Johnny Hickman of Cracker

<img src="" alt=" " />In the midst of a tour, Cracker guitarist Johnny Hickman talked to QRO. ...

Johnny Hickman of CrackerIn the midst of a tour, Cracker guitarist Johnny Hickman talked to QRO. In the conversation, Hickman discussed the tour, their new record, Sunrise In the Land of Milk and Honey (QRO review), returning to a four-piece, playing as a two-piece, playing with Cracker singer/guitarist David Lowery’s old/other band, Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker’s ever-changing set lists, getting love from jam bands & alt-country acts, the decline of the record industry, the decline of California, the decline of Rome, Richard Grieco, Robert Pastorelli, and much more…

QRO: How has this recent tour been going?

Johnny Hickman: So far, really, really, really well.  We’ve been getting great turnout for shows, some of them selling out.  I’m always happy about that.  New album seems to be getting more attention than albums we’ve gotten in a few years, so that’s great too.  Been getting a lot of radio airplay, number fifteen on the Billboard chart.  Really good ratings, with reviews, and those, of course, will make you happy.  Feelin’ pretty satisfied about it, at this point.

We’ve gone from a five-piece band down to a four-piece, streamlined.  Rocking a little harder than we have for a while.  Recording & writing the album as a four-piece, and the live shows are reflecting that.  The fans seem to be pretty happy about that.

QRO: Sunrise In the Land of Milk and Honey seems to be more ‘rock’ than the last record, Greenland.  Is that because – why did you go down to a four-piece?

JH: Well, we started out as a four-piece, did the first several albums as a four-piece.  The band was based around David & me, as songwriters.  The first records were two guitarists, bass, and drums – sort of the classic ‘rock set’ line-up.  And so we decided to return to that.

We’d gotten a little farther from that.  We’ve got our own studio in Richmond, Virginia, so it’s easy to bring in a lot of other people to play on your record.  David & I have always held a light to bring in guests on the albums, which is a lot of fun.  We have a lot of friends coming in to play.

But we’ve revisited the way we started making records, for the most part, just the four of us: David & I, and bassist & drummer.  Different bass player now than we had when we did the first Cracker album, Kerosene Hat, back in the day.  Sort of brought it back to that dynamic.  Although the songs don’t really sound exactly like those albums, there’s always been a punk rock element to them, along with a basic rock ‘n’ roll element, and a little bit of an alternative-country element, roots element – it’s all part of the Cracker ‘pallet’.

For this album, a lot of it had to do with the songwriting.  For whatever reason, sort of happened spontaneously.  David & I started bringing pieces of music this time around that sounded more like the music we listened to when we first met, which was punk rock, pre-grunge rock, and new wave.  That’s the music we cut our teeth on, the music we were listening to and playing when we first met, pre-Camper Van Beethoven.

For some reason, it just felt like the right kind of music to make right now.  Individually, we came in with bits and pieces that sounded that way, eighties alt-rock, punk rock, if you will, sort of sound, whatever you want to call it.  It sort of happened naturally; it wasn’t a planned thing.

But it really plays to the strength of the four-piece line-up.  Frank Funaro, our drummer, he’s been with us twelve years now, he was in the band The Dictators, who were arguably one of the first punk rock bands in existence.  Sal Maida, who is our bass player now, played with Roxy Music and Sparks, who were very innovative bands back in their day, in the eighties.

We’re playing to the band’s strengths, really, with this new album.  It’s the music that all four of us were listening to and playing when we started playing music.  Now that we have this rhythm section, this line-up, it fit perfectly with the new album.

Like I said, it wasn’t a conscious thing.  It just sort of came from a ‘rock place’ this time, sort of embraced the ‘glam’, the punk rock, which has always been part of our bloodstream when we make music.  Maybe more so on this on than on the last few albums.

Cracker playing Greenland‘s “The Riverside” live at Highline Ballroom in New York, NY on June 25th, 2009:

The press on the new record has been very, very good.  You never know what to expect – especially in these times, when CD sales are not good for anyone, because people don’t buy CDs as much as they used to; they steal a lot of music and give it to each other.  So it really comes down to being a really good live band.  I think we pride ourselves on being a very good live band.

