Proto-Punk Band Death Talk New Music, State of Rock ‘n’ Roll + More
In the 1970s in Detroit, there were three brothers who were making music that sounded like nothing else out there. Featuring a mixture of rock ‘n’ roll, punk and funk, musicians Bobby, Dannis and David Hackney formed the band Death, a musical act that would receive next to no recognition in large part because of its name. Nearly 40 years later, the recognition is here and Death aren’t going anywhere.
On Monday (July 1), Loudwire had the opportunity to sit down with Bobby and Dannis Hackney and guitarist Bobbie Duncan (brother David passed away in 2000) before Death’s show at New York City’s le poisson rouge. It didn’t take long for us to realize that even though these guys aren’t teenagers like they were in the 70s, they couldn’t be happier and more energized about the music they’re playing for a whole new world of fans.
It’s safe to say that ‘Politicians in My Eyes,’ the song you released on a 7-inch in 1976, is the reason why Death have broken out decades later. That 7-inch turned up on eBay and, well, the rest is history. ‘Politicians in My Eyes’ is a very politically driven tune; does it mean as much to you today as it did when you recorded in in the 70s?
Bobby Hackney (Bass, Vocals): Definitely it means as much. For real. David, that was one of his. I mean, I wrote the song, but when he heard the song he was convinced that would be our signature song for the album we were working on. After not playing it for so long, it really feels good to play it. Not only that, but for what it means. It hasn’t lost its meaning, you know? When I wrote that song, at that time politicians were tame compared to how they are today!
You guys have wrapped up the recording process for your next album. Are there any politically driven songs on it?
Bobbie Duncan (Guitar): Nah, it’s just a lot of rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t think there’s anything that politically driven.
Bobby: I don’t know, politically driven, sure, as far as the system goes.
Bobbie: It’s more about life now. About the course of life. About people being free and expressing themselves, you know, you are what you think. Not exactly political.
Bobby: More of an inward look.
Bobbie: It could be political, it just depends on how you hear it, on how you apply it.
Bobby: I think right now, we kind of scan our songs, and it’s all of the above really. A lot of the songs we wrote back in the ’70s talk about that feeling of establishing either your youth or your independence or your freedom. A lot of it has to do with all of that.
Bobbie: Exactly. It’s motivating.
Does your personal faith influence those feelings in your songs?
Dannis Hackney (Drums): Faith is a big part of our lives. I’m not going to speak for them [Bobby and Bobbie], because these guys write the songs. But putting them in sort of a perspective, we always will talk about things like political pressure or social injustice or, you know, just the system in the first place. That’s always been kind of their writing style. There are also some songs that make you look inside yourself. It’s a mixture.
When you’re in the studio or playing live, does it feel like the same Death as it did in the ’70s?
Dannis: You’ve got to understand that the Death in 1975, well, I was 19, Bobby was about 17 and David was about 21. We try to maintain that hard drive of the music, but you’ve got three older guys playing it. But, we play it as hard and fast as we can.
In a recent review with Death, a journalist described your music as encompassing the history of rock. Do you think your tunes cover that much ground?
Dannis: It goes to Motown to all the rock bands to all the punk bands. Our stuff is a mixture of what we hear.
Bobby: We grew up with all that great stuff. It all started back when our mom and dad listened to the Chess Records label. You know, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, all that kind of stuff. Then, Motown was brought into our house. In the 60s, we were influenced by the movement that came out of the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock. That was the influence. And of course, Detroit rock! You’ve got the MC5, you’ve got the Stooges, you’ve got Bob Seger. When we were coming up, Bob Seger was a local musician who played at the Detroit Auto show every year.
Dannis: Garage is a real good way to describe our music.
To what extent did you consider yourself peers of the MC5 and the Stooges?
Bobby: We never did. We never did. We knew that we had done some great rock ‘n’ roll music. We knew that we knew. But we went through so much rejection, I mean so much rejection until we were the only ones who knew it! We never thought that we’d be mentioned in the same breath as all of these guys. We had our dreams and we got our big recording contract, but never really got a shot to really see it happen. For us to hear that, we appreciate it and we accept it fully. But we are just totally in awe.
As a black rock band, was it a struggle to be accepted by your peers?
Bobby: Yeah, yes it was.
Dannis: Some of the clubs wouldn’t book us because we were too loud. These were rock clubs! Clubs told us we just didn’t look like a good configuration. Some clubs just came out and said they didn’t like the name. And some clubs asked us why we were trying to do this. ALl of that put us back in the garage, you know? We didn’t have managers and booking agents and people to do stuff for us. Everybody who heard it said they liked the music, but wanted us to change our name. Everyone said it was a strange sounding name and they couldn’t do anything with it.
