People send you tapes of their own songs out of the blue, which can be a mixed blessing. "I get tapes in the mail, from people, you know, a lot of mentally deranged people," Johnston told
He won't say why they want to kill him - whether the songs are so bad they're lethal, or the singers are jealous of his fame: "It's just a feeling I get sometimes, that's all. Believe me."
But good things appear in the mail, too. Some time back, Sparklehorse songwriter Mark Linkous, a longtime fan, sent Johnston one of his records. "They were the best of any band that sent me material," Johnston 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): Unlike the singer's major-label effort Fun, Fear features Johnston's own uniquely hesitant piano playing on most of its tracks. Behind the singer, Linkous uses everything from synths to glockenspiel, building big creepy clouds of sound on songs of longing like "Must," 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. "It's been going on for about six or seven years now, that I've been not depressed. It finally got me on a level that I was even; for a long time they'd give me drugs like I was a guinea pig."
Coincidentally or not, this period of stability started around the time he moved back in with his parents. These days the former Austinite lives in Waller, a small town near Houston. His father Bill, now in his 70s, has become Johnston's manager, coordinating international tours and accompanying his son to such places as Japan. With Dad along for the ride, though, Johnston doesn't spend every penny he has on comics and CDs. "Now that Dad's my manager, my career is just booming. 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 comics stores. He brightens up when the conversation shifts to comics: When will he make the leap from single-page illustrations to entire comic book 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 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 for Captain America, fans will be happy to know that Fear Yourself will soon be joined by another new release: The Early Recordings, Vol. 1 (Dualtone) reissues two song collections that until now were only available on cassette, tapes like those Johnston would pass out for free to any hipster willing to take 'em. Don't be surprised if you hear it endorsed by Beck next week on MTV. •