What makes me happy every night is people who have been listening to the band for a while, but this is their first Cracker show, and they get to come and see and find out what we do live.  A lot of bands, you buy their CD or the album, but then they kind of let you down live.  We’re almost the opposite: we rock harder live than we do on our album…

For guys who are in their forties or fifties, we play a two-our set, without letting up.  That’s just how we do it.  We dedicate ourselves to that; that’s the kind of band we are.

QRO: With such an extensive songbook, how do you balance playing new material and the older material?

JH: That’s a very good question.  From the very beginning, David & I have always had a chagrin for bands that won’t play their hits; they only want to play from their newest album.  We always thought that was just kind of lame – the songs that put you on the map, that got your name out there; I think you’re ripping your fans off if you don’t play some of those songs.

Of course, we vary it every night.  We never have the same set list.  That’s something we can do because we have so many songs.  We do it for ourselves, and for the fans.  We don’t have a set list because it makes the shows more interesting.  We change it a little bit every night.  And we incorporate a pretty good amount of whatever new material we have, old material, we’ll throw in the occasional cover song – we try to keep things interesting.  Because we have fans, hardcore fans, who call themselves ‘Crumbs’, they’re coming to see four or five shows in a row sometimes.  And they’ll see a slightly different show every night.

There’s certain songs they’re going to hear: they’re probably going to hear “Low”, they’re probably going to hear “Teen Angst”, they’re probably going to hear “Euro-Trash Girl” – these are our big radio songs, that are still on the radio, I’m happy to say.  But they’ll also hear songs from the new album; they’ll hear songs that they’ve perhaps never heard live before, because we’ve got well over a hundred songs, hundred-and-fifty songs, altogether.

Cracker playing “Euro-Trash Girl” live at Highline Ballroom in New York, NY on June 25th, 2009:

We play an hour and forty-five minutes, or two hours every night.  We keep rotating.  Sometimes somebody will call out a song that we haven’t done in a while and we’ll just do it.  That’s just the way we roll, man…

It’s a lot more satisfying to us that way.  That way it keeps us on our toes.  And it also is a lot more satisfying for the fans.  Occasionally, we’ll hear people ask for a certain song, and we’ll do it a lot, and then we’ll get tired of it, give it a rest for a while, and then start doing it again.

For good example, “Happy Birthday To Me”, from our first album, Cracker, was a minor hit back in the day.  We played it every night for the first eight or ten years of the band, and at around the same time, Dave & I got a little tired of playing it, so we gave it a rest for a while.  But recently, we’ve been playing it again, and it’s been really fun to play it again.  It feels fresh again, when you haven’t done it in a while.

I think that our fans appreciate that.  Matter of fact, every night, when we go to sign CDs after the show, they tell us that.  I’ve heard that a thousand times, “One of the things I like about Cracker is that I never know exactly what show I’m going to get.”  If you see three shows in a row, you’ll see something different.  You’ll see people texting each other in different towns, to check on the set list.

We have a lot of people recording live, and those bootlegs go back and forth over the internet, which is pretty cool.  Some bands have a problem with that, but I figure that anybody who’s going to be trading live tapes of your CDs, most of those people have the CDs already.  So that’s cool – if you want take pictures, videotape, record, whatever, we’re totally cool with that.

Cracker playing “Happy Birthday To Me” live at Highline Ballroom in New York, NY on June 25th, 2009:

QRO: What new songs do you particularly like playing live?

JH: That’s funny – every time we put out a new album, I have a favorites, and then those favorites change, and start playing other ones.  Lately, my favorite one to play has been “Show Me How This Thing Works”.  That’s a lot of fun to play live – high energy level.

