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Interview: Johnny Hickman of Cracker

4941-hickman1Cracker frontman David Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman have known each other a long time. They have soldiered on together, starting with their 1992 eponymous debut album, to radio hits like “Low” and “Get Off This,” to leaving Virgin Records in 2003 and putting out a country covers album. While the band never recaptured the popularity that surrounded them when “Low” hit in the early ’90s, 2009 single “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me” became their first hit in years.

I have been a Cracker fan since Kerosene Hat and so getting a chance to sit down with Hickman gave me the opportunity to ask him about songs that I’ve known since I was in high school and been a part of my life for more than 15 years. I found Hickman friendly and very willing to talk about his partnership with Lowery, the songwriting process and the number 69. I am pleased to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Johnny Hickman of Cracker.

The first time I saw Cracker, I was 17 years old. It was 1994 and you were playing the Tower Theater in Philadelphia. Kerosene Hat had just come and it was the most violent concert I’ve ever been to in my life.

A lot of our shows were certainly on the edge of mayhem in those days. We had a show like that in Glacier the other night too with bodies flying and girls trying to do some kind of pole dance on our equipment. You just never know with the Cracker crowd. It just depends on the city, I guess. Of course, a lot of our fans are older, like we are now, so they’ve calmed down a little bit. We have a new generation of fans coming to shows too and they get a little crazy. (laughs).

The girl I took with me in 1994 is now an actress on television and she broke her hand.

Oh man, at that show?

At that show.

Wow! Tell her I’m sorry (laughs).

I don’t talk to her anymore. She’s too famous for me.

(laughs) She’s too famous. Wow! She broke her hand at the Cracker show.

We told her parents it was a Frisbee accident.

Yeah, I don’t think we’ve had any injuries for quite a while unless it was somebody closer to my age and they broke a hip or something slipping on the ice outside.

I’ve seen Cracker a number of times since then, but it was never the same as it was at that time.

Absolute mayhem. I think when a band has a song on the radio, and obviously we’ve been fortunate enough to have had a few, the attention focuses a little bit more on you and your audience expands and then it tends to go back, at least with us, to a happy medium. We won over some new fans because of the exposure. The hardcore Cracker fans, some of them have been with us for the almost 20 years we’ve been together, they call themselves “Crumbs.” That’s a name we didn’t give them; they gave it to themselves. It’s like the alt-rock version of the Dead. They follow us around and they come to a lot of shows. We’ve had great fans since the very beginning. In Portland here, this is where we wrote the song “Low,” I think in ’93. We were jamming around at a soundcheck and David was messing with chords and I came up with that riff. David was saying, “Like being low.” He was kind of ranting on lyrics ideas and then he went back on the bus. The next day he had all the lyrics to the song. Born here! At a hungover soundcheck.

I’m glad you told me that story because I’m not going to ask you all the usual questions about the new album and the tour.

Ask anything you want.

To get with the spirit of Cracker, who does a different setlist every night…

Yeah and I wouldn’t even call it a setlist. We just get up there and start playing. Keith Richards once said, “Don’t ever make a singer sing something he’s not in the mood to sing,” so I let David call out the songs. He does it really well. He’s got a good sense for it. First and foremost, we play for ourselves. I think if you do that you end up putting on a lot better show. We have so many songs we can rotate the show quite a bit. There’s a handful of songs that we’re obviously going to play every night. We’d have a lot of upset people if you’re out for your first Cracker show and of course you want to hear “Low” and “Get Off This” and “Eurotrash Girl” and some of these songs. As for as the rest of the songs go, we rotate it all the time. It’s more exciting for us and little more of a challenge for us too. It keeps us in touch with our canon of songs, if you will. But I also think it’s more exciting for the fans. A lot of them will come to a lot of shows in a row and a lot of them have seen us plenty of times and we’ll pull out a song we haven’t done in a long time. I can see them on their phones before the song is even three beats in.

We didn’t have that back in 1994.

No, we didn’t. We didn’t have that sort of communication. And we’re totally fine with people taping and videotaping and pictures and all of that. We’ve always had a green light policy with that. We’re okay with it. So people are instantly sending photos and setlists, if you can call it a setlist. Whatever we played that night. If there is a rare one in there or a cover we throw in there they seem to really appreciate that.

