When Built to Spill was asked to be the backing band for Daniel Johnston on some Pacific Northwest dates in November 2017—the last Johnston would ever play before his death in 2019—they were handed a preferred list of about 100 songs by the beloved underground pop auteur to prepare and rehearse. While the realities of performing with the idiosyncratic Johnston may have yielded some unplanned results, the time Doug Martsch spent learning and reimagining gems from the late Texas singer-songwriter’s vast catalog wasn’t for naught. With sessions for his band’s first proper album since 2015’s Untethered Moon at a temporary standstill in 2018, Martsch quickly recorded some of his favorites—initially only intended for friends—before winding up with a full 11-track tribute album worthy of release, and true to Johnston’s deeply shaggy DIY spirit.
“It's supposed to sound like a demo tape, like just people in a room playing,” Martsch tells Apple Music. “And that's why I kind of just wanted it for friends—like, 'Here's what we sounded like when we were learning these songs.'" Better-known tunes like “Speeding Motorcycle,” which endeared Johnston to audiences during the ’90s indie boom, and later ones made in studios with professional bands were largely eschewed in favor of deeper cuts from the list, some of which Martsch himself hadn’t previously known. “If I want to listen to Daniel Johnston, I want to listen to that early stuff, where a lot of it's just in his head and you kind of imagine that he wishes he had a band but he doesn't,” Martsch says. “He still is able to make the song sound big even though it's just him by himself with a guitar or keyboard.” Here Martsch talks through each cover to say why it was chosen for this record.
Bloody Rainbow “That was a song I didn't know before listening to try to learn his songs. The time that I got into Daniel Johnston was before the internet, so I knew about his cassettes, but you couldn't really get ahold of them. And I kind of listened to them for a bit, but I didn't have the kind of obsession that I might've had with them if I had heard them when I was a little younger. I was 30 years old, or older, maybe. 'Bloody Rainbow' is a nice song. I like the drums and bass that those guys came up with. Just a lot of energy.”
Tell Me Now “Just a nice song. Again, it's another song that I had never heard before. It was on a list of songs that was sent over by his management—songs that he was willing to play or knew how to sing, or whatever. And then when we actually got together with him, it was a different story. But at the time when I got the list, I took it seriously, and that's the stuff that we worked on.”
Honey I Sure Miss You “I don't think we played this with him live, but it was a song I thought was really great. I don't know really quite what album or time period it is, but it's sort of in between; it's pretty raw, but also with a band. The original version's really great.”
Good Morning You “When I heard that one, I was like, ‘We should put this out.’ I don't know if it's just a nice song or maybe we just happened to get a nice mix of it when we were working on it, but somehow that was the song that made me think that this was something that more than our friends should get to hear.”
Heart, Mind and Soul “The chords and the words are kind of like a soul song a little bit; it has this real kind of classic sound. I wasn't sure if it was a cover or not for a while. I love the way it sounds on the record when he does that, and he plays on piano. I don't think it really translated very well onto guitar, but that's what I play. I felt like we did the least good job of making it sound good, as an interpretation, but I just love the song so much that I rolled with it. I think it's my favorite song of his on the record, but on the record, it's not my favorite song.”
Life in Vain “‘Life in Vain,’ now, that was a record I did have. That was his first major-label record. Everything was like, ‘Let's just do this as a three-piece pop-rock band and let's not worry about how he did them.’ Because I don't think that song had drums.”
Mountain Top “That's one that was like a full-on indie-rock-produced song. And I don't know what it was about it that made me love it, but as time went on, I kind of just loved it more and more. It's the only song with any harmonies on it, and I liked that.”
Queenie the Dog “That's just so sweet. Again, I don't know if I like our version very much. I don't know, it's kind of a bossa nova, or something like that. It's kind of silly-sounding, but I just love the song so much. I'm also a dog lover. I just thought it was too sweet to not play on the record.”
Impossible Love “We did it and I didn't think our version was very good, but it's such a great song. But yeah, I had no idea that it was really kind of a hit in anyone's mind. There's some of those early songs like 'Walking the Cow,' which I think is an okay song, but for some reason, I think that's one of his 'hits.'”
Fake Records of Rock & Roll “I don't even like that one too much. I just love some of the words in it, but I don't know if it should have been on the record. I sang the songs enough times that basically, I kind of just started singing them as myself. That's how covers go—first you kind of try to imitate the person singing, and then after a while, it sort of slips into your own sort of version of it.”
Fish “That’s another that I think it's kind of from later on in his career. Just some nice melodies and those same three or four chords that he puts in every single song, which is an amazing thing to me—not just three or four chords, but the same three or four chords. And he just says different things with them.”