In the last few years, the almost-forgotten Detroit protopunk band Death has been going through a rebirth. And it’s only three decades after the fact. The group was born in Detroit in 1971, a power trio comprised of three brothers: Bobby Hackney (bass, vocals), David Hackney (guitar), and Dannis Hackney (drums). Rather than go the way of Motown for their sound, the Hackneys explored another Detroit tradition: the MC5. They barely got airplay, they never got signed, and they faded into the ether until vinyl collectors rediscovered one of their releases.
The documentary A Band Called Death from directors Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino is the story of the band, viewing their struggle both as a triumph of musicology and a moving family affair. It’s bound to draw comparisons to last year’s Academy Award-winning doc Searching for Sugar Man. This makes sense given the similar subject matter, but I think that’s unfair to both films since each explores how forgotten/underappreciated artists rise again in different ways.
I had a chance to meet with Howlett and Covino last Friday at SXSW. Sitting side by side, I almost got a sense of them like a vaudeville comedy duo. Howlett was more like the straight man and Covino was the funny guy, but they were both cracking wise during the conversation. We talked a bit about their own discovery of Death, working with an editor remotely, and the person in the film with the best laugh (possibly ever). Look for our interview with the band called Death tomorrow.
[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 on Friday.]
Do you guys remember the first time you heard a Death song?
Jeff Howlett: The first time that I heard a Death song played was at the Rough Francis show. [Editor’s note: Rough Francis is a band that was started by Bobby’s Hackney’s sons: Bobby Jr., Julian, and Urian. Their early shows involved the band playing songs by Death.] It was one of their first shows in Vermont at this place called The Monkey House. Bobby Jr. told me, “Come check out my band Rough Francis.”
And I said, “Well, what’s that?” I was obviously curious.
And he says, “My father was in a protopunk band in the 1970s called Death.”
“Oh… Death? But your father’s in Lambsbread.” [Editor’s note: Lambsbread is a reggae band started by Bobby and Dannis from Death.]
And so I went and checked them out and right then and there, the first song out of the gate I was like, “This is amazing stuff!” And just the whole show from then on just completely blew me away. So I hadn’t actually heard a recording of Death per se at that point, but just Rough Francis playing the music, and it was definitely something special.
Mark Covino: Do you think [Jeff’s] talking to low?
Well, yeah, maybe just a little bit.
Mark Covino: Just a little bit louder?
Jeff Howlett: Bump it up?
Mark Covino: Because we’ve got this guy over here. [points at someone on his cellphone a table or two away]
Jeff Howlett: Oh yeah.
It’ll be okay. [My recorder] will still pick you up.
Mark Covino: I talk loud. I’m from New York. I don’t give a shit.
Jeff Howlett: Mark and I are very easy to distinguish.
Mark Covino: So yeah, how I heard about Death is through Jeff when he tried to get me to work on this film. He told me about it and I was already working on another project and trying to wrap it up. I told him, “I don’t have time for your fucking movie, I’m sorry, man.” [laughs]
Jeff Howlett: [laughs]
Mark Covino: And I was like, “You know what? Send me some links, like two tracks or the song you keep talking about. Send me the New York Times article. Send me the synopsis for how you see this film being put together.” He sent me that email and I blew it off for about two weeks, and he was probably thinking, “Well, I guess that’s all said and done.”
Then I had one of those “I’m a depressed filmmaker trying to make movies and I’m not making movies right now” [moments]. Let me see what he was talking about. I like rock and roll. I made a documentary on hip hop and I’m not a huge fan of hip hop, so this might be fun, and at the time Jeff wanted to do a 20-minute doc, so I said, “Okay, this isn’t gonna be any longer than like a month shoot.”
Mark Covino: I read the New York Times article. Was floored. Read his synopsis. I was sold. And when I listened to the two tracks by Death, I fell out of my seat.
Jeff Howlett: [laughs]
Mark Covino: And I called Jeff immediately and I said, “We’re making this project and it’s going to be a feature. There’s no way we’re doing it as a short.”
Why had you envisioned it as a short doc originally, Jeff? That’s fascinating, actually.
