After speaking with A Band Called Death directors Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino, I had the opportunity to speak to the band Death itself. Bobby Hackney (bass, vocal), Bobbie Duncan (guitar), and Dannis Hackney (drums) were all really cool guys, and I’m not just saying that because they dug my baseball cap. They were lively and positive, which was especially notable since they’d played a show the previous night just nine hours before our interview that morning.
Death formed in 1971 in Detroit, a power trio comprised of Bobby, Dannis, and their late brother David. Unsigned and going nowhere despite their great sound, the band broke up in 1977. They were rediscovered in 2008 or 2009, and have since been garnering the recognition they missed out on all those years ago. A Band Called Death is a chronicle of their rediscovery and rebirth, and also a look at the musical lineage of the Hackney family. Three of Bobby’s sons (Bobby Jr., Julian, and Urian) are in the band Rough Francis, which played an important part in the band’s revival.
The members of Death talked about the fimmaking process, getting back in the groove of playing their material, writing new songs, and what the family dynamic is like given all the music in their blood.
[This interview was originally posted as part of our coverage of SXSW 2013. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical and VOD release of this film. Look for our review of A Band Called Death tomorrow.]
[Editor’s note: Photos of Death and me are from Tank Alston, the band’s manager. The images were posted on the band’s Twitter account: @WorldWide_DEATH.]
I remember the first time I heard Death. It had to be two years ago when I was coasting around online looking for music to listen to. Up came “Politicians in My Eyes” and it blew me away.
Bobby Hackney: Thank you.
How’d the show go last night?
Bobby Hackney: It was awesome.
Dannis Hackney: Really, really awesome.
Bobby Hackney: I don’t know which one was better: the earlier show we did with Rough Francis or the one we did last night. But both of them–
Dannis Hackney: They were killer.
Bobby Hackney: We had such a great time.
Dannis Hackney: [directly into the recorder] Thank you, South By Southwest.
Bobby Hackney: Thank you.
[laughs] Can you talk about first being contacted for the documentary A Band Called Death and how that process came about?
Bobby Hackney: Well, you know, after the Death discovery… Jeff Howlett was a man that I knew from out reggae band days. Dannis and I knew Jeff because he was a musician in a band as well. And it was funny, because after the Death discovery we were getting a lot of phone calls from all over the place. I mean we even got calls from celebrities who were interested in doing our story as a documentary. Jeff approached us, and he had this real heartfelt conversation with me and Dannis, but we still didn’t know what the gist of it was. Of course, keep in mind, this was only a few months into the whole discovery, so we’re still kind of like a deer in the headlights. “Where is all this coming from? How did this [happen]?” You know.
So we’re still mesmerized by this whole thing and Jeff says he wants to do a documentary. We didn’t think that [the film] would be anywhere near the magnitude of what has transpired. We thought it was just going to be like maybe a local video, and we’re like, “What, Jeff? You going to show this on public access? Is this going to be something we watch on Saturday morning instead of the cartoons? What’s going on here?”
Dannis Hackney: [laughs]
Bobby Hackney: He he told me, “Nah, I think this documentary is going to be really good. I think your story’s compelling and I have some wonderful ideas.” So we let him do a series of interviews, a series of test shots and things like that. And when we saw the first pass of what him and Mark were doing, Dannis and I looked at each other and said, “This is way more serious than public access. This looks really good.”
And so it just kind of snowballed from there, just sort of grew and grew. And we continued [our thing], and he followed us to Detroit, Chicago, New York, wherever we were playing. They did a whole lot of footage in Detroit, really took the time to contact our family and sit down and really have one-on-ones with a lot of our family members. So they got the story from all angles of the Hackney family, and about what we did in Detroit, and a lot of our neighbors we grew up around.
Dannis Hackney: People who were calling the police on us!
Bobby Hackney: Yeah! [laughs]
Bobbie Duncan: [laughs]
Bobby Hackney: It just blossomed into a production that we had no idea would be on this level. About halfway into project, we knew that there was something special that was taking place.
