The Secret (Jam Band) Life of Cracker
There it is. It’s as if Johnny Hickman just went down a jam band registration form and checked off the boxes, one-by-one. Do you change up the sets every night? Check. Would your fans rather hear rarities than hits? Check. Butdo you jam? “Absolutely.”
At first I think he’s bluffing. After all, how much can Johnny Hickman know about jam bands? As one half of the creative force behind Cracker, Hickman’s been in most-requested videos, has played stadiums, and is, by all accounts, a rock star. Wellsort-of, anyway. How we got talking about the jam band scene was accidental, a side path in a conversation intended to be about a then-upcoming show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for an article I was writing for a local newsweekly. After a pause, I get ready to steer the conversation to Cracker’s latest album, Forever, when Hickman continues:
“The musical difference between, say, moe. and Widespread Panic is pretty far,” he says, on the phone from his home in Redlands, California. “I love both bands, but I think the thing that unites them is that they stretch out musically in live performance. And okay yeah, that’s true. You can’t really do that unless you’re a pretty good musician and have certain instincts that a lot of people don’t.”
Hickman just made a point that people well within the jam band scene have been trying to make for years. Later in the conversation, he reiterates: “You know, speaking about the jam bands, one thing that I think is unfair, is that a lot of them tend to get lumped together. I think a lot of bands in the jam scene just get unfairly pigeonholed, automatically, because they’re connected to that scene.”
Hickman’s own band, Cracker, certainly knows what it’s like to be unfairly lumped, bumped, and pigeonholed. Over the course of their eleven-year existence, they’ve been painted into more corners than are in a square room. One corner they haven’t been painted intoyetis the jam band corner. Although (don’t tell anybody) Cracker is a jam band.
Hickman’s Cracker co-conspirator, David Lowery, was originally a member of late 80s art-rockers Camper Van Beethoven. At one point, Lowery actually invited Hickman to join the band, but at the time Hickman was in a record contract nightmare with Elektra Records and couldn’t join.
In 1990, while Camper Van Beethoven was in the midst of a European tour, Hickman was in Bakersfield, California "playing in a country band with my brother, and checking out that whole scene," he says. Lowery called from Morocco. Camper Van Beethoven had just broken up. Almost immediately, longtime friends Lowery and Hickman got together and started writing songs.
"We hung out for a year," recalls Hickman, "and wrote a lot of songs together. We actually moved into a house together, in Virginia, and didn’t really have a complete band. It ended up just David and I signing to the record company and forming a band around us whenever we needed one. It’s been that way for most of the eleven years we’ve been together. We’ve been through six or seven drummers and three different bass players."
Cracker’s self-titled 1992 debut was a moderate hit, complete with the college-rock anthem, "Teen Angst (What the World Need’s Now).” 1993’s follow-up, Kerosene Hat, yielded a surprise commercial charter with the song "Low," and temporarily catapulted the band into spotlight-fame. More surprisingly, Kerosene Hat included a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Loser.” Yet more surprising: the band opened up for the Grateful Dead at several summer stadium shows in 1994. That was really the band’s first brush with the jam band world, back before the jam band world even existed as such. It was also, obviously, the band’s first brush with true rock stardom.
It’s been a long time since the band has played stadiums, but they still enjoy a solid following. The fans may not go from show-to-show, like the hardcore jam-kids, but they certainly see the concerts and buy the albums. And nobody cares about hit singles.
If Cracker is an untraditional band, Lowery and Hickman are an untraditional songwriting team. For one, Lowery still lives in Richmond, Virginia while Hickman has moved back to Southern California. In the past, they’ve stored up ideas separately until given the opportunity to showcase them for each other. For their most recent release, Forever, the two tried a different method.
"Our manager suggested that we meet up somewhere on neutral ground, to try to minimize distractions and other things just hole up and write," says Hickman. "So we did that at a little place in the middle of nowhere, on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. I drove some equipment out from California basically just guitars, a drum machine, a little keyboard, and a little digital recorder." After a couple one-and-a-half week sessions, the songwriting pair had come up with most of the Forever material.
