29 July 2010

Interview with Johnny Hickman, of Cracker

[Ed. note: this is a special guest post by friend and journalist Tara Nelson, who recently had the opportunity to talk with Hickman about the newest Cracker album, "Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey," in Bellingham, Wash. Matthew Ward contributes.]

Q: Hi Johnny. It's funny, ever since your publicity agent said I'd be interviewing you, I had the song "What You're Missing" stuck in my head where you talk about helping start the band.
A: That's funny because it was just us kind of joking around and making fun of rap and telling our little story. David and I have been playing music together for more than 20 years but we've had more than 15 other members come and go so we were trying to explain that in that song.

Q: I saw Camper and Cracker when you guys played in Bellingham a couple years ago. What brings you back to the area – Glacier of all places, which has a population of 90, and lies in the middle of the Mount Baker Wilderness!? Don't you know there are bears here?
A: Well I've lived in wilderness areas before, although now I'm in Colorado so it's not exactly wilderness but it's pretty close to it. I guess it’s just about time we come back. In fact, we often look at the map and look at areas we haven’t been in awhile and check out new towns and sometimes we just go to one based on the advice on someone else. We’ve played in big cities and now it’s time to go off the beaten track a little bit. Every time we do that we find great little towns we fall in love with and put on the tour map in the future.

Q: You're entering your fourth decade as a musician. If you look back to the early ‘80s when you first got started with bands like the Box 'O Laffs and Camper Van Beethoven, did you have any idea that this was actually going to turn into a viable, long-term career?
A: Certainly not and every year that it does I feel lucky, but part of it is also hard work and perseverance. David and I both had bands in the ‘80s in southern California, or the Inland Empire, as so they call it, and we’ve both experienced varying degrees of success. We’ve been at it a long time and we have fathers and sons and mothers and daughters who have seen us. One thing we said to each other in the beginning is that bands break up over trivial bullshit and we said let’s stay the course go for the long-haul and we’ve managed to do that. We’ve never been a household word but we’ve been making a living and that’s great.

Q: What is Cracker Soul?
A: That’s a great question because it brings us back to the origin of the band. When we first started hanging out after Camper broke up, I had just come from Bakersfield, California. We had both been into Captain Beefheart, The Kinks, Pixies and bands like that and we started going through our CD collections and saw how much we shared. He turned me on to the Buzzcocks and I turned him on to X and the Dead Kennedies. At the same time we started going away from what was on the radio, which was, at the time, all hair rock and new wave, we went the opposite direction with the songs we were writing. They all had our characteristic humor but stylistically, they were going in a sort of folk and soul roots directions. We realized we were kind of like Creedence Clearwater Revival and bands like that which were mostly white guys singing with this kind of African American soul. We both grew up in the south, we were exposed to a lot of soul music and country and sort of made them mash together. For example, the song “Get Off This” is sort of like a band like Hot Chocolate or something. And then with “Mr. Wrong,” it’s one of those songs where I’m celebrating country music while I’m making fun of it.

Q: That song is so funny, it's one of my favorites.
A: When I was writing that, I thought it would make David laugh. And he liked it so much he wanted to sing it. It’s been a mainstay in the Cracker show ever since. I think that same character shows up a lot in our songs like with “How Can I Live Without You If It Means I Gotta Get A Job” about the sort of quintessential ne’er-do-well who somehow has redeeming qualities.

Q:We all know people like that.
A: Ha ha, yeah we do. Some of us are related to people like that.

Q: Cracker has been described as everything from soul to rock, alt-country, punk, psychedelia to roots and folk music. How would you describe it?
A: At the root of it, it’s just rock music. People have called us alt-rock godfathers and that’s a high compliment but it shows our age, it also shows the time we came up in. In some ways it doesn’t make sense because when I talk about Cracker music, we don’t really sound grunge or alternative even though we came up in that age of Nirvana and Alice In Chains. To me, we sound more like a cross between the Kinks and sometimes The Beatles and sometimes Led Zeppelin and Little Feat. We’re a hard band to categorize and record companies have had a hard time with that. David and I are kind of proud of that, we have no problem with that at all. All my favorite bands I grew up with were also hard to categorize. I don’t like being defined. Anytime anyone tries to define us, there are going to be holes in those definitions.

Q: What’s currently in your rotation?
A: Always Bob Dylan, Neil Young and the Rolling Stones. The Clash is always readily available. X is another one.

Q: On the new Cracker album, Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey, you duet with Patterson Hood of Drive-by Truckers on the song “Friends.” How did that end up happening? Are you guys friends or something?
A: Yeah, we are. I wrote that song about partnerships like David and I or Mic and Keith or Patterson and Mike Cooley, all are sort of classic musical partnerships. It’s a silly song, certainly, but it’s one that a lot more people have identified with than we thought would. I thought to myself two of the icons of alternative rock singing a song I wrote, that’s kind of a feather in my cap.

