Johnny Hickman is the lead guitarist and co-founder – along with David Lowery – of the alt-rock band Cracker, whose well-known early 90’s songs include “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)”, “Low”, and “Euro-Trash Girl”. Earlier this month the band released its 9th studio album, the very fine Berkeley to Bakersfield, with the Berkeley disc featuring the band’s original line-up for the first time in ages and drawing on their punk rock influences, and the Bakersfield disc in a California country vein.
This interview was for the 12/29/14 concert by Cracker at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, with Lowery’s previous band Camper Van Beethoven also on the bill. It was done by email, with answers received on 12/25/14. (Brenda Yamen photo)
Jeff Moehlis: What can we look forward to at the upcoming show?
Johnny Hickman: Well, we have our new double album out so of course we’ll be playing songs from that, but we always play our more well known songs like “Low” and “Euro-Trash Girl”, too. Live, we try to play something from all 9 of our albums, time allowing.
JH: Well, from the start David and I have made records that were a mixed bag of rock, country, Americana, punk and soul etc. This time around we decided to go a little farther and divide the rock and country/Americana songs onto 2 separate discs backed by 2 different sets of musicians. It was sort of an experimental labor of love and we are very pleased with how it all turned out.
JM: What was it like to be recording again with the original Cracker line-up for the Berkeley disc?
JH: It felt great to work with Davey (Faragher, bass and vocals) and Michael (Urbano, drums) again. The chemistry was every bit as strong as it had been on Kerosene Hat. Better even, because we are all better musicians now. We basically worked the same way we had in the past on the first two records. Both David and I each came in with some rough ideas, and riffs and the four of us just banged them into song shape. David then took it all home and wrote some of his very best lyrics almost immediately, turning them all into complete songs.
JM: That disc, and especially the song “Beautiful”, made me a bit homesick for Berzerkeley, aka The People’s Republic of Berkeley, where I lived – to put it in the context of the band – back when Cracker was first taking off. Do you and/or David have a particular Berkeley connection?
JH: David more than me certainly. Northern California was where he and CVB came up through the ranks of local post punk bands in the mid 80s. David and I had each played in punk bands as kids in Redlands and so we naturally still write that way sometimes. The song “Beautiful” started with a guitar riff and some chord changes that I had. Once the four of us got it into shape, David used it as a backdrop for what became sort of a nostalgic punk rock love song reflecting and name checking some of his old haunts up north. It’s one of my favorite songs on “Berkeley” and reminds me of what a good team we are.
JM: You have known David for quite some time. What did you guys like to do – and what kind of trouble did you get into – before you started playing music together?
JH: Not much trouble really, we were just friends playing in different bands in the early 80s in Redlands. David went north to attend UC Santa Cruz and I stayed in the Inland Empire, but we stayed in touch until we each found ourselves without a band simultaneously and joined forces in 1991.
JM: Before Cracker formed, David had a great run with Camper Van Beethoven, which of course has re-formed and will also be performing at the Lobero Theatre. Back then, were you a big fan of CVB?
JH: Yeah, I knew David and Victor [Krummenacher, CVB’s bassist] as friends before CVB formed and so was of course paying attention to what they were up to. I thought that they were one of the more unique bands from that post punk era in California. They had great songs, sounded different than any other band then and seemed to not really care whether people got them or not and I liked that a lot.
JM: What was the vision for Cracker when you guys first started?
JH: It was really just two young musician friends getting together to see what would happen. Pretty early on we decided to leave ourselves open to playing with a variety of people and writing and playing music with pretty much no regard to whatever was hip at the moment. I think we both knew almost immediately that we had something special.
JH: “Low” began to form at a rather hung over soundcheck in Portland Oregon one day with us just jamming. We liked the simplicity of it and recorded a bit of it there and then. David wrote the words within the next few days and turned it into a complete song. It was really just one of the songs we’d written. We like them all. We were of course very happy when it slowly took off over the next year.
JM: What was the good, the bad, and the ugly about the alt-rock world in the early 90’s?
JH: I’d say the good was that even though it was the “grunge” era, there was actually an amazing diversity with regards to what was happening musically. The bad was that record labels started signing anything that sounded remotely like Nirvana even if was a pale imitation with no real substance. The ugly was perhaps what was always ugly about the music business when there actually was such a thing. Money sometimes drove the music instead of the other way around.
JM: You and especially David have been vocal about advocating for musicians to receive fair compensation for their talents and efforts. Now that Taylor Swift has removed her music from Spotify, do you think that there is a shift in attitude taking place?
JH: I think that the streaming idea has potential but it’s far from fair to songwriters and musicians in general as it exists now. I see that slowly changes for the better. I’m proud of David and his diligence, advocating for a more reasonable structure.
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
JH: Work very hard to be a great live performer so that you sell tickets. Have great T-shirts and other merchandise at your shows because making an income from your actual music sales is now very difficult at best. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play music, just be smart about it and learn how to promote yourself.