“Most out-of-staters seem to base their view of California on either San Francisco or Los Angeles,” says Johnny Hickman, lead guitarist and co-founder of Cracker with former Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery. “But having grown up in Redlands, David and I naturally identify with the more rural areas like the Inland Empire, the Mojave desert, and the central valleys. We pride ourselves on being from eastern California.”
Which partially explains why last month Cracker released the double album Berkeley to Bakersfield (429 Records), with one disc devoted to the sounds found in the city across from San Francisco in the East Bay, and a second that takes its sonic inspiration from the central valley burg that’s long been California’s country music mecca.
“We definitely wanted a different feel for each disc,” explains Hickman (pictured above at left). “Our original lineup from Kerosene Hat [bassist Davey Faragher and drummer Michael Urbano] has an undeniable chemistry that we wanted for the more punk-rock and soul combination of the ‘Berkeley’ record. Then we went down to Athens, Georgia, and worked with a group of great players and friends for the country-based ‘Bakersfield’ album.
“I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and, later, punk-rock like Black Flag and The Clash,” Hickman continues. “But I also loved Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and country players like Jerry Reed. And so does David, who’s just as likely to write a song based around one of my chicken-pickin’ country licks as one of my monstrous, blues-rock riffs. That’s where a lot of the Cracker sound comes from. And that’s why it works.”
“But, like, say, Tom Petty and Mike Campbell, we have no set pattern of how we write songs. Sometimes the guitar riffs and melodies come first, then the story, lyrics, and titles follow. Other times, one of us — most often David — has a song, and I try to fit the right frame around it musically. Most of the ‘Berkeley’ album was written the first way; most of ‘Bakersfield’ the second. David had these beautiful songs like ‘Almond Grove’ and ‘Tonight I Cross the Border’ already written. I just did my best trying to create guitar melodies worthy of them.”
Either way, the set has all the earmarks of a classic Cracker album. The songs are littered with telling details (the raucous portrait of a still-a-punk, pink-mohawked mother in “Beautiful”), drowning in dry humor (the “I don’t give a shit about your I.P.O./I’m from El Cerrito” chorus of the funk-flavored song that takes its title from that suburb), and often sung from the point of view of characters who may be playing fast and loose with the truth, such as “Reaction.”
“That song is quintessential David Lowery,” says Hickman. “The protagonist is in denial, and we as listeners are in on it — even if he is not. The ‘unreliable narrator’ style of writing is a Cracker staple.
“And one of the great things about writing music with David is that he has an exceptional gift for creating these very vivid, believable characters. He writes more like a novelist than a songwriter, and that’s why he’s one of the best of his generation in that regard.”
There’s also a certain amount of social commentary. The Woody Guthrie-like “Torches and Pitchforks,” those “It’s better for us/It’s better for you” lines in “March of the Billionaires,” and the passing reference to Kandahar in “Almond Grove.”
“That’s one of the many destinations of U.S. soldiers at the onset of the ‘war’ in the Middle East,” Hickman explains. “It could’ve been any of the so many regions that young G.I.s were sent … to die or come back with PTSD, and be regularly neglected by the country, which we should all be ashamed of.
“David and I both had military fathers, so we are very supportive of our active-duty — and our veteran — men and women.”
The ‘Bakersfield’ side spotlights a different set of characters: The rowdy redneck blasting AC/DC from his Trans Am in “The San Bernardino Boy,” the aspiring immigrant in “Tonight I Cross the Border,” and the film-set carpenter living in a double-wide in the middle of his Merlot vineyard in “King of Bakersfield,” which features a sly admonition to “Play it weird, this ain’t Nashville” leading into the guitar solo.
“That particular quip really hits home for me,” says Hickman. “I spent time in Bakersfield writing songs like ‘Mr. Wrong’ and ‘Lonesome Johnny Blues’ just before we started Cracker. There’s a certain regional pride within the songwriter/musician community up there. They always say, ‘This is where you come if you’re too weird for Nashville … or too good!’ They say with a wink.”
Speaking of too weird, what’s the story behind that lyric “Thought I saw Thomas Pynchon at the end of the bar/But that’s just Rob Brezsny writing his Real Astrology column” in “Where Have Those Days Gone”?
“That’s an imagined case of mistaken identity, which David may or may not have actually experienced,” says Hickman. “Personally, I love not knowing.”
Over the years, such vintage Cracker compositions as “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me” and “Low” have surfaced on the soundtracks to Californication and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, respectively.
“The latter put us back above the radar a bit, so that was a good usage,” Hickman reflects. “But when you license songs for a TV show or a movie, it’s really just a roll of the dice. Although when ‘Lucky’ — a song from one of my solo records — was used on Sons of Anarchy, that was a nice surprise.”
Noting that the next leg of the Cracker tour kicks off on February 13, Hickman says, “I think that more than any of our nine previous albums, Berkeley to Bakersfield reflects and defines how David and I regularly choose to work with different musicians. That’s just how we operate. And we like it like that.”