So what I’d like to do, in the spirit of that, rather than ask you the normal BS people ask, I’d like to talk about specific songs, older songs, and maybe you can tell me the story behind the song. Maybe that’s a little more refreshing for you.

Absolutely. You know David and I both write the songs. He writes more lyrics than I do, but I do contribute lyrically too. So, depending on the song…

We’ll start with “Dr. Bernice.”

“Dr. Bernice” was one of a handful of songs that David and I came up with when we first started working together. We’d known each other for 10 years at this point. We knew each other before Camper Van Beethoven. We grew up in the same area. When Camper Van Beethoven broke up in 1990 or 1991, around that time, we got together in a very loose experimental way to see if we could write together. “Dr. Bernice” was one of the first of 20 or so things we worked on together. I think the original inspiration for that song came to David when he got on an elevator and he heard a snippet of conversation. He heard someone say, “Bernice, she ain’t no lady doctor.” So, in the mind of David Lowery that led to a beautiful story, an odd story and the desert sands and Karen Black came into it from his imagination, which I thought was wonderful. I try to add the soundtrack for the movie he’s making, basically. That’s a good example of a song that has a lot to do with the conversation between David’s story and my guitar because they answer one another. They are the two voices of the band. It’s the classic chemistry. But it’s even more so in Cracker than in Camper Van Beethoven and a lot of other bands. It doesn’t really matter if he starts the conversation or if I do. But we’re really sort of answering each other. I try to create the musicscapes around his stories. As David puts it, he creates characters and lets them speak. He gives them a voice and lets them come alive more like a novelist than your average songwriter. I think that is really remarkable and unique about David. I try to come up with melodic motifs and riffs and sounds to answer that. To create the right framework around the characters.

There is something different about that song than the others on that first album.

Very different. That one, to my ears, was a little more like the things he was doing in Camper Van Beethoven. It was exciting for me because I had just come from playing in punk bands and country rock bands and my tastes at that time tended to run towards bands like the Replacements or X or a little more roots-based and rock ‘n’ roll-based. David’s a very different kind of writer, but he writes that way as well. We write what we call our country songs but it’s us simultaneously making fun of and embracing country music. We don’t call ourselves country people, but there is certainly that influence in what we do. “Dr. Bernice” combined a lot of odd things. It has a European folk feel, it has the feel of the desert, it has the feel of, in my mind at least, the feel of the North American western desert and as well as an Arabian desert. It just has this eerie color about the song. We didn’t really work on it that much when we recorded it on the album. It just sort of went down as it went down. I just happened to be messing around with a slide guitar. I don’t play slide on it live but it felt right to play a little bit of dobro because I had just come from the country thing, and a little bit of mandolin to create the mood.

That one and “Happy Birthday to Me” are both more classic examples of David’s more absurdist lyrics.

Absolutely. “Happy Birthday to Me” came in a little later but it was one of the early batch. He just had this great jangly pop song. I had this big German echo harp because we went over to visit Germany together before we actually formed the band and hung out with friends of ours over there and played in their band. I was really into these echo harps and they had this great sound like an accordion if you play them right. So that made its way into the sound of it. It just felt like the right kind of festive to the story he was telling. “Happy Birthday to Me” is another one of his stories where you get the sense of the characters and there’s the absurd and the humor in it, but he doesn’t really complete the story. It’s more of a character development than there actually is a story in that song. It just has a great tagline, “Happy birthday to you and to me.” It’s just a funny thing to say. The line about the PTA mother, it’s quintessential Lowery. (laughs).

Sometimes I wish I were Catholic.”

Yeah and at that particular time, his girlfriend at the time was Catholic and I was an ex-altar boy and raised in Catholic schools and a lot of the people in his circle were Catholic. It doesn’t really connect specifically with anything going on in the song but I love that that line just jumps out you. “Sometimes I wish I were Catholic/ I don’t know why” (laughs).

And you had a guy on that album who was both in a Rodney Dangerfield movie and now plays with Elvis Costello.

