Interview by Lewis G. Parker, accompanied by Adam Smith.
Photographs by John de Lima and an unknown member of Daniel Johnston’s crew.

Backstage at Union Chapel in London before his sold out show, Daniel Johnston was struggling to open a bottle of Jack Daniels as he offered us some soda pops from his rider. The 48-year-old artist and musician was fidgeting, not making eye contact and looking uncomfortable with strangers coming to talk to him. Meeting Johnston is like coming face to face with a real life Benjamin Button, an aged infant who is naive and innocent, but blighted by his experiences. He talked his way through, and often around, subjects such as the documentary about his life, ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’, looking uncomfortable in his skin as his memory failed him or he stumbled over his words. I wanted to ask him if he felt any affinity with William Blake, the poet and illustrator whose work also uses religion and allegory, mixing childish innocence with apocalyptic vision, song and image. But I didn’t, because Johnston operates on his own wavelength, unaware of even the people who cover his own songs, the names of his backing band or even where he is at any one time.

But as we continued to talk, he opened up to reveal a playfulness and an acute understanding of what he chooses to engage with. Get him onto a subject he’s happy with and he’s not quite as uncomfortable, although he struggles to engage; but he is more than happy to talk about or listen to the Beatles all day long. By the end of the interview he had settled down a little and seemed happy with the chance to stop talking and escape into his own world for a few seconds to drew us a picture on the back of an envelope- his ‘Hi, How Are You?’ frog.

Dan, how do you feel about being at Union Chapel after your performance here a few years ago [which was filmed for the DVD, The Angel and Daniel Johnston]?

Daniel Johnston: Well, I can’t hardly remember where is where. We were recording in California, we took a smoke break and I went outside, and I said ‘Boy, it’s good to be back in Austin, Texas again!’ [laughs] I never know where I am. I’m on tour, you know, I say ‘what country is this?’ and everybody laughs. It’s hard to keep track when you’re on the road.

You’re selling out pretty much everywhere you play, is this what you dreamed of when you started out, and is this how you define success?

Well, is that what they mean, like somebody says ‘he’s sold out!’ Is that where is comes from?

Yeah I think that’s where it comes from.

We were artists in the underground and then you make it in the big time and you have to ‘sell out?’ I don’t believe that’s really true, it’s just like if you get good enough professionally you have a chance to make a fortune and that’s what I’m trying to do; not gambling with it, with my life really, other than trying to have a hit some day.

So you’re still trying to have a hit?

Yeah, and in the meantime I’m getting richer and richer and I’m going to build my own studio. I’m determined. And a swimming pool! [laughs] So things are going pretty well, I have my own house now and things are looking a lot better.

Do you think the hit is going to come off the new record [Is and Always Was], which I think’s really good, by the way.

Yeah, the new record, I really love the sound that they did. I came in and did the demos. We recorded all the music on guitar, you know, and we have another album we just completed with my band, Danny and the Nightmares from Texas, and it’s called The Death of Satan, so we’re looking forward to that. That’ll be out in November.

So what have you been listening to recently? It sounds like a really modern record. I played it to one of my friends and he couldn’t believe that you’ve been making music for twenty years. It sounds bang up to date.

Well it’s their music. I wrote the music but they recorded it over. They played the same chords that I wrote to them, and I thought they interpreted it well. It was a lot of fun, he was a really cool guy.

When you say ‘they’, who do you mean?

Uh, J… From L.A…. that producer… [Jason Falkner]

I’ve read about it, and he’s worked with Beck and people like that.

He’d been saying parts in it sounded like The Beatles, that’s what I loved about it.

Is that still in the forefront of your mind when you’re making music, The Beatles?

Oh yeah, definitely. I play Beatles music for sure because I’ve listened to the Beatles so much. You know, there was a period of about three or four years when I came back to Texas with my Mom and Dad, and I had so many Beatles records and Beatles bootlegs from being on tour that for three to five years I would just stand there and listen to the Beatles all day. I’d just smoke, you know. I can’t even stand up that long any more, but all day and all night I used to just listen to the Beatles, so that has affected my music. I do consider my music to be Beatles-like.

What’s you favourite Beatles album?

The White Album, for sure. I love The White Album because it has such a different variety of songs, so when I started to write, and when John Lennon died I was trying to write, it was like, in my mind I thought ‘John, I’m gonna have to carry on without you.’ It was really sad. Cause like The Beatles have every song that would be a different sound, like a different song, so that’s what I try to do when I write songs, try to make it sound like a different song, you know. But that was one of the worst things that happened to me, John did die, then Jack Kirby died, he was my other hero. You’ve got to carry on for your friends, people like that.

There have been hundreds and hundreds of people who have covered your songs, particularly ‘True Love…’

But nobody’s really had a hit with it.

No, but I was going to say, does somebody tell you every time something gets recorded so that you get the royalties?

Sometimes. I get a lot of CDs people send me with covers. But if somebody really made a hit out of one of my songs, I’d love it. Because I’d love that, you know, the moolah!

What’s the favourite cover that you have?

‘Speeding Motorcycle’ is one, and ‘Walking The Cow’ is one that a lot of people have done.

Are there any particular recordings by particular people? Have you heard M. Ward doing ‘To Go Home?’

No, I haven’t.

More from Daniel over the page.