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CRACKER: Johnny Hickman

All Innocence, It Was Lost: Johnny Hickman's Trials and Tribulations
Hearsay #19 / 1998 / Email interview with Ewen and Neil

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"The producer mumbled something, twirled a gigantic bone-handled knife in his hand, smiled and sat there bobbing his head to the music"
 

This interview with Cracker's Johnny Hickman (above left, with David Lowery whom we interviewed in 1996) was conducted as part of a mammoth Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker retrospective.

HEARSAY: Tell us about how Cracker started up and the experience of making the first record together.
JOHNNY HICKMAN: In early 1991 got a call from David who was cooling his heels in
Morocco with his girlfriend and we decided to hook up in LA and try writing together. This was an exciting idea to me after being a friend (and a fan) of David's for about 10 years. We had played together loosely (pre-Camper) in The Estonian Gouchos; an interesting side project from our other bands (The Dangers for me and Sitting Duck for David). About this time I was bumming around the Bakersfield area living out of my VW van and sitting in with various country bands on various instruments which I guess is apparent from the songs, riffs and instrumentation that found its way onto our records. Mr Wrong, Lonesome Johnny Blues and some other stuff came from this time. We were crashing at David's manager's apartment which due to our habits and ways was promptly named 'The Ashtray'. This was relatively soon after CVB had called it quits in the middle of a European tour. David and I had hung out and spoken on the phone a bit the previous year and I remember getting the feeling things were not great with him and the band. As a Camper fan I was saddened but of course very enthusiastic to work with him. He must have still been smarting from all the weirdness but true to form he mainly just wanted to get back to work. We sat around drinking and talking about the way we had always seen eye to eye on music. Songs were the basis of what we loved... almost any style, any scene as long as the songs were memorable and got us off hence the glorious hodge podge of music that we began to make. That first week or so I believe we had St Cajetan, Mr Wrong, Someday, Central Valley Mud (which finally ended up on Gentleman's Blues reborn as Waiting For You Girl), Sunday Train and more bits that became songs later. Everyone around us was blown away I'm proud to boast, and very soon the minor panic about the demise of Camper was fading as our enthusiasm and material grew by leaps and bounds. Mind you, there was some subtle pressure from the record company to call the new project 'Camper Van Beethoven' but David, as well he should have, thought that would have been bogus: new band, new writing partner... new name. That came later.

Anyway, the next move was to pack up our worldly belongings (not much at this point guitars, amps, clothes and an 8-track recorder) and move to Richmond, VA. I was game, having just divorced and looking to start fresh, and David had fallen in love both with Richmond and with his future wife Mary who was from there. We hooked up a rented trailer behind David's old station wagon and split. In Richmond we lived in a dilapidated old pre-Civil War row house in the Oregon Hill neighborhood and set up the 8-track upstairs. The memories of constant music-making there are some of my fondest ever. I think the record company back in California were expecting a four- or five-song demo tape and we gave 'em like 14 songs. The response was good. It was time to talk turkey (this was all before they decided to sign me up as David's writing and band partner on a new contract). I remember meeting with them and there was this polite feeling of 'who's this other guy?' Especially after they asked me if I thought we should name the band Camper Van Beethoven! My rather drunkenly candid response was 'No it's a new band and to call it Camper would be pure bullshit!' I was definitely not used to the game yet, but would learn to be more tactful in time. We flew back to California to make a record and met with several producers but decided on Don Smith largely because of his vibe. We drove out to the valley and walked into this very dark, candlelit studio control room that smelled of incense and voodoo funk. At the board was a big guy, around 35 or so, wearing a black wide brimmed hat, a scruffy beard and all black clothes. He mumbled something, twirled a gigantic bone-handled knife in his hand, smiled and sat there bobbing his head to the music that blasted from the huge overhead speakers. He seemed right somehow... and was for many years to come. Around this time we also hooked up with Davey Faragher who played bass and did some great arrangements and co-writes with us.

The songs were constantly flowing... Happy Birthday To Me, Teen Angst, I See The Light, Cracker Soul, Dr Bernice, Satisfy You… it was around this time David and I realised our music was some sort of white boy soul... or 'Cracker Soul' if you will, so we dubbed ourselves and our first album simply Cracker.

How would you characterise your relationship with David?
It's very unique to say the least. We've known each other for over 20 years now... first as friends for a decade or so watching each other play in bands and then as bandmates... which is sort of backward, isn't it? Somewhere in there we developed a brother-like relationship, you know... with all the mutual respect, love and fondness right alongside a bit of jealousy and rivalry, but that's been good for us too in the long run, I think. When it's all said and done, I know we would and have stood up to anyone or anything to protect the other. After 20 years I mean... we've seen each other go through hell and high water. It's all in the songs, man. As David puts it, you just 'stay the course.'