Yes, Davey Faragher who also grew up in the very small town David and I are from, Redlands, CA, which is odd. He’s played with everybody from David Crosby, to like you said, Elvis Costello to John Hiatt. We had a good run with Davey. Like a lot of people have in the 20 years David and I have been in the center of this Cracker universe, Davey worked his way into the band and worked his way back out. That’s fine! They’ve all contributed something unique and enduring in their time with the band. Somebody once told me that’s the way Steely Dan are. Yeah, we don’t sound anything like Steely Dan, but it’s the same sort of structure where there are two guys at the center of it.

You smile a lot more than those guys do.

(laughs) Yeah, but when we get to their age I don’t know. Nah, I will be smiling when I’m 90. Who am I kidding? I’m basically a pretty upbeat person. We hit on the chemistry early on and made a conscious decision. We both had been in a fair number of bands. We knew each other for 10 years as friends and around other bands and in the same scenes. We had a little bit of wisdom or hubris at this point. When we got together we had discussions about this. A lot of bands break up over bullshit. At that time, Camper Van Beethoven had broken up over bullshit. I was not there but basically, they broke up over things that probably would have resolved themselves but they were young. At the outset of Cracker we decided to stay the course, as we say. If bands could just get beyond these things that seem to pass in a short amount of time. So many bands break up over ridiculous things. That was one thing we made a decision on and the other thing was we were going to play music for ourselves. If we were really honest to ourselves and true to ourselves about what we wanted to hear and what we liked then we assumed there would be other people who felt the same way and fortunately there were. We’ve never been a household name but we’ve had a solid fanbase that has slowly grown for the last 20 years and that’s an amazing thing. Most bands break up in five or six years. I think that’s the average lifespan I read somewhere and we’re going on almost 20 years. A lot of that has to do with the fact that we’re at the center of that. We make the decisions and that is where the creative juice flows from, this partnership. A lot of bands try to have five or six person democracies and that never tends to work. Or least not for very long. It can work for awhile and they can make amazing music but at some point the infrastructure starts to collapse and there’s a power struggle. It’s inevitable; we’re human. Whereas David and I understand who we were within the context of our band. David is the center point and I am the henchman and the right hand man, but we write together and we’ve been friends a long time. Some of that was established just as friends, based on our personality types. I think that has a lot to do with our longevity. I’m rambling, stop me at any time!

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Oh no! It’s cool. Let’s move on to the next album. Do you feel that Europeans have a better sense of humor about themselves than Americans do?

Depending on the country, yes. The United States is very unto itself and I hate to knock my country, because I love my country, the people in most of Europe are aware of more of our history than we are. They think more in the context of the rest of the world than Americans tend to. We tend to be very insulated over here. Some of that has to do with innocence and some of that has to do with ignorance. You have to go beyond the information you’re fed and explore a little bit. I’m very proud of my sons and my nephews when they are online when there’s a world event and they contact their friends in other countries and ask, “Well, what does your country say? What’s their take on this war or economic collapse or what have you.” It’s usually quite different. It’s a changing world, but Americans still tend to be a little too bit focused on what’s going on here.

The reason I am asking is because I don’t think “White Trash Girl” would have gone over as well as “Eurotrash Girl.”

We’ve been to Europe and there are bits of some real experiences in that song and imagined experiences. David created this character and we took potshots at him. He’s this hapless young guy over and his dad’s married to some waitress and he feels a little neglected, so he’s over there and he’s having a tough time in Europe. He’s calling home for money. It’s something I’m sure a lot of people have been through. They’re college age and think, “I want to go over to Europe. I’ll be fine there.” But then they realize (laughs) it’s not as easy as they thought it was going to be. This poor guy ends up getting stuck and bathing in a fountain and getting arrested and losing his passport. Some of these things happened to us, some not. They are real life experiences for the most part. It’s one of those characters who defined himself as the story went along.

Do you still think that putting it as number 69 on the CD was a good idea?