Q: And your song “Turn on, tune in, drop out with me” is based on the famous quote by Timothy Leary and suggests finding a meadow high up in the Cascades to disappear in. Do you have some sort of special allegiance to this region?
A: David wrote the lyrics to that one but I think the song is just roughly a sketch of him poking fun of some of his alarmist friends, talking about younger urban professionals in their minds planning to go out and live off the land. In one of the verses, they’re trying to decide on granite or tile in the gun nest. It’s quintessential Lowery humor and he’s poking fun of our generation which we all like to do and he’s picturing this couple who wants to go out and live off the land. It could be someone in any major city in Washington deciding to go out and build a commune and set up a teepee and bring guns. I mean, I don’t take lightly the people who look to the dark sides of the future but there’s a little humor in almost all we do, and there’s certainly a little humor in that song.

Q: One of the more interesting things you've done lately is to tour Iraq with Cracker. Is it true that the idea for this tour started with a Youtube video for Yalla Yalla that a soldier put together?
A: A little bit. It’s bits and pieces of Youtube videos that soldiers have posted and it has everything from battle to dancing, to joking around to rocking out to their favorite music, but we took out the sound and made them rock out to our music.
David got the idea when he happened to be at the Atlanta airport where a lot of troops go through on their way to and from Iraq and he overheard a lot of young soldiers saying Yalla Yalla, which is an Arabic word that basically means let’s get up and go, kind of like odelay, in Spanish. The song doesn’t take a stand one way or another on the war, it’s just sort of a sketch.
So he contacted soldiers on their blogs and in their correspondence he was inspired by all the bravado and machismo of young soldiers to write the lyrics. We tried to put ourselves in the minds of 22-year-old soldiers and the kinds of things they’re trying to do to distract themselves from the duties they’re there to perform.
At the end of the song it becomes all about sex and one-upping each other and a lot of ridiculous sexual connotations – things like “she rocked my world,” “she liked my anaconda,” and “she hollered yalla yalla.” It just becomes more ridiculous as the song goes on. But it’s true to form because that’s how guys that age talk to each other. That’s the way David writes. He writes more like a novelist than a song writer and he creates characters true to their own voice.

Q: What are the prospects for another new Camper record in the foreseeable future?
A: I think there’s talk of another one, I know in 2004, they released New Roman Times and I think they’re working on another one. I know David is also working on a solo album. We’ve all done solo projects but David’s never done one and I think it just struck him, he’s pretty close to getting it out. Probably sometime next year.
If we’re not working on the mother ship, Cracker, which is sort of the center of our world and affords us our bread, then we’re working on Camper or solo projects. We’re music 24/7 kinds of guys.

Cracker is performing in Glacier, Wash., on August 19th, for you Whatcom County luckies!
Cracker - What You're Missing.mp3

27 July 2010

What David Berman has been up to for the past two years...

Last Sunday, a small room of maybe 50 people tops, were treated to an awesome lecture by former lead Silver Jew, David Berman. It was part of an Open City writing program. But really Berman spent two hours bashing his father, you know the evil PR guy who represents the interests of big tobacco, alcohol, tanning beds and anything with high fructose corn syrup and fights against MADD, the humane society and the minimum wage. Yeah, very evil. Berman described his father "as a man who prevents progress from happening" and hasn't spoken to him in over five years. More on the evilness here.

Sadly, Berman said he quit music because he felt his "father's world had subsumed his" and that culture and commerce intersect in really disturbing ways. Basically he hated playing festivals next to banners for beer promotion and other corporate things. I'm not sure I agree, but regardless he feels music can no longer be oppositional, which is why he got into it in the first place.

Anyway he started work on a memoir, but then gave up on it. He was also in talks with HBO to create a television series about his father but he decided that was a bad idea since in his words "television normalizes the satanic" and the audience also always sympathizes with the anti-hero. I mean who doesn't love Tony Soprano. So basically we'd all fall in love with his father which defeats his mission entirely. Now he's completely broke but working on a documentary (again about his father). They also filmed his entire talk so you should be able to see it in some capacity, hopefully not too far in the future.

Best quote of the night: "When you're a writer, it's nice to have a dog or two around the office. Because you know they're not getting anywhere either."

I even got to talk to him afterward and thanked him for his awesome music and he gave me a hug, aww.

Random Rules (live 3/10/06) - The Silver Jews

24 July 2010

Keyboard Cat's sophomore effort

I know Jess loves few things more than cats, especially dancing cats...

Clearly, Keyboard Cat has found a more accessible path for his music. Though the debut release was stripped down and intimate, this year's release shows Keyboard Cat growth, with a more diverse assortment of instruments, some interesting new beats, and finally lending some vocals to what was previously an instrumental only soundscape.

12 July 2010


We're well into Summer, which means it's music festival time. If my luck holds, I'll be at Pitchfork all day this Saturday, so drop a comment if you'll be there, too. I'm looking for another pair of tickets, if anyone has a lead on one. See you there!

Young Fresh Fellows - Sittin' On A Pitchfork

11 July 2010

Girl Talk Gossip!

Gregg dropped a note on Facebook today that a new, unnamed album will be out by the end of this year! I was unconvinced that anything could boot his last album, Feed The Animals, out of rotation and mashup favor, but this might just do it! Keep your ear to the rail for more info...

Girl Talk - Set it Off.mp3