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Interview:
Detroit band Death lives thanks to new documentary
 

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

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When the casket closed at David Hackney's funeral in 2000, it was a dramatic moment for his two brothers and musical partners in the Detroit band Death.

"When they did that, I thought they were closing the casket on Dave, our career, everything," says Bobby Hackney, Death's singer and bassist. He recalls that older brother Dannis, [cq] Death's drummer, "looked at me and that moment and said, 'Well Bob, I guess the Death story has gone with David. It's gonna be one of the best rock 'n' roll band's no one's ever heard of.' "

These days, however, Death is very much alive.

The trio, which was on the leading edge of punk rock during the mid-70s and was an all-black rock band well before the likes of Bad Brains or Living Colour, was rediscovered in 2008 by record collectors. That led to the re-release of the music Death recorded at Detroit's United Sound Studios during 1974-75, a rebirth of the group as a touring act and fresh music -- including a new single called "Relief" and an album the band hopes to release in the near future.

And it's resulted in "A Band Called Death," a documentary that's been shown at the Los Angeles and South By Southwest film festivals and opens Friday, June 28, in Detroit and other cities -- and could be for Death the discovery moment that last year's Academy Award-winning "Searching For Sugarman" was for fellow Detroit musician Sixto Rodriguez.

"This is a gift to us, man, it really is," Bobby Hackney, flanked by Dannis and Bobbie Duncan, Death's current guitarist, says at Detroit's Magic Stick during the group's recent visit to promote the film and play at Metallica's Orion Music + More festival on Belle Isle. "It's been very emotional and very surreal -- and very happy.

"Y'know, it's kind of weird when people come up to you and say, 'Hey man, you guys deserve accolades' or 'You did this' or 'You did that.' And back then in Detroit, man, people would RUN from us when they saw us walking together, like 'There's those crazy brothers who play rock 'n' roll!' "

He and the others break up laughing. "It wasn't easy, man," Bobby says. "It wasn't easy at all."

DETROIT ROCK CITY

The Hackneys were raised on Detroit's east side in a church-going household, but they enjoyed secular music as well. The day after the Beatles' first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964, David Hackney found a discarded guitar in a nearby alley, and the three brothers put their band together in an upstairs bedroom, later playing shows from the family garage. They were initially a more R&B-oriented group called Rock Fire Funk Express, but a pair of encounters -- Dannis seeing Alice Cooper at Cobo Hall and David attending a Who concert at Cobo Arena -- brought about a change of direction.

"When I went home and told the guys, 'Man, I saw this guy named Alice Cooper and you would not believe it!' Dave literally threw me out of the room. 'Get out of here!' " Dannis, 59, recalls with a laugh. But then three months later, when the Who came to town, Dave saw that (Who) show and he was the way I was. It made a major impact on David, just like me and Alice Cooper.

"So when David got on the page, I didn't have to worry. He was the leader of the band. That's when we started to change the way we sounded."

Bobby, 56, adds that "playing rock felt so free and so fresh. We didn't know we were feel like we were inventing anything; we just thought we were playing good music."

New music required a new name, however. And David chose Death -- much to his brothers' consternation.

"He thought it was taking a negative idea and making it a positive," says Bobby. "David would actually use it as a kind of semi-weapon. I mean, he really got a kick out of it; people would say, 'Hey, what's the name of your band?' Me and Dannis would be kind of, 'Hmmm, well...' but David would look at them as if he was about to spit the venom of life at them and say 'Death!' and just watch the reaction.

"He almost scared my wife away with the name."

A BAND CALLED DEATH

The group name would, in fact, be its death knell. Signed to Don Davis' Groovesville Productions in Detroit -- after David threw a dart at some Yellow Pages listings pinned the wall in the band's rehearsal room -- the group recorded a set of spartan, raw rock songs such as "Politicians in My Eyes," "Keep On Knocking," "Freakin Out" and "Rock-N-Roll Victim," which owed a debt to Motor City forebears such as the MC5 and the Stooges as much as they predated the late 70s punk explosion. More than two decades later, the New York Times dubbed it "punk before punk was punk."

The sound courted national and even international interest, but record labels -- most famously Clive Davis' Arista Records, which was ready to sign the group -- couldn't abide by the name. Dannis acknowledges that "there was a lot of thought and talk about" changing the name, "but you had to come up against David." And, Bobby adds, "David's theory was, 'The world is crazy, not us.'We strongly believed in our music that much that we thought there would be another record label that would pick it up -- David believed that more than we did, I think. He really hung in there.

"But we kinda knew, with some of the rejection letters that we were getting, it would be a long, hard road to travel on."

