Death,
The TVD Interview

Heralded as “the band who was punk before punk was punk,” Death was ahead of their time, the most influential band that no one had heard of. Their unique brand of proto-punk pre-dated the Ramones by two years, but in their unwillingness to kowtow to record executives who demanded they change their name (“Death” was considered a taboo, unmarketable band name in the early ’70s), the band was literally shelved. The master tapes would sit in a suitcase in an attic, lying in wait to be unleashed upon the world.

Their tale was told in the 2012 documentary, A Band Called Death, a heartfelt, emotional, and inspiring film chronicling the band’s history leading to their subsequent revival. I watched the film with a smile and an occasional tear in my eye, and made it my mission to tell as many people about Death as humanly possible. Their story needed to be told, their music needed to be heard. My chance had come, and I finally had the opportunity to see them live at the Black Cat in Washington, DC.

After the show, Death stayed for a meet-and-greet, sticking around until the last person got their pictures, autographs, and conversation with the band. We made our way to the dressing room and what followed was as joyous and inspiring a conversation as I could have hoped for. Forty years later, Death has finally found their moment to shine.

So, this was your first time playing DC? How’d it go?

Bobby Hackney: It was a big success! We enjoyed it, people came out, and it was great. Ever since we’ve been here we’ve just had a wonderful time hanging out. They say it’s Washington, DC, but this is Georgetown, right?

No, we’re in DC proper.

BH: This is awesome. We really had a wonderful time, we love Washington, DC. We definitely plan to come back. It was a great time.

What was your initial reaction to the huge response to the A Band Called Death documentary? Did you ever expect it to have that kind of impact?

BH: Well, when we saw the end result of it, we knew that it was something good. We didn’t know how the public would take it, but it’s been wonderful, man. It’s like a surreal dream and it’s what we’re living.

What do you feel when you think back on all the rejection you experienced in the early days of Death, and now everyone is embracing you in the present? Was the world just not ready?

BH: I’ll let my brother answer that.

Dannis Hackney: Well, since it took a whole generation to come and go just for people to be able to say “Death,” because now I know that “death” is not a strange word. You’ve got Megadeth, death and taxes, death and this, death and that, and so now it’s not such a strange word anymore.

It doesn’t carry that taboo that it used to have.

DH: Right. It took a whole generation to be able to do that. I don’t know. Maybe they weren’t ready for us or maybe we weren’t ready for them. However it happened, it took until now for this thing to get to fruition. Whatever made it come to fruition, whether it was the passing of the generation, or some people say it was just time for the music to come out, whatever it was, we’re glad it happened.

Have you ever thought back on David’s prophecy—“One day the world’s gonna come looking for this?”

DH: Man, every day. That’s not the only thing he said. David said some other things that just make me and Bob just kind of look at each other sometimes, and say, “Man…what is going on here?” Because David, you know—everything he predicted, not only the fact that the masses would come looking for the music, but other little things just happening in our lives. Anytime those things happen, Bob would say “We have a David moment.” This is stuff he predicted to us. Personally, when David passed away in, what was it 2000, Bob?

BH: 2001.

DH: I got married on 2000. He was at my wedding.

He shot the footage in the documentary, right?

DH: Right.

BH: Actually, it was 2000.

DH: Right, 2000. After my wedding was over, Dave was telling me that he was going home, back to Detroit, and that I wouldn’t see him again. I was like, “C’mon, man, we’re at my wedding, and you’re getting all philosophical with me.” It just didn’t seem to be the right time. When Dave went home, after my wedding…what was it Bob, two months? By November, Dave had died.

BH: October. October, the eighth.

DH: I’m sorry, October. After that, I thought the Death thing—the while Death concept, the Death band, there it goes, with David—not thinking of all the stuff he told me before he died.

It was always the three of you, but he was the heart of it.

DH: Right. Sometimes, in bands, you lose somebody who is significant. When that happens, even if you think you might be able to go on, it’s gonna take one hell of a regrouping. Me and Bob were kind of forced into that regrouping, unknowingly. While we were in New England playing reggae, this whole thing drops on us. We had to stop, put the reggae kind of on the back-burner for now and tune to this thing that fell on us. I say fell on us, because the first stages of it happening, me and Bob had no idea.

The first stages right after the documentary came out and the people were picking up on it, or just before that?

DH: Actually, when his son took a year off college and went out to California. He discovered the music that was being played at underground parties and stuff like that.

Their reaction to the discovery in the documentary was so priceless.

