Q&A: Johnny Hickman of Cracker – Coming to Rams Head On Stage SUNDAY, JULY 13th

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Hickman and Lowery (Photo Credit: crackersoul.com)

Johnny Hickman, guitarist for famed alternative rock band, Cracker, is cooking up something special for all you “Crumbs” and Rams Head fans, along with childhood friend and Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery, and their buddy Greg Lisher (guitarist for Camper Van Beethoven).  Come out this Sunday, July 13th to see the trio perform their Acoustic Apothecary show in Annapolis.  Tickets are still available here.

Below, Hickman answers some questions about the Sunday show format, his relationship with David Lowery and the unpaved path to rock and roll stardom, and the fans’ continuing love for all things Camper and Cracker.

The name of this particular show at Rams Head On Stage this Sunday is “Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven: Acoustic Apothecary.” Is that a new show idea, or have you three (David Lowery, Greg Lisher, and yourself) toured together before with an acoustic theme featuring songs from both Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven?

JH: David and I have been doing our Duo shows for several years now of course, but this is the first time we’ve had Greg join us. We had the tour plans basically in place and then decided to invite Greg along for fun and because CVB has a new album out to promote. As we’ve all known each other for a long time, I’m sure there will be some interplay and impromptu surprises for everyone.

CVB and Cracker are two very different sounding bands and it seems like it would be difficult to play a lot of the songs acoustically. Did it take some time to rearrange the music and prepare for this tour, or is it basically second nature for you guys now to just sit down and play together?

JH: Well, when David and I play together as a Duo we draw material from all of our nine albums. David plays acoustic and I play electric so it’s much more ROCK than most people would expect. We play our radio hits but also songs that we don’t usually do with the full band which makes it a lot more interesting for us and for the hard core fans I think. As far as what CVB songs David and Greg are going to play, I’m looking forward to finding out. They just recently asked me to join them on some songs. I’ll have a mandolin and some harmonicas with me so anything could happen. Greg is a fantastic, very original guitarist and good friend so I’m going to invite him to join David and I for some Cracker songs too.

I noticed there are some Cracker dates (with the full band) on this tour. Does the lineup change depending on the venue or do some CVB members join Cracker on tour? How do you all manage to split time between the different bands/side projects?

JH: As the creative core of Cracker, David and I have always recorded and performed with many of our favorite musicians from the very start and continue to do so. We didn’t exactly plan things that way, it just happened naturally. It makes the music more diverse and keeps us on our toes working with an expanded family of very talented players. On this tour there are a few full band Cracker shows in and around the Duo shows and a few line up changes as we go along as well so you never know. David and I have been recording and occasionally performing with our Kerosene Hat rhythm section of Davey Faragher (bass and backing vocals) and Michael Urbano (drums) lately. These guys played on some of our biggest hits as well as with some other very famous folks over the years. It’s been a blast reuniting after after 20 years! We just did a short tour of China together which was an amazing experience.

Camper Van Beethoven came out with two new albums in 2013 and 2014, and both you and David Lowery have released solo material in the last few years. How much of this newer/solo material can we expect to hear this weekend vs. the earlier material from CVB and Cracker?

JH: We usually stick mostly to Cracker music, but sometimes we’ll pull out some of our individual solo songs as well. As the fans know, some of our solo songs eventually work their way onto Cracker shows and records. There are new Cracker songs being written and recorded lately so we may pull one or two of those out too.

The idea of starting a band with a longtime friend and having success in the music business is something a lot of people dream about, but few ever pursue or obtain. Can you tell me more about how you and David Lowery first met, why you decided to pursue careers in music, and how you’ve been able to maintain a friendship and professional partnership, album after album?

JH: It is a pretty unique history that David and I have as partners. Our friendship which began in Redlands, California predates both Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker and so when the rare occurrence of neither of us being in band happened around 1991 (following the break up of Camper) we just very casually decided to get together and see what would happen. The songs started coming very fast and we basically just laid low, moved to Richmond, VA together and just made music 24/7. I think things happened as they were meant to. Within a year we were on the radio and MTV and have never looked back. We have different agendas sometimes but share a very similar work / creativity ethic and have been very fortunate to maintain a solid fan base of great folks over the years. That’s very rare indeed.

Does it ever feel surreal that it all worked out and both bands are back together and touring again? Were there times when you thought the partnership would fall apart and you’d all go your separate ways – if so, can you give some details?

