Cracker’s Johnny Hickman talks China, country music, and their new album ahead of acoustic performance Friday

by | Sep 25, 2014 | MUSIC

When you look back on the alt-rock and grunge explosion of the early 90s, you see so many bands that were lumped into the genre for having just a modicum of similarity to that Pixies/Nirvana sound. For a band like Cracker, it was definitely not where they belonged on the musical spectrum.

When you look back on the alt-rock and grunge explosion of the early 90s, you see so many bands that were lumped into the genre for having just a modicum of similarity to that Pixies/Nirvana sound. For a band like Cracker, it was definitely not where they belonged on the musical spectrum. Sure, they had the abrasive sound at times and lyrics delivered with a vicious snarl, but the band was so much more than an angst ridden band, a fact apparent when you really dove into their albums. In fact, if it wasn’t for “Low,” the band might be more looked at as one of the pioneers of the 90s alt-country movement than a staple of grunge radio. A song like “Can I Take My Gun Up To Heaven?”, from Cracker’s first album, could have easily fit into Uncle Tupelo’s landmark alt-country record No Depression, both of which came out in 1990. The band’s tenth studio album and first double album, Berkeley to Bakersfield, comes out later this year and will finally give credence to the fact that Cracker has a lot more in common with the country genre than the grunge genre, despite a few anomalies here and there.

The core duo of Cracker, singer David Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman, called Richmond home for many years and gave Richmond a huge feather in its cap for the fact that they proudly re-located from the multiple musical scenes of California to Virginia’s capital. This Friday, the duo will make their return to Ashland Coffee And Tea for a semi-acoustic performance that will undoubtedly astound the Crumb Nation of Cracker fans. Before the show, I got to speak with the interesting Johnny Hickman; the guitarist was not at a loss of words in talking about Cracker, even after twenty-five years.

So I wanted to start with your recent trip to China for some shows. How did that come about?

That came about because we have a friend that works at the embassy over there. He was an American who had been over there working at the embassy for quite a while and was pretty high up the food chain there. He recently moved back to DC actually, but he was a fan and had a connection with our tour manager, Bobby. He really wanted us to come over and play. He told us he was pretty sure we’ve got some fans over there, and sure enough, we did. So we got the invitation, but to go play music in China is very complex. You have to be officially invited by the government to come and play, and they of course go through all your material. We were treated wonderfully by the Chinese fans and the people at the embassy. It was a fantastic experience and it gave David a chance to speak on the topics of copyright and intellectual properties and so forth.

Did they give you any restrictions for your shows?

Well, basically it’s pretty clear cut. They don’t want you, understandably, to say anything disparaging against the government or get involved in anything political, which we were fine to stay out of. We were over there to entertain and play for the people, and for David to do a little bit of his copyright work there. He had a few speaking engagements, but basically we wanted to go and see the country and play for the fans we had there. It was just a fantastic experience.

How much of China did you get to see?

Just two major cities. We played a show in Shanghai and that was fantastic, just a regular rock and roll show that was packed out. Then we took the high speed train up to Beijing and we played a club show there, as well as a show at the embassy.

How tiring was it compared to a normal tour?

About the double the usual. We only had a handful of gigs so it wasn’t too awfully bad, but you know, that’s a pretty severe jet lag going there and back. It was well worth it though. It was a blast, and we got to climb the Great Wall and see the cities of Beijing and Shanghai. We got to try some amazing food and hang with the people. The Chinese people on a whole tend to be a little bit shy, but once you get to know them, they’re very a sweet, outgoing, warm, and friendly people. To be in a packed rock club of Chinese people was amazing. We kind of expected the shows to be mostly Americans or English people living in China and working there, but I would say the audiences were about one-quarter Americans or people from the United Kingdom and the rest were just Chinese fans. To hear an audience full of Chinese people singing along to “Euro-Trash Girl” was an experience I’ll not soon forget. It was pretty incredible.

Did you get any inkling where the big fan base over there came from?

Well, we certainly had some fans that had known our work for a while and you could tell. There were a lot of younger fans in China and I think a pretty good percentage of those fans found out about us because we used the song “Low” in the movie The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. It came out in Chinese as well, and so some of them found out about us recently through that, which would explain the younger people who weren’t born or were just toddlers when Cracker first got together. There’s a little bit of that, and sometimes word of mouth. A number of Americans coming over and leaving and for work or visits or what have you. Word of mouth is always your best advertising. We’ve always been that kind of band anyway. We’ve gone to countries that we’ve never been before and found a pocket of really, really hardcore fans who are to the point of tearful joy when we finally show up on their shores. That’s always a wonderful, wonderful feeling to know that you’ve been a part of somebody’s reality for a while and they’ve never gotten to hear you live. That’s very, very satisfying.

So Berkeley to Bakersfield, your new album due out soon, it sounds like a tribute to California country music. Is that close?

