From the archive: Faith, Hope, 'Fear Yourself' and Daniel Johnston
This story was originally published on April 3, 2003.
When you're Daniel Johnston, it's not unusual to get up in the morning and learn that your career is being promoted by yet another famous person. Kurt Cobain wears your T-shirt on MTV; David Bowie sings your praises. Local heroes like Glass Eye's Brian Beattie and the Butthole Surfers' Paul Leary want to make records with you. Covers of your songs pop up on Yo La Tengo albums and in Target commercials.
And people send you tapes of their own songs out of the blue, which can be a mixed blessing. "I get tapes in the mail," he says during a recent phone conversation, "from people, you know, a lot of mentally deranged people. They say, you know, 'Here's my songs --' (bellows tunelessly). I get a lot of those kind of tapes, and it's fun, but I get a lot of them from deranged people. I just get the feeling like they want to kill me or something." He won't say whether the songs are so bad they're lethal, or if the singers are homicidally jealous of his fame: "It's just a feeling I get sometimes, that's all. Believe me."
But good things show up in the mail, too. Some time back, Johnston fan Mark Linkous, who records under the name Sparklehorse, sent Johnston one of his records. "They were the best of any band that sent me material," he says. "They were the most famous, too."
Before long, Johnston was laying down raw tracks for Linkous, then leaving the producer to have his way with them. The result is "Fear Yourself" (Gammon Records), which features Johnston's uniquely hesitant piano playing on most of its tracks. Behind the singer, Linkous deploys everything from synths to glockenspiel, building creepy clouds of sound on songs of longing or cranking up traces of optimism in the nostalgic "Mountain Top."
Optimism comes more easily to Johnston these days than it has in the past, when frequent bouts of depression led to erratic behavior and even hospitalization. "I finally got on some medication that makes me feel stable about my depression," he says, which is good news to fans and friends who spent much of the '90s worried that he wouldn't survive his mood swings.
Coincidentally or not, this period of stability started around the time he moved back in with his parents. These days the longtime Austinite lives in Waller, Texas, a small town west of Houston. His father, Bill, now in his 70s, has become Daniel's manager, coordinating international tours and accompanying his son to places such as Japan.
"Now that Dad's my manager, you know, my career is just booming," says Johnston. "I'm traveling all over the world. I'm a thousandaire! I'm rich." Rich enough that he has considered leaving the nest. "I wanted to move out and get a place of my own," he confides. "I was going to buy my own house, I've been saving up -- but my dad said they wanted me to stay, so I'm stayin'. Eventually I will (get a house in Waller), but it's really convenient living with my parents. They want me to stay, so I prefer to stay."
It shouldn't be too hard saving up for a house, given the growing market for Johnston's pen-and-marker drawings, surreal scenes involving demons, disembodied torsos and superheroes. Johnston produces artwork at a furious pace, selling some of it in galleries, giving some away, and trading some for credit at local comics emporium Austin Books. He brightens up when the conversation shifts to comics -- when will he make the leap from single-page illustrations to entire stories?
"I have worked on some stuff before and fiddled with some ideas. I even had an offer from Matt Groening to make comic books. I draw all the time and sell my drawings, but I would like to eventually make a comic book, and I really should take Matt Groening up on that. I don't know what's the matter with me. I would like to do comic books some day -- Captain America is one of my dreams. In fact, that's one reason I came to Austin in the first place. I wanted to come to Austin to do underground comix, because of the Freak Brothers (created in 1968 by UT alum Gilbert Shelton). I'd heard Austin was an underground comix scene, but I didn't really know about the underground music scene. I didn't know I could make it with my music."
Until Marvel hires Johnston to take over Captain America, he'll look forward to another collection of songs produced by Brian Beattie, as well as next month's first-ever CD reissue of his early cassette-only albums, "Songs of Pain" and "More Songs of Pain." He'll also continue to work with Paul Leary on his full-band project, Danny and the Nightmares. The group is gearing up to record a demo which, despite Johnston's bad mid-'90s experience with Atlantic Records, he intends to offer to major labels. "I'm not going to give up on major labels, for sure," he says. "I'm definitely going to try again. I'm not going to give up, you know?"