I really like playing “I Could Be Wrong I Could Be Right”, because it’s kind of got funky Cracker swing – ‘Cracker Soul’, David & I call it, that we picked up listening to everyone from The Rolling Stones to Little Feet, this other band that’s kind of between roots-rock, Americana, country, and a little bit of funk added to it.  It’s a sound that comes very naturally to Cracker.  “I Could Be Wrong I Could Be Right” has that feel, like “[This Is] Cracker Soul” from the first album, or “How Can I Live Without You? (If I’ve Gotta Get a Job?)”.  Got a little bit of a funky swing to it, funky pocket to it, so that feels really good to play live.  Kind of gets people moving too, so a lot of fun.

QRO: It seems like you guys are in a lot of different genres: have done a country covers record [Countrysides], people follow you almost like a jam band – do you ever feel like you have been ‘shunted’ into the wrong category of music, as ‘alternative’ or whatever?

JH: I think we’re a little broader than that.  People who really know Cracker, know our records, we’re not really very ‘genre-specific’.

You couldn’t really call us a jam band, although there are songs that led themselves to that, because there are long guitar solos or what have you.  But also, the jam band world has always kind of embraced us over the years, which is kind of nice.  There are a lot of jam bands that play our songs, which is a high honor – Leftover Salmon, Widespread Panic…  A lot of these bands have decided to play some of our songs, and that’s a real high honor to David & I.  And to be invited to play with the Grateful Dead…

But we also fit into the alt-country world a little bit: bands like Drive-By Truckers, Bottle Rockets, bands that have that sound…  Some of our songs lend themselves to that.

A lot of that comes from bands that David & I both liked growing up and we had in common when we met, when we were wrong.  Bands like The Kinks, or The Rolling Stones, Little Feet, or The Clash, for that matter – bands that, when you listen to their records, you hear a lot of different influences, and they’re not afraid to put those influences into what they do.  Not really wearing their influences on their sleeves, but that can make up part of the fabric of who they are as a band.

I always found those kinds of albums and bands much more interesting than – not to knock The Ramones, but I think I’d go crazy in a band like that.  The songs sound pretty similar to one another.  I love The Ramones, but I pride myself on, David & I take a lot of joy in the fact that our band really does go out on a lot of different limbs of the tree, musically.

Cracker playing “Seven Days” live at Highline Ballroom in New Yor, NY on June 25th, 2009:

You have to have good players to do that.  You have to have an amazing rhythm section.  It’s a little why we’ve gone through a number of other band members as the rhythm section, bass & drums.  Early on in our career, we were searching for people who were versatile enough to stretch out that way.  To play drums in Cracker, you’ve got to be someone like Frank Funaro, who can play hundred mile-an-hour punk rock with absolute precision, like a jackhammer, and the next one, play something like “Big Dipper” or “Another Song About the Rain”, which are very lilting, soft ballads, but you have to do a lot of dynamic build, and a lot of breakdown.

So you’ve got to have a lot in your repertoire.  And for our bass player, as well – Sal Maida, he’s played all styles of music.  He can pull anything.  Any song we throw at him, he can not only play, but add his own style to it as well.  It’s sort of the perfect line-up for us now.

And they’re guys you can get along with.  That’s half the equation, too.  It’s a 50/50 equation: playability and hang-ability.  ‘Cause you have to live with these people on the road, month after month, too, so if there’s a real personality conflict, it’ll never really work, either.  That’s the rare bands that you’ve seen mesh, stay together for a long time, like we have, they get along as people, for whatever friction they might have, at the end of the day, they have a combined dynamic that’s not there, individually.  Those are the bands that you see going year after year – they fit, not just stylistically, but as people. The four members of our band are kind of like brothers: we may squabble, fight over an issue or two, but, when it really comes down to it, we genuinely like each other, we crack each other up. We have the same sort of skewed sense of humor, and that has a lot to do with keeping yourself happy on the road, day in, day out, the traveling grind, so forth…

And the fact that we all really like to play live – that has a lot to do with it, too.  That’s just a given, in Cracker.  I hear of bands don’t like to tour, or artists, singers who don’t like to tour, who don’t do it very often – it strikes me as odd.  Even though it’s not the easy way of life, but it’s very satisfying.

