It’s not often that bands with 25+ years of music and touring under the belts have words like “resurgence” and “rediscovered” associated with them. But for Cracker, that description seems to fit.
“Crumbs” – Cracker’s devoted fan base – know the band has been firing on all cylinders for the past several years. But even casual music listeners are discovering that Cracker isn’t just a band that they should be listening to, but in many ways it’s the band we NEED right now.
At the core of the band is it’s two “voices:” leader singer David Lowery and guitar virtuoso Johnny Hickman.
Cracker jumped out of the starting gate on fire in the early ‘90s with soon to be classic songs such as “Low,” “Get Off This,” “Euro-Trash Girl” and “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now).”
Fast forward to 2009, when Cracker released the excellent Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey with its lead single, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me.” That effort was followed by an equally excellent double album, 2014’s Berkeley to Bakersfield, a record that showcased much of band’s wide musical styles.
Cracker’s sound has ranged from everything from rock to punk and soul to funk and alt-country. Berkeley to Bakersfield, their 10th studio album, celebrated Lowery and Hickman’s rock roots on the Berkeley disc, while Bakersfield celebrates the band’s roots-rock style.
Lowery, considered the godfather of alternative music, is also the founder of ‘80s alt-rock pioneers Camper Van Beethoven, in addition to being a certified mathematician and a college professor who teaches music business finance at the University of Georgia.
Hickman is always writing, In addition to his work with Cracker, he is half of the Hickman-Dalton Gang, along with fellow Centennial State resident Jim Dalton (Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers, Railbenders), and has released two outstanding solo albums, Palmhenge and Tilting.
Both Hickman and Lowery are also very active online advocating their political causes and raising awareness on social issues. Lowery has become one of the most vocal opponents of Spotify and other online music sites that don’t fairly compensate artists for their work.
The always personable Johnny Hickman spoke to the Deseret News from his recliner in Fort Collins following an extended weekend of shows in his home state of Colorado. We talked about a wide range of topics from his music to his social causes.
Cracker plays two shows in Utah this weekend. The first is a big show with Smash Mouth and The Romantics at Deer Valley on Friday. And the other in, of all places, Springdale, with a population of 529 people (as of the 2010 census).
Great to talk to you again. Cracker has been on the road a lot this summer. And you’ve been playing some shows with extra musicians, like Jeremy Lawton (Big Head Todd & The Monsters), Matt “Pistol” Stoessel, and Rurik Nunan.
It has just been a fantastic summer. At the beginning of the year, we thought it might be just a medium to light year. But we have just had so much love and so many great offers to keep playing.
David and I are just having a blast with it. We love our ‘big band’ whenever we can do it, budget and schedules permitting. We’re just having so much fun with it. And this year, I will humbly state that I think we’ve reached some sort of new breakthrough with the fan base. I mean, it just keeps growing. One of the things I’ve been remarking about lately is that a lot of young fans who were maybe 2-years old when the first Cracker record came out (are coming to our shows), and we’re seeing more and more of them,
I guess we’ve been at it long enough relentlessly that it’s sort of building on itself and another generation is starting to discover Cracker, which I couldn’t be happier about. I go out and ask these people how they found out about the band, and thank God for the age of technology. One of them or a few of them might say they heard a song on a film and did a little more digging, and here’s seven of them at the show, ya know? And it’s just fantastic. I couldn’t be happier. We’re kind of getting like this miniature Grateful Dead traction now. We just did five shows in Colorado and people were coming from out of state, they were coming from back east, and they took their entire little vacation to follow Cracker around Colorado, which was also beautiful.
Not only are you playing a big ski resort amphitheater show on Friday at Deer Valley, but you’re playing the next night in Springdale, at the entrance to Zion National Park. I have never seen a band play there, let alone heard of a band of your stature ever playing there.
I don’t know if it’s because David and I are military sons and traveled all over the place, through the United States and abroad. It’s sort of in our blood. We like nothing more than to play our regular big cities where we have legions of fans, but to go to these out of the way places and smaller towns. Number one, they’re very, very appreciative. And two, we play in these beautiful places because a lot of people in our fan base are curious too. They want to go see these towns. It’s kind of an adventure for them too. And we love it. It’s a little bit of that wanderlust and curiosity seeing new places. And if it’s a win, if people turn up, and if it’s a decent venue and we’re treated well, we keep a green pin on the map for these places and eventually try to get back there.
How do you find these places? I remember a couple of years ago I believe you played in Moab.
Sometimes people will put in an offer with our booking agency. And I think quite often these places are surprised when we look at the schedule and go, ‘Yeah, that will fit. We can do that.’ Sometimes it’s a little crazy and doesn’t go off as smoothly as you’d like. But most of the time it goes off really well. And fans tell us about towns. We have fans who tell us, ‘You should check out this little amphitheater up here in this park in this little out of the way town. It’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful setting in a little old downtown.’ We’ve sort of been that way from the beginning, to a certain extent. Fans will sometimes tip us to a great place. And then we’ll have management check it out.
I know you’re always writing. What are you working on right now, new Cracker material? A new solo record?
When I do get a minute here and there, I’m still working on a solo album that I’ve been slowly building on for over a year or so. And I’ve got a few riffs in the box. It’s funny, you’ll start working on a piece, and I know David has this too, and eventually it’ll tell you where its home wants to be. Maybe it’s a solo project. Or in my case, maybe it’s the Hickman-Dalton Gang, or a Cracker song. I’ll show a lot of riffs to David and see what he likes, or I’ll show up when he has a song and add my bit. There’s no real set way that we make music. It’s very natural. In the space of a month I’ll write a couple and then be dry for awhile and then start worrying, ‘Uh oh, I guess that’s it.’ (laughs). But eventually I’ll pick up a guitar and a riff will come to me from somewhere. If I do have a riff, I’ll have one of the guys in the band or a member of the crew hold my phone up to my guitar and I’ll make a little note of a riff I have or a song title or something. And over the years we’ve learned that it’s OK if a song doesn’t blossom immediately. Sometimes a few years later we’ll dig out a riff or an idea somebody had and go, ‘Let’s work on this. Let’s make this into something.’
