Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bonus Q&A with Cracker's Johnny Hickman

Did road testing songs from "Milk and Honey" live make the studio process go quicker?
It does and it’s a good idea to do because anybody can make a good record these days. A two-year-old could with the state of technology. The real strength of a band is how they play live. So it’s good to road test the songs too. We’ve done that in the past. More so with this record. We recorded a live DVD in Germany of all the songs from a show called “Rockpalast.” The versions on the record are slightly different than that because once we get in the studio, we tweak ‘em in a little farther.

The last record we made, “Greenland,” was made over the course of a couple years because we were busy touring – David was doing shows with Camper and I was doing solo stuff. When you do a record that way, it’s fun to do it strictly in the studio. We had a lot of guests come in and play on that record and it wasn’t as streamlined as this one. We decided to get the four of us together in a room nose to nose and write and record. Usually, the way we’d do it is, David and I would bring in some songs that we either wrote together or separately. This time, we included our bass player and drummer in the process. It was a lot more fun to do that way.

Didn’t you have a disciplined, self-imposed deadline on writing the songs?
We’d go in like you were clocking into a regular job and said, ‘ok, we’re going to start in the morning and not come out until we get at least two new pieces of music.’ Sometimes a piece of music from the first day would meld with a piece of music from the eighth day. It was a pretty visceral and exciting way to work and very fruitful – we really liked working that way. It really just fires you up and playing together as a band in the studio, it’s a very worthwhile method. We’ll use it again. We’ve used it before, but even more so this time, where we really approached it like a job. Just letting songs float around awhile before we showed them to the band…after the sessions, David would go home to work on lyrics and I’d go back to the hotel and try to come up with another guitar melody, chord structure, a title or something. Sometimes, we’d just start with a good title.

What was it like working with David Barbe from Sugar?
It was fantastic. We’ve known David for awhile from his days with Bob Mould and some of the projects he’d worked on, like Drive By Truckers and Jay Farrar. People whose work we liked and were familiar with. He’s been a mainstay in Athens, Georgia for awhile. That’s where our manager lives and we spend a good amount of time down there. So we thought, ‘let’s go down to Athens and record this one.’ We did most of the writing in Virginia at David’s studio there. Took the songs on the road a little bit. When it came time to track at Barbe’s studio in Athens, it was a really great experience. It’s a great college town.

I live in a town like that in Ft. Collins. I think college towns are good because there’s a lot of hungry musicians around and a lot of cross-pollination between genres. It enables you to stay in the middle of it. David and I are both that way – we spend a lot of time with younger musicians. We’re journeymen. We’ve been doing this for 25 years. It’s really exciting for us to spend time and co-exist with younger musicians. I think that’s why David [Lowery] spends most of his time in Athens and I spend most of my time here in Ft. Collins when we’re not on the road. It’s just good for you, like a vitamin.

David has said he felt this album has a time stamp of 1978-83 all over it. Were you guys inspired by the music of your college years while making it?
That’s the time frame – even though I wouldn’t call it a nostalgic album – that has those sonics. Although the lyrical themes are quintessential David Lowery. That’s the music all of us listened to when we all started playing in bands. David and I had fledgling bands in the Inland Empire. We had punk rock bands and an experimental band we were half putting together for fun for parties. The bands that were really influential around then were people like Elvis Costello, the Clash, the Police, X and punk bands like Fear from Los Angeles.

That was some of the music we cut our teeth on just out of our teens. [For this album], it was just something that felt right...Each record has a little of that in there. This one, a little more so. Plus we have Frank Funaro on drums, who played with the Dictators and Joey Ramone. And we have Sal Maida, who played with Sparks, one of the most original pop bands, pre-punk, to come out of the United States. You mix all those things together and we have that kind of rhythm section. They’re really at home with those kinds of rhythms and aggressive beats.

So it was just natural to make these kinds of songs like “Time Machine” or “Hand Me My Inhaler” or the title track, which to me sounds like The Church. Cracker encompasses a lot of different music in what we do. We have right from the start. I remember talking about this with David when we first started to form what was going to become Cracker. We’d been friends for awhile. We talked about the bands we liked the best and like the Clash, Kinks or Rolling Stones – bands that incorporated a lot of styles and made them their own. The Pixies, you heard all kinds of different threads in these. We’ve always liked those kinds of bands.

As much as both of us like a band like The Ramones, I think we’d go a little crazy locked that tightly into one sound. With Cracker, we’ve always given ourselves the freedom. If one of us has been listening to Merle Haggard or Can, that’s going to come out. We’ve never blocked that flow and I think it makes for a more interesting cannon of work. We don’t edit out any of our influences. Yet we don’t wear them on our sleeves [either].

Since much of “Greenland” was dark and understated, we’re you guys raring to rock out again this time?
“Greenland” definitely rocks hard in some places. It’s a little more ethereal and introspective. In a lot of ways, it’s David’s album, lyrically. He was going through a lot of big changes in his life, which is reflected in the songs. It’s a little more of a personal record for him lyrically. I think that’s where his heart and soul were at the time. My job is always to match that musically right with him and go with the flow...We really wanted to strip [this album] down to the basic core band. The way we wrote the songs lend them to that as well. It was like a boxing match – we’d just come in swinging…we’d just keep hammering the riffs back and forth, almost like a basketball, until the songs started taking shape.

