BigHassle Media - January 2003
DANIEL JOHNSTON and MARK LINKOUS
Mark Linkous still remembers the first time he
heard Daniel Johnston.
"Some buddies of mine were playing his cassettes at McCabe's Guitar
Shop," he says. "I was really discouraged about music at the time.
Daniel and Tom Waits were the artists who resurrected my interest.
Daniel's just amazing - he writes the saddest songs in the world and the
funniest songs in the world. He instantly became precious to me."
Fifteen years later, the Sparklehorse frontman has a dream-come-true
FEAR YOURSELF, which weds his musical ideas and innovations to a dozen
brand new Johnston compositions. At the suggestion of Gammon Records
president Jordan Trachtenberg, Linkous oversaw a four-day recording
session at David Lowery's Sound of Music Studios in Virginia, capturing
Daniel's unmistakable voice, guitar and piano both alone and with an ad
hoc backing band. From there, he and engineer Alan Weatherhead laid down
a variety of sonic textures, including synthesized orchestration,
Mellotron and vintage keyboards. The resulting record is both spirited
and sweet, with Johnston's unalloyed emotion and incredible melodic
sense brought to life as countrified garage rock, spooky-sad balladry
and blissed-out post-punk bubblegum.
"It's so cool -- when he sent me tracks at different times in the
mail I was just amazed," Johnston says. FEAR YOURSELF is the first fruit
of what promises to be Daniel's most musically productive period since
his homemade cassette days - welcome news for fans who have waited seven
years for 2001's Rejected Unknown. Not coincidentally, this creative
flowering has been accompanied by newfound peace and stability in
Daniel's daily life.
Born and raised in West Virginia but a product of the Austin, Texas
Daniel Johnston is routinely compared to Brian Wilson, Roky Erickson and
Skip Spence, both for his sheer originality and the tragic, mysterious
relationship between mental illness and creative genius. A
manic-depressive, Johnston recorded his 1983 cassette, Hi How Are You,
amidst a nervous breakdown. On the 1986 night MTV's "The Cutting Edge"
celebrated the former carny worker and McDonald's counterboy, Johnston
was in the hospital, his fragile mind further derailed by LSD.
It's impossible to separate Johnston's talent from the context of his
troubles. His music has an exposed, painfully direct quality -
emotionally and aesthetically - that has earned him comparisons to Hank
Williams and Robert Johnson (and just as Johnson met the devil at the
Crossroads, Johnston has walked the fiery landscape of Revelations in
his mind). Linkous likens the early cassettes, which were recorded on a
$59 boombox and are as lo-fi as they come, to "field recordings…a
cappella balladeers from Virginia, things like that. They feel like
But Daniel is every bit the careful craftsman who is actually a
stunning songwriter on a purely formal level. His verbal surprises and
insinuating melodies are inspired mostly by his passion for the Beatles,
but also Queen, the Beach Boys, Elton John and Elvis Presley. As a lover
of pop music he is also an incurable romantic, his songs still fueled by
an unrequited crush, love and obsession for a woman named Laurie that
goes back more than 20 years.
Over the course of his career, Johnston has been covered and just
generally adored by Matt Groening, Eddie Vedder, Yo La Tengo, Built to
Spill, fIREHOSE, Mo Tucker and of course, Sparklehorse, who did "Hey
Joe" on Good Morning Spider and "My Yoke Is Heavy" on the Distorted
Ghost EP. The late Kurt Cobain famously wore a Hi How Are You T-shirt on
the 1992 MTV Awards. Mary Lou Lord's version of Daniel's song "Speeding
Motorcycle" was featured in a Target commercial, while K. McCarty's
album of Johnston compositions, Dead Dog's Eyeball, was heralded by some
as one of the best records of the '90s.
His music was also featured on the soundtrack to the movie Kids,
Lyon Opera Ballet commissioned New York-based choreographer Bill T.
Jones to create "Love Defined," a 25-minute piece set to six of
Johnston's songs. Soon he will be the subject of a feature-length
documentary, tentatively titled Yip-Jump Movie, by director Jeff
Feuerzeig (Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King). And Dualtone
Records plans to reissue the old cassettes (previously re-released by
Homestead Records) Hi How Are You, Yip Jump Music and Continued Story on
a double CD, with a booklet full of Johnston's artwork.
