The Song’s the Thing: Cracker’s Johnny Hickman Says Band Members Put Egos Aside In Order to Write Good Tunes

After beloved indie rockers Camper van Beethoven broke up in the late ’80s, singer-guitarist David Lowery approached childhood friend Johnny Hickman about starting a new band. He was up for it and the duo began writing songs together They even played a few shows as the David Lowery Group with drummer Greg Weatherford (since replaced by Frank Funaro) and bassist Davey Faragher (since replaced by Sal Maida) before christening themselves Cracker.

“We’ve known each other longer than Cracker or CVB have been in existence which is rare in our line of work, especially when I consider the life span of most bands,” says Hickman in an email interview. “Often David will have songs partly or fully sketched out and I'll add melodies or ideas to them or I'll have a bunch of guitar riff melodies that he or we build songs around.”

He admits that Lowery is much more prolific when it comes to songwriting.

“He's pretty amazing that way — one of the best writers of his generation in my opinion,” he says. “Sometimes, it's just spontaneous and we just make a song from scratch. As I like to say, in Cracker the song is king and not anyone's ego. It's really been that way from the start. Once we start working on something new, the song takes on a life of its own and pretty soon we know instinctively what to do with it. The song tells you what it wants.”

Right out of the gate, the band had a hit with its self-titled debut, which featured sardonic alt-rock anti-anthems such as “Happy Birthday To Me” and “Teen Angst.”

“The timing was just about perfect for us,” says Hickman. “We'd come from the same small town of Redlands, Calif. and had known each other for years, loosely following what the other guy was up to. ‘Teen Angst’ was a song David had pretty close to finished and I just added that big guitar riff to it. I loved it immediately. It had a classic Lowery-styled character/protagonist and a lot of attitude. At one point we were messing with it and he asked, ‘So what else does the world need?’ I said, ‘I don't know, a V-8 engine?’ That was my one very tiny contribution to the lyrics. It was a big, roaring freight train of a rock song with much smarter than average lyrics and my big dumb catchy guitar riff. One of the first of what became a classic Cracker songwriting style.”

The band followed up its debut with the equally terrific Kerosene Hat. It delivered a huge hit in “Low,” a quiet-to-loud rocker that featured Lowery in a boxing match with comedian Sandra Bernhard.

“We had a great group of very talented people with us and solid, enthusiastic backing from our label after the first record had done respectably well,” Hickman says. “The late great Don Smith who had also produced our first record was on board again. Also, as with the first record, we had the brilliant Davey Faragher on bass and backing vocals. Davey is a great arranger, singer and co-writer, not to mention one of the best bass players in the world. We also had the young but fantastic drummer Michael Urbano who Davey had brought to the sessions. At the center of it all was David's brilliant songwriting of course. Looking back, even though Cracker was a successful record, I feel very fortunate that it was our second record that really took off. I think that has a lot to do with our slow, steady fan base growth and current ability to still be doing this.”

While the band hasn’t issued a new studio release since 2009’s Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey, it’s plugging away at finishing not one but two new albums. And even though Camper Van Beethoven has reformed after an acrimonious split, it and Cracker have shared bills together and seem to be able to coexist.

“The most important and significant thing we have in common is David and his talents,” says Hickman when asked about the peaceful coexistence of the two groups. “We've all known each other for decades now and there has always been a bit of a friendly rivalry paired with the camaraderie but that's probably a good thing. Stylistically, CVB have a bit of prog rock going and a penchant for delving into world musics like ska and Eastern European styled melodies. Cracker leans more towards early British rock and pop, alt and classic country blues. That Americana thing as well as this massive, heavy sort of Zeppelinesque thing that we do.”

And what can listeners expect from the new discs that the band is calling Berkeley to Bakersfield?

“There are basically two sets of music made with different musicians collaborating with us on the recordings,” Hickman says. “We've always recorded with different people when the songs seemed to need that and that's what this is, just more of a stylistic, more fully realized duality involved.”

They wrote one batch of songs in Berkeley with the Kerosene Hat crew.

“We assembled ourselves in a tiny recording studio all four of us face to face and just dug in,” says Hickman. “It was fantastic! David brought sketches of songs, I brought a handful of guitar riffs and we all just started creating and hammering them together. It was as if we had never been apart! Suddenly, Davey is coming up with a great part or pulling things into shape, turning the music in various directions. Some songs started with Michael laying a great groove down on drums to one of my riffs or David's. Some songs were birthed spontaneously in the moment by all of us at once. David took the whole batch of music home and wrote some of his best lyrics ever.”

The other set were Lowery songs that the band recorded with “some great young players in Athens Ga.”

“This batch has more of a classic country sound and style but also includes some Lowery narrative/story songs that are just simply timeless and beautiful,” says Hickman.

Sounds like the band will have plenty to draw from for its show at Music Box Supper Club.

Cracker, ShiSho, 8 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 17, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $25 ADV, $28 DOS,

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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