Even though Cracker has already played three shows in Colorado this month, they’re not quite done with us yet, especially Johnny Hickman, one of the founders of the band since the beginning. Yes, they come back to play the Beavercreek for the World Cup Ski Races on Thursday, November 29, but one of their members actually calls Colorado home.
When I spoke with Johnny earlier this week, he was in Longmont getting ready to pick up some hay. Not girls. Hay. As in horses, cows and moo-land. A far cry from the rock ‘n roll lifestyle. But it seems to suit Johnny just fine, and in fact, he sounded downright happy. Living life on the road as much as Cracker does, he was enjoying this slower pace.
While steering the truck down the road with his father-in-law as his wing man, Johnny filled me in on how he came to live here. To no surprise, it was a woman.
Johnny Hickman: I’ve been living here about two years now. I’ve been wanting to move here for about 19 years, ever since we first starting touring here. I’ve always been fond of Colorado and always enjoyed my time here. I’ve spent a little of my “off” time here over the years. I always thought it was a place I would go and retire someday. Then I met my now-wife seven years ago. She came out and lived with me in California until my older son was in college, and then we moved here two years ago in September.
Kaffeine Buzz: How did you choose Loveland?
JH: That’s where she’s from. I really like the Loveland-Ft. Collins area and the music scene. There are a lot of really great, young musicians that I jam with; sit in with; do projects with. So it’s good for me that way.
KB: It’s interesting to see that you’re working with Jim Dalton (Railbenders) on a side project.
JH: Are you familiar with the Railbenders?
KB: Hell yeah. They’re a staple here in Denver. I always have a good time at their shows. They have a friggin’ bar and venue here, for God’s sakes. I live five minutes from Bender’s Tavern. So yeah, I definitely know about those guys.
JH: When I first moved here, my friend Lynn, she does publicity for Roger Clyne and other people, said, “There’s a band you gotta check out. They’re right up your alley.” She knows that I’m kinda that side of Cracker. I come from a little bit of a country background…more alt country. Anything but Nashville. So I went with her to check them out, and my father-in-law came with me ‘cause he’s a big music fan and he’s my drinking buddy. (laughs)
I was hooked. I went to a couple of shows and struck up a friendship with Jim and found he was a huge Cracker fan. In fact, they do Cracker songs occasionally with the Railbenders. So it was a match made in heaven. We became buddies and started going out to have a whiskey here and there, and then started writing songs together. We’ve got enough songs written for a couple of albums. We put out one, called Volume 1, and Volume 2 is in the works. When we finish touring for Greenland with Cracker, probably early next year, we’ll be working on Volume 2 for the Hickman-Dalton Gang.
KB: Who else is in the band with you? Is it just the two of you?
JH: It’s basically just Jim and I, but our friend John Massey, who has a great studio in Denver and is a world-class peddle steel player, he’s playing on there. And our buddy Jeremy from Big Head Todd and the Monsters, he plays trumpet and keyboards. He’s one of those guys that can just pick up an instrument and just play it. He’s on some tracks. But mostly it’s just Jim and I on the writing, and then we trade off on vocals. When we do shows, we can just do the two of us on acoustic guitar, but I think next year we’re going to be bringing in some other players when we do live shows.
KB: Have you heard of Drag the River? They’re up in Ft. Collins.
JH: Yeah, they’ve come to a couple of our shows.
KB: That’s the thing about the music community here. It’s pretty close knit and most everyone likes to work with each other and help each other out, as opposed to some other areas of the country like California, where things are a lot more competitive.
JH: When David and I were young, we were both in bands, both growing up in Redlands, California. We’d open for each other’s band and help each other out, and that’s how we became friends…sort of the do-it-yourself thing before there was even the term “indie rock” or “alternative rock.” Then he moved up to Northern California and invited me to join Camper [Van Beethoven] at one point, but I had just signed to a label with another band where I ended up quitting before the record came out. They were one of the only bands at the time who were forging new territory. I found that to be really compelling, aside from the fact that they were friends of mine.
