One day last week I saw an amazing video of John Hickman singing Another Song About the Rain, accompanied by David Lowery from their Cracker Duo tour last fall. Then I see a notice that Cracker is playing here in Dayton on May 15th. Next thing I know I'm on the line with Cracker's PR folks and setting up an interview with John. World's funny like that, and you have to pay close attention and go where it takes you.
John Hickman has been the lead guitarist and for Cracker for about twenty years now, and his partnership with David Lowery has been amazingly fruitful. In a time of cancelled tours and disappointing records sales, Cracker is doing big business, selling out shows and moving units in an impressive fashion. Their latest long player, Sunrise In The Land of Milk and Honey is yet another fine record and it sounds as fresh as their debut Cracker Brand back in 1992. Lowery's songwriting is always as fine as you'll find, and in addition to being a fine writer himself, Hickman is as fine a right-hand man as there is in the business. His tasteful playing is as big a part of Cracker as Lowery's distinctive twang, and places him in the same league as Richards and Ronson as brilliant sidemen. In addition, Hickman released his solo album Palmhenge a few years back with excellent results and reviews.
Normally, I like to write a feature around an interview, but John Hickman's words are such that I thought a verbatim transcript would best serve. A little less of me, a little more Cracker Soul.
John, my Facebook page lit up like crazy when news of a local Cracker show came across. With a tanked economy and in the throes of record-store deaths, how’s the road treating you?
JH: Surprisingly well I'm happy to say. The new Cracker CD "Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey" is still doing well after nearly a year and the shows have been selling out consistently both with the full band and with the David and Johnny duo shows. Cracker just competed a sold out tour of Spain which is like a second home to us now. It's sad to see the record stores going under one by one. We sell most of our CDs online or at shows now.
I saw David Lowery and yourself on youtube in Sebastopol, CA – “Another Song About the Rain” - one of the best “rain” songs ever written, right alongside Fogerty and Lennon’s.
JH: You're putting me in some heavy company. Thank you very much.
How much fun is it to sing and solo in a live setting over a really solid acoustic guitar underpinning? Lowery is really a solid rhythm player, no?
JH: It's a sheer pleasure. Yes, in addition to being a great songwriter David is a highly underrated guitarist. He spent four years in Spain as a kid and I think it got into his blood. He can finger pick very well and the next moment be beating hell out his guitar like some Flamenco demon. For the duo shows we run his classical guitar through sub woofers and it sounds like a kick drum. We mesh very well together as a live duo. We know intuitively how to follow one another and so it frees us both to take chances and be adventurous on stage. We never use a set list so it's always fresh and unpredictable. It's a little different every night. We love that and so do the fans.
"Another Song About the Rain" How did you come to write this song? Song-craft, autobiography, or perhaps a bit of both?
JH: I wrote the core of it alone in a cabin where I lived in the San Bernardino Mountains of California where I lived. I also wrote "Father Winter" up there which came out on my solo album "Palmhenge" years later. The original version of "Another Song About The Rain" was very long. I was listening to a lot of "Blood On The Tracks" era Bob Dylan when I wrote it and later my other co-writer and longtime friend Chris LeRoy edited the verses down, simplified it and shaped it into what you hear. Obviously it was a bad time in my life but that's where some of the best music comes from. It's the classic double edged sword. There is the cathartic purging of pain but yet you sort of give it eternal life if you write a song about it.
What was David Lowery’s reaction when he first heard it? Had you done a lot of writing prior to this?
JH: We were nearly finished with the first album when I brought it in. We had already written some pretty great songs together at this point so I think David was pretty open. If he didn't like it I would have tossed it aside immediately. I mean, we're talking about David Lowery, one of the best songwriters out there in my opinion. He and our producer Don Smith heard my demo and said "Let's record it". It was the last song to go on the record. Listening to the album version now I wished I had had time to do it better but that's often the case. It is what it is. I think David and I play it much better now.
How was the Cracker/Camper tour? Any competition issues between the bands?
JH: Sure, I'd be full of shit if I said there wasn't a little healthy competition between the two bands but we have also been brothers and friends, all of us for a very long time. Over the years we have had a lot of support for each other and share two band members. The tour was very successful. Most shows sold out pretty quickly.
Your tour blog shows you to be a pretty good and serious writer. Do you journal a lot, and what do you derive from it?
JH: Thanks. I'm pretty outgoing as a person and it's just an extension of that I guess. It just comes naturally for me to comment on whatever riles me up, humors me or outrages me somehow. Also I was tired of reading other writers get things so wrong so often. It's very satisfying when people tell me they were effected by one of my articles or blogs which happens all over the world now with the internet. Another reason I do it is because you have to be a hustler in the music business these days. It's another way to stay connected with our fans. I wish I had more time to devote to it.
I know you’re big fans of analog tape, so how do you approach recording your guitar digitally?