Jeff Howlett: Yeah. So I originally thought of it as a short doc just simply what we had so far. I don’t know — I think it was sort of the naivete of not knowing how large this project could actually be. I knew it was an interesting subject. You know, the songs speak for themselves. You put the vinyl down and you listen to that 45 and it just pops.
Yeah, the sound [on a Death song] is just nuts.
Jeff Howlett: You know. Err, if you’re lucky enough to get a Death 45, you know? [laughs] They’re like $800.
Mark Covino: I was listening to MP3s and I was sold. [laughs]
Jeff Howlett: You just listen to the music and you just know. It’s something special. And just wow. My first thing listening to their music was, “Wow, this is amazing stuff.” Like just recorded, sonically — I’m a musician as well and that’s kind of how Bobby and I met 20 years ago. I was in a band, and obviously he’s in Lambsbread. It’s just sonically speaking from that perspective. I just knew that this was something special.
Mark Covino: The music pretty much let us both know that we needed to make a movie. [laughs]
Jeff Howlett: Yeah. [laughs] Whether it be short or not.
Mark Covino: [directly into the recorder] By the way, I’m Mark: the annoying loud guy.
Jeff Howlett: Yeah, I think we’ve established that. [laughs]
What was it like contacting the Hackney brothers and talking about Death for the first time?
Jeff Howlett: I actually had a conversation with Bobby Jr. I had a conversation at this coffee shop in Vermont called Common Ground, of all places. He was in a band called Common Ground, believe it or not. [laughs] Years before. Anyway, weird coincidence. We met there, had a coffee. I said, let’s talk about this Death thing and obviously Rough Francis, because it was sort of going to be a doc about two bands kind of.
Makes sense since it’s completely a family story.
Jeff Howlett: Right, it’s a family story. So we sat down and talked about it and I said I haven’t talked to Bob in a few years–
Mark Covino: Bob Sr.
Jeff Howlett: Bobby Sr. [a beat] I call him Bob and his son Bobby.
[laughs] There ya go.
Jeff Howlett: So we sat down and had a conversation and I just knew in that conversation that we could make this happen. When we sat down and actually started talking about… I did a first interview to sort of just feel it out and get sort of the broad aspects of the story. Right at that time is when the New York Times article hit. When I saw that article I knew we had to document this story right then and there, that’s when we started, right when that article hit.
I mean, there was an article previous to that and when it came out it really intrigued me. I was like, “Man, I really need to sit down and talk to Bob and Bobby about this.” I mean sitting down for that one-hour interview, me and Bobby Jr., I was sold. This story is– It can’t stop at the New York Times article. This has to breathe life. I was going to film school at the time, and that’s when I met Mark.
Mark Covino: I thought we met in juvie.
Jeff Howlett: [laughs] Yeah, during juvie.
Mark Covino: That’s a whole different story altogether.
During a knife fight or something.
Jeff Howlett: Yeah, right, right.
Mark Covino: He stabbed me.
Jeff Howlett: [laughs] Yeah.
How close is the structure of the film as a finished feature to the original synopsis?
Jeff Howlett: Oh wow.
Mark Covino: It is way different. You know when I called him up and said we were doing a feature documentary. I said, “We’re doing a feature rockumentary.” [laughs] Our original idea was to just show a bunch of live shows and a few segments where we’re interviewing them in the green rooms or something.
Mark Covino: Almost like the old documentaries
Jeff Howlett: Mhm.
Mark Covino: The more we started them and learning about the real story, the more realized that it was a family story as much as it was a music story, and that completely sort of wrote itself as we were going. On the writing side of things it was pretty easy because it’s there.
Jeff Howlett: It tells itself.
Mark Covino: Yeah, it tells itself.
Jeff Howlett: It really does.
How much footage did you guys shoot overall?
Jeff Howlett: Over 100 hours?
Mark Covino: Close to 200 hours, maybe. In three years of shooting.
And I always have to ask with documentaries, how did you sculpt that material into a film?
Mark Covino: In the editing process? That was unique because we got an editor.
Jeff Howlett: Mhm.
Mark Covino: Originally I was going to edit.
Jeff Howlett: Rich Fox is the editor, by the way.