The four members of our band are kind of like brothers: we may squabble, fight over an issue or two, but, when it really comes down to it, we genuinely like each other, we crack each other up.

Playing for people live is the center of all that for us.  We have that kind of fanbase – they really appreciate when we’re really on.  When we’re a couple of shows, warmed up into a tour, really firing on all cylinders, the appreciation level from that – the fans can tell immediately.  When things are really cooking, they let us know, they let each other know.

QRO: Before this tour, you did some acoustic gigs with just David Lowery.  How do the two kinds of Cracker shows compare?

JH: Well, they’re both satisfying – for some of the same reasons, and for different reasons as well.

We started doing that just a few years ago, just as an experiment.  We do it for a few reasons, really.  We do it because it’s satisfying.  We also do it because it gives us a chance to keep our overhead low, sort of explore new cities and new areas, new countries, what have you.  Just the two of us, it’s pretty economical.

It’s an economical way to check out an area.  Doylestown, Pennsylvania, for instance, we went there and played about three or four years ago, just the duo, to see what would happen.  We got great turnout, great crowd response, so we thought, ‘Okay, we can go back in with the full band.’

So it’s kind of like the Lewis & Clarke Expedition: scouting out new areas for Cracker.  We’ll go, just the two of us, to see what happens.  Because if it’s not a great turnout, no loss – we don’t go back there.

But we also do it because it’s very satisfying to break the songs down to sort of their presentation.  It’s closer to how the songs sound when we write them.  It’s also more intimate: it allows David & I to do songs that really lend themselves to an intimate situation.  People tend to really focus a little more on the lyrics.  They tend to focus on the conversation between my guitar and David’s singing, which is sort of the heart & soul of Cracker, what it really is about.

It’s different than doing it with drums & bass.  They’re both satisfying in their own way.  It’s something that we will do occasionally.  And the fans really like it as well.  We can do a broader repertoire, sometimes, because it’s just the two of us.  It’s easier to work up a song with just the two of us.

I mean, there’s nothing like getting up there with the full band.  It’s like getting back in the racecar, as opposed to a nice bike ride.

QRO: Going in the other direction, what about when Cracker plays with Camper Van Beethoven?

JH: That’s a lot of fun too.  It’s a little exhausting for Dave & Frank, who play in both bands, but it’s satisfying for all of us.

I’m a Camper Van Beethoven fan – always have been.  Dave & I knew each other before Camper Van Beethoven – it’s very satisfying for me, to see my friend get that band on the map, because they’re a very neat band.

When we do shows together, we’ll sit in on each other’s set.  Jon [Segel] will play some violin on a Cracker song or two, or Greg [Lisher] will; I’ll sit in on a Camper occasionally.

Most of our fans, I think, are fans of both bands.  Some fans lean more towards Camper, and some lean more towards Cracker, so they get a chance to experience both bands.  It gives people a clue to our big, traveling circus of a family.  We’ve all known each other for decades, so it’s lots of fun for us.  At some point, we’ll get all the band members on stage; do some big, insane jam at the end, a Pink Floyd song or something.

QRO: How did Campout start?

JH: It started basically as a birthday party – David & I have the same birthday, September 10th.  Which we didn’t know until we’d been writing songs together for a while.  We’d known each other for ten years at that point.

We and several people in our organization have birthdays right around the same time.  So we did kind of a birthday party gig at Pioneertown, out there in California – which isn’t too far from David, and I, and Victor Krummenacher, who’s the bass player in Camper Van Beethoven, we all grew up in a certain area in southern California.  It’s pretty removed from Los Angeles; it’s practically the upper desert area, near the Mojave.

It started off as a birthday party, and it’s grown, year after year, into our own little festival.  And we’ve had a lot of great guests over the years, but it’s basically focused on the two bands.

