Cracker – Staying True To Self

Alternative Pop/Rock Band Cracker Headed to McGuffy’s

Guitarist Johnny Hickman says he wouldn’t be happy playing with a band that stuck to a similar sound from song to song and album to album.

Fortunately, Hickman is in Cracker, a band that after nearly 19 years together has established itself as being difficult to categorize.

“I don’t think I’d be very happy in a band that played a specific sub genre,” Hickman said in a recent phone interview. “I don’t think David (frontman David Lowery) would be either. We’ve sort of established our career that way, doing whatever we want to do. And especially the fans that have been with us for awhile know that we’re going to do this, and anybody who comes to the party in the last few records finds out pretty quick that we’re not an easily definable band, and I take a lot of pride in that.”

The fact that Cracker is far from a one-trick musical pony is apparent just in listening to the group’s past couple of records.

The 2006 CD, Greenland, was an eclectic and rather epic album, with music that ranged from the textured pop of “Where Have Those Days Gone” to sweet country rock of “Something You Ain’t Got” to the moody ambience of the ballad “Sidi Fini” to the punchy rock of “Everybody Gets One For Free.”

By contrast, Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey, released this past summer, is a direct, rocking album that at times pulls from the punk rock roots Hickman and Lowery share. That side of the band is especially evident on “Hand Me My Inhaler,” a minute-and-a-half blast of catchy fast-paced guitar rock, and “Time Machine,” another hopped up dose of guitar rock.

There are a few tunes that display a more relaxed sound, such as the mid-tempo track “Darling One” and the country-ish “Friends.” But most of Milk and Honey rocks, with “Show Me How This Thing Works,” “Yalla Yalla” and “Hey Brett (You Know What Time It Is)” among the other highlights.

It’s not the first time that Cracker, which was formed in 1991 by long-time friends Lowery and Hickman after Lowery’s previous band, Camper Van Beethoven, had broken up, has favored direct rocking music on a CD. The band’s 1992 self-titled debut (which featured the hit song “Teen Angst”) and the 1998 CD Gentleman’s Blues had much of that personality. But as with Greenland, the group has also made albums that were more textured and studio crafted, such as 1996’s The Golden Age and 2001’s Forever.

Hickman said Cracker never really goes into a CD with a set plan for what the album will become, but he had a few thoughts on why the muse swung back toward more of a rock sound on Milk And Honey.

“It may have had (something) to do with the last album Greenland being a little more of a studio album with a lot of friends playing on it,” he said. “It just sort of felt natural to come back to a little more streamlined way of making music, and just getting in a room with two guitars, bass and drums and banging the songs out that way, both of which are fine. I love records that go to both extremes. But it just felt natural for David and me to do it this way because for some reason we sort of tapped into the sounds and the beats of the music we were listening to when we first started playing in bands. And that goes for Sal (Maida) and Frank (Funaro), too, our bass player and drummer. They come from power pop and punk rock beginnings. So we’re sort of playing to our own strengths, in a way.”

Some of the brighter tone of Milk And Honey may also be a reflection of where Lowery, in particular, is in his life. Heading into the Greenland CD, he was going through some events that lent themselves to darker themes.

“Greenland’ was in many ways a very personal album for David,” Hickman said.  “There was a good friend of ours who was killed tragically, and we’ve lost some people that we know.”

“And although David is fond of saying, and it’s absolutely true, I think it’s a good observation, that maturity is the enemy of the rock musician, I still think that you owe it to yourself to write what’s in your bloodstream at any given time or what’s in your heart or what’s reality,” Hickman added. “So if darkness shows up, then it shows up. That’s a more honest approach to songwriting.”

Milk And Honey, Hickman agreed, has a bit sunnier disposition, although it covers plenty of emotional terrain as well.

“There’s definitely some darkness, like in the title track and a few other ones,” he said. “But there’s also a lighthearted side to it, too, and a little self-effacing humor in (songs like) ‘Time Machine’ or ‘Inhaler’ or ‘Show Me How This Thing Works.’”

Unlike some Cracker CDs, which were essentially written by Lowery (with some songs from Hickman), on Milk And Honey Maida and Funaro were also involved in the writing and developing of the songs.

“We approached it a little more like a factory job, and it was a lot of fun to do it that way,” Hickman said. “We would go in the morning and say look, we’re not leaving the room until we come up with a few pieces of music, at least two. And some days we came up with more than that.”

Fans that come to see Cracker on its current tour can expect to hear a healthy number of the new songs, Hickman said.

“We’ll be playing quite a few selections from Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey,’” he said. “But we try to represent our whole career when we play live. We try to play something from each album if we can and we vary those. There are a handful of songs that we’ll always play, of course. Those are the radio songs. You know, Dave and I never forget that it might be somebody’s first Cracker show, and they might only know a few of the radio songs. If that’s the case, we want to give them what they want. We don’t understand bands that won’t play their radio songs. I think that’s kind of self-indulgent.”

Cracker will perform Saturday, May 15 at McGuffy’s House of Rock, 5418 Burkhardt Rd., Dayton. Also on the bill are Reverend Horton Heat and Split Lip Rayfield. Doors open at 7 p.m. Music begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 on day of show. For tickets or more information, call (937) 256-3005 or visit www.mcguffys.net

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