Of Monkeys and Crackers

A Chat with David Lowery and Johnny Hickman

by Rahul Gairola


Photo Credit: Raj Luke

The first time I interviewed Cracker, I squatted in a dark alley behind DC’s old 9:30 Club with co-leaders David Lowery and Johnny Hickman as they observed the large rats scurrying about. “These rats are as big as cats,” remarked Lowery, who along with Hickman, was in town to promote 1993’s Kerosene Hat, which yielded radio faves including “Low”. Almost 10 years later, Cracker still cranks out brilliant tunes chronicling “brides of Neptune guarded by monkeys” and other such chimerical personas. Against the backdrop of gray skies at Seattle’s Graceland, Lowery and Hickman offered me thoughts on their artistic development and creative processes. We again found ourselves sitting in an alley adjacent to the venue, rats in absentia.

Forever is the band’s first record since 1998’s Gentleman’s Blues. The new album comes complete with new bandmates who add an organic synergy to the new album: bassist Brandy Wood, keyboardist Kenny Margolis, and drummer Frank Funaro. Careful listeners will also catch the underlying motif of monkey guards strategically imbedded throughout the album. Lowery claims the lyrics were the product of a joke between he and Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. He later discovered the image has other roots: “My brother-in-law and I conducted searches on the Internet and we kept coming up with references about temples in Bali and Hindu temples that keep monkeys around to ward off demons. The search somehow led to something about Noam Chomsky and not being able to teach monkeys sign language, and some guy who named a monkey Nim Chimsky that he taught sign language to. It’s not clear to me whether it’s fiction or one of those things that Thomas Pynchon makes up.”

At one point we mused that perhaps the theme could be traced to Michael Jackson’s pet chimp Bubbles. David explains, “My son has two little stuffed animals: one is a horse he calls ‘Neigh Neigh’ and a bear he calls ‘Doo Doo.’ I have voices for them that I use. The bear is Truman Capote’s voice, and the horse is always Michael Jackson’s voice. ‘Neigh Neigh’ talks about his pet chimp or his sister’s big ass. I’ll ask, ‘What’s an ass Suttree?’ And he will say ‘It’s a donkey!’” Lowery’s trademark sardonic humor is as evident during our chat as it is in Cracker’s love songs, which are renowned for their bizarre images. “Strangeness is part of the bond between people in love,” remarks Lowery. “Our love songs are told in a strange way because people have worked to death the subject of love—the stories need to be told in an unusual, new and different way. I have always thought that a sense of humor and being really playful is a sort of romantic thing that people don’t really talk about or recognize.”

Lowery is fondly hailed as the brainchild of one of America’s best loved bands—the eruditely bizarre Camper Van Beethoven, whose endeavors gave birth to early experimental sounds and eccentric lyrics culminating in tunes like “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and “Pictures of Matchstick Men”. [Editor’s note: the latter song was originally a hit for the group Status Quo in 1968.] Hailing from Santa Cruz, California, Lowery moved across the country to Richmond, Virginia, after Camper’s demise, where he started a recording studio called the Sound of Music. As a transplant, he insists that an artistic revival is currently taking place there that is beyond the notion of the South as a backwards place: “Richmond’s influence on our music isn’t ‘southern’—it is artsy and trippy though a lot of people are influenced by the mountain Appalachian stuff. Sure we have plenty of rednecks, but you have plenty of those outside of Los Angeles. There is a more laconic take on music in Richmond, a laidback attitude you might call ‘southern’ but our new music hasn’t become more southern simply because we record here.”

Though Lowery usually sings lead, his post-Camper years have marked a shared artistic relationship with Hickman, who sings lead on hip numbers like “Shake Some Action” and “Superfan”. Hickman, who recently married an avid Cracker fan, feels that there can be no division between the nuances in peoples’ everyday lives and the art that they strive to create. “When I write lyrics, they tend to be very folkish—this shit has happened and it’s so hard. I tend to get very real and tell life stories,” explains Hickman. “The song ‘Superfan’ is about a true experience where I signed a woman’s arm and she returned to a show the following week with my signature tattooed to it! It wasn’t just that she had come to another show and found me, but she was crying on the other side of a chain link fence saying inappropriate things. There are a lot of strange things that happen in this business, and that was one of them. It really scared me.”

Perhaps what makes Lowery and Hickman such a complimentary artistic team is their communal approach and flexible allowances to pursue side projects. Hickman composed the score for the indie film The River Red (in which Lowery debuted), and has been involved with music projects with bands including Magnet and the acclaimed German band, FSK. Lowery, who has also worked with FSK, is collaborating with his old Camper friends—the fruits of which will culminate into a nostalgic explosion of weirdness when the band plays a New York City reunion show in mid July. Lowery has also been actively involved in producing albums for bands including Sparklehorse and Counting Crows. In addition to these feats, Lowery mischievously disclosed to me that he has recently learned “some very bad words in Hindi.” Ruminating on the metaphors used in international swearing, Lowery says, “In Mexico, the curses are really abstract when you start to translate them literally. A chef’s assistant is usually referred to as a small goat or small cow.”

Lowery believes Cracker’s evolution is characterized by trends that weave themselves between the past and present. “Our evolution has been circular where we are driving back towards psychedelic, dreamier rock that is nostalgic of Golden Age. This new album contains a postmodern element in the way we have recorded it—sometimes we would just play the song, and then do another version and cut and paste little bits and pieces together. A number of R&B and hip-hop bands use this technique for recording—there is a lot of that occurring on this album whereas all the others were classically recorded.” With such a mix of humor and philosophical sensibility buttressing their complimentary musical relationship, Lowery and Hickman are poised to continue offering the world a unique and ingenious orchestration of songs for a long time to come, if not forever.

Cracker is currently touring the US after a highly successful European tour. The Camper Van Beethoven reunion concert is July 18th at New York City’s Knitting Factory, after which Cracker will wrap up its East Coast tour dates.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media


Stevie Wonder Takes a Knee as Green Day and Others Also Speak Out at Global Citizen Festival

// Notes from the Road

"The 2017 Global Citizen Festival's message for social action was amplified by Stevie Wonder and many other incredible performers and notable guests.

READ the article