Mark Covino: When we got our producer Scott Mosier on board, he said, “Do you guys want to edit this?”
And I was like, “Yeah… but I’m a little worried I might get burnt out. So I’d appreciate if you’ve got a list of people.”
And he’s like, “Well, I’ve got a good friend named Rich Fox. He broke into the industry by directing and editing a movie called Tribute about tribute bands.”
Jeff Howlett: Mhm.
Mark Covino: He’s kind of into the material, and he also just finished editing the Ozzy Osbourne documentary. So I said, “Perfect.” He did the Ozzy Osbourne documentary, he knows different video formats, because I shot everything on GoPros and HPXs. A whole gamut.
Jeff Howlett: Super 8, the whole nine.
Mark Covino: And Rich very quickly gave us a rough cut, like within a month.
Mark Covino: He was just phenomenal. It was the backbone, it still needed the flesh put on it, but he sculpted it from there. But not once did we ever see him. Everything was communicated through email.
Mark Covino: And that’s a first for me, and that’s definitely a first for Jeff.
How does that change your usual editing process? That seems–
Mark Covino: Usually I would sit down with my editor.
Jeff Howlett: We actually cut quite a bit of footage prior to having Rich just to sort of give Scott and Matt [Perniciaro] an idea of what we have.
Mark Covino: At the time we got Rich, Jeff and me cut a promo that we put out to let people know we were making the documentary, and then we cut a trailer to put out to let people know it wasn’t the Mos Def documentary that was being talked about at the time. And then after that when we got Mosier interested, he wanted to see some footage just to see if it was worth coming on board as our producer. So we cut a 30-minute version of the movie. And none of that’s in the movie… [laughs]
Jeff Howlett: Right.
Mark Covino: But it’ll be on the DVD, hopefully.
You have footage of Death when they played their reunion show– Well, not really a reunion show but kind of a rediscovery show.
Mark Covino: The Detroit show?
Yeah, exactly. Could you talk about the experience of that night?
Jeff Howlett: Oh wow.
Mark Covino: [laughs] That was pretty–
Jeff Howlett: Amazing. [laughs]
Mark Covino: It was kind of surreal.
Jeff Howlett: By the way, that was Mark and I with five cameras.
Mark Covino: It was just us doing that show.
Oh my god. [laughs]
Jeff Howlett: It was a very interesting experience.
Mark Covino: No sound guy.
Jeff Howlett: No sound guy at all.
Mark Covino: That’s why it sound like shit. [laughs]
Jeff Howlett: [laughs]
Mark Covino: But no, I mean, that was a crazy, crazy night.
Jeff Howlett: It was.
Mark Covino: There was tons of family there. The guys that helped bring the album out.
Jeff Howlett: Matt Smith.
Mark Covino: Yeah, Matt Smith from Drag City Records was there, who you see in the movie. Don Schwank, who was the guy who brought the crate 35 years later, and that’s why people have the album. So it was just… Emotions were high, and everyone was crying. David was there. You could feel David’s presence.
Jeff Howlett: Yeah, every show Death plays they usually have a banner of David on the stage to sort of have that presence known to the audience, and of course for them. You feel it, man, you know? You see them live and everything, and it comes full circle.
Mark Covino: That’s why I love that part in the movie where I held on that shot — Bobby walks off the stage and we’re still on [the banner of] David looking over at the audience.
It makes this weird sense too since David thought the recordings would be discovered, and at the same the Death logo is the fourth dot off the side of the triangle, like someone looking on. It’s all too perfect how this aligns.
Jeff Howlett: It is, it is.
Mark Covino: I’m telling you, man: I still don’t believe any of this shit and I made a film on it!
Mark Covino: But it’s real and it just happened.
Jeff Howlett: Yeah, it just unfolded.
Was that a constant thing? As you were delving into this family story, were just constantly discovering new layers? I guess… what was the process of the archaeology of the story?
Jeff Howlett: It kind of evolved. The underlying thing was we have this thing about David. Everybody is talking about David. Everyone that we interviewed: David, David, David, David. And we were just like–
Mark Covino: Who’s this David guy? [laughs]
Jeff Howlett: [laughs]
Mark Covino: I mean, of course we knew who he was.
