And then there’s Johnny Hickman.
The veteran guitar hero is a people person. He enjoys being around people. He enjoys talking to people. He has people he calls friends all over the world. He can talk to friends or strangers as if he’s known them all his life. And when he’s performing with his friends or for friends, sometimes there’s no off button. I have seen Hickman play at clubs in his home state of Colorado long past when the bar has run out of beer and the employees have left the keys on the table telling him to lock up when he’s done (only a slight exaggeration).
For 25 years, the personable Hickman has constituted one half of the seminal American band Cracker. As Hickman puts it, there have been about a hundred people who have either recorded an album or played live on stage with Cracker over the years, but at the core of the Cracker sound are two “voices:” the vocals of David Lowery – often referred to as the godfather of alternative music – and the guitar playing of Hickman.
After Lowery’s former group Camper Van Beethoven broke up, Lowery and Hickman formed Cracker in 1990. Right away, their debut record received significant radio and MTV play with the single “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now).” That success continued with Kerosene Hat, arguably the band’s biggest album with songs such as “Low,” “Get Off This,” “Euro-Trash Girl” and lesser played radio songs that became popular with fans such as “Movie Star” and “Lonesome Johnny Blues.”
Cracker’s sound has ranged from everything from punk and soul to funk and alt-country. Last year, they released their 10th studio album, a double album, called Berkeley to Bakersfield. The album celebrates both sides of the Cracker spectrum with each disc representing a musical genre. The Berkeley disc finds Lowery and Hickman going back to their rock roots, while Bakersfield celebrates the band’s roots-rock style.
For the Berkeley disc, the band even reunited the Kerosene Hat lineup to record it. Berkeley celebrates California’s rebellious side while Bakersfield reflects on the more laid back, down-home, non-Hollywood part of the state.
Cracker is returning to Salt Lake City at The State Room on Friday, Feb. 13, for the first time in 5 years. The State Room’s supply of tickets are sold out, though the venue says there may be a few outlets, like Graywhale or City Weekly Online, that have a couple of tickets left.
I recently spoke with Hickman from his home in Colorado where he talked at length about the new album, he and Lowery’s continued fight against unfair streaming services, the most insane guitar solo he’s ever recorded, and why making posts on your Facebook page during a show isn’t such a great idea.
You guys have gotten a lot of good press for Berkeley to Bakersfield, done a lot of interviews and are even making videos again. Are you feeling a resurgence in mainstream popularity?
JH: It’s been about four years since the last record, which is the longest we’ve ever gone. So I think the steam has built up a little bit and the response has just been fantastic so far.
The last album, 2009’s Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey, was very successful for you guys. Why wait so long between albums coming off that?
JH: We stayed busy. David’s teaching college now throughout the year. He likes that. He teaches a class basically on music business finance. He’s a mathematician. And he’s been in this business for 30 years. So he’s the perfect guy for the job down there at the University of Georgia. So he stays busy doing that. And when he does that I do solo shows. We stay busy in-between records. David put out a solo record. I put out another solo record since Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey (2012’s Tilting). They both did well, they were well received by the fans. But it was time to put a new record together. We both had ideas and sketches and things and we started talking.
The idea for putting the Kerosene Hat lineup back together, Hickman said, actually started because of a documentary about Cracker being filmed called Get Off This.
JH: Part way through (writing the new record) it started to divide itself in two sort of naturally because we were using different sets of musicians. David wrote the bulk of the country disc, the Bakersfield disc. The Berkeley disc was a result of just he and I going up to Berkeley and Michael Urbano’s studio and getting the Kerosene Hat crew back together and going in with rough ideas and building a rock record in a very short amount of time. And it went really, really well. The chemistry was as strong as it had ever been. We’re all better players now so it happened really quickly, really organically and it was a lot of fun to do.
It’s basically the early/mid Cracker sound. It’s punk, a little bit of soul. On the other records we’ve always just thrown all these styles together. This time we decided, ‘Well, let’s just do the rock up there and just see where things go.’ And I brought a bunch of guitar riffs and we just started building songs around those.
