By Andy Downing
RedEye special contributor
8:29 PM CST, December 12, 2013
Sometimes Death isn't really the end.
In the early ‘70s, Detroit brothers David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney picked up some instruments and started bashing out scrappy, high-octane rock tunes under the name Death, recording a handful of tracks before breaking up unceremoniously in 1977. When David, who functioned as the band's primary songwriter, died of lung cancer in 2000, it appeared to put a final period on things.
Then, beginning in 2008, something interesting happened. “Politicians in My Eyes,” a single the band self-released in 1974, started to make the rounds amongst influential tastemakers like Questlove, and Bobby's sons, Julian, Urian and Bobby Jr., launched a Death cover band called Rough Francis. A New York Times profile followed as well as a record deal with Drag City. In 2013 the brothers' story was beautifully told in the documentary “A Band Called Death,” which screens free at 7 p.m. Dec. 20 at Reggie’s Music Joint.
In some ways, 2014 is shaping up to be an even bigger year for the trio (family friend Bobbie Duncan stepped in for the late David Hackney). The group just put the finishing touches on a new album, which is expected out on Drag City next year, and it recently hit the road for a tour that stops at Reggie's Rock Club on New Year's Eve.
Reached at home in Vermont, the musicians discussed the events that fueled Death's earliest songs, the difficulty of watching their lives unfold onscreen and David's eerie premonition of success.
You first picked up instruments after watching the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but you said you didn't get serious about the band until the late '60s. What changed?
Bobby Hackney: 1968 was the real year we turned into music, and maybe it was just the healing we needed at the time. We had the Vietnam War and leaders getting assassinated, like Bobby Kennedy and President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. We saw music as an escape, and like everybody else we wanted to escape from all the turmoil that was going on in America
People have described your music as punk before punk existed. Did you realize at the time you were on to something different?
Dannis Hackney: We just thought we were playing good music. We didn’t think of it as punk music because those were the early days, and if you went around calling people punks you got a bloody nose, man. Punk hadn’t been coined yet.
Bobby Hackney: We always called it hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll.
Dannis Hackney: The one thing we all knew unequivocally was there was no other black band in Detroit playing that kind of music [laughs].
In the film you talk about Detroit being this thriving metropolis when you were children. What was your reaction when the city filed for bankruptcy?
Dannis Hackney: It makes us sad, man. It was a whole different Detroit when we grew up. It was Detroit Rock City. It was Motown. It was a fast-moving, fast-paced city. To see it now … is really hard for us. It’s not the Detroit we grew up with.
What was going through your head as you watched the documentary the first time?
Dannis Hackney: We always get emotional with the documentary. There’s a lot of personal stuff in there, and we can hardly watch it without crying.
Bobby Hackney: It brings us back down memory lane. They really got into the heart, soul and mind of our brother David, and that was what opened the gateway to our whole family.
What’s it been like experiencing this Death renaissance without David?
Dannis Hackney: I have been able to take it in because of the conversations me and David had before he left. He used to tell us things like, “This music is not going to make it ’til I’m gone,” and, “You guys are going to realize this dream, but I won’t be there because I don’t really want to go through the money trip,” which is what he used to call it. I remember [talking to] David [at my wedding] in [September] 2000 and ... he looked at me and said, “Man, I’m going to make sure Bob has the [Death] master tapes and everything, because after this you won’t see me anymore.” Then one month after I got married, David died.
Why do you think the music has endured?
Dannis Hackney: People are saying it was ahead of its time, and we always knew David was ahead of his time. David was always telling us we were doing something no one else was doing. On the east side of Detroit in the black community no one tuned into rock ‘n’ roll, so we just thought we were an abnormal thing in our own neighborhood. We never thought we were an abnormal thing in all of music.
Bobby Hackney: We used to be the activity in the neighborhood, like, “Let’s go check out those crazy Hackneys!”
Death, 8:30 p.m. Dec. 31 at Reggie’s Rock Club. $20-$25.
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