Jeff Howlett: But, you know, that’s when we’re like, “Let’s dive a little bit deeper,” and that’s when the family elements really came out and the questions got deeper.
Mark Covino: That’s when we interviewed Heidi, David’s wife.
Jeff Howlett: More people sort of came on board.
Mark Covino: There are so many layers to David.
Jeff Howlett: Yeah, There are so many layers to David. Because we had this sort of rockumentary, if you will, but it was like, “Wait a minute…” And we also had a lot of input from Scott and Matt and Jerry [Ferrara].
Mark Covino: Our producers.
Jeff Howlett: Our producers. And they sort of threw some questions back our way. And it was like, “You know, this makes a lot of sense.” And we sort of combined everything in the interviews, and it became more like a collaborative process. Whereas maybe in a lot of docs it’d be like, “Okay, here’s a director. I’m a producer. Let’s just coordinate things and make it happen.” But it was a very collaborative process in that way, which really, I think, helped us build the story even more.
Mark Covino: And definitely David’s part was a big part of that because everyone really connected with him.
You guys got Jello Biafra, Henry Rollins, and Kid Rock in the film. How did you get in touch with those guys? When you said, “Hey, we’re doing something on Death,” were they just like, “Oh yeah, I’m on this!”
Mark Covino: Pretty much. It was a combination of Jeff getting in touch with people, like Alice Cooper and Jello Biafra, and Scott using his connections to get through to Elijah Wood, Questlove, and Kid Rock– Did he get Kid Rock?
Jeff Howlett: Yeah, and Kid Rock.
Mark Covino: And we even have more people who didn’t make it. We have Wayne Kramer.
Jeff Howlett: From the MC5.
Yeah, yeah, it was mentioned last night.
Mark Covino: You know, we always get the question, “Why didn’t you interview someone from MC5?” We did, it just didn’t work in the edit. I don’t know.
Jeff Howlett: There are guys — Chuck Treece, Wayne Kramer — that we interviewed but, you know, where does it fit in? And it’s just like…
Mark Covino: You can’t put everybody in.
Jeff Howlett: But you want to put everybody in.
Mark Covino: Documentaries you want to keep as short as possible.
Jeff Howlett: Yeah, you want an hour and a half.
Mark Covino: Well, in my opinion, at least. I don’t want to watch a fucking two-hour documentary. [laughs]
Jeff Howlett: [laughs]
[laughs] Actually, I’ll say this before I go: Earl Hackney has one of the best laughs ever.
Mark Covino: It is the best!
Jeff Howlett: No question!
Mark Covino: I could listen to him laughing non-stop all day.
Jeff Howlett: That interview was so amazing! The first time that he laughed– Okay, the first time that he laughed, I looked at Mark and we were just like trying not to look at each other. You don’t want to look at your buddy and ruin the moment, so you just let him laugh.
Jeff Howlett: Yeah, it was just great. He’s such an amazing guy.
Mark Covino: He’s got a big heart.
Jeff Howlett: A huge heart.
Mark Covino: He’s been there for his brothers from the start. He’s kind of been a father figure to all the boys because he’s the oldest brother.
That’s the interesting thing too because you see him laugh and it’s so huge and then later when you see Earl somber you know that everything about him is so sincere.
Mark Covino: It also helps in the documentary later on when we start talking about the dark times with David, it’s Earl quiet and very stern.
Jeff Howlett: And that room — just a real quick tidbit — was designed for David.
The space room?
Jeff Howlett: The space room, yeah.
Mark Covino: The room we interviewed Earl in with the planets and everything. David was really into the planetary system and clouds, and in their music room that Death performed in he would paint planets and put stars in the floor that glowed in the dark.
Jeff Howlett: Yeah.
Mark Covino: He wanted to live in a different place than Earth. And so Earl created this room in his office.
Jeff Howlett: A David room.
Mark Covino: A David room — this shrine to David. He’s actually working to get a little plaque made to put on the door. That’s where that interview was done, and it made it so much more dramatic.
Jeff Howlett: More powerful, yeah.
Mark Covino: Not to mention I interviewed him at like two in the morning. [laughs]