And then when I got the call one night and Jeff was as happy as– Well, you know. He just couldn’t calm down over the phone. I had to calm him down so he could tell me the news. Scott Mosier, who’d produced Good Will Hunting and Dogma, been involved with animation, won an Academy Award for a short documentary — he wanted to get involved. Scott got involved and he introduced himself to us and our family. He’s just a wonderful person in that he really guided us and helped us understand the whole concept of what this whole thing was about and where it could possibly go. So we were in. We were just totally in.
So this has been the the culmination of a four-year project. Four years to make this movie.
How long did Jeff and Mark stick around with all you guys? Were they just constantly around you?
Dannis Hackney: Oh yeah. They went to all the gigs. They went to the hotel rooms. They interviewed old friends. We lived together for a long time on the road — his camera crew, us, and the band. They went into all these cities and just did it. The more they did it, the more they liked it; the more they did it, the more we liked it. So it just kept going until it wound up becoming the documentary that we have. It’s nice.
It was Jeff or Mark who said just a minute ago that your brother Earl served as a kind of older brother and a father figure for you two. And I also have to say, he has one of the best laughs ever.
Bobbie Duncan: [laughs]
Dannis Hackney: [laughs]
Bobby Hackney: [laughs] Yes he does! His laugh will be worldwide famous! But you know, him being the oldest brother… In the early 50s and 60s, that’s the way the family hierarchy went. If you were the oldest brother, you really were like the surrogate mom and dad. Most of the time when dad was gone at work or mom was out of the house, you knew who second in command was, and that would be the oldest sibling.
Dannis Hackney: That was Earl. Yup.
Bobby Hackney: But you know the great thing about it was he never tried to dominate us in the way. Earl was great because he was the one that established the agreement that we all held with each other: that we wouldn’t be against each other, that we wouldn’t fight each other, we wouldn’t try to make each others’s lives miserable. We would always be in each others’s corners. And that’s the one thing I love him so much for. He was truly what a big brother should be.
Dannis Hackney: He was a good big brother. [laughs]
Can you talk you talk about that first show you guys played after the discovery?
Dannis Hackney: Wasn’t that Joey Ramone’s Birthday Bash ?
Bobby Hackney: That was Joey Ramone’s Birthday Bash. Mickey Leigh [Editor’s note: Joey Ramone’s brother] invited us there and, just like Bobbie said in the film, that was probably one of the most nervous days of me and Dannis’s life.
Bobbie Duncan: Mhm.
Dannis Hackney: That’s right.
Bobby Hackney: It was the first time we were going to play Death music in front of a huge crowd in New York City. And, I’ll tell you–
Dannis Hackney: Coming from being reggae!
Bobby Hackney: Being in that dressing room backstage at the Fillmore, you’d have thought that we were having kids.
Dannis Hackney: Mhm.
Bobby Hackney: We were pacing the floor like expectant fathers! [laughs]
Bobby Hackney: And Bobbie was trying to calm us down, and we’re like just leaning on him. “You’re the New York guy! You’re in your element — help us!” [laughs]
Bobbie Duncan: [laughs]
Bobby Hackney: And he’s looking at us like, “Dude–” [laughs]
Dannis Hackney: “–I have issues of my own!” [laughs]
Bobbie Duncan: “You’ve got to hold me up too!”
You had so much pressure stepping in for David.
Bobbie Duncan: Huge shoes.
Bobby Hackney: Mhm.
Bobbie Duncan: I had big shoes to fill. I mean, not even just the guitar playing, but David’s just the influence [on the band] altogether. Just to be the guy who’s like, “So who’s playing the guitar?” To be that guy, you know? [laughs]
Bobby Hackney: It took us a while to really get the stride of it, because there were so many emotional things, can we play the music the way we used to play it. I mean we know that we have a lot of young fans who have expectations when they hear those records. We were carrying all those kinds of burdens in those first few months of really doing the Death material again. And course with me and Dannis, with every note that we played — and still to this very day — with every note we play, we remember incidents and wonderful memories of Detroit.
I had mentioned that to James Shapiro, who’s the Drafthouse Films COO. I said during those times, between 1971 to 1976, we were literally joined at the hip. I mean, if you wanted to find any one of us, all you had to do was find one of us, because the other two would be very close by. [laughs]
You guys were saying that you three are getting tighter and tighter as the band Death now.