Well, one of them is. It’s a double album, as we used to call it back in the day. It’s Berkeley to Bakersfield and David and I did it with two different groups of musicians. One being the Kerosene Hat crew–Davey Faragher and Michael Urbano, the guys who played and wrote with us on Kerosene Hat. We got back together with them up in Berkeley, hence the title, and wrote and recorded an entire album with them. We went up there with a handful of sketches that David and I did. I had a handful of guitar riffs, we had a few title ideas, David had some chord changes, and we just sort of hammered it together. Once we got in the room with the other two guys, the chemistry was still there from the Kerosene days, and it was instantaneous. Within a week or so, we had the better part of a full album fleshed out musically. Then David took it home, finished the lyrics, and we had an entire album.

For David and I though, having grown up in the South as military kids, country music and southern music is a big part of our DNA. From the very first Cracker album, we’ve always thrown the country thing in. It’s just part of us. We’re just as influenced by Merle Haggard as we are by Led Zeppelin and Pixies, for instance, so that always makes an appearance. Every single Cracker album, you can find a few songs that could have been done by a legit country artist and probably done just fine. I was playing in Bakersfield when I first got the call from David, who I’d known for years, that Camper Van Beethoven had broken up. He asked if I wanted to get together, write some music, and see what happens. That became Cracker. But the second album, we call it Bakersfield; those sessions were actually recorded last fall in Athens, GA, where David lives now. He splits his time between there and Richmond. We recorded with a lot of players down there, some of whom were straight up country players and some who weren’t but had that flavor. It worked out really well, and we went a little farther this time. Put a little more pedal steel into the country stuff and a little more country-style piano and so forth, but Bakersfield also has a bit of a singer-songwriter storyteller side to it too from David. That’s one of his strong suits that you see pop up once in a while. We both write songs that way, but David this time came up with a couple of real gems. It’s some of the best that he’s written so far on both albums. Lyrically, it’s just amazing.

At one point, we just realized, “Wow, we may have two complete records here.” We could do what we usually do and combine all the flavors down into one stew, which would be your usual Cracker record, but we decided to keep them separate projects and see what happens even though there was a little crossover. We had Davey Faragher singing some backing vocals on some of the country stuff with me, and Sal Maida, who’s been our live bass player for a while, played on a good bit of the country sessions. David and I just keep in touch with a really good stable of musicians and we’ve always sort of done that since the beginning of Cracker. There have been upwards of 100 people who have played with us, either on the record or live over the years. They’re all fantastic people and they all bring something to the party, so that’s just sort of the way we operate. It’s not the usual way, but it’s something that bands like Ween do. Bands that are based around two guys. In the old days, Steely Dan was that sort of way, in that they used different people for different songs and different tours. It’s kind of easier to organize that way when it’s just me and David. We sort of decide on a project, song, short tour, or a performance someplace. From there, we sort things out with who’s available first and then who do we think would fit this particular project. It’s a little bit of a different business model than most bands, but maybe that’s why we’ve lasted twenty-five years. I think that has something to do with it, both artistically and logistically, so it works out well for us.

Going back to Bakersfield since you mentioned Merle, do you think that style is overlooked historically?

Absolutely. I think that you’ve got the late great Buck Owens, and Merle, of course, who are the two kingpins up there and have been since the 60s, but you have a lot of bands that are influenced by that. You’ve also got people like Dwight Yoakam, who from the very beginning understood that Bakersfield sound and was a big fan of Buck Owens, admittedly. He spent a lot of time up there and playing with people like accordionist Flaco Jimenez and some of the great musicians that do a lot of work up in the Bakersfield area. The Bakersfield sound is not easily described as a subgenre, but Bakersfield tends to rock those drums a little more and they’re a little less overproduced than a lot of the Nashville stuff, in my opinion. Little more rockabilly involved, but there’s also the Tex-Mex thing sort of involved. Mexi-Cali and various Mexican musical styles that weave their way in as far as sort of Mariachi beats, which originally comes from Germany as that oomp–a beat and the shuffle. That’s kind of the Bakersfield trip.

Just before we formed Cracker, because I was sort of drawn to that sound up there, I went up there and played in a couple of different bands and was writing some songs like “Mr. Wrong” and “Lonesome Johnny Blues” and some of these country things. When David and I first got together, he had come from Camper Van Beethoven and I had come from Bakersfield. As long as we’ve been friends though, as writers, we’d both written things that leaned a little towards country–from the time we met, which was ten years before we formed Cracker. He’d have a song like “Sad Lover’s Waltz” from Camper, and other country-flavored songs. I’d always written those kind of songs too, being a big Johnny Cash fan and so forth. You know, we just threw it all in the stew and that’s why Cracker sounds the way it does. It’s pretty eclectic stylistically, but we don’t think about that when we’re making music, we just make music and it ends up sounding like Cracker because David and I are the center of it. Whether we co-write something or one of us writes something individually, it ends up sounding like Cracker. If I write a piece of music and hand it over to David for him to put his lyrical touch to it and sing it the way he does in his very unique style, it instantly has that Cracker stamp. That’s just the way we operate.