(laughs) That was our producer, the late, great Don Smith’s idea. He decided to tag that number on it. The story behind that was at that time we had a lot of songs. We’d been playing “Eurotrash Girl” live for awhile and fans were really reacting to it. There were even a few radio stations playing live bootlegs of it. The word got out amongst the fans, “Hey, check out “Eurotrash Girl.” They were talking about it and it developed its own bit of momentum. We told our record company, Virgin Records at the time, we gotta put this one on here too. They said, “But your record is already too long. People only have so much of an attention span. Save it for the next one. Blah blah blah.” We just snuck it on there anyway. We went to the mastering lab and just put that song and “I Ride My Bike” on there.

So Virgin had no idea?

They had no idea. We just went in and put it on anyway. We just snuck in the tape and said, “Just put it deep in there.” It was Don’s idea to make it track 69 with his perverted sense of humor, which was fine with us. It was frustrating to some people with the song because they had things on shuffle. We basically just gave them another song. You only get paid for so many songs. We just said, “Well, the fans obviously like this one. We’re just going to put it on there.” So we did.

I had friends in high school that didn’t even know it was on there. They heard it on the radio and said, “Listen to this new Cracker song!” I said, “You have the album already. Check it out.”

We caught bootleggers that way too. There were some versions of the CD going around but they didn’t have that song on there. They didn’t know it was supposed to be on there, so they obviously stole it and manufacturing their own illegal CDs. That was interesting.

The hidden track seems to be a stamp of the time but now CDs are dying off.

Yeah, they are dying off now, but at that time it was the medium.

I know a lot of other bands did it at the time too.

It’s a nice thing to do for your fans. Most record company contracts say you get paid for X amount of music. Nine songs and whatever you put on after that is your own business.

It’s a gift.

Yeah, it’s a gift. We’re okay with that. It’s come back to bite a lot of bands on the ass this mentality that music should be free. It’s kind of a bullshit belief because this is how we make our money and we can’t keep going unless we make enough money to keep going. When people steal music, it really is stealing because we work very hard on our music as does every band. We don’t mind giving away some things for free here and again but we like to have some control over that. But we allow people to tape at our shows. Our thinking is if someone shows up a Cracker show who wants to tape it, they probably have our CDs already. They already have our downloads. I’ve never known that not to be the case. I don’t see people taping it that know nothing about the band and they’re just doing it to go out and sell it. Because if they did, we would catch them immediately anyway. So it doesn’t really matter. We’re fine with that, fine with people filming, whatever the hell they want to do. We’re there, warts and all. Whatever happens that night, they get it. That’s all right with us. It always has been.

One song that I always felt was an anomaly in your discography was “Dixie Babylon” off The Golden Age.

Why do you feel that way about it?

It’s got this real languid bass, or is that the guitar?

No, that’s my guitar.

Well, it’s got this real languid sort of introduction.

That came about in a very simple way. That’s where the song began. We were over in Europe and we were doing soundchecks. David gave me this nickname of “Crazy Sloth” sort of like “Crazy Horse” because Neil Young played very slow and very simple, but I would play even slower sometimes. I decided in my mind, “I’m going to write the slowest riff he’s ever heard. I wonder what he’ll think of it.” It was just kind of a joke. So I decided to make the slowest possible riff I could. Charlie Quintana, our drummer at the time, started playing that great little bolero or whatever he’s doing on the snare behind it. It sparked David and he liked it. We were all playing together it together during soundchecks, just little chunks of it, as I worked out the guitar melody. At some point, David started working on it, creating a story within that framework. It’s a great story, it’s nothing that I would have imagined, this beautiful, dark romance that’s left unresolved. Once again, classic Lowery. The other side of him. Not the humorous side of “Dr. Bernice,” which has some romance in it as well, but “Dixie Babylon” is one that we should probably bring back live at some point.

How about tonight?

(laughs) Well, I don’t think the other guys even know it. Frank [Funaro] could probably do it. He knows our catalog pretty well.

Another reason I say it stands out is that the sound of it and the production are swampier and the lyrics are more sexually explicit than your other songs.

