Q&A: Daniel Johnston on Recording, Regrets, and Celebrity Supporters

Cult musician and visual artist Daniel Johnston might just suffer from an excess of mythology. For some two decades, the Austin-based performer has found champions for his work in big names like Tom Waits and Beck. But it's in the past decade or so, particularly after the release of the 2005 movie The Devil and Daniel Johnston, that a new generation of fans is getting hip to the hype. But in that movie's wake, a narrative has formed that Johnston is tortured, unpredictable, and elusive -- when, really, that's not the case.

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Sure, Johnston, who lives with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, deals with his own set of personal struggles. But inaccessible, he's not. How else would we find ourselves face to face with the guy, (relatively) early on a Friday morning, in a Brickell-area hotel? Johnston arrived in Miami this past weekend for a special evening at Grand Central, one that combined an exhibition of his slightly cartoony, humorous art with a half-hour acoustic performance. (Read Crossfade's review of that performance here.)

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Johnston gamely sat down for a post-breakfast morning of interviews in the conference room of Hotel Urbano, chasing a glass of orange juice with another of Coca-Cola, rattling his ice cubes as he considered his answers. It soon became clear, though, that whatever Johnston deals with offstage, playing, or just talking about his music, is a bright spot -- he was probably the most cheerful we've ever seen a musician before noon. During a brief chat, here's what he had to say on a few subjects.

On practice sessions and preparing for shows:

Usually there's just a band that knows the songs, and we practice, and I just do the songs at night. Every time I go to practice, instead of really playing the songs over and over, I just practice making up new songs. I pretty much know the ones I do in concert, so when I play [in practice], it's usually a jam session, making up songs.

On collaborating on new material:

I'm starting to write again, and I'm having a good time. We're hoping to do some recording this year with some of my friends, including Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers and Bill Anderson of Poison 13. They're good friends, and I've got a lot of songs we're working on, so I'm looking forward to that. When we record, everyone just starts bang-clanging, and when we're done, there it is. Then we produce it.

On leaving behind his old, famous cassette tapes and aiming for a more polished sound:

We're trying to do studio recordings and be a little bit more professional. In the old days, the only reason I recorded on those cassettes is because I didn't have anything else to record on, you know?

On the famous fan who surprised him most:

One day, we had been eating out for several days, and there was this guy there and everybody was talking. It was one of these days of lunches, right? And I looked up and it was Elvis Costello! That was pretty cool, and later he came up onstage and sang a song with me.

On past professional regrets:

Too many times I've been given offers for movies and stuff that I've turned down. I really was quite foolish. I even had a contract with that major label Metallica was on. I love their music very much, but when they asked me if I wanted to be on the label, I though, "They'll eat -- they'll kill me!" So I thought, I'd better not.

On pursuing a life outside of music and art, and then changing his mind:

I tried. I traveled with the carnival, even, selling corn dogs. [But now] it's really fun with me and my friends; we plan to make our own movies and stuff. I wanna go home right away [from this trip]. I'm scared. [But] when I get back home, I'll just do cartoons, I guess. Stuff like that.

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