Bobby Hackney: Yeah.
I like the fact that with the Death logo, there’s that fourth dot outside the triangle. It seems so perfect, because it’s almost as if David’s watching over all of you.
Bobby Hackney: Wow.
Dannis Hackney: It’s funny you mention the idea of being perfect because perfection is him.
Bobby Hackney: That’s right.
Dannis Hackney: That’s the godhead of our operation.
Bobby Hackney: And David… That was his resolve. David was well ahead of the whole spiritual concept. He was well ahead of all that, I think, before me and Dannis. And I can say this because I was in school, Dannis had recently graduated or was about to graduate and was on his way to college in Detroit — Detroit Technical College. So we were thinking about jobs. I was thinking about graduating from school. I had a part-time job. David was just thinking about one thing and one thing only, and that’s the music — hitting that perfection he wanted, writing the songs.
I would get home– Now, I had to write all the lyrics. David depended on me to write all the lyrics. And I would get home and I would have homework to do, and he’d be like, “No, man. You’ve got to write the lyrics for this song. Come on, I need this song right now. I need it now!”
Bobby Hackney: So, you know. [laughs] There was a lot of times I had to do my homework right before I went to school because I spent the whole evening with David writing songs! [laughs] And he would come to me with this music and he would say, “This is what I feel.” Even with “Let the World Turn.” He would describe it, and he would describe certain things, and I would have to come up with the lyrics, man, to match that feeling he would describe.
I remember he was telling me the concept for “Let the World Turn,” and he says, “Death is like when you wake up, you’re really not going to know where you’ve been. Like when you wake up from a dream and you know it was a good dream but you can’t remember the dream.” That’s where the lyric [comes from]: “Will you be glad when they let you off / Oh but you won’t know really where you’ve been.”
When he saw the lyrics, he’s like, “Man! That’s it! That nails it!” And he used to come to us with those concepts. He’d come to Dannis and say, “Look, we need to sound like this.” They used to work together at the Chrysler plant, and he was telling them about some machine that they used to hear all the time.
Like some sort of industrial?
Dannis Hackney: [Editor’s note: Audio a little unclear, but piecing this together from memory.] Yeah, in the stamping room, one of those stamping things.
Bobby Hackney: I didn’t know what they were talking about, but Dannis got the sound that he was talking about.
Dannis Hackney: He’d say stuff like, “Sound like a machine.” Or, “Imagine a train. [Make it sound] like a train.” Because, you know, we weren’t formally educated in music, so we used actual things and themes to picture what we wanted to hear.
Bobby Hackney: That train scenario is particular on “Rock and Roll Victim.”
Dannis Hackney: He was telling me, “The hihat’s got to sound like chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga.
Bobby Hackney: A choo-choo train.
That actually makes more sense, though, musically. You’re going for that really visceral feel.
As opposed to being like, “Oh, let’s process this, or play at this speed.” No. This. Has. Got. To. Sound. Like. A. Train.
Dannis Hackney: Right. And I came as close to it as I can. So the background music doesn’t get boring. [laughs]
Bobby Hackney: [laughs]
Have you ever considered combining the rock of Death with the reggae of Lambsbread?
Dannis Hackney: Ehhhhhhhhhhh…
Bobby Hackney: You know, it’s just that the music that we played as Death in 1975 was so rock and roll pure.
Bobby Hackney: We’ve been tempted to do that, but it’s almost like you don’t want to mess with grandma’s recipe, you know what I mean. [laughs]
Bobbie Duncan: [laughs]
Dannis Hackney: [laughs] That’s right!
Bobby Hackney: I don’t want to put too much salt in the cookie mix, you know?! [laughs]
Dannis Hackney: The world’s already got Bad Brains.
Dannis Hackney: Bad Brains was very successful at it, and God bless them, but we kind of want to keep our thing pure rock and roll.
Bobby Hackney: And they even tweeted to us, “Don’t let go of your reggae roots, because we haven’t.” Right now I think that for all the fans, and there are a lot yet to come who know about Death but haven’t seen Death live, we want to stay committed to them and give them what they want. For the time being, when you come out to see Death, that’s exactly what you’re going to get.