JH: We record everything to tape, move to the digital realm for editing and then bounce it back to analog to warm it back up as they say. When I record guitars I sometimes try people's patience because I set up a huge wall of very different sounding amps, going from one to another and combining them often. It gets loud as hell sometimes but that records well with certain amps. If I'm playing the same thing through two amps simultaneously I try to persuade the engineer or producer to give each amp it's own mic and track even if it bleeds a little. You can be a lot more creative in mixing that way. I learned that trick from the brilliant producer Don Smith who sadly, just passed on while we were in Spain. He used that technique with the Stones, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers and others before us. I've read that Jimmy Page did this a lot too.
What do you listen to for enjoyment?
JH: Everything from outlaw country to Middle Eastern music to electronica. I put my ipod on shuffle on the long drives on tour and it runs the gamut from classical to punk rock to Irish ballads. As a musician and songwriter I think it's good to listen to current and ancient music and everything in between. It gets into your blood and challenges your sensibilities. It's good medicine.
What is your favorite band, and your favorite album?
JH: I'd have to narrow it down from 20 or 30 bands and to about 100 albums. Off the top of my head I'd put The Rolling Stones "Beggars Banquet", Bob Dylan's "Blood On The Tracks" The Kinks "Muswell Hillbillies" and "The Harder They Fall" Soundtrack album right up there but I could never pick just one favorite. It changes daily. I'm anxiously awaiting the next Fleet Foxes album. I love Graham Coxon too.
With the demise of traditional record companies and record sales, is there any less recognition of newer material by fans on the road, or are they boned up on new stuff? Any noticeable differences?
JH: It's an every changing playing field with regards to the business side of things but you just have to roll with it. Cracker fans are very devoted to say the least. They have pretty much embraced every album and know that every album is going to shift gears a little. They don't really care whether it's on the radio or not. This new album HAS gotten on the radio and garnered us many more fans I'm happy to report. There are lot of free thinkers in the Cracker fan base. I've met many thousands of them and they all came to the party from different albums over the years, the latest one or the first one. We never have a set list but we try to play something from every album live. Every night is a little different.
Are there any bands or musicians you’d like to play with?
JH: Hell yes. Bob Dylan or The Replacements would be at the top of that list but I love to collaborate, jam, record, play live. It's all I do or ever want to do.
Your Les Paul….How long have you been playing it, how much work did you do or have done to it?
JH: It's a 1977 Standard and I bought it new. I was living on my own at a young age and actually gave blood to make the payments several times in those lean days. I've turned it into a bit of a Frankenstein monster over many years. I use Seymour Duncan Jeff Beck pick ups in it and it has a Kahler locking tremolo system. They don't even make those anymore. It's an odd set up but it works very well for me. It's ain't broke so I ain't fixing it as they say. I've also carved all over it, tattooed it, gouged it out and put a little piece of Muddy Water's birthplace wood in it. I've also attached some polished stones to it.
Your tone is often nearly as pure as a Tele’s. Any pickup height, or pole piece adjustments worth noting?
JH: I played up around Bakersfield for a while just before I got together with David and all the old cowboy players would say "You can't play country on no Gepson...get a FENDA boy!". I just worked at it until I could get those sounds with my hands and picking style on the Paul. I have my bridge pick up raised up pretty high and use fairly heavy strings. I like a lot of deep twang as well as psychedelic noise and overtones and that set up does it for me.
What is the difference in your rigs for the acoustic shows vs. Cracker full band shows?
JH: Actually I play with the same set up for both. David plays an Ibanez nylon string acoustic for the Cracker duo shows and I play with my usual electric set up which is: My Les Paul through a Boss tuner into an MXR Carbon Copy delay pedal into a Boss Blues Driver and then into a Fender Supersonic. I run the Supersonic through a 4x12 Marshall cabinet on bigger stages. I also have a clamp on holder on my mic stand with anywhere from 2 to 5 Lee Oskar harps in it for both duo and full band gigs.
What’s your favorite guitar or road story. The must tell story?
JH: My favorite guitar story is that I was once lucky enough to open a few weeks of shows for ZZ Top when they were at the top of their game in the 80s. I'm a big Billy G fan and would sound check with his licks before I had actually met him. One day I saw that beard poke around the corner and was afraid I'd pissed him off. I was wrong. He came to the dressing room and introduced himself with a grin. "heard ya playin my chops boy" Then he asked in that great Texas accent "Why'd you put a wiggle stick on a Les Paul?" I loved it. He was very cool to me on that tour which amazed the crew because he's kind of mysterious. He let me sit behind the P.A. speakers on stage every night and watched him up close. I'll never forget it.
David Lowery and John are currently on tour as Cracker Duo, and will commence full band touring in May co-headlining shows with The Reverand Horton Heat. This will be a tour to see, maybe the hottest I've come across this year.
Thanks to John Hickman and the gracious folks at Pavement PR.