So how does the songwriting process work with you two?

In a lot of different ways. Sometimes David will have a song just completed front to back. Once in a while, I will. David’s a little bit more prolific than I am; he’s an incredible songwriter and the bulk of it comes from David. A good portion of our portfolio of songs comes from two ways. One is a riff I’ve come up with and we’ve built a song around. David will build a song around a big guitar riff or a melody I’ve got and he’ll write words too. The other is he’ll have a song that he’s strumming a few chords to and he’s got the song basically shaped in. Then I’ll finish it up with a big intro riff or a basic guitar riff that you can hang the whole thing on that becomes the counterpoint to his vocals. We do it in every different way though.

For the Berkeley record, we basically got in a room with pretty rough ideas. I came in with a handful of riffs like I usually do. David came in with a handful of chord sketches and ideas. Davey Faragher, who writes with us and is an incredible arranger and backing vocalist, came up with great parts himself. The Berkeley record was basically created by the four of us; David and I, and then Michael and Davey, and it was written that way. We got in the room and just started hammering bits of music out until we came up with enough for a record. It happened a lot quicker than we thought it would, and we’re very, very satisfied with the way it turned out, but there’s no real set pattern to the way we write. There’s a handful of methods we use a lot of times. Mostly, David will say, “What have you got? Have you got a riffs? Have you got some melodies?” and I’ll put them on the table and we will all start hammering them out. Or David will have a song he wants to sing and the rest of us will find the right parts for it or I’ll find the counter-melody. As David once put it, if there is such a thing, your typical Cracker song is that I make a racket on guitar and then he talks the shit. I make that racket again, he talks some more shit, and we do it at the same time. Of course that’s an over-simplification, but at the center of Cracker is that conversation between what David’s got to say and me answering him on guitar. It sort of becomes a conversation, and that’s how we build our songs for the most part.

You guys both have an unbelievable amount of side projects. How do you find time for Cracker?

Well, we just somehow do. David’s got Camper Van Beethoven and they don’t play as often as Cracker, but sometimes we do shows together. We keep ourselves busy mostly with music. I just finished producing a band here in Denver, Colorado. David’s teaching at the University Of Georgia now, and even that is involved in music because he’s basically teaching a class on music business economics. Because he has a mathematics degree and he has vast experience in the music business, so he’s the perfect man for the job to teach something like that. We both do keep really busy outside of Cracker, but it almost always has something to do with music in one way or another. I get involved in local festivals here in Colorado and play with musicians here. I’ve got my country side project, the Hickman-Dalton Gang with Jim Dalton, who’s another singer-songwriter, and I sing and write in that band as well. It’s a very Johnny Cash, old-school country style. We just like to keep busy with music. We’re always either writing or working with other people, but sort of at the core of all that is Cracker. As the wheel turns, we come back together and see what we’ve got and build something new. Then the record and touring cycle starts again. With the new double record coming out, I imagine we’ll do some shows with both sets of musicians over the year, and with other people. We just keep busy. We’re those sort of guys.

So what should we expect from your show at Ashland Coffee And Tea?

Well, the people who have seen the Cracker duo, David and I, play before pretty much know what to expect. It’s not two guys quietly sitting down with acoustic guitars strumming folk songs. It’s a full out rock show even though it’s just the two of us. I play electric guitar, harmonica, and sing, and David plays nylon string guitar and sings. The way we set up and play, David plays classical guitar, having spent some time in Spain as a youth. He’s an incredible rhythm guitar player and he runs it through the sub-woofers on the stage, so it sounds like a kick drum going off. It’s a pretty full sound and anybody coming to see should expect to hear slightly different versions of our radio hits, of course, and some new songs. It varies and we change it up a little bit each time we do one. We’ve played Ashland Coffee And Tea a number of times, it’s one of our favorite venues. It always fills up with great fans who sing along and have a great time and treat us very well.

Expect to hear the hits. We’re not one of those bands that think they’re too cool to play their big hits. We always do, at least the handful of them that work in that environment anyway. So yeah, you’re going to hear some of the hits and you’re going to hear some new things and you’re going to hear some deep album cuts that you might not be aware of, but you’ll still enjoy. We really bring it as a duo. It’s a whole other animal, and some of the Crumbs as they call themselves, or the Crumb Nation, our serious fans who have been with us for a while, they really like the duo shows because they know we’ll do some things that we don’t usually do with a full band. We do slightly different versions of the hits and some other songs and it’s a lot of fun. I think that that keeps things interesting for them.

—-

The Cracker duo will perform at Ashland Coffee & Tea, located at 100 N. Railroad Ave in Ashland, on Friday, September 26 starting at 8 PM. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 the day of the show. Online tickets are sold out, but there may still be tickets available at the venue; call Ashland Coffee & Tea at (804)798-1702 for details.

Marilyn Drew Necci

Marilyn Drew Necci

GayRVA editor-in-chief, RVA Magazine editor for print and web. Anxiety expert, proud trans woman, happily married.




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