Dannis Hackney: But you gotta remember: we may be a tad slower.
Dannis Hackney: Those guys were 17, 19, and 21.
What is it like playing those Death songs now that you’re older? You mention being a little slower, but obviously…
Dannis Hackney: Well you just got to practice them a lot more. Me and Bob talked about that a lot. I’m said, “Look, man, I was 19 years old when I was sounding like a freight train.” Now, I can sound like a train again, but that train might not be– Instead of 100 miles per hour, it might be moving at 90. [laughs]
Bobbie Duncan: [laughs]
[laughs] 90’s still plenty fast, though.
Bobby Hackney: But the wonderful thing is that because we’re now veteran players and we’ve been through a lot more musical situations, the music is a little more– I don’t know if I’d say it’s easier to play, but you can really get into the whole rock and roll feeling. If you’re playing rock and roll you can get into that feeling; if you’re playing reggae you can get into that feeling; if you’re playing blues, jazz, whatever. We fortunately didn’t give up playing music, so we’ve got that experience going for us, which comes in really handy with the Death stuff.
How much material did you record in those early days? Are there still a lot of tapes lying around unreleased?
Bobby Hackney: There are a lot of tapes. We’ve got a whole catalog. You see those lyric sheets in the movie?
Bobby Hackney: Those are from our actual catalog. We have a catalog about this thick of nothing but Death songs that never made it to the studio. [Editor’s note: Bobby measured out between his fingers something the thickness of a phonebook.]
Bobby Hackney: We’ve got a lot of stuff. We premiered a couple of those songs yesterday at the early show, and the crowd just went wild for them. We have a new album that we’ve just finished with songs from that catalog, some songs that Bobbie has contributed, some songs that we’ve written together.
What’s the new songwriting process like with Bobbie in the band now? What is it like to create new Death music.
Bobby Hackney: I’ll let Bobbie answer.
Bobbie Duncan: As a writer myself, first the opportunity had to come where Bob said, “Hey, let’s start putting together a new album; let’s start putting together some tunes.” And I guess the process is the same. When David was around he had a concept he brought to the band. Like, “Hey, this is what I want you play, this is the music,” but his writing partner were his brothers.
For me, what I did in the first place was check out the movement and concepts of the Death music that existed and drew from the energy I was getting from that, and especially from my performances. I came up with a few skeletons, and one of the skeletons I came up with was a song by the name of “Relief.” In order to keep the integrity of the music of Death, I could have completed the whole song on my own, but I said, “Nah, I just don’t want to do everything in it.” So I brought it to Bob and to make sure I got that same energy, he contributed to the song and Dannis contributed to the song. I think we still bring it to the table in the same way, but I just don’t live under the same roof with them. Our roof is like the studio. [laughs]
Bobbie Duncan: We start with our writing process there, instead of like, you know, he’s laying down watching TV, [and I’m like,] “Hey, Bobby, write these lyrics for me.” [laughs] I don’t want Bobby doing his homework in the morning.
Bobby Hackney: [laughs]
Dannis Hackney: [laughs]
[laughs] Bobby’s doing his taxes and you’re like, “No, come on, I really need lyrics for this.”
Bobby Hackney: [laughs] Exactly.
Bobbie Duncan: But you know, I think it’s pretty much the same process in a sense, but again, I think it’s just location. We come together at certain times during the week and we work on the projects like that.
I know Rough Francis is playing here at South By as well.
Bobby Hackney: Yup, they’re here. And they’re still here.
What’s it like having a family of music?
Bobby Hackney: Well, you know, I think it just grows from what our mom instilled in us. We kept making the same thing available to our kids. We made music available to them, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. You see my three sons in [Rough Francis], Dannis’s daughter plays drums, we have two other kids… I mean, it’s a whole musical family. That’s just been our family legacy, and we’re just thankful for that.
All the kids, not only do they respect what we do, but we kind of mentor them in music and I think that music with kids makes them more academically involved, it helps their social lives. You know, we try to just make music available to them as much as we can.
