Catching up with Cracker’s Johnny Hickman
It was 25 years ago that Cracker released “Kerosene Hat,” and the album went on to become one of the biggest of 1993 thanks to chart-topping songs “Low” and “Euro Trash Girl.”
Formed by friends David Lowery and Johnny Hickman a few years prior to that release, the two have continued to tour together and have led Cracker to nine albums and countless live shows.
On July 22, Cracker will be headed to the Fairfield Theatre Company, playing a mix of Americana, grunge, blues, country and roots rock. Keith Loria spoke with Hickman about the show.
Keith Loria: Can you preview the show a bit?
Johnny Hickman: Of course. First off, we always play our radio hits like “Low,” “Get Off This” and “Eurotrash Girl” because these are the songs that put us on the map. The rest of the show changes constantly and our fans appreciate that. It’s a lot more fun for us as well, to change it up a little every night. We try to play something from every one of our 10 albums, but this year we are concentrating on our “Gentleman’s Blues” record which is a big fan favorite and turns 20 this year.
KL: What is the secret of the relationship between you and David — what makes it such a great musical pairing?
JH: I think part of it is just blind luck. We grew up in the same small southeastern California town (Redlands) and met as teenagers. We were always aware of each other’s kid bands and eventually joined forces as songwriters. Once we got together and we’re knocking off songs like “Teen Angst,” “Happy Birthday To Me” and “Mister Wrong” it was pretty clear that we could start a band and make a go of it.
KL: How would you characterize today’s Cracker fan? Who are you seeing in your audience, and how do you prepare your concerts to appeal to both longtime and new fans?
JH: We’ve always just sort of made music for ourselves first, both live and in the studio. This is really important in a way. As we see it, if we are true to ourselves and make the music we want to make at any given time, then hopefully some other people will get it, too. Our fan base is a great mix of long-term fans and newcomers, which is ideal. We wouldn’t be here if not for the long supporting “Crumbs” as they call themselves, but we like the fact that it might be someone’s first Cracker show and so we have to prove ourselves every night. That keeps you on your toes.
KL: What is it about playing live that you enjoy? How does it compare today to the early days?
JH: For David and me, playing live is really the reason we keep going. Nothing else compares to that and we take pride in being a great live band. Yeah, a bit of hubris there, but we are. We make it a point to be good live and surround ourselves with musicians who can rise to that with us. The only real difference is that now it’s on YouTube and Facebook within a minute of the first beat and note. We’re okay with that, warts and all, as they say. It’s the era of instant gratification!
KL: Speaking of the “early days,” what were your aspirations when you first started? Did you foresee a time that you would be doing this more than 25 years later?
JH: I think our initial aspirations were just to be a good enough band to support ourselves. To keep doing it as long as we could, really. We’d both been signed to major record labels individually as young guys before we joined forces for real. We’d both been through the big scary record company machine when we got back together and started working toward what would become Cracker. We were a bit cautious, but tried to be smart about it. We both knew it was part talent and hard work, but also part sheer luck. Twenty-five years is truly an amazing thing that we still never take for granted. Like something we got away with.
KL: A lot of people know the band best from “Kerosene Hat” — what was that time-period like for you when you reflect on those years now?
JH: We were lucky in the fact that our first record was a moderate success. It was simply called “Cracker” and had a few minor hits like “Teen Angst” and “Happy Birthday To Me.” We got played on then-relevant MTV and some indie radio stations and just toured our asses off in a van and trailer, which we still do by the way. So when our “sophomore effort,” as they say, came out and did even better, we were just very grateful and happy. We avoided that huge, initial one-hit wonder bull and the pressure to follow it up. Our first record did pretty well, our second did even better, which really set us up for a great long run.
KL: When can we expect some new music? Anything in the works that you can tease?
JH: Yeah, it’s about time to make more music, isn’t it? Our last release, “Berkeley to Bakersfield,” did pretty well and put us back on the map a bit so we’ve toured for four years or so on its strength. We’re always making and storing up bits of riffs and songs, so we’ll just gradually get back to it. We don’t really look at it as “the new project” so much as always just writing riffs and songs just for the sake of making music. Eventually we realize we have enough new ideas to go back into a studio and have at it.
KL: Any message you want to get to your fans? What else do you want them to know?
JH: Just that we’re touring a lot this summer and look forward to seeing them face to face again. The live shows are our life’s blood, the way we survive financially in this crazy business and we never stop for too long.