This year, both bands are going to play both nights, because we’ve had a lot of requests from fans to do that.  Usually, we have a Cracker night and a Camper night, with guest bands both nights.  Because some people have to take off work, fly in, fly back out, they’re going to miss one of the two bands.  So both bands, both nights, is how we’re going to do it this year, and do it two nights instead of three nights, so people can catch it all in two days.

The economy’s a little rough right now, so I think it’s a little easier for us to do it two nights, instead of three or four.  This year, we’re going to cut back a little bit, but it’s going to be just as intense.  We’re already getting a lot of pre-ticket sales.  There’s been a lot of people who are going to be coming to it, regardless, which is very touching to us, because we know it’s difficult in these times to get babysitters, take time off from work, not to mention the expense of traveling and so forth.

It’s a very wonderful gesture from fans, shows a lot of love, so we try to repay that in spades, do something special in each Campout.  For instance, the year before last, we did the entire Kerosene Hat album, front-to-back.  Just for fun, we’ll do things like that.  We’ll throw in a few surprises, here and there, or we’ll do songs that we haven’t done in a great long time, or work up new songs that we’ll debut there.  Just something that will make it special for the fans.

Cracker playing Kerosene Hat‘s “Take Me Down To the Infirmary” live at Highline Ballroom in New York, NY on June 25th, 2009:

QRO: Do you have any material that you’ve done since Sunrise?

JH: I’ve got a few new riffs.  We haven’t put everything on the table yet.  David’s working on a solo album that he’s going to put out at some point.  I put out one a few years ago, was very satisfied with how that turned out and how it was received.  Eventually I’ll put out another solo album.

We’re always putting things in the riff bag, or in the lyric bag, the two of us separately, sometimes together, and we’ll pull ‘em back out over time.  So sometimes we’ll have a guitar riff, or a chord pattern, or a song – a few years old, but we had never quite finished it.  And then we’ll put it back out, dust it off, and say, “Okay, what does it need?”  Maybe it needs a chorus, maybe we just need to sit down and finish it.  And sometimes, when we do need new material, we just sit down from scratch, get in a room together and start playing, and see what happens.

What was interesting about Sunrise In the Land of Milk and Honey is that we did that with Frank & Sal this time.  A lot of things we brought in, David or I would have a basic sketch, or an idea, and we’d throw it on the table, just start jamming on it.  And the other two, Frank & Sal, would throw in ideas as well, until the song was done.  It was really fun.

David, of course, writes the bulk of the lyrics, but I wrote a fair amount of the lyrics on this one, too.

We sort of broke out of our mold a little bit on this one, just trying to create that way.  There’s a guitar riff that our drummer came up with on this record – it’s a very good riff!  And Sal came in and did some great melodies, and counter-melodies on bass, sort of helped with the song structure.

By the time the touring is over this year, we’ll probably have new songs.  That’s usually the way it works, a couple of ideas for the next one.

QRO: In Cracker shows, do you do any songs from your solo record, Palmhenge?

JH: Haven’t done that yet.  We’ve done a few.  There’s one song that was from Palmhenge that we re-recorded for Cracker, a song called “Friends”.  We did it as a duet with Patterson Hood from Drive-By Truckers, and David – which was quite an honor to me, a feather in my cap, that they’re doing a song that I wrote all the lyrics too.  And having a Cracker song with Patterson is an honor, because I’ve been a fan of Drive-By Truckers for a long time.

In the future, we may pull out another one or two from that album.  When David does his solo album, I’m sure we’ll be doing songs from that.  We don’t go by any set of rules; we change things up constantly, so anything’s possible.

[note: at their Highline Ballroom show in New York, NY on June 25th, 2009, Cracker not only played “Friends”, but also the Hickman-penned “Shake Some Action” – click here to download the concert via NYC Taper]

Cracker playing “Friends” live at Highline Ballroom in New Yor, NY on June 25th, 2009:

QRO: Countrysides had that anti-Virgin Records song, “Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself”.  Do you feel any schadenfreude, any joy, about the current difficult situation record companies are in now?