JH: Historically with regard to other bands, doing what we do is never without some level of conflicts, challenges and setbacks but that’s what I was referring to when I said that David and I share a certain work ethic and love of doing this our own way. After several successful Cracker albums, the members of CVB started hanging out together again, buried the hatchet and decided to make a record together. There was never any plan to dismantle the Lowery / Hickman partnership but with Cracker on temporary hiatus and not being one to sit around bored and not making music, I immediately set about making my first solo record Palmhenge. Happily both the new CVB record New Roman Times and my record Palmhenge were very well received by both the fans as well as by critics and reviewers. Win win.

Cracker suddenly went platinum with the Kerosene Hat album, mostly due to the fact that the music is so memorable, but also due in part to major MTV exposure. David Lowery has said before that Cracker is thought of today as the sound of the 90s, and I’d agree, but how do you think you guys managed to capture the essence of that decade in your albums so effectively?

JH: Thank you for that. I’m always proud when I hear Cracker referred to as “the godfathers of alternative” or “pioneers of the 90s sound” and such. We didn’t think in those terms back then, we were just “doin what we wanna” to quote David. I wouldn’t say that Kerosene Hat’s success was all that sudden, it took a little while and a lot of touring for “Low,” “Get Off This,” and “Eurotrash Girl” to open more doors for us and add to that the fact that our first record Cracker, which the fans refer to as “Cracker Brand” or simply “Brand,” did respectively well with both “Teen Angst” and “Happy Birthday To Me” getting radio airplay, and at that time crucial MTV spins.

My opinion has always been that it was a major score for us to have a relatively successful first album followed by an even bigger success on our second one. We’ve all seen bands who go through the roof on the first record and then the sophomore record gets over scrutinized and constantly compared to the first. I’ve always considered our trajectory very fortunate for us. It gave us a chance to just keep moving ahead and grow naturally not unlike many of our childhood heroes like The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, The Clash, etc.

Does the level of fandom and continued admiration for CVB and Cracker ever surprise you?

JH: Sure. I clearly remember sitting in my room as a painfully shy, nerdy teenager teaching myself how to play and write, dreaming that it would turn into something someday. I just feel very fortunate and grateful that we have the devoted fans that we do. Neither band is what you would call formulaic pop or even that accessible musically when compared to most of what I’ve heard become huge over the years. I wouldn’t call it a fluke, but I am sometimes amazed at how many people share our rather unique humor and views on life in general.

Where do you gather inspiration from these days and who have been your biggest influences since day one? Why did those particular artists or role models have such an impact on you? Are there any up-and-coming bands that you’re keeping your eye on?

JH: Like other brilliant songwriter / lyricists David has always admittedly found inspiration in a wide variety of sources. From the works of obscure novelists to world events or even just odd things that happen to or around us or to himself personally. My influences tend to be more musical ones but not ones people would necessarily guess. I’m continuously thankful to write with David. I’ll often bring a guitar riff, chord change or melody and am consistently surprised by where he takes it. Sometimes we write that way, sometimes he’ll have a great rant or song started and I’ll try to frame it musically in a way that serves the song. With us the song is always king.

Sometimes that means building a very big, gradually developing piece like “St. Cajetan” or “One Fine Day” or just taking a musically simpler yet effective one like “Mr. Wrong” or “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” and just keeping it powerfully streamlined. As far as up and coming bands go, I’m biased because I’m currently producing them, but there is a band from Denver, Colorado called The Yawpers that are one to watch. They are young, very powerful live and rely on absolutely no gimmicks or recording studio trickery…just great songs and a refreshing irreverence to just about everything they see.

Can you tell me a little more about the Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven Campout this September 11-13, and who will be playing there in addition to Cracker/CVB?

JH: The lineup will as always include Cracker and CVB and some of our various side projects but the guest acts are still being sorted. I will say that being our 10 year anniversary of the Campout it will be very special indeed. I feel we owe it to our fans to make this one extraordinary. Of course I’ll also be hosting my unofficial “Porchstock” acoustic jams sessions at the Pioneertown Motel where the fantastic “Crumbs” from all over the country and the world often serve up food and drink and any of the band members might drop by to sit in.

What’s next on your personal to-do list? Another album with Cracker or possibly more solo material?

JH: At this time we have new music that seems to be growing into two new Cracker records! We recorded the sessions with two different sets of musicians backing us at different times and in two separate states. We are still shaping all of it and are very excited to release them, probably next spring. I’m also slowly writing songs that will likely result in a new solo album to follow Tilting and Palmhenge, no immediate plans though.

Check out Johnny and David playing the song, “Friends,” with Cracker in the video below.

– Matt Ellis

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