Songwriter Interviews

Johnny Hickman of Cracker

by April Fox

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Cracker's first, self-titled album was released in 1992, just in time to join the alternative explosion. But rather than sounding like just another band that had hopped the grunge train down from Seattle, Cracker's visible country roots and unique lyrical style set them apart from the rest of the pack. Their first single, "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)," became an underground anthem for music fans who didn't mind laughing at themselves and pointing fingers at everything that was really wrong with the world.

What the world needs now is a new kind of tension, cause the old one just bores me to death.

In that one line, Cracker managed to capture the entire tone of the '90s in 20 words or less. The song hit #1 on the Modern Rock charts, and Cracker was on their way. They became known not only for their tight musical sound, but for the stories that lived in their songs, at once poetic and droll, vicious and smart.

Since the band's inception in 1991, when Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery joined forces with longtime friend Johnny Hickman, Cracker has been touring and releasing albums that span the gap between punk and country with a consistency that few other bands have been able to match. In December 2014, Cracker released their 10th studio album, a two-disc set titled Berkeley to Bakersfield. Songwriter, guitarist, and singer Johnny Hickman filled us in on what inspired the new album, writing songs with his old friend, and where the stories began - from the scathing rockers like "I Hate My Generation" to the dark and melancholy ballads like "Night Falls," and all points in between.
April Fox (Songfacts): Johnny, thank you for taking the time to get back to me on these questions. Cracker has been one of my favorites for years, and your new album, Berkeley to Bakersfield, is one of your best. What was the motivation behind putting out a double album this time?

Johnny Hickman: My pleasure April. As you probably know, David [Lowery] and I have written country songs from the start, even before there was a term Americana. We're a rock band first and foremost, but we both grew up hearing and loving country music as well so it's very natural for us to write it and mix it in with our rock and punk. This time around we thought it would be an adventure and a bit of a challenge to separate the two genres onto two discs and record them with different musicians and in different locations. It was a roll of the dice, but I'm happy to report that Berkeley to Bakersfield has been very well received by both the press and more importantly, our fans.

Songfacts: I saw you play in Asheville, North Carolina back in 2009, and you played a good mix of older and more current stuff. How do you decide which songs to retire, and which ones to keep playing live?

Johnny: The best part about having a pretty massive catalog of songs is that we can rotate them in and out of the live shows. If we get tired of some, we hang them up for a while. By the same token, we pull some rarely played ones back into rotation for a while. It's a challenge, but a very enjoyable one.

Our fans (The Crumbs as they refer to themselves) constantly tell us that they like that. Of course we always play a few of our big radio songs live because we're not like those bands who consider themselves too cool to play their hits. As I see it, this might be someone's first Cracker show and likely they paid their hard-earned money to hear those songs. We can play perhaps a fifth of our catalog at any given show, so we try to make ourselves AND the fans happy by changing it up too.

Songfacts: "Low" seems to be one of those songs that everyone knows, regardless of what kind of music they usually listen to. Now it's been introduced to a new generation, with its inclusion on the Perks of Being a Wallflower soundtrack. What was the inspiration behind that song?

Johnny: The song started with me coming up with that guitar riff just noodling around at a soundcheck in Portland one day, but it's really David's song. He wrote the title and lyrics after the fact, which are fantastic. David and Davey Faragher (bassist) started looking for chords to play around my guitar riff. A few days later David had the song completed.

Songfacts: What can you tell me about the "Lonesome Johnny Blues"?

Johnny: David says that I write in a more folky, country way than he does, more autobiographically. I guess "Lonesome Johnny Blues" is a good example of that. Although the melody and feel is kinda lively and upbeat, it was written the week that I lost both my dad and my dog. My first son was also born that week. I guess that mixture of sorrow and joy just got me going.

I wrote it pretty quickly. The grim reaper pulls up in a Chevrolet and tells me that it's not me, but someone "dear to me" that he's come for.

Songfacts: "I Hate My Generation" is perfect in its simplicity and snarkiness. Where did that song come from?

Johnny: Kinda similar to "Low." We were just rehearsing and jamming away in a small rental space on tour in Ireland. I came up with that big simple guitar riff and David found chords to play under it. It sounded kinda Sex Pistols to me. As we kept playing it over and over, suddenly David was yelling something even before the microphones were set up. I walked over to hear what he was hollering and it was "I hate my generation!" Perfect! I love every line of that song, especially "now that I said it I feel liberated!"