JH: [laughs] Well, a little bit.  We wouldn’t be where we are without major labels, and indie labels, and all the labels we’ve been on over the years.  So it’s a blessing and a curse.  We just signed with a label. I think it’s interesting that bands, in order to make it these days, you have to do a lot of the work yourself – whether you’re on a label or not. You have to do a lot of the promotion; you have to do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work, as far as playing in tours, as far as promoting, as far as promoting a record. Sometimes, you’ll sign to a label, and, all of a sudden, the person who signed you to the label disappears.  It’s a strange ride. I think it’s interesting that bands, in order to make it these days, you have to do a lot of the work yourself – whether you’re on a label or not.  You have to do a lot of the promotion; you have to do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work, as far as playing in tours, as far as promoting, as far as promoting a record. I think it’s a healthy change for young bands, not to just think they can go up, get a record deal, and all they have to do then is just hang out and make good music.  ‘Cause it’s really not a reality – especially not now.  The bands who you see getting anywhere now, I guarantee you that, behind the scenes, they’re doing a lot of the work themselves, getting things on YouTube, getting their songs passed around, and getting people to their shows.  You have to be self-promoting; no other way is going to work, anymore.

And that’s not a bad thing.  That’s the way we started off in our punk rock band, in our new wave band, back in the day.  This was pre-internet, so you had to go staple a lot of posters and flyers around town and make a lot of phone calls to your friends in town, to get the word out that your band is coming to town.  It’s kind of come full circle.

I think the fact that a lot of record companies are going down, it’s a little sad for the business, but a lot of it had to do with greed and overcharging for CDs, that sort of thing.  A lot of it is sort of justice, coming full circle.  A lot of people did get very greedy in that industry.

“The Great Decline” is sort of more about the station of the nation. I touched upon some of those things, how all the industries are shipped overseas now, kind of tragic, because we don’t make anything in the United States anymore.

We always tried not to take very much money from the record company – ‘cause you have to pay that back at some point, anyway.  It’s really a loan.  That’s what a lot of new bands don’t understand is that when a record company says, “Yeah, we’ll get you a bus for your tour” or “We’ll give you some tour support money”, they don’t stress the fact that you owe that money to them.  It’s just a business loan, like any other business loan.  A lot of that money is what they call ‘recoupables’ – you owe that money back.

We tried to take as little of that as possible, so we could stay afloat.  And I’m glad that we did, over the years, because we’re self-sustaining.  And we have a great record label now, 429 Records, who are very, very supportive – but we still, at the same time, try to ask for as little money as possible when we do that, because we want to stay healthy, to keep going.  As much of it as we can do ourselves, like putting ourselves all over MySpace, or Facebook, our own website – we can do a lot of these things ourselves.  And they’re happy to do just the promotion for us, because they know that we are holding up our end of the bargain, as well.

I think that’s a wise thing to tell a new band, because that’s really the reality of it.  You have to do that if you want to survive.  You can’t expect somebody else to do it for you, because they won’t.  And if they do do it, they won’t do is as much as you want them to.

QRO: Talking about the current economic situation, and the solo album, do you feel you ‘called it’ with “The Great Decline”, from Palmhenge?

JH: [laughs] Yeah that came out three years ago, four years ago.  A couple of fans have mentioned that lately.  Thank you…

At the time, I was living in California, and something started tipping for the worse out there, overpopulation, not enough jobs – it was really on the decline.  Right at that time, I moved to Colorado.

I love California – I spent most of my early years there.  I grew up all over the country, ‘cause I was a military kid, but mostly Southern California boy.  That album was sort of my ‘bitter farewell’ to California, the smog, and the overpopulation, the crime, and everything else…

But also a bittersweet farewell to all the things I loved about it, several of which were diminishing as well.  When I was a kid, growing up there, there were endless orange groves.  Those are almost gone now.  Been replaced by strip malls, and more smog, and more people, and more crime.  So that’s sort of what that album’s about, where the inspiration came from.

