Interview by tosnob
For almost 20 years Cracker has been laying down some of the most enjoyable, humorous country-tinged alt rock around. On May 20th the band returns to Toronto for a show with psychobilly veterans Reverend Horton Heat in what should be a stellar double bill by two bands that never disappoint live.
I recently had the chance to ask Cracker co-founder Johnny Hickman about the tour and his thoughts on music in general. Here's how it went down:
T.O. Snob: First off, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.
JH: No problem. Toronto fans have been right with us since the beginning of Cracker and we love them for that.
T.O. Snob: You're playing a dream double bill at the Phoenix in Toronto on May 20th with Reverend Horton Heat. How will the show differ from the one you played with Camper Van Beethoven back in January?
JH: Well we never use a set list live so anything goes. The Cracker + CVB shows are a blast because we have all been friends for years. The Rev has inquired about touring with us for some time so we finally decided to take him up on his offer. Both bands are known for being powerhouses live so I think it will be an explosive and thrilling evening to say the least.
T.O. Snob: Cracker is nearly 20 years old. After countless concerts how do you keep things interesting for yourselves while you're on stage?
JH: Honestly, this is about the coolest job in the world and I can't imagine doing anything else. Plus, I think the no set list approach does a lot to keep it spontaneous and fun for both the band and the audiences. We have fans (or Crumbs as they call themselves) all over the world who will come to several shows on a given tour and they know they are going to hear some different songs and see shows that are paced differently from night to night.
T.O. Snob: Are there any songs that the fans demand to hear but you're just sick and tired of playing?
JH: No not really. We have well over 100 songs so we rotate them in and out of the live shows but we always play our hits. We never forget that it might be someone's first Cracker show and that's all they know us by. I think bands that have been lucky enough to have had hit songs but think they are too cool to play them live should go find another job.
T.O. Snob: Cracker's released 8 albums now. How has the writing and recording process changed for you over the course of those records?
JH: For most of the albums David and I write the songs either together or separately and then bring them to the band to add their parts. For the new one "Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey" we went with a different approach. Aside from two songs, one David wrote and one I wrote, we came up with most of the songs by just setting up and playing. One of us would have a guitar riff, beat or some other idea and we just built it up from there. This method made for a lot of good tension and intense creativity in the studio and judging by the overwhelmingly positive reaction from fans and the press it worked quite well. Of course we may do something completely different for the next one.
T.O. Snob: I think "Ain't Gonna Suck Itself" is one of the most brilliant kiss-off songs ever written. How much of what goes on in that song is fact and how much is fiction?
JH: Thank you. David wrote the lyrics to that one but I will divulge that it's based on facts with some classic Lowery embellishments of course. Obviously the two of us were having a good time taking the piss out of our former record label which is not to say they did not do a lot of great work for us over the years....especially the Canadian branch and I hope they read this. Basically a bunch of jerks took over the label and pissed us off. We parted ways with no small measure of contempt in the air but we got that song out of it.....and later we put out our own Cracker greatest hits CD the same day they put out theirs and ours sold more. The fans knew what was up.
T.O. Snob: You can tell with some artists that they think lyrics or maybe vocals or the arrangement is the most important element of a song. What is the most important element of a song for you?
JH: I think it's different with every song. There are great, enduring songs with just nonsense lyrics because the riffs or melodies are so strong. In other songs the opposite is true. I'm fortunate to have written tons of songs with Mr. David Lowery who always has something interesting to say and brings out the best in my writing as well. The best songs seem to have both elements. The classic Cracker song as we see it is this: Johnny makes a big noisy riff with his guitar, then David charges in with one of his rants. Then Johnny plays the riff again, then David talks MORE shit. Then they do it together with full force as the song build steam....bang...fade to black.
T.O. Snob: It's been a few years since you released Palmhenge. Can we expect to hear more solo material from you soon?
JH: Well, David is pretty close to finishing his first solo album and from the songs I've heard already it's going to be fantastic. I've been writing new solo songs for quite a while now and started recording some just before this tour. With how busy Cracker is touring this summer it will probably be early next year before I get my new one out.
T.O. Snob: If someone were to look at your CD collection or iPod playlist what would they be surprised to see?
JH: My tastes are all over the map but the biggest surprises might be the crazy, tango accordion composer Astor Piazzolla or French chanteuse Edith Piaf. Or maybe The Monkees.
T.O. Snob: Finally, I have to ask, are you still suffering from the Lonesome Johnny Blues?
JH: Always. That song may sound pretty upbeat musically but it's about me dealing with the Grim Reaper and his wrath. I'm happy and outgoing on the surface but pretty dark and brooding on the inside. Just ask any of my friends.
T.O. Snob: Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me. Good luck with the show.
JH: Thank you. My pleasure.