[Editor’s note: At this point Tank Alston, the band’s manager, showed me a photo on his iPhone of a toddler at a tiny drum kit.] Oh! That is brilliant! Awesome! [laughs]
Bobby Hackney: That’s my grandson! He’s the next generation. He’s the next one coming.
I remember at the Q & A after the screening last night, someone asked about what the band could have been called other than Death. [Editor’s note: During part of the documentary, the band talks about how they almost dropped the name Death.] And I think Dannis replied, “Anything But Death.” But were there any serious alternate names that you proposed but David shot down?
Bobby Hackney: No, we didn’t.
Dannis Hackney: We really didn’t pitch other names. Because we knew that his anger would go like fwooooossssh! [laughs]
Bobbie Duncan: [laughs]
Bobby Hackney: Not only that, but we believed that Death was unique, and me and Dannis, though even we were taken aback like everybody else, I think we had resolved that we’ve got to make this work.
Dannis Hackney: Yeah, we’ve got to make this work.
Bobby Hackney: Especially after we heard David’s concept. We had thought when he first did the name, “Please don’t tell us you’re going into places like gory rock bands. Don’t tell us that.” And he’s says, “No, man. Look, this is the concept.” And David always believed–
He called death a door. Now you notice on that Fourth Movement album there’s a door at the top and there’s the triangle? That was David’s concept too. [Editor’s note: The Fourth Movement was a gospel rock band that Bobby and Dannis started in the late 1970s/early 1980s following the dissolution of Death.] He used to say, “You know what? It’s a shame we can’t call ourselves The Doors. That’s a great name that’s already been taken.” He believed that Jim Morrison had the same concept when he named his band The Doors. It’s all about that mystery — what’s behind the door?
When David told us that concept, it’s like Death had opened up a whole new realm of life for us. So we had to stick with him on it. We had to.
Do you think Death was ahead of its time or just unable to find a foothold in its time?
Bobby Hackney: Well, we knew that we were doing something pretty unique at the time, we all did. We knew that there was hardly any other black band on the east side of Detroit that was doing what we were doing. We knew that there were other bands like The Chambers Brothers, and of course Jimi Hendrix had put together the Band of Gypsys. We always looked at that and said, “Well that’s a black rock band.”
We didn’t think that we were ahead of our time in our music. We just knew that we were playing some pretty hard driving rock and roll. We thought the fact that we were all brothers and that we were all black and that we came from Detroit playing rock and roll was unique enough. With the name Death. So we thought that was unique enough. We didn’t think the music was going any groundbreaking, you know? [laughs]
Bobbie Duncan: That’s amazing, you know, because that’s the first time I ever heard Bob say that. Myself, because we’re all from the same era, I listened to the stuff. The first time I heard it, I thought it was ahead of its time. I didn’t know you guys thought that.
Bobby Hackney: No, we didn’t. We thought that what was ahead of its time was our concept. And our name.
Bobbie Duncan: Yeah, but the music was ahead of its time, because it was punk rock before punk. And, wow, just never heard Bob said that. That’s wild. [laughs]
Bobby Hackney: That’s really true because we were just thinking of being like Alice Cooper.
Dannis Hackney: Mhm.
Bobby Hackney: We were thinking of being like Grand Funk Railroad, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Todd Rundgren, Pink Floyd, even though there were doing the tripping thing. Most of the bands we gravitated to were the three-piece bands.
Dannis Hackney: The power trios.
Bobby Hackney: Power trio bands, and really The Who. Quadrophenia made a big difference. They had put out Tommy. David liked Tommy, but the strings and horns and orchestrated arrangements of Quadrophenia — he just said, “Man, this is where rock and roll is going.” We knew that Jimi Hendrix had talked about that concept before he died, that he wanted to take his music into an orchestrated level, and David was convinced that Pete Townshend had the same concept that Jimi Hendrix did. He said, “This is what Jimi Hendrix was talking about doing with his music,” after he heard Quadrophenia.
Quadrophenia became like David’s notebook. Like I said, that was the album: I would leave in the morning to go to school, Quadrophenia would be playing; I’d come back, Quadrophenia would be playing. And I mean all four sides. He tuned into all four sides, listening to the arrangements and the orchestrations.