Absolutely. They are suggestive to say the least. It’s a very sensuous lyric. The music works well with it too. Beck’s dad, David Campbell, did the string arrangements for it. At one point he answers my guitar lick with the string section. He did the strings for that album and he was brilliant. He was the string arranger to go to if you didn’t want the norm because, like his son, he thinks out of the box. He’s very unique that way. Beautiful string arrangements for that and “Bicycle Spaniards” and some of the other songs on The Golden Age. I love how the strings eventually overtake my guitar playing. They swallow it up at the very end and it becomes this Southern Gothic piece of music.

A lot of David’s lyrics are layered with sarcasm, like a defensive wall, but I feel like there is a lyric where I feel like there is a glimpse of him coming through. Which is rare in a Cracker song. It’s “I’ve always taken more than I have given back.”

Yeah, that’s great.

It doesn’t even sound like his normal singing voice. He isn’t as gruff or gravely on that part.

Yeah, he’s a multi-faceted songwriter. I’m a big fan of the way he doesn’t feel compelled to explain the story and lets it complete itself in the listener’s head much like a good novelist will do or great filmmaker. He doesn’t feel the need to explain himself. Although he does occasionally, if he feels like it. He’s got that right or the right not to. Once in awhile I will comment on his lyrics when we’re writing songs together but sometimes I put myself in a place where I don’t want to alter it, I want the pure essence of what he’s inspired to put around a piece of music or to just come up with on his own. I don’t want to put a bump in the road. I want him to go ahead and complete that thought or complete that character. I love “Dixie Babylon” in the way that I love “The Big Dipper.”

That’s kind of its counterpart on the album.

I agree, “The Big Dipper” is one of my favorite songs we’ve ever done together. I still get a little lump in my throat, a little ache in my heart whenever we play it. We’ve been playing it for years and years and years but it’s just that powerful to me.

Once again, his vocals come through differently. Like, “Can I take you out/ I’ll be yours without a doubt.”

It’s like what David says about how I play guitar: I incorporate a lot of styles and he’s multi-faceted as a lyricist. People tend to gravitate to or pinpoint on his sense of irony or sarcasm and humor. Those are very real things and very much a part of his personality and his strengths as a writer. But there’s also the other side of him, the guy who writes “All Her Favorite Fruit” with Camper or “Big Dipper.” That side of his songwriting and personality is just as strong and just as much a part of the fabric of Cracker and of our body of work. People tend to forget that. Even with Camper Van Beethoven they would always use terms like “quirky” or “tongue-in-cheek.” It certainly is all those things too. David is half-English and I think that is where some of his sense of humor comes from because they do understand irony in a way a lot of people in the United States don’t. A lot of it is lost on our population (laughs). Not with everyone, but for the great masses I think it goes over their heads. People tend to listen to a lyric of a song and they immediately identify it with the singer. Often it’s not the case, especially with writers like David or Bob Dylan or Randy Newman or Bonnie Prince Billy.

I saw Bonnie Prince Billy last month for the first time.

I still have yet to see him. I’ve been a fan forever.

I saw him at a festival called Pickathon here. Basically, the stage was in the woods with an arbor made of twigs around it. There were maybe a hundred people there sitting on hay bales.

Oh fantastic! It would have been amazing to be there. It’s one of the downsides of what I do. I’ve still yet to see Son Volt, who I am a big fan of.

You’re not missing anything.

Not exactly Mr. Personality, unlike Jeff Tweedy? He is very effervescent live.

I saw Son Volt on New Years Eve once and when midnight struck, they walked off the stage. Then came back and did “Born to Be Wild” without saying anything and then walked off again.

(laughs) Hence the split of Uncle Tupelo right there.

Who else would you like to see that you haven’t?

We were good friends with Mark Linkous and I saw him a fair amount in the early days, but we both got so busy that I never got a chance to see him later on in his career. Fleet Foxes are a band I really, really like a lot. I’m anxiously awaiting their next record because I really like the first one.

I’ve interviewed them a bunch of times.

And I hear they can pull those harmonies off live, which is no small feat.

The first time I saw them, the dude had a fever.

Robin [Pecknold] did?

Yeah, but they still pulled it off. He even did “Oliver James” without losing his voice.

Aw, “Oliver James” is one of my favorite pieces. I think they’re fantastic. I’m a big fan. About once a year a band comes out that I just go nuts over.

