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Interview:
Locally bred musicians give Orion festival a Detroit flavor
 

By GARY GRAFF
@graffonmusic, Facebook.com/Gary Graff on Music

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Growing up in Detroit, the three brothers who comprised the protopunk band Death fantasized about playing their music on Belle Isle.

"We used to go out there and stand on the bandshell and pretend like there were people out there watching us," recalls singer and bassist Bobby Hackney. "My brother David used to say, 'One day, man, one day we're gonna be standing on this island and we'll be playing in front of a sea of people. Just you wait.' "

David Hackney, who passed away in 2000, was certainly prescient. Death will indeed be playing Belle Isle, joining fellow Detroit rockers Battlecross and the Dirtbombs as well as Bloomfield-raised Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith in representing the home town at Metallica's second Orion Music + More festival on June 8-9. The four will be among the 39 bands playing at the event, filling five stages with a broad array of rock and electronic styles over the two days.

"One of the great things about coming to Detroit is the great Detroit story that's going on right now," says Charlie Walker of C3 Presents, the Austin-based promotion firm that produces Orion and moved it to Detroit from Atlantic City, N.J. "The city has a great music heritage, so we were looking for Detroit bands we could put on the bill

"I don't think it would have been right if we didn't have that, really."

As we ramp up for Orion in the coming week, here's a look at those who will insure the festival's Detroit flavor:

CHAD SMITH

Chad Smith hopes that there aren't any forgotten problems from his past that will surface when the Red Hot Chili Peppers co-headline this year's Orion festival.

"Oh, there's probably an outstanding warrant or something from 1984 when I was trying to swim over to Windsor," the Bloomfield Lahser High School graduate says with a laugh.

But seriously, folks...Smith, 51, is stoked about returning to his home town just a year after the Chili Peppers' last appearance here, when the drummer famously brought retiring Detroit Red Wings team captain Niklas Lidstrom onstage after its final encore.

"We have the same managers as Metallica (QPrime)," Smith -- who's also planning to attend Friday's Detroit Tigers game -- explains, "and they probably looked at our schedule and said, 'Oh, maybe the Chili Peppers will do it.' And we've known those guys for years, so we said, 'Yeah!' right off the bat.

"There's a lot of cool stuff to do there...It's not just the usual go and see bands. So we're really looking forward to it. I get to go home, see my mom, see the blue shag carpeting. It should be good."

Orion catches the Chili Peppers in wind-down mode from touring to support the group's last album, 2011's "I'm With You." The quartet has just four other shows planned for the year, and Smith anticipates a return to the studio this fall to start work on the next album.

"We always have little ideas percolating in jams and rehearsal warm-ups and sound checks and gigs," he says, "but we don't have any fully-formed songs until the four of us get in a room together. That's when the real writing process starts."

This year, meanwhile, marks his 25th anniversary in the Chili Peppers, but he's not sure if he'll receive a watch or a gold-plated tube sock to commemorate the occasion. "I like watches; I'll get more use out of that than the sock," says Smith, who recently played on the upcoming solo album by Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles and launched a series of podcasts, "Chad Smith in Conversation," via MusicRadar.

"But it really feels like 25 minutes, y'know? I just think it's great that they've been a band this long and we're still relevant and playing music that we love and people still connect to. It's crazy. I would have never thought 25 years ago this would have happened like it has. I've got a good job."

The Red Hot Chili Peppers perform at 8 p.m. June 8 on the Budweiser Orion stage.

DEATH

Death is very much alive these days -- as unlikely as that seemed just a few years ago.

Inspired by an Alice Cooper concert, the three Hackney brothers -- singer-bassist Bobby, guitarist David and drummer Dannis [cq] -- switched from R&B (as Rockfire Funk Express) to blazing, punky hard rock and recorded seven groundbreaking songs in 1974 at Detroit's United Sound Studios. "We knew it wasn't normal for three (black) dudes to be playing rock 'n' roll -- what my brother (David) used to say, 'white boy music!" Dannis Hackney acknowledges. We couldn't get in the clubs or nothing. They didn't know how their crowd would handle three black guys trying to play rock, so it was easier just to say, 'No, we're not interested.' "

Some record labels WERE interested in the music, however, but they balked at the band name, and the brothers refused to change. Death broke up in 1977. The brothers moved to Burlington Vermont, where they formed the gospel rock group the 4th Movement. David Hackney returned to Detroit in 1982 but died of lung cancer in 2000, while his brothers stayed in Vermont and formed the reggae band Lambsbread.

