The members of Cracker are backstage at Craig Kilborn's "Late Late Show," waiting to perform their new single "Shine." Most artists would be excited about this television appearance, but it's business as usual for these road-worn veterans. Actually, the biggest celebration is in the so-called "green room," where a lookalike clan of blue-eyed, straw-haired, strong-jawed Lowerys is gathered for a warm family reunion. Showbiz attitude is nowhere to be found -- Cracker's David Lowery just relaxes on a couch, happily showing home movies through his iBook. Meanwhile, equally down-to-earth guitarist Johnny Hickman greets me not with brash self-promotion, but a sheepish tale of how a disgusted Brian Eno supposedly tossed Cracker's first demo tape out of a moving car.
Indeed, few would have predicted much success for Cracker, when the group arrived back in 1992. After all, the band was descended from the underachieving Camper Van Beethoven, the wry college-rockers whose only mainstream attention came from a gimmicky Status Quo cover. Fronted by ex-CVB leader Lowery and longtime friend Hickman, Cracker seemed destined for similar frustration. The group's eponymous debut appeared shortly after grunge became an overnight household word, and smirking tracks like "Happy Birthday to Me" and "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)" sounded a bit square and lightweight in comparison. Undaunted, Lowery and Hickman were quick to distance themselves from the new alternative empire, talking up their country and blues influences while ignoring the Campers' wacky eclecticism. The gamble somehow worked, and Cracker outsold every Camper Van Beethoven disc by a healthy margin. The next album, Kerosene Hat, fared even better, thanks to the hit single "Low." Three subsequent discs didn't match those sales, but Cracker presses on with cheerful dedication.
"We had some pretty big success with Kerosene Hat and a lot of people sort of looked into the room to see what 'Low' was all about, and that's fine," Hickman says. "But from the start, we developed a real hardcore set of fans that has been with us ever since. They've grown and they're absolutely loyal, and we've managed to have a career. Whether we have a song on the radio or not, we do pretty well. We can still play any city in the country, and fans will come."
Older fans were especially pleased with last year's Cracker tour, which incorporated a casual Camper Van Beethoven reunion. Hickman (a CVB devotee, himself) was thrilled to relive history with that band's original players, but his focus has returned to the present with Cracker's latest album, Forever. New bassist Brandy Wood joins Lowery, Hickman, keyboardist Kenny Margolis and drummer Frank Funaro on this self-produced disc, as the five rumble through a gruffly endearing set of upbeat anthems, offbeat fables and sardonic portraits. Typical tracks like "Merry Christmas Emily" and "Don't Bring Us Down" drop ironic lyrics into familiar classic-rock settings, but "Brides of Neptune," "Guarded by Monkeys" and Hickman's own "Superfan" favor a modern, studio-tweaked approach. Hickman agrees that Forever is the least country-influenced of Cracker's releases, and instead points out traces of British pop acts like the Cure and the Smiths.
"This record was made in pieces," he explains. "We'd go in and do three or four songs, take a break, and go back and do three or four more. It was done in chapters. That made for an interesting sound, overall. Some songs are the tried-and-true Cracker style, which is basically cutting them live in the studio, but some of the other songs were really constructed, using the new editing capabilities. A lot of this came about because we were peeking at a Beatles recording book, and the way they would work. Sometimes they would lay a basic track, and not get back to it for weeks or months. And sometimes they would say, 'Well, everything's great except for this last chorus, so let's just cut one out of the other take and splice it in.' Back then, it was all done with razor blades, whereas now you can do it with a push of a button."
Such experimentation is part of the reason why Cracker -- even with its ever-shifting personnel -- has flourished for a decade, when so many peer bands have split (or at least, lost their major-label contracts). Hickman sees no end to the Cracker franchise.
"When we put out Garage D'Or, which was sort of a greatest-hits package, a lot of our fans wrote to our Internet sites saying, 'OK...well, we loved you.' They assumed it was over! But we could easily see it going for a long time. Everyone in the band is involved with other side projects, but Cracker is the mothership. We understand the concept sort of like Parliament-Funkadelic, where everyone satellites off and does other things. David does producing and some solo shows, and I have another band called Crazysloth which I'm working with. Brandy is an artist in her own right. Kenny plays with Elliott Murphy and some other people. Frank plays with the Dictators, Dion and others. We all keep busy. That's one of the things which keeps us healthy. It's really simple, the way we structure it. There's a center circle, which is David and I, and the next circle out is our live band. And then there's a circle beyond that, which is the things we do on the side."
The band's cooperative spirit couldn't be more obvious on "What You're Missing," a tongue-in-cheek rap in which each of the members writes an autobiographical verse. "It's like the end of the movie, where the credits roll," says Hickman. His own stanza pokes fun at an ongoing headache: the persistent comments about his resemblance to actor Richard Grieco (you know, the former "21 Jump Street" heartthrob who didn't become a major film star).
"Over the years, that has happened just one time too many," Hickman admits with a grin, shortly before a stagehand summons the band to the set. "Nothing against Mr. Grieco -- I hope he doesn't take offense. I like to think it may have happened to him, too: 'Did you used to play guitar in Cracker?'"
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