For the past decade and then some, Daniel has continued to make
music, but various arrests and accidents ultimately confined him to the
care of his parents Bill and Mabel, with whom he still lives today in
Waller, Texas, a tiny town outside of Houston. In the early '90s, he
signed to Atlantic Records, an unlikely - and inevitably brief -
partnership that resulted in 1994's excellent Fun, produced by the
Butthole Surfers' Paul Leary. Rejected Unknown was made with Brian
Beattie, McCarty's collaborator on Dead Dog's Eyeball as well as the
Austin band Glass Eye.
Along the way, thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, Daniel
started feeling better. "It's been almost five years that I've been
stable," Johnston says. "It used to hit me like a ton of bricks - manic
depression, a terrible feeling, the pain in my brain. But with
medication, I've been active and busy and writing and working."
Just don't think a happy Daniel means a less creative Daniel. "I'm
still crazy enough, believe me," he says, always willing to joke about
The best part of being healthy is he's been able to tour, in the past
a risky proposition. Accompanied by his 70-something father, Daniel has
been to South Africa, Germany and most recently the U.K., where David
Bowie personally booked him for the Royal Festival Hall's annual
Meltdown festival. A Japanese visit is in the works. "Me and Dad have a
lot of fun. He's the best manager I've ever had."
Johnston's artwork has also been shown around the world. An acclaimed
artist in folk and outsider circles, he is even more prolific with his
pen and marker drawings - of Captain America, Casper the Friendly Ghost,
his tormented self and various busty ladies - than he is the songs.
There's a reason why - cold hard cash. "I draw all the time because of
that," he says. You can't just write a song and turn around and get some
money for it. I have a hunger to go shopping at least once a week. I
have to have new comic books! I have to have new records!"
FEAR YOURSELF opens with a tribute to Daniel's old records, with a
lo-fi snippet of "Now" that segues into a more fully realized version.
For Linkous, the main thing was to stay out of Daniel's way. "I don't
even want to say I produced, I'm just ecstatic to have anything to do
with getting more of him on tape," he says. "We kind of did our thing
and tried not to be obtrusive. Daniel doesn't play or think like a
normal person, so the last thing I wanted to do was straighten him out.
We needed to get into his world."
Most of the songs were written by Daniel back in Texas, except for
"Living It For the Moment," which was, appropriately enough recorded off
the cuff, with most of the musicians playing live. "That turned out
really good," Daniel says. "We played with the band and some girls
showed up to play the saw and violin - it was really cool." In fact, the
saw player is Jess Hoffa, Linkous' sister-in-law. A woman named Melissa
Moore played violin on several songs).
Johnston's piano playing, which has always been more accomplished and
intricate than his guitar strums, is a highlight throughout. "Power of
Love" has the starkness of a Joni Mitchell song. "I was trying to say
that love is the secret of show business," Daniel offers. "It's the
secret in the sauce in the spaghetti at the restaurant, it could stop
war from happening, it's the motivation to live instead of die."
"That's one of those songs where the lyrics...I'm just dumbfounded by
their simple insight," Linkous says.
"Daniel was everything I thought he would be," Linkous continues.
"He's probably the sweetest person I have ever met - an uncorrupted
child in a way, a completely pure soul. It's really beautiful." Linkous
is certain he will work with Johnston again, in between the records he's
making as Sparklehorse and with A Camp (his collaboration with the
Cardigans' Nina Persson).
Meanwhile, Daniel continues to record with Brian Beattie, and has
formed a band of Waller-based musicians, Danny and the Nightmares (he
hopes to bring them on the road soon), and a Paul Leary-produced record
is in the works.
"Things have turned out all right," Johnston says. "I was in an
insane asylum, now I'm traveling. I'm spending cash, girls are around, I
have a lot of good friends and I have good old time. I'm really happy
these days, more so than ever. I'm looking forward to a brighter future,
and I hope that everything will be all right for all of the listeners