This is Cracker soul in Truckee
August 27, 2008
And here’s Johnny Hickman and David Lowery, Cracker’s answer to the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
Considering the passion of the fans and the singular sounds from the two bands, the comparison isn’t much of a stretch.
Lowery’s storytelling and delivery are hilarious, enlightening, puzzling and sarcastic ” sometimes all in one song. Hickman is an explorative guitarist with eclectic tastes. Sometimes it sounds like punk, other times country, and usually it’s somewhere in between. Critics simply put Cracker underneath the broad umbrella of alternative rock.
Hickman explained the formula: “The classic Cracker song ” usually in whatever tempo and form it’s in ” starts with me playing a guitar riff and David coming in, beginning his story, and then me answering back with a guitar riff again,” he said. “And then I take off on another guitar tangent, and then toward the end of the song we sort of do both at the same time, and then it vamps up to the ending.
“That’s oversimplifying it, but that’s sort of the way we’ve just naturally evolved as a band because I’m an ‘A’ personality guitar player and he’s an ‘A’ personality lyricist and songwriter, so that’s where we meet, and good things happens in Cracker.”
Good things have been happening in Cracker since 1992, after Lowery left Camper Van Beethoven and teamed with his longtime friend Hickman. The band’s longevity is a testament to its altering its sound with each of its seven albums. Cracker wears its artifice on its sleeve ” or earflaps, if you will.
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“Cracker always reinvents itself every album” Hickman said. “It’s healthy to throw your fans a curveball but still sound like your band. I’ve always liked people like The Beatles or Bowie or Beck or Will Oldham. They tweak it, and they challenge you. You never know what they’ll throw at you.”
In between concert dates this summer, Cracker has been plotting a new pitch. While recent albums have included guest artists, the quartet will do all of the recording on its next one. That’s the same method Cracker used to produce perhaps its best album, “Kerosene Hat,” in 1993.
The rhythm section is drummer Frank Funaro, who has been with the band since 1996, and bassist Sal Maida, who came aboard in 2006.
“This is probably the best rhythm section we’ve had, and we’re off and running in on a new record,” Hickman said. “It feels really, good to be back in a creative place. … It’s really a rock record and it has that four-piece rock band feel. The punk rock element is there, which is great, because when Dave and I met in the late ’70s, early ’80s, that’s what were into as teenagers. And that’s always been a part of Cracker with songs like ‘Movie Star’ or ‘Don’t Fuck Me Up With Peace and Love’ and ‘Flower Power Maximum.’ “
Lowery spent his childhood summers in England, where he saw the birth of punk rock.
“This is just my theory, (but the punk influence) became a part of who he is as a singer and a songwriter,” Hickman said. “But at the same time, David is a fan of American folk, Appalachian rough-edged country. The two aren’t that far apart.”
The punk influence is more evident in Lowery’s other band, Camper Van Beethoven, in songs such as “Opie Rides Again/Club Med Sucks” and its cover of Black Flag’s “Wasted.” Lowery will play with both Cracker and Camper on Sunday night.
Hickman said his CD and iTunes libraries are vastly different from Lowery’s. He explained his passion for country music:
“When I play country licks in Cracker it’s revved up on a Les Paul, so it has a lot more teeth to it than a lot of country guitar players have,” he said. “It’s like if the Sex Pistols play country, or the Clash or the White Stripes. I love the way Jack White plays guitar because he’s slashing and burning all over the place with a passion. He’s not the tightest guitar player in the world, thank God, but I believe him.”
Hickman’s honest guitar is an ideal compliment for Lowery’s lyrics.
“One little element of a song will grab you by the collar and pull you in, and you never get out,” Hickman said. “Cracker has always been a little too weird for the main mainstream but that’s OK with me because we have such great fans.”
One of Cracker’s most popular songs barely made it on an album.
Virgin Records officials denied Cracker’s request to put “Eurotrash Girl” on what turned out to be arguably the band’s best album.
“The song was pretty long, and we wanted to put it on ‘Kerosene Hat,’ ” said guitarist Johnny Hickman. “At that time, we had enough songs for a pretty good album and the record company said ‘No, you’re going to make your record too long. Enough’s enough. Save it for the next one.’ “
But Cracker didn’t want to wait. It had already been playing the song live, and an Atlanta radio station broadcast a bootleg version.
Cracker lyricist and singer David Lowery has a penchant for creating interesting characters, and the narrator of “Eurotrash Girl” is perhaps his most hapless and endearing.
“He keeps fucking up, but he’s looking for some hot girl in black clothes,” Hickman said.
Hickman described the collaborative effort of writing of “Eurotrash Girl” in 1993:
“We were in a hotel in New Jersey just hanging out, and at some point our drummer, Joey Peters, looked at the television and said, ‘Look at those girls. They’re just pure Eurotrash.’ It was some European dance show. David thought that was pretty funny. We had never heard that phrase before.”
Band members brainstormed a storyline.
“We started reminiscing about good and bad times we’d had traveling in Europe,” Hickman said. “We started pulling out the experiences and mixing them all together. Somebody said he’d lost his passport and I said ‘God, it’s a good thing that the policeman didn’t abuse you to get it back.’ We thought, ‘Maybe we should kill the guy? No let’s not kill him.’ It just got funnier and funnier. David knew somebody who had his money stolen and had to take a bath in a fountain. It became this funny travelogue, and there were so many verses, it became almost like a Dylan song where it keeps telling the story.”
Cracker found a way to sneak the track onto “Kerosene Hat,” thanks to producer Don Smith: “He’s just as impish and unabashed as we are about those things,” Hickman said.
“Eurotrash Girl” was hidden on track 69, providing a surprise tune to listeners who left the CD running a few minutes after its presumed conclusion.
The song went on to become a favorite of college radio stations, and MTV played a video. Virgin Records even lightened up, putting a sticker on the CD cover reading, “Includes Eurotrash Girl!”
“It’s a raw, very natural recording,” Hickman said. “Very loose, jammy, almost dreamy. It’s gotten more punch to it live over the years with a very loose guitar solo. It’s country and Spanish and every bit of what’s in my tweaked brain. Even to this day, more than ‘Low’ or ‘Teen Angst,’ the fans are going to be upset if they don’t hear this song, and to me that’s so OK.”