Being a black rock band, meanwhile, meant plenty of dead ends on the live front, too. "We tried to book a gig at the Masonic (Temple) Auditorium," Bobby recalls. "It was this cabaret, all black, and they were really in tune to the music of the time -- Al Green, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers, Gladys Knight. We were kind of out of place there. We played our original music, and after each song we could stop and it would just be quiet. You could hear a pin drop."

Regular rock clubs, meanwhile, were perhaps even more resistant. Death did get the owner of Uncle Sam's in Ann Arbor to give them a Monday night slot. "But there was just a couple of people there, so he never booked us back again," Bobby says. "He thought not only were we too weird, but the name of the band was a big drawback."

Disheartened, Death did press up 500 copies of a single, "Politicians in My Eyes"/"Keep on Knocking" on its own Tryangle Records imprint. "That was David's idea, too; we were TRYing every angle," Dannis says. The brothers decided to let Death die a natural, well, death in 1977, and after visiting relatives in Vermont all three Hackneys moved to Burlington and formed a gospel rock band called the 4th Movement that released two albums.

David returned to Detroit in 1982, where he continued to make music until his death from lung cancer, while Bobby and Dannis formed a reggae band called Lambsbread.

"Before he died, David gave me a box that had all of (Death's) master tapes," Bobby says. "He said to me, 'One day the world's going to want to hear this and come looking for it. And when they do, you'll have it. Once the record comes out...man, that's going to change everything.' I think about that a lot with everything that's happened to us the last few years."

LIFE AFTER DEATH

The Death revival began in 2007, when record collector Robert Cole Manis paid $800 in cash and trade for a copy of the group's single. At the same time, Bobby's children, who are musicians as well, discovered their father's and uncle's past and began to play Death's music in their own band, Rough Francis (one of David Hackney's nicknames). Manis discovered that Bobby had the master tapes, and, as David predicted, a deal was brokered with Chicago's Drag City Records to release the seven United Sound recordings as "...For the Whole World to See" in February of 2009. Seven months later Bobby and Dannis recruited Lambsbread guitarist Duncan -- who admits the Death name "kind of weirded me out for a minute -- to play with them as Death, and in January of 2011 Drag City released a collection of remaining Death demos as "Spiritual * Mental * Physical."

Documentarians Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino picked up on the Death story, bringing the Hackneys back to Detroit and interviewing admirers such as Kid Rock, Alice Cooper, the Dirtbombs' Ben Blackwell, Living Colour's Vernon Reid and others for "A Band Called Death." "They did a great job," says Bobby Hackney, who breaks down crying at the beginning of the film while talking about David. "It's very bittersweet. It was emotional right from the opening shot. These are the streets we used to play on, and it was such a vibrant city. Now, man, it looks like a ghost town -- that alone is enough to inject a lot of emotion into us.

"Then you tell the rest of the story, and...phew!"

"I can't watch it too much," Dannis adds. "I get emotional."

Both brothers say that David weighs heavy on their minds with everything Death does now. "I hear him in the back of my mind -- 'I told ya!' " Dannis acknowledges. "Dave was right. That's why I love my brother. That's why I respect my brother. How do you know when a man is a prophet? Because what he says comes true. That's the way I think about my brother Dave; he was a prophet because everything he said came true.

"That's the only way I can look at it."

The two Hackneys and Duncan, meanwhile, are happy to watch Death's legend grow into a vibrant present. The group is playing out with some regularity and preparing its new music for release -- an as-yet untitled album that will feature six other mid-70s Death demos and four newly written songs (Jack White's Third Man Records recently reissued the Rock Fire Funk Express recordings as well). Effusively introduced at Orion by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, who proclaimed "This is history!," Death's set was well-received and was, in Bobby's words, "a dream come true" from men who, as boys, rode their Stingray bicycles around Belle Isle and where David, at the island's bandshell, predicted to his brothers that "one day this place is gonna be full of people listening to our music."

That's why two photos of the older Hackney brother hang behind Dannis' drums when Death plays live, and why his younger siblings say he's still part of everything they do.

"David said that once the world heard this music, that would change everything -- and that's what's happened," says Bobby. "So we look at it like every time we play on stage, we're playing for a heavenly audience -- my mom, my mother-in-law, David of course, all the wonderful people who were a big part of this rock 'n' roll story.

"It just makes us feel really good -- but, y'know, we cry a lot."

Death laughs, too, however, like when Dannis recalls stopping by the Fox 2 studios for an interview earlier this month. "The (guard) checking us in said, 'Now, what's the name of the band?' We said, 'Death!' He said 'What?!' We said, 'Death!' He said, 'Well, I'll just write down 'band.' "

"So, yeah, I still like the way people are still a little sketched out about the name," Dannis says as his bandmates cra"A Band Called Death" opens Friday, June 28, exclusively at the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave. Call 248-723-6230 or visit www.uptownentertainment.com.

ck up beside him.

Web Site: www.uptownentertainment.com

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