There’s a chemistry there with David and I, and Davey (Faragher.) and Michael that’s undeniable and that’s how we made Kerosene Hat. And we came in with rough ideas and most of the songs were sketched out to some degree. But a lot of them came to fruition just in the studio and that’s the same thing that happened this time. Once the four of us get together ideas just start flying. You have four A personalities who are very musical. And we pulled it off. We pulled it off in a very short amount of time. It happened a lot quicker than we thought it would.
It was so much fun to play together again (when we reunited for the Get Off This movie) and it just clicked immediately. It was such a great experience to get back together with those guys and play that we thought, ‘Well, let’s see if we can make a record and see what happens.’
You used a completely different set of musicians for the Bakersfield disc (affectionately nicknamed the Georgia Crackers). How does having different musicians affect the sound of a record? Aren’t they all just following your lead anyway?
JH: The Kerosene Hat crew, we all kind of follow each other’s lead, and that’s the fun of it. Whereas with the Bakersfield disc it was basically David writing most of it and me writing some of it and pulling together just fantastic players, southern players that were well versed in rock or country or anything.
The way we like to record is very much The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Tom Petty old school style. We set up in a room and we just record. We get as much separation as we can, but we basically set up like a band. We face each other and we play a song until it starts feeling right and then we record it and we take what our favorite track is. That’s the way all the Cracker records have been made to this day. We don’t play a piece at a time, we play as a band. And a lot of what you hear on the Bakersfield disc and the Berkeley disc is just live right there. I think I overdubbed one guitar part, which is almost unheard of these days. But David and I really like being in the moment. There’s something you capture when you’re just creating a song, just hammering it into shape, that if you beat it to death sometimes you can lose that. Through the years there have been Cracker songs that we kept that were takes 9 or 10. But sometimes it was take 1 or 2.
Don’t you have to go back and re-learn the song after deciding which take you want to keep?
JH: There’s a little bit of that. More so with the Berkeley disc for me. I would just pull out a riff and start hammering away at it and see where the guys would take it. The way David and I write, he would hear a riff I’d come up with and he’d instantly come up with a chord progression that would be the answer to it. If I came up with the hook he would come up with the verse and vice-versa. Very organic the way we work. It’s hard work. Some of those days were 12, 13 hour days where we’d barely leave to grab a bite to eat or get a coffee or something. But it’s very satisfying work.
So yeah, I’d come back a couple of months later and say, ‘Whoa, what did I do there?’ But that’s part of the fun. For example, there’s a song called “El Cerrito” on the Berkeley disc that started with a groove that I had. And right about the time we just about had it in shape I just fired off this insane guitar solo that goes in and out of key, and it’s absolutely one of the most disturbed but inspired guitar solos that I’ve ever come up with. The guys said, ‘You’re not touching that.’ And I had to go back later (and listened) and, ‘Wow. I must be really sleep deprived.’ (laughs)
Neither of you have lived in California for awhile now. Why the continued romanticism with the state?
JH: It’s where David and I grew up, for the most part. We were military kids and we didn’t land out there until we had already lived in other places around the country and the world. But we both got to California. I got there when I was 13 and it was all my formative years as a musician. That’s where I really started playing guitar, and David too. The diversity of music in California was something that really stayed with us. It became a fabric of who we are as musicians. And the same goes lyrically. I did my record Palmhenge which is largely based on California and the desert and different locales out there. And when we started working on this one, David had just done two pretty quick records with Camper Van Beethoven that were based on, one on the south and one on the north of California. Before Dave and I even got to know each other, that was one of the things we had in common was yeah, we had punk rock bands and we loved that music and all the new wave stuff that was going on. But we also liked Merle Haggard, we also liked Buck Owens, we liked Johnny Cash, and that’s always been a big part of it. And its kind of come full circle. We live in different places, I live in Colorado, he lives in Georgia now. But we’re constantly drawn back to our formative years stylistically, And it just appeals to us. And not only country but the soul and the funky thing was all over the radio when we were kids. It was all shared music back then. It was a universal language. It was the language of the state. You listened to War and you listened to The Blackbirds, you listened to all these great soul bands and that was part of the fabric too. And that’s why Cracker sounds the way it does.
