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Daniel Johnston interview

The father of lo-fi, illustrator and cult figure who released his own cassettes throughout the 1980s, Daniel Johnston talks with Marta Salicrú

Daniel Johnston
It's unusual to be given instructions when you're just sitting down to do an interview, but when you're given recommendations before talking to Daniel Johnston, you follow them. The unintentional father of the lo-fi movement (low-fidelity pop and folk that many artists later picked up as their principal sound), thanks to cassette recordings made during the '80s, suffers from bipolar disorder. I was also told that, during our phone interview, the American singer could get his wires crossed and suddenly hang up the phone, and that it wouldn't be the first time he'd done it.

It was suggested to me that, to avoid this, I speak simply, so when the voice on the other end of the line asks who wants to talk to Daniel Johnston, I reply, in a voice that sounds like a childlike version of me, that I'm a journalist calling from Barcelona. I'm talking to Johnston's father, who, according to the singer's biography is a fundamentalist Christian, and I realise he must think I'm an idiot as he goes to tell his son there's a phone call for him. "I'll take it here, Dad," I hear in the background. It's the voice of a big kid, and I feel a little less ridiculous.

After waiting 10 minutes, I hang up. I call back right away, but it's busy. After half an hour, and many attempts, he finally picks up. "You got me! You did it!" Johnston says playfully, and he laughs a lot during the whole conversation, but then at times is silent. And when he doesn't understand a question, he answers whatever he wants and talks about his heroes, the Beatles, who he's dedicated songs to, and whose songs he used to teach himself to play. For the same reason, when we say goodbye, he does so saying, "I love you, Yoko!"

How did you start playing?
When I was little I pounded on the piano and pretended I was making soundtracks to horror films, monster movies. I spent the day doing that. After I started to use voices, and somehow I learned to play the piano by myself, and I played it all the time. Now I have a new electric guitar, and I want to learn to play that, also by teaching myself.

But you already play the guitar.
Oh yeah, but only very basic chords, and that's not enough anymore. I want to learn to play rock.

You've made a lot of records.
I've been making tapes since, let me think, since 1979. I started to record songs and make copies for all my friends, like the tape 'Songs of Pain' (1981). I must have made millions.

On your latest album, 'Beam Me Up!' (2010), you sing with an orchestra. It sounds very different from your earlier albums, recorded in a garage with a radio cassette player.
At that time I had no money to rent a studio. I just recorded tapes for my friends. Eventually I did my best to make the sound better, but it was impossible with a radio cassette player. Later I managed to make records in studios, like 'Continued Story' (1985) and 'Artistic Vice' (1991). In 1990 I recorded in New York and Sonic Youth played with me - it was fun. I want my next record to be the best produced. We're working with my friends - Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers, who I worked with on 'Fun' (1994) - and I'll try to make it a hit.

The drawings you did for the covers of your cassettes have been exhibited in galleries. Which do you prefer, music or art?
I spend more time drawing than making music. My drawings help us pay the bills. But I try to do both. It's fun to try composing again. I still make and come up with ideas. Things are better now. I think I have a chance. I considered stopping doing concerts for over a year and then come back and be a success. But that would mean more work to touring the world on my own. I think I'll give it a try.

What do you like about being a musician?
When I do a concert and people sing and shout. It's really fun.

Do you like performing live?
Sure! Now we're heading to Europe, and I'm really excited.

I know, that's why I'm calling. I'm calling from Barcelona.
Where is Barcelona?

In Spain.
Ah yes! (He laughs. We both laugh.)

A lot of musicians have covered your songs.
Yes, many people have, and done it well. It would be nice if someone had a hit with a song of mine. That really would make me happy: that one of my songs was played on the radio.

Do you like the documentary that was made about you, 'The Devil and Daniel Johnston' (2006)?
It scares me. To me it's like a horror movie, it's very hard. During that time I spent a lot of time in a lot of psychiatric hospitals - they were difficult times. That was 20 years ago - a long time ­- but I have no intention of going back. Once you've been, you never want to go back there.

They're also making a biopic about your life.
It'll be a comedy, I'm sure. The director looks like Steven Spielberg.

The singer-songwriter lives in a house built by his father - who's also his neighbour - with the money made from his concerts.