Cracker to play at Ghost Ranch in Steamboat tonight
Steamboat Springs — Cracker guitarist Johnny Hickman took time out of his touring schedule this week to answer questions from Explore Steamboat reporter Nicole Inglis. Four-piece rock band Cracker, which was well known in the 1990s with hits such as “Low” and “Eurotrash Girl,” recently released a new album and continues to tour while staying true to their alternative rock roots. They play tonight at Ghost Ranch Saloon alongside Cracker singer David Lowery’s other project, Camper Van Beethoven.
Nicole Inglis: What’s it like being on tour after having a significant alt-rock 1990s hit?
Johnny Hickman: Actually, we’ve never quit touring since we started the band in 1991. The radio hits we’ve had over the years are a real plus, of course, but our hardcore fans, or “Crumbs” as they call themselves, are usually more interested in the other songs and our newest album “Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey,” which has done very well and gotten radio airplay this year. Of course, we always play our radio hits live. For us it has been a continuous line of recording new albums and playing live both here and in Europe since we started.
Inglis: You and David (Lowery) have been friends for a very long time and on the road for longer. What is the dynamic like on stage, and how does it translate to the songwriting process?
Hickman: Yeah, we’ve known each other over 30 years now, going back to pre-Camper Van Beethoven days. When we started Cracker around 19 years ago, things came together pretty quickly and smoothly. We create music well together and it has always come pretty naturally to us as a partnership.
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At the core of Cracker music is this dialog between David’s voice and my guitar. Sometimes David will have a song pretty well mapped out, and I try to add the right riffs, melodies and vocal harmonies to frame it in. Other times a song will start from one of my guitar riffs and David takes it from there. Sometimes we write on our own. In the end, the song is king. It tells us what it wants.
As friends, we’ve gone through all the things people go through in 30 years. Births, deaths, relationships, band members, record companies and managers coming and going, etc. That tends to solidify a friendship. We get each other’s humor, which is very important in life, as well as in song. I think that comes across on stage, too.
Inglis: What might it take to have another hit like “Low,” if you wanted?
Hickman: I have no idea. The music business has all but evaporated now with the poor economy and people stealing music online. In spite of that, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me” from our new album “Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey” reached No. 13 last year.
We’ve always let the record labels pick the radio songs. We love all the songs or we wouldn’t put them out. We’ve been lucky with “Low,”
“Eurotrash Girl” and “Get Off This.” Those songs get played on radio even more today then they did when they first came out.
Inglis: How did you get started playing music at a young age, and who were your influences?
Hickman: I was a very shy kid growing up in a military family that moved constantly, so I found solace in music. It was always there for me, and I escaped into playing piano and guitar very young. As a kid growing up in the 1960s and 1970s my influences ranged from The Rolling Stones and The Kinks to Bob Dylan. Also, Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin, a lot of blues artists like Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker. If I wasn’t a musician, I might still be working around the deceased, which is what I did just before we started Cracker. I used to groom them. Actually, it was not a bad job to have because the hours were flexible and I was playing music late at night.
Inglis: How do you want your music career(s) remembered in the music industry?
Hickman: That we stayed true to ourselves as a band and as artists no matter what the trends were. We have very loyal fans both here and in Europe, so I guess we’ve been doing something right for all these years. I’m proud of that.
Inglis: You’ve done some fun bluegrass and country albums and are putting on your own festival. What’s next for Cracker/Camper?
Hickman: Yes, we have our own annual festival every September called The Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven Campout out near Joshua Tree, Calif. This will be our sixth year. As far as the bluegrass and country albums go, we like to experiment. That might mean playing with other musicians and distorting the lines between genres a bit. Who knows what it will be next time? Maybe a psychedelic album. We’ll know when we get there.
Inglis: What motivates you during your live shows these days?
Hickman: We’re motivated by the fact that this is about the best job on earth. We make our living doing what we love to do, and I think about that every night and day on the road. We perform in both large and small venues depending on the city or country, and we enjoy both. With audiences it really is quality over quantity. David and I played the Ghost Ranch as a duo not long ago and it went very well so we decided to bring both bands back with us this time.
The Apothecary shows really showcase our history. People will get to see both Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven and will likely recognize some songs from both bands. Also, we play some songs together, sit in with each other and mess with the arrangements a little, which is a lot of fun.
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