So when Cracker first got together we just naturally threw it all into the stew. And these were the days of grunge too. The record company and people were kind of scratching their heads. There wasn’t even a word for alt-country yet. It was just sorta referred to as roots music, guitar rock or guitar twang and country. And pretty soon there was Son Volt and Uncle Tupelp, Wilco and other people who fall along that. That was sort of the blueprint, even though they were playing rock music, they never let go of the passion they had for country and for roots country.
And we still approach it that way. This time we just went into two directions with Berkeley to Bakersfield. Berkeley being, over the decades, being the epicenter of the politically savvy and a lot of political unrest and a lot of higher thinking rebellion, and so forth. It’s just a city that refuses to accept things that they don’t believe are right about the country. Being up there we felt the vibe of that.
Bakersfield just celebrates that laid-back country sound like “California Country Boy” or “The King of Bakersfield,” it really embodies that, ‘Hey, there’s another part of California you don’t know about.’
Among Hickman’s favorite tracks on the new records, he calls “Almond Grove” one of his favorites ever from Lowery. “A beautiful, sad, sad song,” he called it. “I’m really extra proud of that one.” Likewise, the story in “King of Bakersfield” he said is another example of Cracker creating a character in a song that speaks for himself.
“We still believe in creating records as a whole, as a story, a beginning, a middle and an end,” Hickman said.
On the song “Torches and Pitchforks” Lowery takes aim at streaming services. Although no specific names are used, long before Taylor Swift made headlines for pulling her songs off Spotify, Lowery had already been pointing out that steaming services like Spotify, and more recently You Tube, don’t fairly compensate artists for making money off an artist’s music.
JH: David has created quite a name for himself the past several years in his fight for fair compensation for artists as far as streaming goes and respecting the very real laws of copyright which have sort of been flagrantly broken so much lately. Under the present model, the streaming situation is just incredibly unfair to artists and songwriters. For example, there was one of the songs on Palmhenge that got like 3,800 plays and my take on that on that was $.009 cents. That’s what my royalty was. It’s just really, really ridiculous. But it’s accessible and I can understand why they would. I just think we really need to rebuild the model to make it a little more fair to artists big or small. I don’t care whether you’re U2 or a little garage band that have to get a song out there. If you write a song where one didn’t exist before, then you should be compensated when people have access to it or it gets used in a movie or a film or anything else. And these companies just really don’t see that side of it. They don’t feel like they have to compensate the artist very much. And yeah, the song “Torches and Pitchforks,” I think if you want to interpret it that way, I think David’s very strong feelings along those lines have a great deal to do with “Torches and Pitchforks.”
I just found it really, really powerful and it immediately reminded me of people Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger and these people speaking for the working class when no one else is. And getting a little serious about it because sometimes you have to. You can’t always skirt around the issues. I love the song in that it doesn’t name names. It basically states a point of view and people have really gotten on board with that.
Any thoughts on Taylor Swift getting a lot of press for this issue when you guys were fighting this issue before her?
JH: More and more artists of her degree of success are coming on board and saying, ‘You know what? This isn’t fair.’ And you can point fingers at me and say, ‘Well, what was your take with your concert gross last year?’ It doesn’t matter. It’s about principle. They understand this is unfair to artists. And artists, songwriters, musicians tend to identify with one another regardless of whatever level of “success” they’ve achieved. You know, Cracker has always been somewhere in the middle, one of these bands that has sort of a cult following that’s always growing but we were never a household word even when we had songs on the radio like Low, Teen Angst or Euro-Trash Girl. The streaming situation is not quite right.
To me, it’s just absolutely unfair. You think about somebody who comes up with an idea, or a blueprint, or you build a car, you design anything, that’s intellectual property. And that’s tough to get across to a generation that gets so many things for free. But these things wouldn’t exist without someone creating them. They don’t come out of thin air.