One of my favorites is “Time Machine,” which was inspired by you recalling an old punk riot you were involved in, right?
I was slowly thinking about my punk rock experiences in the Inland Empire and Los Angeles back in the day when we’d drive in from Redlands and pick up our friends in Riverside to go into Los Angeles to see X or the Dead Kennedys. There was a particular riot, I think David's sister was there with me and a bunch of friends.

You had Jello Biafra onstage saying, ‘Nazi punks fuck off. Trash your bank if you got real balls.’ In the meantime, some of these goons who had real long hair two months before, were faux punk rockers there to wreak havoc. And they were tearing the place up...Later on, being here in Colorado and the Blasting Room [studio], which is owned in part by Bill Stevenson, he was a member of Black Flag back in the day. He was at that same concert and riot. We got to talking and I thought, ‘what if I could take some punks from today and take them back to show them how the whole thing started?’ And how it got ugly after awhile. What it was really like when it started was there was a bunch of like-minded people, maybe about 12, in the late ‘70s. It sort of imploded as all scenes do eventually.

There’s still good punk rock bands now and the best ones seem to be influenced by the real root sources. I find that oddly comforting even though the music itself isn’t. Just that is was a strong enough genre of music to stay alive through the decades. It’s a perfect format to express dissatisfaction and anger. You can’t think of anything better than a three-minute loud fast song to get the emotions out.

You revisited “Friends” from your solo album and gave it the whole Cracker treatment. When did Patterson Hood from Drive By Truckers enter the picture?
I did that song on my solo album, thinking of it as a duet because David recorded “Reasons to Quit” by Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard for ‘Countrysides.’ A couple years later, I thought I’d come with our take on a buddy song. At the time, David was working with Camper Van Beethoven on ‘New Roman Times’ and I was working on the solo album.

It felt really natural to write. Obviously, there’s a sense of humor in there too. Not too long before I was writing it, I spent a little time hanging out with Drive By Truckers on tour, on the bus, drinking and shooting the breeze. The longer I’ve known those guys, the more I’m reminded that Patterson and Mike Cooley have a relationship like David and I where they’ve been together since they were kids. Still they make it happen. So they inspired it a little bit when I wrote the song. So it was great years later when David said, ‘we should do that with Cracker, but let’s do it as a duet.’ It was a natural to invite Patterson into do it. He has given me a lot of positive strokes over the years. He was a fan of early Cracker, the redneck songs like my “Mr. Wrong.” Tongue firmly planted in cheek...David and I both grew up in the south on military bases. Patterson came in and sang it with so much heart and soul.

How did you get John Doe to do guest vocals on “Shine a Light?”
It has been talked about a few times. When we were in our late teens/early 20s, X was one of the influential bands on us. John’s not much older than us; he just got started in the business really young. He was like a hero to us. We’d go down and see X. I met him in the early days and over the years, kept track of what they were doing. In the mid’90s when we put out ‘Golden Age,’ John came backstage and introduced himself. We were just speechless. To say that he had the record and he and his kids drive around listening to it was immensely flattering and humbling. We felt like a million bucks and ten feet tall – both of us.

Over the years, we’d run into him at Cracker and Camper shows. He played solo at the Campout one year and I came up and duetted on a song with him on a song from ‘Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet.’ He sang a song or two with Camper. We’ve always maintained a little friendship. We had a song with that early X feel, a combination of my surf licks which are a little like Billy Zoom, like sped up surf music, which the way we both seem to write. It ended up being about the Panthers, a cricket team. We thought, ‘let’s get John in here and see how he’d do on a second vocal.’ John came in, sang it down and it worked flawlessly.

What has been your reaction to the overwhelming response to the album and increased radio play this time?
At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself if you’re doing it because you love it and have to. If it was what you were born to do. We just make the music we want and feel eventually some people will catch up to us. We’ve always stayed true to our guns and what we believe in.

Do you think the eclectic nature of the band’s music has contributed to your longevity?
I think it has contributed to our fan base’s devotion to us because they expect that from us. They don’t want to hear a flat album of songs that sound the same…I think once the fans buy the CDs and come to some shows, they understand this band goes pretty wide in its sound. Initially, that’s a bit difficult when you sign to a record label because they don’t quite know how to market you. They want to be able to hang a descriptive name on you. We’re a band that’s kind of tough to do. There are elements of hard rock, noise rock, folk, country, punk, funk, soul – all these things we look as colors to paint with, really. To make music that goes that broad probably takes more balls.

Some people that like “Mr. Wrong” might not get the funkier stuff. People who are into the more esoteric big dark ballads like “Big Dipper,” “Dixie Babylon” or “I Want Everything,” might not understand the sheer terror of “100 Flower Power Maximum.” It still ends up sounding like Cracker. David’s lyrical style and the way we play guitars together have a lot to do with that…bands that have two guitars, there’s a certain way you have to weave them together so they can work. Our band has more of that going on. David for the most part plays rhythm guitar…we’ll swap off who’s playing the melodies and chords. There’s no set pattern or rule book in Cracker, which has always been refreshing…it’s a very liberating way to make music and it’s never changed in the 18 years we’ve been together.

What's ahead for the band?
We plan to keep touring this album into 2010. David has talked about a solo album. Nothing is set in stone. We plan to go to Spain, where we have an ardent fan base. We actually have more fans per capita there than we do here.

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