"We went to the desert to write these songs, and all the ones we wrote in the desert ended up sounding very British," laughs Hickman. The irony isn’t lost on either him or Lowery, but then again, Cracker has always thrived on quirky humor. The British Invasion/American West connection is just one of several featured on Forever.
“David and I have always been obsessed with dwarfs and monkeys and drag queens,” reveals Hickman. “You’ll find them on almost every Cracker CD at some point.”
Actually, on Forever, you’ll find monkeys on almost every track. Mark Linkous (of Sparklehorse) was one of the album’s producers, and a longtime friend of the band. His fear of primates, sparked by being bit on the hand by one in his childhood, prompted the gratuitous mentions. “David thought that was really funny,” says Hickman, “so he started singing monkeys’ in every song.”
The album’s title, Forever, is ironic as well. A word generally given to optimism, the title is written in bold letters, across a cover photo depicting Lowery and Hickman, in a trailer park, with two less-than-ideal looking female companions. “It doesn’t look like a very encouraging forever,” admits Hickman. “There’s a certain amount of optimism on this albumbut there’s also a forlorn thing going through it too.”
Cracker’s quirky sense of humor perfectly complements their intelligent and sometimes striking lyrical storytelling. There’s no chance that they take themselves too seriously, nor would they ever be considered a novelty act. Their Americana roots-rock is just as likely to tilt towards the Rolling Stones as it is Johnny Cash, and specks of punk-rock can end up barrel-holed next to scraps of Tex-Mex. Paradoxes or not, all of these elements have worked in Cracker’s favor since the band’s inception, in 1991.
“We got to a point,” Hickman says, pre-dating their self-titled debut, “where we took charge of our destiny, with very little interference from anyone else. And that, to us, was the biggest mark of success.” Idealistic or not, financial success wasn’t far behind.
"I don’t think either David or I had any lofty ideas about how big this band could get," says Hickman, who also notes that nobody “starts a band wanting it to be unsuccessful I don’t think anyone is that art-damaged. By the same token, I don’t think either of us thought we’d get where we got for a while there. It’s been up and down. But one of the points when we realized we were successful was when we both bought pick-up trucks."
And although they became darlings of the alt-country/roots-rock scene, Cracker has always shared a particular jam band ethic: “A lot of people just put a band together and it’s so push-button that it never changes,” says Hickman. “They do the same set every night, they tell the same jokes every night and that would bore me to death,”
Cracker was brought back into the jam band consciousness in 2001, when moe. invited them to play at the moe.down (9/01/01). That festival placed Cracker on a jam band roster, in front of a jam band audience.
“A couple members of moe. are big Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven fans,” explains Hickman. During moe.’s set, they brought on a special combination of guests, dubbed “Cracker Van Beethoven” (Hickman and Lowery, along with Camper alumni Jonathan Siegel and Victor Krummacher), to jam with moe. for a version of “Good Boys & Bad Boys.”
During the festival, Hickman became good friends with moe. guitarist Chuck Garvey. That friendship led to the brief “All Thumbs Tour” in the winter of 2001, featuring Hickman, Garvey, and Gibb Droll. “Just three acoustic guitars,” boasts Hickman. “As a matter of fact, I just talked to them in the last few days, and we’re going to try to go out in December and do the All Thumbs Tour’ again.”
Cracker further re-embedded themselves in the jam band world when Hickman jammed with Widespread Panic, on harmonica and mandolin, in Phoenix, Arizona (10/22/01).
"We listen to and are influenced by all these different things,” maintains Hickman. “We don’t really think into one sub-genre and stick with it like a lot of bands do. I think either of us would go insane playing the same kind of music over and over again.”
Although he may be saying that to distance himself from the jam band world, the fact is, that it’s a jam band ideal. But then again, Cracker is a jam band.