We've read that Gentleman's Blues is kind of a concept album based around the joys of being in a band. How far do you recognise your own experiences of your various bands in the album?
Well, it didn't start off to be a concept. I guess that just developed gradually as we went and wrote and recorded. We have always snuck bits of our life as a band in there on every album. This time perhaps it's more direct with songs like Seven Days and The Good Life... also The World is Mine which to this day makes me laugh in the most evil, gleeful way. I love that side of David; he's got balls that's for sure.

Is it always easy to decide which of your own songs fit best with David's own on the records? Do you go for complement or contrast? And what kind of songwriting method have you devised for writing together?
It comes down to a lot of things... which ones sound good together musically in the same bunch, what makes the mood right and change right as it plays out. As far as contrast, we write in a similar vein a lot anyway so my songs and David's and the ones we do together just feel right together. The method is that there really isn't one. The first spark of a song could be something we had a laugh at the bar over together… actually a
LOT of them came from that now that I think of it. Or quite often David will have the chords and some words and I'll just start weaving a guitar melody through it ... or change some parts, add a lyric here and there. Of course some songs are nearly complete when we show it to the other guy; it's like 'Hey check this one out man.' Some I have the song musically pretty far done and he writes lyrics: I See The Light or Cracker Soul are that way. 100 Flower Power Maximum, too. A lot of our best songs also come from just sitting down together with acoustic guitars backstage or at the hotel and just... making up a song. David writes more than I do. I'm a bit of a layabout that way, then I have bursts of writing. We wrote a lot of stuff in the studio this time, too.

Cracker display a great affection for roots-blues-country stylings but how far is genre something to fall back on or something to subvert?
We've always sort of reserved the right to use any sounds we think work for the song whether it's in vogue or not of course. Fuck playing one little sub-genre of this pop music or whatever it is. I think anyone can tell that with us. The 'roots' term kinda bugs me because, like, that doesn't encompass the vast changes that have taken place gradually in the last five decades. Every new 'alternative' (an oxymoron almost from the start by the way) song you hear is a distant result of blues, country, ragtime, 20s torch ballads or slave hollers etc. So we just go grab any vibe we want out of that beautiful box. Not enough people do as far as I'm concerned, that's why radio is so sucky and predictable. I admire Beck so much for really experimenting with all kinds of music and making it his own freak hybrid thing. Could you imagine Beck or Cracker or, say, the Beatles or the Replacements making an all ska or swing album? That's like making all brown shoes or something. Now I'm ranting like an old fucker... which I may be.

We hear Mr Wrong is your ‘Camper rip-off’.
Oh yeah, it's great. Mr Wrong is a song that gets called 'quintessential Lowery' which I love because although David sings it I wrote every note and word. Hell, what a compliment, ya know? I wrote that one just before we hooked up to form what was to become Cracker. It was influenced by on of my brothers but I had just hung out with David and we had sat and tossed songs back and forth on acoustic guitars in my garage and his vibe is in there.

How much of an influence were CVB on you? Did you always follow David's work. even when not working together?
Oh yeah. Out of all the current wannabe hipsters who say they were at those Camper shows I was fuckin' there, man. Me and maybe 200 other people quite often. As often as possible... loved 'em. Great band. Did their sound live once in a while. Hell, I loved David's songwriting even before Camper when we used to form little side bands and fuck around together in
Redlands. He used to come see my band The Dangers all the time too.

What's important to Cracker when you come to make a new album? To take things one stage further? To react against the previous record? Gentleman's Blues seems to have a kind of freewheeling aural chaos to it where The Golden Age seems more purposely polished/cinematic/whatever...
Yeah we did decide to break into a new place with The Golden Age and I think we succeeded on that level. We made a grand, beautiful, orchestral record and it threw people, I think. But to this day it's a lot of people's favourite Cracker record, so they tell me. I like your term 'aural chaos'... didn't they just open for Portishead? Seriously though, no we don't have some grand plan to keep reacting against our last record but we just naturally evolve. We like to kick our own and each other's musical asses around a little each time. It works and it's a hell of a lot more fun. David and I were talking part way through the Gentleman's Blues sessions about how we hear parts of all three other albums in it.

Who or what are your most unusual or unexpected influences?
Hmmm... Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kurt Vonnegut, Will Rogers for sure. Read his stuff and you could probably see how Mr Wrong, Lonesome Johnny Blues or on the new record Hold Of Myself relate to his attitude on life. I'm influenced by sorrow and simultaneously, the ability to laugh at absurdity and stupidity in myself and others... strangers, too. One of the strongest links between David and me is our humour. We are both intrigued by morons, dwarves and fucked-up geniuses. Oh yeah and beautiful handicapped people which of course we all are in some way.

 More: David Lowery interview (1996) | David Lowery on Camper Van Beethoven (1998)
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