Danz Johnson—aka Computer Magic—is kind of a miraculous artist. Not only is her sound a unique synth-dance-dream, but the story of how Computer Magic came to be is a dream of its own (it all started with teen Danz being obsessed with the internet).
Today Danz releases Computer Magic’s latest single, “Gone For the Weekend,” and we’ve got a first listen for you right here:
Earlier this week, I called Danz (who, btw, is kinda big in Japan) to talk about how she made Computer Magic the musical machine it is today.
ALYSON ZETTA: As a human, I am impressed with the amount of roles you fill with Computer Magic, but as an artist…I’m dead on the floor. This sounds so corny, but how…how do you do it?
DANZ JOHNSON: I started doing Computer Magic for fun, and now that’s all I do. I write music, and I have my own record label. I’ve been busy doing artwork for vinyls and cassettes and stuff. I just love what I do and am thankful that I’m able to make music for a living. I dedicate all my time to it because I don’t do anything else, so… [Laughs]
Do you ever get to points where you’re just like, “Agh, I’m alone!” I mean, you’re basically doing all the work, which is super cool, but…
Yeah, that’s true. I write everything, pretty much, by myself. But for live shows and on tour, I have a drummer, thankfully, and I’ll bring my friends to help me with driving and merch. I’m used to being alone! I grew up as an only child. I had step-siblings that I would see, like, every other weekend, because they lived with their mom. I’m used to being by myself and figuring out stuff to do.
I’m always jealous when I hear of someone being in New York, maybe because of my romanticized ideas about it, but what has been the greatest lesson from living in New York—creatively or otherwise?
I grew up upstate, and my parents would take me to the city, like, once a month. When I was younger, I was always like, “Oh man, as soon as I graduate, I’m moving to the city! Can’t stand it in the suburbs!” I feel really lucky—there’s so much culture in New York and you are surrounded by creativity. Everybody is trying to make it in some way or another, usually doing something artistic. I’m so happy that I got to grow up so close to New York. I would suggest it for anybody trying to do something creative. Even just waking up, going to the coffee shop, everybody is dressed super fashionably. In the suburbs, you know, you might feel like you’re the only one who is creative sometimes. It’s nice to be surrounded by a bunch of like-minded people.
I relate so hard on that! I’m from the suburbs, too, so when I was in New York this summer, I wasn’t the only one of myself.
You can talk about, I don’t know, a band like the Talking Heads, and anybody will know who you’re talking about. There’s just so much more creativity to draw from, everybody is so different. Yeah, New York’s great. I’m happy for you. [Laughs]
After learning about your story, I had the thought that there must have been one moment in your life when you just stopped giving any cares about expectations or the like. Am I right? Was there a moment that was a breakthrough for you and allowed you to do what you wanted?
I moved to the city, and I was going to Hunter College. I didn’t go there for very long. [Laughs] I got withdrawn from my classes because I never went. I think a lot of stress came from my parents because I was working at restaurants, trying to afford an apartment, and I wasn’t going to college because I didn’t know what to do. They were like, “No, you gotta figure it out.” I started making music out of nowhere, so I think they thought it was just another phase. And then one of my songs was on a commercial. My dad was watching ESPN when he saw it on TV. I think at that point, my parents were like, “Oh, OK, you might be doing something right.” The most expectations that I felt were from my parents. Once they knew I was doing this for a living, when I started to be a little successful, that took some weight off of my shoulders.
Yes, success generally helps.
What was your life in New York like pre-“success”?
My first apartment was in Chinatown. It was on top of this restaurant called “Joe’s Shanghai”, which is still there—
Ohmygosh, I went there!
Really?! Haha! On Pell Street, it’s just a really short street, very old…Yeah, I lived right on top of there. It was funny, because I moved in there with my friend from high school because she was going to FIT. Whenever we would come home, there would be, like, a line of people outside waiting to go in the restaurant and we would be like “We gotta get upstairs!” I was going out a lot, spending a lot of time in the Lower East Side. As a teenager living in the city, I learned a lot.
Dude, nice! Your Wikipedia page doesn’t fail to list your many influences. Have you ever struggled to break away from an infatuation to create your own work?
Yeah. I’ll listen to an album a lot, specifically, when I sit down to write my own music. I know that it comes out in whatever I’m writing because I’ve been listening to something all the time, but I do try to have my own style. Because if I’m writing something that sounds exactly like someone else, nobody will wanna listen to it. But my influences come out in whatever I’m doing, whether I want them to or not.
What is your current obsession or inspiration?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Flying Nun Records bands. Like these bands called the Clean and the Chills from New Zealand in the 1980s. I’ll go through musical phases and be obsessed with something and only listen to that. This came out last year, but Blur has a record called The Magic Whip, and now I’m listening to that on repeat, all the time. And I’m like, “I really like this, let me listen to old Blur stuff,” which leads me to other bands like Primal Scream and Elastica. One thing leads to another.
Blur, ohmygosh, Damon Albarn…OK, really quick sidetrack…the Gorillaz album that was supposed to come out this year?!? Do you know where it is? I’m worried, I want this to happen.
I know, I’m hoping all the anticipation will lead to something amazing.
They better…they better do something. Blow something up.
I know, I know! Gorillaz is such a cool idea, how they are characters. When I get really old and am still making music, I just wanna be a character.
I don’t wanna go anywhere. Just send my hologram. I think that eventually all musicians will have one. I mean, Beyoncé, when she’s 70, will maybe send her hologram to perform.
Let’s hope so. There’s a lot of conversation right now about whether it’s right for music to be free on platforms such as Spotify. Some artists have been openly against it, whereas you give out your songs as free downloads before they are released on iTunes. Have you ever been conflicted in the debate over this and distributing your music for free?
No. I think it’s important to place a value on your work, as any kind of artist. If you don’t place any value on your work then nobody else will. But growing up, if I got a song for free and really liked it, I would end up buying it on vinyl because I wanted something tangible and wanted to support [the band] anyway. I know if you’re a true fan, you’re gonna buy the record.
Yeah, I remember reading about how you just wanted more people to enjoy your music, and I think that’s kind of an amazing way to go about things.
I remember Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails had a link to his discography on a website, and it just redirected to the Pirate Bay—his discography on the Pirate Bay! I’m like, that’s so funny. He doesn’t care. Artists nowadays don’t really make money from album sales, unless you’re a really big artist. It’s more like merchandising and licensing songs for commercials and stuff like that.
Another kind of amazing thing I uncovered during my research: You’re pretty big in Japan!
Out of all the countries I could be big in, I’m really happy it’s Japan. In the U.S., nobody really knows. When we go to Japan, I will be stopped on the street like, “Oh, Danz, from Computer Magic! Can we take a picture with you?” Our shows are a lot bigger there. They still have Tower Records there, and our CD will be, like, right in the front. It will be on the display at the end of the aisle, like “Computer Magic! New record!” It’s awesome. And the fans there are so nice.
I guess this is sorta going back to the beginning, but I wanna hear about your music blog, which you started at 15. I love hearing about the caterpillar projects of people who have made it to butterflyhood. Wanna reminisce?
It was, like, my little project. I would go to school, and I would come home and I would just…write about stuff that I was into. And even if nobody cared, I thought I was telling somebody. I remember, like, in English class, I would write a [record] review and bring it to my English teacher and he would give me extra credit, because I was spending all my time writing. I was obsessed with music in general, and just wrote about it. When I found something cool I thought that other people needed to know. But it’s important to have other outlets. I spent so much time on the internet. I would never go outside!
Hey, I mean, it’s quite a place, isn’t it?
[Laughs] Yep! ♦