DH: Yeah!

The emotion of finding out this was their dad—the whole “You did what?” reaction—it was one of the best parts of the documentary.

DH: It was. They honestly did not know. When the first kid was born, between me and him. I’ve got six, and Bob’s got six.

BH: Bobby was born in ’79, and that was the time that we were transitioning from Death into the 4th Movement. We went through a lot of rejection with that as well, and David went back to Detroit. We had suffered so much rejection. Then it became a two-year standoff, because David wanted us to go back to Detroit with him, and we wanted David to stay with us in New England, in Vermont.

It became kind of a two-year standoff. We didn’t have anything but bass and drums. We kept practicing the Death stuff, we kept practicing the 4th Movement stuff just as if David was there. This went on for about a good two and a half years. That could be the reason why we can play the Death stuff so good now. Those two years might have been us kind of putting it in the bank!

We didn’t know what was coming now. We went on to reggae and our kids only saw us as successful reggae musicians. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to share the Death story with them, I think that what happened is that during the early ’80s, we had gravitated to Sony Walkmen and the digital market like everybody else. I didn’t have access to a reel-to-reel tape recorder, so it wasn’t like any given Sunday I could set the kids down, and say, “Hey kids, listen to some Death!” [laughs] You know?

It never came up in conversation?

BH: You know, my son Bobby, the reason he was so passionate about it was because he turned twelve and got deep into the skateboarding culture. He was introducing me to groups like the Dead Kennedys, Gorilla Biscuits, Bad Brains, Henry Rollins…

Something had to be going through your mind when you’re hearing all this stuff tough!

BH: Well, I told him, “You know this kind of sounds like me and your uncles, we were in a rock band in Detroit. Some of that stuff kind of sounds like the stuff we was messin’ around with.” And Bobby was like, “Yeah, dad, mmm hmm…” [laughs]

He thought you were full of it! [huge laughs from everyone]

BH: Like I said, we had went through so much rejection, we had never really…it wasn’t like we didn’t want to tell them, but there was so much pain connected with that story. Our kids had just seen us as these successful reggae musicians, so we didn’t want to bust their bubble and say, “Yeah, you know, we had this offer from Clive Davis, and we turned it down because he wanted us to change our name…”

What’s amazing is that you talk about it, and it is a painful story when you think about the death of David, but so many people, both ones that I have talked to who have seen the documentary and people who I have turned on to the documentary…I’ve had many “You have to watch this” moments with people. Everybody comes away uplifted by it. You have the sadness of David, but there’s more.

BH: It’s a blessing. That is a blessing, and we appreciate that. It just worked out that way. When Mark and Jeff—I’m talking about Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett, the filmmakers—when they first came to us, we didn’t know exactly what they were doing. We thought they were just putting together some video of, you know, we thought it was just a band video. It would probably end up on public access or something like that! [laughs]

Then, when we saw the first passes, it was amazing. Then we knew that it was something serious. Then, what really, I think, opened up the whole movie, was that they got into the heart and soul and the mind of our brother David. That was the gateway for them getting into our whole family.

I don’t think the story could have been told without that, though.

BH: Exactly. Yes.

Talking about back in those days, you hear so much about musicians whose music is a product of a rough childhood or a broken home, but you guys were the polar opposite. You had parents that supported you from the get-go with your music. How do you think that positive influence translated into your music?

BH: Yeah.

DH: You know what? You hear so many people say, “Well, you know, when I was struggling, I didn’t have shoes, I didn’t have this, didn’t have that. My dad left, my mom did this, that or the other.” Those kinds of things are real motivation-givers. You want to make it because of your adversity.

We, on the other hand, we believed that we were chosen to do this. We didn’t have any adversity to talk about other than the trouble we got into. [laughs] You know, our mother and dad lived in the same house and they loved us. Dad went to work, mom did the housework, it was kind of a normal, scary kind of normal thing. It just shows that how love can bring about motivational change that makes you want to continue something.

I want to be like my dad was. Introducing my kids to music. Like when Martin Luther King spoke, he ran around, pulled down the shades, told all of us kids to get on the couch, and said “You are about to see history.” Okay? He did that when Martin Luther King spoke, he did that when the Beatles came to America, and he did that when John Kennedy was assassinated.

Wow.

DH: Those were the three times in my life when I really remember my dad saying, “Sit up, pay attention.”

Those were three of the biggest moments of the 20th century!

BH: [laughing] They were! They absolutely were!

