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Death - Interview

  by Mark Rowland

published: 3 / 5 / 2014

Death - Interview


Mark Rowland chats to long lost 70's Detroit garage rock outfit Death about their sudden emergence from obscurity to cult act and their recently released third retrospective

It has been six years since Bobby and Dannis Hackney’s lives took an unexpected turn. The rock band of their youth, Death formed with their elder brother David in the early 70s, suddenly emerged from obscurity to cult fame, based on their only release – a two song 7” that the band printed up themselves. The steadily building interest in the band got a boost through an almost incredible coincidence – Julian Hackney, one of Bobby Hackney’s sons, heard a Death song through a friend that had heard it at a party the night before. He instantly recognized his father’s singing, and phoned his father up to ask him about it. Shocked and excited about their father and uncles’ secret rock and roll past, Julian and his brothers – Bobby Jr and Uriah ¬ formed their own band, Rough Francis, as basically a tribute band to Death. Word spread far enough to spark the attention of the media, and demand for Death songs reached such a level that Bobby Sr and Dannis were persuaded to dust off the old master tapes of their never released album, 'For the Whole World to See', which was released in 2009 by Drag City. In 2012, a documentary about the band, 'A Band Called Death', brought them to an even wider audience. Death predated punk by a few years, and seemed to predict both the initial punk movements and several variations on the form that came after it, including hardcore punk (‘Rock-n-Roll Victim’ would fit very comfortably on Bad Brains’ ‘Rock For Light Album’, or Black Flag’s ‘Damaged’) and post-punk (‘Let The World Turn’ is an odd mish mash of styles that evokes early post-punk bands such as Magazine and Subway Sect). The second Death album, ‘Spiritual, Mental, Physical’, was a compilation from the band’s formative years – a document to the Death’s rowdy practices in their old bedroom in Detroit. The third in the trilogy of retrospectives, ‘III’, which has just been released,is a summary of their later years, after the rejection of ‘For the Whole World to See…’, all the way through to 1992, when the three Hackneys recorded their final song together, ‘We’re Gonna Make It’. “When people had seen the movie, ‘A Band Called Death’, a lot of people really connected with David’s song, ‘We’re Gonna Make It’,” says Bobby Sr. “We had a lot of requests about that song, about whether it would ever be released. So we decided that it needed to be included on the record. It’s an emotional ride. It’s definitely an emotional ride for me and Dannis.” Death was no longer an entity by 1992, but the Hackney brothers would jam together at family gatherings. While Bobby and Dannis had settled and started families in New England, David was back in Detroit, still trying to find and audience for the music was making – he believed with such conviction that it would find an audience some day. At that point, he was writing under the name Rough Francis – the name that Bobby’s sons would take for their band. “He came to us and said, 'I’m going by the name of Rough Francis now'. I don’t know, he just seemed to like that name. We don’t know where he got it from; he mentioned a few things. But he just started to walk talk and dress the part of Rough Francis – that was his alter-ego.” Bobby and Dannis had been playing in their reggae band, Lambsbread, since 1986, and had been able to build their own recording studio. “We had our little studio, and David showed us this song and said, 'I want you to play with me on this song', and naturally, we didn’t refuse, so we just kind of put it together and it was there,” says Bobby. “We didn’t have much time to do too much to change it,” says Dannis. “That was one of the last few songs that David had written before he passed away. We weren’t really together but sometimes we’d do sessions, and that’s why things got a bit sad, a little emotional. That’s why it kind of tears away from the heavy rock ‘n’roll music that we were doing. Those were the ending days.” David did not live to see the band find the recognition he was convinced it would get, having died of lung cancer in 2000. Even at the end of his life, he was sure it would happen. “He was writing music, and in Detroit he was making some beautiful music, says Dannis. “He was kicking around with a couple of musicians, a couple of bands, but nothing that really gelled or remained cohesive enough for him to stay in the situation. David was a maverick. He always marched to his own beat, you know? But he was writing a lot of great music right on up to the last year of his life.” Before he died, David gave all the Death tapes to Bobby, telling him, “You’ll need these one day, keep them safe.” Bobby and Dannis still can’t quite believe he was right all along. “When David would talk to us and it came to talking about people finding out about our music, David would talk about it in a not ‘if’ but ‘when’ sense. You know what I mean?” says Bobby. “And he was right.” Dannis laughs: “He was definitely right over me, because sometimes, I would say ‘if’.” Bobby laughs with him. “He’d always correct us if we said ‘if’.” As Dannis Hackney says, it was a long, hard road to the recognition the band deserved. There is a hint of sadness and uncertainty to some of the songs on ‘III’, as time went on and the band got no closer to a record deal. “We were all young and we believed that more opportunities would come along, as long as we kept playing hard and practicing hard and kept writing music, something eventually would happen,” says Bobby. “David was strongly convinced of that.” “There was a time where we did get a chance to sign the big contract,” adds Dannis. “But when they didn’t want to buy the whole concept that David was selling, David told them they couldn’t buy any of it.” David refused to change the name of the band. To him, the whole concept of the band was a package, and that included the name. To David, death was a positive thing, part of the whole message that he felt the band was delivering. What did Bobby and Dannis think when David was playing hardball? Dannis pauses before answering, “Well, we were thinking that maybe we should go to a room and talk about it, but David was the hands down leader of the band, and we never did go up against David in public. However, when we got back to the room, the discussions about it would get pretty heavy. But in public, we always maintained that David was the leader and we stuck by him. We stuck by him, but sometimes reluctantly.” It seems baffling now that the band’s name was such a sticking point. Although the band has a bleak, starkness to it, bands such as Black Sabbath were well-established at the time. “That’s what we said!” says Dannis. “Some people said your music is too fast, some people said: you’re a black band, and we just don’t want to hire a band called Death. I guess nobody wanted to be close to that word, back then.” “We were up against some tremendous rejection,” says Bobby. “When you see the movie, I think it’ll really hit home with you and you’ll remember this conversation. The guys who signed us up in Detroit, they were shopping us all over the world and they got a letter from the UK, from a representative that took our music to every label in the country. They have a list of them, on the rejection letter. And at the bottom of the letter, it says, ‘We tried everybody. Nobody’s interested, definitely in the name, or the music.’ And told Brian Spears, who was our representative, so stop even trying.” A lot of the resistance seemed to come from the fact that the Hackney’s are black: the perception was that the rock and roll that Death played should be played by white men – a ludicrous notion considering that the roots of rock ‘and roll was in black music. “We were trying to do this and still living in the black community so, we were the loudest thing within four blocks,” says Bobby. “Everyone would hear us and say, ‘Man, you should be playing Earth Wind and Fire,’ or the Isley Brothers, or James Brown, something like that, you know? And that just made us want to play harder and more aggressive, you know.” After the universal rejection the band received from record labels, they were unsure of their next steps, though the conviction in their music (especially David’s) was still strong. “Back at that time, we were trying to decide what direction to go in, which way to take the music, and the writing kept sounding like Death’s music,” says Dannis. “And then, towards the end, it got into a little softer thing, kind of like, you know, maybe a bit of memory lane kind of stuff. It was reflective of the times that we kind of was a part.” The three brothers decided to move to New England and make a fresh start of it. David had finally backed down on the name of the band, and changed the name of the band to the 4th Movement. With the new name came a whole new concept for the band, even more overtly informed by David’s faith and sense of spirituality. It was that element of the band that held them back a second time. At the end of 1981, David decided to go back to Detroit. He was fed up with the rejection and he wanted to wipe the slate clean again, reinvent the band back in their hometown. “We would’ve been into that, except for the fact that we had gotten married and were starting to raise families", says Bobby. "It wasn’t so easy to just pack up and go back.” The band never officially broke up, but with the brothers miles apart, it became harder and harder to find time to play together. Dannis and Bobby would still practice the songs in preparation for David’s return. “It was like a double bluff; we thought David would come back to us and he thought we would go back to Detroit,” says Bobby. “So we never did officially break up, time just kind of transcended our relationship, you know.” Then Bobby and Dannis met some people who were making reggae music. In New England, part of the US Ivy League circuit, college students were, in Bobby’s words, ‘going crazy over reggae'. So Bobby and Dannis formed Lambsbread as a stopgap while they waited for David to return. As the years went on, Lambsbread became their main band, until Death’s rediscovery in 2008. Now Death has reformed, with Bobbie Duncan on guitar. The band has been touring regularly since 2009, and intend to continue for the foreseeable future. Bobby says that the way the band is touring is even a tribute to their late brother; an attempt to achieve something he talked about during the Death days: “David, he called the album ‘For the Whole World to See…’ because when we would talk about how we would tour, David would say, 'If we have to play every place in the world even just one time, that’s a real world tour.’ So we intend to play every place in the world, even if it’s only just once.” The warm reception the band has been receiving when out on the road has been somewhat overwhelming for the Hackney brothers. Not only is it one big tribute to David, who was Death’s primary songwriter, but it has also turned Bobby and Dannis’s perception of Death’s music on its head. “We shopped to record companies in America, we shopped to record companies in Europe, we shopped to record companies across the world, and everybody of one accord said ‘no’,” says Dannis. “That kind of gives you a strange feeling. And then to go through all these changes, have the music stored away, and then for people to come back and say, ‘Wow, we missed this! We’ve got to pick this up again!’ and all of a sudden the music is famous, and the records are famous, and the band is famous, that kind of a turnaround feels really good.” The retrospective albums are not the end of the road for Death as recording artists, either – in addition to a number of unrecorded songs the band wrote years ago, its members have started writing new material. The first new Death song to be released was 'Relief', a hard-rocking tribute to the band’s newfound recognition: “For us it’s like, what a relief it is to be playing rock and rroll after all these years, you know.” The band recorded 'Relief' along with nine other songs at the end of last year. 'Relief' was released as a single, backed with ‘Story of the World’, a song written by David and Bobby Hackney in 1975. The new album, which will come out later this year, features six songs that Death wrote in the early days but never recorded, in addition to 'Relief' and three other songs written by Bobbie Duncan. Death are still riding the crest of a wave that still hasn’t crashed ashore six years after rising. David’s hard felt belief that the band would one day find its audience turned out to be right. Bobby and Dannis can’t repeat enough how important David was to Death’s legacy, and how much of himself he put into its philosophy and music. “Dave was a lot more convicted back in those times than we were,” says Dannis. “We were on the bandwagon with him, but Dave definitely supplied the direction and sometimes he turned down some strange avenues, and even though we went with him we didn’t know where we were!” “We miss him dearly, especially now, you know,” says Bobby. “But it’s like he’s with us. There’s a symbol that David came up with that represents Death, called the Spiritual, Mental Physical. It’s three dots that form a triangle, and then there’s another dot that kind of goes off the triangle,which is kind of like directing it." “David said that was the spirit of God that was guiding us. We do look at that triangle as being completed. Whenever we think of David, we don’t look down; we always look up. So there he is directing the triangle, and here me and Dannis are and we’re still down here in this Earthly realm, so it truly is a spiritual, mental physical thing. The Death story took us by surprise like everybody else, so we know there’s a guiding spirit involved.”

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