The record collectors network, however, discovered the Death single "Politicians in My Eyes"/"Keep on Knocking," beginning an underground surge that resulted in the release of the album "...For the Whole World to See." Death, encouraged by Bobby Hackney's children, reformed wtih Lambsbread guitarist Bobbie Duncan and has been playing regularly since 2009; the trio has recorded a new album simply titled "Death" that it hopes to release later this year, and it's also the subject of the documentary "A Band Called Death," which opens June 28 at the Birmingham 8.

"It feels good to be playing rock 'n' roll again," says Bobby Hackney. "But, man, I would give anything in the world just to have David be at this (Orion) show with us. It's going to be very powerful, very emotional. But it's gonna feel so good."

Death performs at 7 p.m. June 9 on the Vans Damage Inc. stage. The group will sign autographs at 2 p.m. June 8 at UHF Records, 512 S. Washington Ave., Royal Oak. Call 248-545-5955 or visit www.uhfmusic.com.

BATTLECROSS

James Hetfield lists Battlecross as "some of the hard and heavy stuff I'm enjoying right now." That's a heady endorsement, and one that leaves Battlecross guitarist Tony Asta feeling fairly stoked.

"This is my dream, to be part of something to do with Metallica," says Asta, 28, who co-founded the thrashy metal group during 2003 in Canton. "If I have the chance to meet Metallica, I will jump on that because they're my heroes.

"So this is a pretty big deal. I think (Orion) is going to be the biggest thing we've ever done, or been part of. I just go in with high hopes and want to have a good time."

Battlecross' list of big things is growing however, -- in an almost exponential manner.

Coming off its critically acclaimed national debut, 2011's "Pursuit of Honor," the quintet recorded a follow-up, "War of Will," during March in Florida amidst high expectations. Shortly before its July 9 release, the group will be out on the road as part of the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival, and it will also play summer dates with Children Of Bodom and be part of the Gwar-B-Q on Aug. 17 in Virginia.

Asta and his bandmates hope those, along with Orion, will vault Battlecross' profile even higher by the end of the summer.

"I can definitely say that the opportunities we've had and that are going to happen are beyond my expectations," says Asta, who now resides in Warren. "It is a goal of ours to be very successful for what we do. We're not expecting to be the next Madonna or something, but this band will never stop. If 10 years from now we're still doing cool tours and can be successful and live off this, that is an ultimate goal.

"But we'll never jeopardize our music to be there. It will always be aggressive, always in your face. We were born to do this, and we're willing to work hard to take this somewhere good."

Battlecross performs at 2:30 p.m. June 8 on the Frantic stage.

THE DIRTBOMBS

Dirtbombs drummer Ben Blackwell has "always wanted to play a show on Belle Isle" -- but for more personal reasons than many of his peers.

Blackwell played little league baseball on the island and was married there in October of 2011 -- after taking his wife on there for their first date on New Year's day of 2000. "There were first grade field trips to the nature center there and that kind of stuff," recalls Blackwell, 30, who founded the Cass Records label and also works for his uncle Jack White's Third Man Records in Nashville.

"Growing up in the city, (Belle Isle) was something you utilized. It's such a one of a kind asset. I would look at the bandshell there and think someone should rent a sound system and put a band up there and do some crazy, interesting things.

"I personally have always wanted to play a show on Belle Isle, so that's one thing I'll be able to check off the list."

The Dirtbombs -- founded during 1992 in Detroit as a side project by Mick Collins of the Gories -- seem like a potentially odd fit for Orion. The group's brand of garage rock is certainly gritty but not exactly Metallica-grade hard. It's recorded albums of soul and techno covers, and its upcoming release, due out later this summer, is comprised of bubblegum-flavored pop. But Blackwell is confident the group, whose members all reside in other cities these days, will hold its own in the noisey fray.

"After a certain point, we've kid of stopped thinking that there were things we could or couldn't do," he explains. "That way we're never disappointed or surprised. This is the same as when we played the (Movement) electronic festival two years ago; we're just happy we're doing it.

"In the grand scheme of things, playing in front of different people is the ultimate treat. To try to win over people who maybe don't know anything about you, that's a really great challenge to have as a band.

The Dirtbombs perform at 2:30 p.m. Sunday on the Frantic stage.

Metallica's Orion Music + More festival takes place June 8-9 on Detroit's Belle Isle. Single day tickets are $90. Two-day passes are $150, and VIP packages are $750. Visit www.orionmusicandmore.com for schedules, afterparties and other information. Watch the Oakland Press and www.theoaklandpress.com throughout the weekend for full Orion festival coverage.

Web Site: www.orionmusicandmore.com

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