DH: At the time, I’m about twelve, so I’m kind of caring but really not caring.

But as much as you didn’t care at the time, they stuck with you.

DH: They did. That’s why I say, when you have loving parents and a decent home, that’s also a motivation to do good, too. Just as much as adversity. I guess we’re kind of examples of that. We weren’t rich kids. My dad and mom were working class people, but we found a way to stay busy and be happy.

There was some serious stuff going on at that time. Politically, musically…those fronts were on fire. When we moved to our house in the ’60s, my dad had joined the Air Force. My family was one of those lucky enough to move into the suburbs. My dad had a good job, and blah, blah, blah. It was just like that. We didn’t really see the adversity, so we didn’t pay attention to it. Other than what was going on around us, with things like the ’68 riots. We lived two doors away from the school, and on the school playground, the National Guard made a campground for themselves. There was a nine o’clock curfew, and I remember coming through the alley to get into my backyard, and we were coming this way, and the National Guard soldiers were coming that way, and he had his gun up. I’m like, “I’m the paperboy! I’m the paperboy!” He still had his gun up, and I’m saying, “I live right there!” Thought the guy was going to shoot me or something. But we lived through that.

So, we know what adversity is, but we also know and have been taught that adversity is something, as they say in the church, that comes to pass. It comes, and it passes. If we have enough belief and enough inner strength, when it passes, it won’t affect you.

Absolutely. 

DH: You keep going, just like we did. We just kept going, playing our music, and you know, running around on our bicycles and stuff like that. It didn’t seem like a major change to me, because major change means, “Uh-oh, something’s wrong with mom and dad, dad ain’t going to work,” or something like that. It never happened that way, so it wasn’t adversity for us, it was just plain-old, outright…you know I think we were chosen to do music, but we were just three kids running around the neighborhood, having fun.

Let’s jump into the present and talk about N.E.W. It’s a fantastic album, and really sounds like that old fire has been re-lit.

BH: Bobbie can answer that question.

What went through your mind as you wrote the first new Death songs in 40 years?

Bobbie Duncan: You know, I just kind of looked at it as a project. I’ve been a songwriter for a lot of years, and so I just kind of separated myself from the group, and I said, “What kind of song would I write for Bob and Dannis, for us to move forward?”

So I went home after a show we did in Chicago at this place called the Empty Bottle. The energy was much like it was tonight, but tonight surpassed that. It was beautiful. It very high-energy. So I took that inspiration home, and I penned a song, and I called it “11/19/10.” That was actually the date that we did the first sketch of it in our studio. Then Bob and I sat down later on and we penned some of the lyrics, and that wound up being the first song on the album, called “Relief.”

All the while, while we were forming the resurgence of Death, we had in the back of our minds that we needed to do a new album, ’cause a lot of people would say, “When are you coming out with a new album?” I wasn’t meaning to be the spearhead, but I said “Guys, let’s try this.” It turned out being pretty good stuff.

Onstage, you said that “N.E.W.” is whatever it means to you personally. Does the acronym actually stand for anything?

BD: No, not really. We leave that open.

Open to individual interpretation?

BD: Yeah, individual interpretation, but all in all, it is N.E.W. It is N.E.W., because even though there are four songs that I have penned on the album, one in collaboration with Bob and Dannis, and the other three by myself. The other songs are songs that Bob, Dannis and David had penned years previous, that were meant to be on …For the Whole World to See.

Something I learned from a friend of mine years ago, I was like, “Oh, that’s an old song.” He said, “It’s old to you ’cause you’ve heard it. Nobody else has heard it, so it’s a new song!” Everything on the album is new, and we’re glad about the response that we’ve been getting to the new album.

What’s next for Death? More touring, more albums? 

BH: All of the above. We’ve got a lot of interest in stuff.

DH: Oh yeah, Amsterdam, Paris, Denmark—we’ve got so much stuff coming up.

BH: One of the more interesting things is that we’re going back to United Sounds in Detroit next month, to record music at United Sounds for the first time since the ’70s. We’re really excited about that. Even the original engineer that we recorded …For the Whole World to See with, the legendary Jim Vitti who recorded for Funkadelic, for Rare Earth, for The Who, for the Rolling Stones—he’s gonna be at the helm of the recording session and we are extremely excited about that.

That’s fantastic.

BH: We’ve got a lot of good stuff coming. As long as people want to hear Death, we’re gonna keep pushin’ it to ’em.

Death’s N.E.W. is in stores now.

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