTV debut from a mental institution. He was signed to a major label that didn't understand his talent. He spent years grappling with very real mental demons, only recently finding a drug cocktail that is complementary to both his art and his well being.
His music, still nicely escaping categorization, has been covered and championed by many industry heavy hitters, from the late Kurt Cobain to Johnny Depp. In a strange recent development, his song "Speeding Motorcycle" is sung by a woman with a lovely voice in the background of a new Target commercial.
With the help of good pharmaceuticals and a recent creative surge, Johnston is about to release his first studio offering in over seven years. After two years of basically sitting in the can (about 2,000 copies of the album were pressed), Rejected Unknown is set to be released October 9 on Gammon records. It is a return to form for Johnston. It was recorded in the garage of the Waller, Texas home he shares with his parents--on equipment that his longtime associate, producer Brian Beattie, lugged to the house on random weekends.
It is a polished recording, well produced and string-induced, but it still has the Johnston signature sounds and moods. It is clear that Beattie--a Johnston supporter for more than 20 years--understands and knows how to nurture Johnston's delicate muse. It is not hard to declare Rejected Unknown the best offering from Johnston in at least 10 years.
There is something striking about speaking with the man. He has been through a lot, he has the right to sing the blues for the rest of his days, but he doesn't. He's not the slightest bit bitter, and while he appreciates humor, there is no trace of irony. He's not blaming anyone for anything, he doesn't rely on his hardship to explain his behavior, he just is. How refreshing compared to reading an interview with junkie millionaires complaining about the ravages of fame and how they had a not-so-great upbringing.
When Johnston says "It was a lot of fun," and he says it nearly every third sentence, it seems to be partially a nervous tick tacked on the end of a sentence. Consider this exchange, in which Johnston recalls the time he worked at Astroworld in Houston:
DJ: Well, I ran a ride. I was the announcer on the river of no return. It was a lot of fun.
TW: What kind of a ride was that?
DJ: It was like a boat and I was the announcer. I had a big microphone and I told jokes. All these people would get on the boat and they had like props and stuff. There was like a big head of King Kong and a skeleton and I would say 'There's Sonny Bono.' I was trying to tell these jokes, real corny type jokes. So that was what I did when I was there [in Houston] besides just flipping burgers. It was a lot of fun.
These days, it seems Johnston is pretty much having a lot of fun all the time.
When asked about Rejected Unknown and how he and producer Beattie made the recording, Daniel explains that "I have a little room where I practice, I have my piano and everything. Brian Beattie, the producer, would bring his equipment out. It's portable studio equipment, and for a period of about three years we recorded a lot. We have enough material even for another album we plan to release later after this has been out, after Rejected Unknown. ... We had a lot of fun recording and what he would do, we would lay down basic tracks here, and he would bring in musicians, drummers and guitar players and everything, and he would take the tapes back home and add strings and saxophone and stuff like that. So we had a lot of fun."
While Rejected Unknown is the most commercial project Johnston has undertaken in years, he also equally loves his other recording forays. Very prolific and always recording, he has released an album with a group of high-school age players. Known as Danny and the Nightmares, it is a four-track local affair. There are things about this group that he seems to love as much as the proper album, and he is excited about the prospects with the young band.
"That was a lot of fun! That's my band. We still play; we plan to be produced by Paul Leary. We've been waiting for him, he's been working with U2, you know, the band, and he's been producing them and he agreed to produce us. ... When I asked him if he would be interested in producing us, he said 'Anything for you, Dan,' so it was cool."
Johnston has also completed a soon-to-be-released record with like-minded/vocal soul mate Jad Fair. This time around they are calling themselves Lucky Sperm and the album is titled Somewhat Humorous. The album will be released on JagJaguwar, the same label that recently re-released their first effort together. When is the record coming out? On this topic Johnston is downright cryptic: "It's coming out after soon," he imparts, matter-of-factly.
Somewhat Humorous was also recorded in the Johnston home; Fair and musician Chris Boltman stayed there for the duration of the recording process.
"It was a lot of fun. They came here and stayed at the house for two weeks and Jad had like a 12-track machine and we rented a drum set and we all took turns playin' drums and playing piano and guitars and it was a lot of fun."
With all this noise and hoopla, how did Johnston's parents feel about the visit?
"It's pretty much a rock and roll hotel here every now and then; we have recording stuff here; they really enjoy talking to people when my friends come over to play music. ... My parents appreciate my friends. It's a lot of fun. It's pretty cool for them. They enjoy talking to my friends."
This idyllic Norman Rockwell moment plays until you realize that his parents are deeply religious and very conservative and members of the "greatest" generation. So you have the Johnstons, getting on in age, peacefully watching Wheel of Fortune or whatever and suddenly Jad Fair drops in for a chat about the day and the day's divinity. That is when the record beings to scratch and makes all those catfight noises.
Early in our chat, Johnston reveals that if everything works out, he will be touring the major cities of the United States with Rejected Unknown. While Johnston has been venturing out much more in the last year than ever, the fact that he is well enough and feels like touring the country is welcome news.
Naturally, we needed to know if he planned to venture to Arizona. Our efforts to find out revealed that Johnston shares the same opinion about the city an hour and half to our north that many in the music industry do:
DJ: They are sending me on a tour when the record is released of all the major cities of the United States.
TW: Oh, really!
DJ: I am going to drive around with one of my friends and I'm very excited about that.
TW: Are you going to come to Phoenix or Tucson?
DJ: Phoenix, Arizona? Hmm, I don't really know. Is that a big city?
TW: Yeah. It's the sixth biggest.
DJ: It's one of the sixth biggest. Well, maybe so. I'll have to ask the guy that's arranging it. ... I didn't even know too much about Phoenix, Arizona. I've heard of Phoenix, Arizona, but I don't know if that is one of the ones we were thinking about, but I'll have to ask him.