Interview: A Band Called Death

One of the downsides of film festivals is that you see some incredible movies, and you want to shout it from the mountaintops, but so often you come to find out that it might be many months or even years before the film in question is available anywhere to the general public again. Imagine reading a great book that you can’t foist on your friends because it disappears after you read it. I saw Drafthouse’s new music documentary, A Band Called Death, at SXSW. I saw it alone and with a hangover. To put it mildly, it kicked my ass. In fact, there’s really no other way to say this, it made me cry like a little bitch. It was one of those movies that I desperately needed someone else to see, if only to tell me that I’m not crazy. Perhaps knowing that my sanity depends on it, Drafthouse is giving A Band Called Death a limited theatrical run starting this weekend (you can find a location here), and they’ve made the film available on iTunes, VOD, and digital download, in case you’re not big on getting emotional in front of strangers.

Death was an MC5-esque punk band started in the early 70s by three brothers, David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney. I recently got the chance to talk to Dannis and Bobby (now Bobby Sr.) over the phone, and to pick their brains a bit about what it was like being the subjects of the most heartwarming rock documentary since Anvil. While it was nearly impossible to distinguish which brother was talking over our crappy phone connection (you try it some time), I quickly discovered what filmmakers Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett probably did when they started making A Band Called Death: that the Hackneys are an easy subject for storytelling, as they tend to communicate by way of anecdote. With such a close-knit family around fleshing out and adding details to each other’s stories, it’s like watching (or listening to) a live version of one of those oral-history write ups.

A Band Called Death is at once incredible thematically similar to, and yet distinct from, Anvil, and especially last year’s Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man. One of the key factors separating Death from Sugar Man is that whereas Sugar Man starts roughly in the middle of the story, with South Africans searching for their lost musical hero, the mysterious Rodriguez, Death starts aaaaalll the way back at the beginning. It tells the story of a black punk band from Detroit, named “Death” by David Hackney, who believed in the concept so strongly that he refused to change the name even when told it was the only thing separating the band from a record deal. For a time I actually wondered if I was watching a documentary about the long, slow downfall of a guy whose life could’ve turned out so much differently if only he had compromised. Pretty f*ckin dark, actually. Especially if you didn’t know the story had a happy ending, as I didn’t when I saw it (I’m trying not to spoil it too much here, but it’s basically an impossible task). Being uncompromising is usually held up as an ideal, part of the way we mythologize art and artists, that they’re great because they believe so strongly in their own vision, even when no one else does. But looked at a certain way, David Hackney offers this counter example, of a guy who died never knowing if his message had been heard, and only because he refused to compromise on an arguably trivial aspect of his concept – the band name.

VINCE: If people hadn’t rediscovered the music, would A Band Called Death still be a movie worth watching?

BOBBY SR. Our brother David was quite animated, man. The music has really eclipsed the name concept – the name, back in the seventies, people just couldn’t get around it. That was our big problem. David often told us, once people aren’t fixated on the name anymore and they see the music, that’s gonna change everything. And he was right. But I don’t know, maybe it would be a different story if people hadn’t discovered this music.

VINCE: Yeah, because he was the one who didn’t want to change the name. So… if people didn’t rediscovered the music, do you think he would be a hero, or just a tragic story?

BOBBY SR: Well let me put it this way: When we went to our brother’s funeral in 2000, me and Dannis were holding hands in front of his coffin, and Dannis turned to me and said, “Well, Bob, I guess the Death thing is just gonna go down to the grave with David. And this is gonna be probably the best rock n’ roll secret that only you, me, and him and our family in Detroit knows about.”

The Death-Sugar Man parallels are inevitable, both in the sense that Death and Rodriguez, the subject of Searching for Sugar Man, are both at the center of forgotten-artist-makes-good stories, but also because they’re both from Detroit.

VINCE: I’m sure you guys have heard the Searching for Sugar Man comparison a lot, what do you think about that? Have you seen that movie?

BOBBY SR.: Yes we have. And you know, we’ve been out of Detroit for a while [Dannis and Bobby Sr. moved to Burlington Vermont in the seventies and eighties] and haven’t been back except for holidays and family reunions, but it really wouldn’t surprise us to know that David probably knew Rodriguez and probably hung out together on the streets as well. They were both kind of like kindred spirits.

There’s also some controversy surrounding Searching for Sugar Man, in that the supposedly-forgotten artist at the center of it was aware enough of his own success in the southern hemisphere to have toured Australia in the late seventies and early eighties, a fact the filmmakers omit, presumably to make their narrative stronger. Which is kind of cheating. I tried to give the Death brothers the opportunity to talk some shit and maybe hype a publicity-generating movie-documentary rivalry, but alas, they were too classy.

DANNIS: Well, they didn’t talk about it (in Sugar Man), but I don’t know what the tour really was. I mean, he might’ve toured 10 cities and made fifty bucks. (laughs) You never know.

VINCE: Do you have a preference for one film or the other?

BOBBY SR: You know what, man? We’re just happy that he’s from Detroit, and we’re from Detroit, we’re happy for the city of Detroit.

The brothers talk a lot and so lovingly about their hometown of Detroit, partly out of a feeling of connection with the musical legacy of Detroit and partly out of youthful nostalgia, it seems, which is interesting considering they moved to and raised families in Vermont, which seems about as far away from Detroit as you could, culturally and otherwise. 

BOBBY SR: That was another thing thanks to our brother David, actually. He was the leader of the band, and we got an offer to go there [to Burlington], during some hard times with Death, in 1977, and David said this is where we’re going. I didn’t want to go at the time. I was fresh out of high school, and involved in a romance with my wife, Tammy. We were very young at the time. And you know how high school sweethearts are, it’s easier to move a tree than a high school sweetheart. And I didn’t want to go at the time, but… that’s how we ended up in Vermont.

It’s a beautiful place to be, and it’s ironic, it’s one of the Ivy League states, they call it. It’s riddled with colleges and universities. We’ve been fortunate enough to really make a way of it here, and raise our families and meet some wonderful people.

VINCE: Does it make it harder to relate to your kids when you’ve grown up in Detroit and then you raise them in Vermont?

BOBBY SR: (laughs) When we send our kids to Detroit, you know, and we’d send our kids to stay with relatives. I remember I sent my oldest son Bobby, he went to live with my mother in Detroit for a whole summer, and he interacted with the whole family and went all around Detroit. And we used to say that we culture shocked our kids. But it was very important for them to have that, and know exactly where their roots came from.

VINCE: And are you guys touring as Death still?

BOBBY SR: Oh definitely.Basically our focus right now, our resolve is to get as much Death music out there to the public that wants it as possible, because this has been a long time coming. And people appreciate it. We have a lot of unrecorded music and songs that we’d like to share with all those that love the band Death.

VINCE: Do you feel tempted to update those at all, or do you just let it ride with as close to the original vision as it was?

BOBBY SR: We’re keeping it close to the original vision that we perceived in the seventies.

The reformed Death has a couple of gigs coming up, and a free download of a never-released Death demo, both of which you can see below. But mostly, I just want you to watch A Band Called Death and tell me I’m not a giant pussy.

Drafthouse also has a pretty cool promo site, “My Dad Was In a Band,” based on the idea of the Hackney children, who had no idea their dads were in Death until they read about it on the internet. The pictures are great, and it reminds me a lot of when I was in junior high and found out my golf coach had been the singer of a punk band called “Capital Punishment.”

Upcoming Death Concerts:

June 28 – 29 – The Cinefamily in Los Angeles, CA


July 1 – Le Poisson Rouge in New York, NY