KB: Absolutely, and I can tell you, especially from where I was from, like 20 minutes from Santa Cruz, some of their songs became anthems.
JH: (laughs) Right!
KB: They were real big on the college stations too. And every time they played Catalyst, the kids went off.
JH: I remember coming up to see a couple of their shows and just being floored at the support they had on their home turf.
KB: Yeah, it was a sad day when it ended.
JH: Well, it was bittersweet for me though. When I heard that Camper had broken up in the middle of the tour in Europe, I went, “Oh man, there goes one of my favorite bands.”
But then I got a call from David saying “Hey, let’s get together and write some songs.” When we got together it was just the two of us, but we had a variety of influences. We listened to everything, from the Pixies, to Captain Beefheart, to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. When David and I work with other people aside from Cracker, and I believe that’s what keeps the band fresh. We come back to the band with new experiences and new flavors. It keeps the right vitamins coming into our musical diet.
KB: How do you guys do that, considering you’re all dispersed all over the country now?
JH: We’re together so much that it doesn’t really matter where we live. We spend so much time on tour and in the studio; we still end up spending more time together than with our friends and almost more than our family. I’m getting ready to go to Richmond here in a week or so to hole up in David’s studio and write for about a week to see what we can come up with. We’ll probably scratch the surface and come up with ideas that will end up on an album next year. It’s time to get back in the lab and start making some music again.
KB: When it comes to Greenland, at least lyrically, there seems to be a lot of themes around reminiscing and looking into the past.
JH: Yeah, it does have that essence. I think it has to do with where we both are in lives right now, but with more David than me. This album really was his baby. He did more of the writing on this one, although he and I do a lot of writing together. He went through a lot these past couple of years and had a lot of stories to tell. It all came out in the songs, which is what an artist is supposed to do.
KB: If this last record was cathartic for him, do you have any idea where this next record will be heading?
JH: It’s hard to tell. I’ve got a bag of guitar licks, some bits and pieces, and I think David has the same thing. I think that’s the beauty of how we start a project. After you scratch the surface, a song kind of tells you what home it wants. The way David describes it is, half way through he may realize that this is more of a Camper thing, or this is more of a solo thing. And I do the same thing, when they feel like they’re more of something I should do myself, more personal.
KB: Even though you’re able to decipher the style of a song for one project or another, there is still a variety of styles within Cracker’s style. You can hear that in this last album.
JH: When you expose yourself to different kinds of music, it gets into your bloodstream a bit. But David has such a unique lyrical style that whatever musical direction it takes, it still ends up sounding like Cracker. David uses what he calls the ‘unreliable narrator,’ creating a character and letting the character speak. When you do that you use a lot of irony, which David’s English cousin says is dangerous to do in America.
KB: I agree. A good portion of our population tends to take things way to literally, which is really annoying.
JH: Right. It isn’t necessarily that YOU’RE a serial killer, it’s what the person in the song is and this is what he or she would say. Not that people don’t get it here or anything like that, otherwise our shows would be empty. They get the sense of humor, the tongue-n-cheek thing, which brings us to our audience. Over the course of 18 years together, people ask us the question, “Who are your fans?” You can’t pinpoint that any more than you can pinpoint our music, I’m happy to say. Now we have 19-year old MySpace people, kids who are half our age, which is fantastic. And we have college professors and people who are older than us coming to see us. There’s a common bond there; an appreciation for the kind of skewed sense of humor that we have. They’ll sing along to certain lines in songs, and it’s good to see that they’re in on the joke, ya know?
The next chapter has to be a Johnny and Jim interview, and we’ll be bringing that to you here in the near future. Along with the Cracker show at Beavercreek this Thursday, Jim Dalton is also playing this coming Tuesday, December 4 at Walnut Room with Jeremy Lawton and Ryan Bingham.