Bob Dylan was saying ten years before that, in a song called “Union Sundown”, about how, slowly, we’ve become a nation of importers, not exporters, which is always bad for the health of an economy.  A capitalist society can’t really work that way.  Just a nation of consumers doesn’t work – it has to go both ways.

It’s gotten frighteningly close to the Roman Empire [laughs].  We have this nation that’s got interests all over the world, doing far more importing than exporting.  We don’t make anything here anymore.  And what they do make here isn’t supported by the population, not as much as it needs to be, to be sustaining.  What starts happening is, you start losing your middle class, and when that starts happening, you better start turning it around, or things just get worse.

I read a lot of history, and that’s simply the way that equation goes.  You reward corporations, give them tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas, well, that’s exactly what they’re going to do.  To compete with one another, they have to do it more, and more, and more.  But, I mean, a little company, starting up, if they were to make all of their goods here, they would fall behind, because they’re not getting labor that costs eighty cents an hour.  Not to mention the fact that they don’t have to pay taxes & insurance for those foreign workers, either.  We’re not doing well…

I think it’s interesting that bands, in order to make it these days, you have to do a lot of the work yourself – whether you’re on a label or not. You have to do a lot of the promotion; you have to do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work, as far as playing in tours, as far as promoting, as far as promoting a record.

Let’s hope our new president has a good four, and hopefully eight years.  I hope he does have a good eight years.  After that, I’m running for president – I’m gonna screw it all up!

QRO: Is there a Brett of “Hey Brett (You Know What Time It Is)”?

JH: Oh, you bet.  When David wrote that song, he’s directly identifying with the working class, which is where he & I both came from.  Neither one of us were born with ‘silver spoons’, as they say.  So we grew up working crappy jobs, families where you had a lot of kids in one room, that kind of thing.  We weren’t poor by any stretch of the imagination, but we were certainly working class people.

I think it’s more of an appreciation of being a small business, doing what it takes to make that run.  And you can compare that to anything – look at the protagonist in “Hey Brett”: he’s tending bar and occasionally selling weed just to get by.  He’s perhaps not a hero, but you can understand where he’s at.  He’s just basically trying to get by.

And there’s a lot people in that situation now.  They’re on the verge – they’re two paychecks from being on the street.

It’s funny to mention Rome, because that’s basically what the last Camper Van Beethoven album is, a central theme there, New Roman Times.  It’s a joke on the font, New Roman Times, but it’s also a statement about our kind of state of affairs.

We actually made those records, Palmhenge and New Roman Times, were written right around the same time.  David and I weren’t even hanging out together at that time: he was busy with the new Camper record, and I was busy with the solo record.  We were kind of taking a little bit of a break.  But it’s interesting that we both touched on those topics.

You gotta write about what inspires you, what’s going on around you.  You have to write what’s in your blood.  You can’t think too much; you have to speak what’s on your mind.  One of the things I love about David’s songwriting is that he can be very subtle, as far as that goes, but he gets the emotion across.  And he creates interesting protagonists in his songs.  He creates characters, and then he lets those characters speak.

I kind of do the same thing when I write.  Those are the songwriters that we admired growing up, the Bob Dylans, and the Randy Newmans… – these people that tend to get really inside a character, write more as a novelist would, than as a songwriter.  If you stick to the basic songwriting structures, you end up writing the same thing as everyone else.  How many songs can we hear about your heart getting broken, and ‘Oh, she did me wrong!’  I mean, yeah, you can write about that too, that’s part of life, but there are a thousand topics you can write about.  And you can mesh them all together, too, which is also fun.

QRO: At the end of Forever, in “What You’re Missing”, you mention how people say you look like Richard Grieco (21 Jump Street).  Has anyone ever said that you look like Robert Pastorelli, the house painter on Murphy Brown – he was even the star of a short-lived American version of a British show called Cracker!…

JH: I don’t think I’ve heard that one…  I’ll have to check that out. [laughs]

Cracker playing “I See the Light” live at Highline Ballroom in New Yor, NY on June 25th, 2009:

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