I wanted to ask you about that. In a lot of interviews you talk about the classic rock that you like, but what kind of newer stuff do you like?

It varies. I’ll listen to a lot, but I trust my young, hipster friends. People who are half my age that say, “Oh, Johnny, you should check this out.”

Anything in specific recently?

Right at the moment…I’ve not been listening to a whole lot of brand new stuff. Graham Coxon, who was the guitarist for Blur, I really like his stuff. It makes me laugh really hard. In my mind, he’s kind of a yob, a working class British guy who just writes very, very catchy music. It’s kind of trashy and sloppy and I can see he was that side of Blur. It doesn’t sound at all like Gorillaz, the other side of things. I think he’s fantastic. He’s funny and he’s irreverent and he writes good, trashy songs about glib aliens coming to take over the Earth and so forth. He’s amazing. But yeah, about once a year someone says, “You should check this out.” Nothing’s knocked me out this year yet, but maybe I’m not listening closely enough.

The last thing that knocked me out was Antony and the Johnsons’ last album.

Oh, I remember one. J Roddy Walston and the Business. One of the best live bands I’ve ever seen. Kind of an odd name, but so good.

One more song: Let’s talk about your choice to cover “Sinaloa Cowboys” on Countrysides.

Kenny (Margolis) who plays keyboards for us occasionally, that was his idea. We were doing this Countrysides albums and he had heard that song. He grew up in New Jersey and he was familiar with Bruce Springsteen’s work. I wouldn’t say that I’m a Springsteen freak, but I do like a lot of his stuff.

That Tom Joad album is really good.

That’s a great album. Darkness on the Edge of Town is one of my favorite albums. But yeah, Kenny suggested that song and it fit so seamlessly. It really hit home with David and I because we grew up in Southern California, right around the border towns and the drug trade and that whole thing.

Have you seen “Breaking Bad” ever?

Yeah, a little bit. Just a couple of episodes. The other guys in the band are really crazy about it.

It’s a just a really great song and it fit with the Countrysides theme.

It was a real pleasure to play too. Kenny’s accordion just sounds so Mexican. It perfectly dovetails with the story. It wasn’t our song, but we tried to make it our own.

When I reach back into my Cracker CDs, for some reason I always throw on The Golden Age.

Oh, thank you. Was that the first one you soaked up?

No, I saw you in ’94, so I probably got in when everyone else did, when “Low” was big, but for some reason The Golden Age speaks to me more.

Fantastic! You’re not alone. There are a number of Cracker fans who say that is their favorite album. It didn’t have a big single off of it. It’s like Gentleman’s Blues, there were a lot of people who came to the party with that one too. It’s this big, rambling album. It’s like our Exile on Main Street. It’s all over the place. There are probably too many songs.

It’s got some weird stuff on there, like that “Circus” song.

Yeah, that album really goes wider than the other ones even. It has everything on it. “Trials and Tribulations” is a demo. Our producer liked the way the demo sounded, so we put that on there as is. It’s got all kinds of mistakes all over the whole album. Some things are really thought out and produced, and other things really aren’t.

My last question for you is: aren’t you glad I didn’t ask you “What is Cracker Soul” during this interview?

No, that’s okay. I don’t mind talking about that. That came from this one conversation. I had this piece of music that, in my mind, sounded like this old Southern funky thing, like Little Feat. So, I tossed it around with David to see what he thought. We were talking about, “What kind of music is this? Well, it’s kinda got that Cracker soul thing. It’s a little bit Southern” and we compared it to bands like Little Feat or Creedence Clearwater or maybe a little bit Lynard Skynard. Not really Southern rock but a Southern soul thing. We decided that we play that Cracker soul thing. We were in a studio once and there was a rapper artist in the studio next door and he said, “Y’all cracker’s have some soul!” We thought for five minutes about calling the band Cracker Soul but there were 1,000 bands with Soul in the name.

Collective Soul.

Soul Asylum.

Bouncing Souls.

Yeah, Soul Coughing. There were all of these. So we thought, “Let’s just call it Cracker. Let’s just make it like a product and call it Cracker.” That’s where it came from.

Hence the product art on the first album.

Exactly!

by David Harris

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