We’re perfectly happy letting people listen to our music. We’ll send out links here and there and it’s lead to more sales for us for the CD, which is the way it’s supposed to work. People hear them and they come to your shows and hopefully buy your T-shirts, your merchandise, which is how a lot of bands manage to stay on the road. We understand that. But at the same time, do you want us to keep coming to your town? Do you want us to keep making music? Because if you do you’re going to have to support us. And that goes for every artist out there.
Are fans requesting more songs off the Berkeley or Bakersfield disc in concert?
JH: I’d call it about even overall as far as the response goes. It’s tough to say. There are a lot of people who say “Beautiful” off there Berkeley disc is their favorite song. It’s like a punk rock love story that takes you back to early Berkeley, early San Francisco. They like “Reaction,” and they like “El Cerrito” a lot. That one’s proven to be a real hit with the live audience. And with the country disc, “Almond Grove” seems to be a big hit with the fans. They’re getting that one right away. “California Country Boy” is a favorite already, spotlgihted by Rolling Stone. And “The King of Bakersfield” has proven to be a real popular one live too. The character in that is just so well painted by David. You can’t really go wrong when you’re first line is “I’ve got my own Merlot vineyard.” “We’ve known plenty of guys like that.
You recently had an interesting debate on your Facebook page about fans using cell phones during concert.
JH: This is the day and age where a lot of people go to a concert and it’s sort of like they’re watching televlsion or something. It’s distracting to look out and see people texting and not really paying attention to the show. It’s distracting and it takes your mind off giving them a great show because so much of it is going on. At our shows, people tend to be a little more courteous. If they’re going to film it, they tend to film it back a way. We allow it. We’re fine with that, people recording or filming, as long as it doesn’t get too over the top. When you look down front and there’s a wall of people with their cell phones out, it’s a little annoying, a little distracting. Some people don’t even allow it. If they see a cell phone pulled out they stop the show and tell people to put them away. We don’t go quite that far but I do want to let fans know that it’s a little distracting. I do solo shows and I don’t allow taping or video taping of those. I tell people just be in the moment. Please just be in the moment. When you pay for your ticket it’s for us, it’s not for some cruddy version on You Tube. I mean, I don’t have that big of a problem with it, but I think it detracts. It detracts from other people’s ability to enjoy a show when somebody in front of them is waiving a cell phone constantly or constantly, constantly taking pictures or video. They’re not aware of who’s behind then or next to them
If you want to take a little bit of the show home, I can understand that. Take a couple of pictures or a snippet of a song or something on video. But there’s a fine line there. You can be a little obnoxious if you over do it. And I think people understand that.
If people think they can text how exciting it is to be at a live show and give their friend any indication, any sense of what it’s like to be at that show is a whole different thing. You go to a show live, it’s 180 degrees. You sit in a live audience with that energy. It’s a communal thing. It’s not something you can do with a few digital clips.
You have a very devoted fan base, known as “Crumbs.” Have you always had that type of loyal following or has it evolved over the years?
JH: When the first self-titled debut came out, it did respectively well. It eventually went gold but it took awhile. And we got some airplay on MTV which was important back then. From the very beginning we sort of had this ever growing fan base. We had to work real hard, we had to go out on the road, we had to tour constantly and go out and earn those fans. And then Kerosene happened and there was a little bit of a blowup because the songs were on the radio so much and we got more fans into the fold. It broadened our fan base and the people at the very core of that refer to themselves as Crumbs now, and they have for awhile. The Crumb Nation, Crumb UK, Crumbs East, Crumbs West, Crumbs Southern Contingent as they call themselves. They stay together and its very much like the fan bases of the jam bands. They help each other get to shows, they give each other rides, they help each other out when someone is down on their luck and can’t get a ticket. They host concerts as their houses, some of them. It’s very much a community in all respects.
I feel so very, very fortunate to have that kind of fan base that are so dedicated to help keep us afloat and to supporting us. Because we couldn’t do it without them. They’re like another band member basically.