How much is the current political climate in our country affecting your writing? There would seem to be no shortage of material.
Yeah, these are interesting times we’re swimming through, to say the very least. Rather ugly times the past week or so. It can’t help but permeate your soul and get into what you’re doing. David and I, as writers, we both tend to be….I’m a little more of the folky style, I’ll be a little more literal. Where David, he’s not as much so. But he’s certainly political. You listen to something like “Torches and Pitchforks” from Berkely to Bakersfield, or “El Cerrito,” which is a song we co-wrote, it can’t help but get in there.
I’m always sort of surprised and confused by artists who don’t even address it whatsoever. And that’s fine if they want to keep their music apolitical, I completely understand that. It (also) always irks me when people are just a little too outwardly political because, number one, it dates your music sometimes if you get too specific about things. You know, it used to irk me back in the ‘70s as a kid when the bulk of somebody’s music was political. Not to knock Woody Guthrie or the people who really have a lot to say and say it. But you’ve got to balance it out with a little humor, you know? I try to write about human relations and emotions and whatever strikes my inspiration without getting too terribly specific about it. And also if you’re too specific, you don’t give the listener a chance to complete the story in their mind as well. As David says, ‘Don’t ever underestimate people’s ability to ‘get it.’ I’ve learned a lot from David over the years and that was one of the things that he said early on. And he’s absolutely right. And from the way I see it, if someone interprets a lyric in their own personal way, all the better. It may not be exactly what you were aiming for. But that doesn’t matter. Once it leaves your hand, it belongs to the listener. It belongs to the fan. And I think that’s a wonderful thing.They’re going to interpret it their own way, and that’s a big payoff in its own way to a songwriter. To have someone pull me aside and say a certain song really got them through a tough time or a bad relationship or a horrible job or a tragedy in their family, or helped celebrate a beautiful happy time as well. When people tell you these things, it’s a beautiful wake-up call from the universe to remind me, ‘Hey, you’re lucky to be able to do this and have the skill to do this.’ And to me, that’s more of a payoff for writing songs than anything monetary.
David, of course, has been very outspoken on Spotify and making sure artists get paid for their music. What issues are you most passionate about? I know you’re a big supporter of the LGBTQ community.
I certainly champion my musical partner, Mr. Lowery. I had the opportunity to thank both him and John (McCrea) from Cake, we all played a festival the other night here in my home of Ft. Collins, for working for all songwriters and working for our rights and try to make sure we get paid. They’re fighting the good fight and I’m just very, very proud of David and stand behind him for all his efforts. And he takes some slack for it too. And I get very defensive. In many respects, we’re like brothers, we’ve known each other our entire lives practically. And I’ll get into it with people. Once in awhile someone will say, ‘Hey, get off the political things and stick to songwriting.’ And I’m like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Songwriters, and journalists and writers throughout history, artists, this is what we do. We express ourself and hopefully people will find something to grab on to. And you think we should just sing about the moon, June and spoon and what we did on our summer vacation? I mean, give me a break. We actually have these intellects and these creative impulses and you have the audacity to tell me we shouldn’t be getting political in our music. It just stuns me when people come at it that way. And I get very defensive of David when people come at him that way because, number one, they’re idiots for even suggesting we stay apolitical. That’s a choice we make.
The causes that I tend to gravitate towards… I have a gay brother who is now deceased, and I have a transgender sister. Out of six kids, these are two of my siblings who I, of course, love. And that started me very, very early on helping to aid the LGBT community. And basically, all that we’re looking for is the same rights as anyone else and respect and to not be vilified or harmed in anyway because of how they came into this world. I don’t knock anyone for their beliefs or their religious beliefs or their foundations. But I will go toe-to-toe with people if they vilify these people cause I love many of them dearly and I now consider myself part of the outpsoken group, which is a group that stands up for gay rights.
I grew up with a gay sibling. He knew he was gay by the time he was 5 or 6. He just did. Some people come into the world this way. And if you believe in an all-powerful God then you have to wonder, ‘Well, why did God make these gay people? Why did God make hermaphrodites, like my sister who is transgender?’ My little sister did not come into this world a little baby and decide to be hermaphrodite. So was it another God that made these people? I just can’t see as these people’s mental blocks on this and I still am just aghast at people for hating people for the way they came into the world. To me it’s no different than hating people for their race or their height or their stature or eye color. When I hear worlds like “choice” or “lifestyle” it makes my blood boil. My brother didn’t choose to be vilified and picked on at work as an air traffic controller. Who would choose that? Who would choose that as a lifestyle and deny who they are at the very core as a human being and have to put up with that kind of abuse and horrific treatment? No one would choose that. This is the way that these people were born. It’s an eternal fight. And I will fight it tll my dying breath. You just have to learn to love and accept one another.
This recent horrible happening ion Charlottesville, Virgina, it just breaks my heart. I lived in Virginia for a lot of years. There are a lot of wonderful, forward-thinking, enlightened people there. many of whom are dear friends of mine. And to see this happening in a beautiful town like Charlottesville, it just breaks my heart. We’re never going to be through with these types of things, but we don’t have to lie down and take it. Stand up for love and stand up for people’s rights, Because if you don’t, I think you’re misusing the very gift of life that you’ve been given.