Songfacts: Greenland (2006) features two of the most simultaneously beautiful and sorrowful songs I've ever heard: "Night Falls" and "Darling We're Out of Time." What's behind the lyrics in those?

Johnny: You'd have to ask David, as those are his stories. We've been together as musical partners and friends for over 25 years through all manner of the things that life throws at you. Marriages, break ups, births, deaths... I think the lyrics to both of these are pretty self-explanatory.

When he first sang me a rough version of "Night Falls" on acoustic guitar I was amazed. I thought it was just brilliant. I started working on a kind of Yellow Brick Road era Elton John, big guitar thing with it. I wrote all these sort of grand guitar harmonies and melodies. I don't think he was feeling that so we let it sit for a while. David later recut it with our in-house studio producer John Morand. "Check it out," he said. "I used your guitar melodies as string section parts." I was floored. It's one of my top songs of ours, still.

Songfacts: I really like the new version of "Where Have Those Days Gone" on Bakersfield. What inspired you guys to redo the song and release it again?

Johnny: In the middle of the Bakersfield sessions we just started playing it and it felt great in the new incarnation and with these players. It fit right in with the new songs. I especially like it because the relaxed, open setting really puts more focus on David's story, which in this case is at least somewhat autobiographical.

Songfacts: Cracker's punk edge is more evident on Berkeley than it has been in quite a while. What were you all listening to when you were writing and recording the songs on that album?

Johnny: Well, we were in Berkeley which has a great punk history. I think we felt it. A little more politically aware than where we're from in southern/eastern California which of course has a great punk history too with X, Black Flag, Social Distortion, Fear, etc. We loved those bands and used to open for them in our little fledgling bands at the time.

Songfacts: I have to ask, who or what inspired the song "Beautiful" on Berkeley? You don't hear many songs about girls with pink hair and Docs (although I do remember a reference to a girl in combat boots in "I see the light"), and it made me grin a little.

Johnny: Both good co-writes those two, thanks. I can only speak for myself, but I'd been listening to some early and mid-period Clash and Buzzcocks around the Berkeley sessions. That's where "Beautiful" started. I had that riff melody and some of the chord changes, which David took and wrote the lyrics and that bridge part, "If you don't know it," to.

I think it succeeds because he places this girl from the original punk era into the now, with "two teenagers with blue mohawks" and her story fits the music perfectly. It's a fine example of how we work together as a songwriting team. Sometimes the riff/melody comes first as it did with both "Beautiful" and "I See The Light." Other times there is a song that I try to create a good riff around. It usually comes down to a conversation between what David is singing and me answering him or vice versa.

Songfacts: Bakersfield shows off Cracker's country side, but it bears little resemblance to the modern country music that I've heard; instead, the music calls to mind the country legends of the '50s and '60s, with Cracker's trademark irreverence shot through the lyrics. What influenced this side of the album?

Johnny: There is a certain pride, a sense of humour as well as a very working-man's darkness in Bakersfield which is where I wrote "Mr. Wrong" just before we formed Cracker. David and I grew up in eastern, central California listening to Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and later Dwight Yoakam who all have this gift of making these very believable, rural characters in their songs. I think it's just in our blood to write songs that way.

David wrote "Almond Grove" which I think is one of his very best. Although the story is very current in its way, the song has this classic, heartbreaking country tale which is also very Bakersfield.

Songfacts: You've proven to be a talented songwriter, both with Cracker and on your solo albums, but beyond that, you're a gifted storyteller. Who are your major influences when it comes to writing?

Johnny: Thank you very much. Well, definitely the aforementioned country singers, but I really like early Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, Bob Dylan, Neil Young. Tom Petty and Mike Campbell too. I like writers that can create characters in their songs, but still leave the stories open to the listener's imagination. That's a rare skill. For that very reason I'd list writers like David and Ike Reilly as influences too.

Songfacts: If you could sit down and write an album with anyone else, living or dead, who would it be?

Johnny: Warren Zevon or Tom Petty. I'd like to see what they would write around one of my guitar riffs, just throw some ideas at them.

Songfacts: Finally, what's next for you and for Cracker?

Johnny: For Cracker, we still have some touring to do for Berkeley to Bakersfield. Personally, I feel another fertile time coming. David's always writing and I'll just keep looking for riffs and melody ideas and they will either end up on my next solo record or as Cracker songs. I'm fine either way.

February 12, 2016
Photos: Bradford Jones

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