Tonight you’re playing on Bleecker Street, just a few short blocks away from CBGB, a place that was a birthplace of punk rock. Do you think you would have fit in better in New York City than you did in Detroit?
Bobby: Well, we got turned down by every record label here in New York City, so I don’t think we would’ve done any better anywhere else! We were shopped to all of them, you know?
Dannis: If we would have come up as a New York street band, yeah, it probably would’ve been different. Us coming from Detroit and New York already having its own scene, you’ve got to struggle to fit into the scene, you know? You’ve got to fight, there were already bands here kicking ass.
Do you think it’s better that your recognition came later, because it’s allowed you to stand out?
Dannis: Not only to stand out, that’s the bonus. By coming late, it finds us a bit more mature, a bit more knowledgeable about the business, a bit more, you know, professional.
Bobbie: We are more seasoned now. We kept playing. I wasn’t with them at the time, I came on later, but we’re all from the same era. I’ve been playing for some 40 years. We used to be a reggae band [Lambsbread], actually, we still are. Before that, it was Rock Fire Funk Express, playing funk in the 70s. I played the same stuff they played. Radio didn’t have genres back then. We played what we heard. It was AM radio. You had the Beatles, then you had Hendrix, then you had the Temptations, then you had the Supremes, all on the same station! If it was a hit, it was coming on the radio. Kids were influenced by what they heard. We weren’t marginalized musically.
Dannis: You could hear anything. you could hear a Jimi Hendrix record, then a Beatles record and then a Perry Como song, our Louis Armstrong, you know what I’m saying? Everything that was hot was being played. It if was hot, bring it in, it gets played.
What do you think about the state of rock ‘n’ roll today?
Bobby: Basically, rock bands are thriving, doing as good as ever. If you want to think about rock and roll today and the staying power of it, just look at the Rolling Stones. I got a computer, I got an iPod and all that stuff, but I don’t sit there and listen to it the way I used to with my old radio in Detroit in the ’70s, you know, with the excitement of, “Wow, what’s coming on next?” I think rock ‘n’ roll keeps going, I think there are some great new bands right now. We’re tuning into some good new bands that we’re learning about. Our kids are sort of our barometer, they know a lot of bands that we don’t even think about. As long as you’re willing to express yourself in freedom, that’s what rock and roll is really all about. Freedom and being that aggressive thing, man. As long as the people are into freedom and seeking freedom all around the world, rock and roll will always survive.
What’s the hardest part about being brought into the spotlight for the first time since the ’70s?
Bobby: The number one toughest thing is not having David here. He predicted all this would happen. That’s the number one toughest thing. We live with that at practices, at recording sessions, when I look at songs to present to the band. He left us hours upon hours of recorded music. I’m constantly listening to him, it’s almost like I’m there with him. Every time we do something new, every time we do something exciting, it’s almost like David predicted it. We feel that joy, and yet that sting of pain. That’s the number one hardest thing. The second hardest thing is just trying to adjust. We’re older guys. We live the life just like everyone else.
Bobbie: I think you knocked it out of the park. We practically live in the same house, our kids hang out together. It’s just keeping it real, we all have the same responsibilities.
Dannis: The toughest part for me is, you know, I love my brother Dave so much. To me, he’s a bit more than just a regular brother, because in a way he prophesied all of this. My Bible tells me, how do you tell a prophet? Everything he says comes true. That’s the way I look at David. When I sit down behind the drums and I’m playing at some festival or playing at some place where there is a river of people, I can hear David in the back of my head going, “See, I told you, I told you.” And I have to acknowledge it. Me and Bob have faith, but don’t get me wrong, our faith in the name of this band and the course this band took just wasn’t the same as David’s. That’s what makes it hard. He used to have this saying, “Don’t be a non-believer.” That meant, don’t be a non-believer to the cause. Many times I was in that position where I was kind of a non-believer. That’s what makes it hard because now I have to believe.
Bobby: The great thing is, throughout all those hard things, we have the support and the love of our family. They’re cheering us as much as everybody else to go out and share the music with the world. Especially my wife, she’s just about seen the ride of Death from the beginning. We were high school sweethearts in 1974, and if you’ve seen the movie ['A Band Called Death'], you’ve seen my children. She has seen Death since the beginning. She’s encouraging, as all of our wives are, to go out and share this music and do the best we can. With a cheering section like that, how can we not? How can we not?
What’s on the horizon for Death?
Bobby: There are four things that we want to do coming up, and two of them have already been accomplished. Of course, we’re going to take this journey wherever it takes us and that could be to anywhere around the world. We have a brand new album completed and it’s got six tracks from Death’s archives from the 70s. Bobbie was inspired by what we were doing and he presented us a song that we put together, it’s called ‘Relief.’ It represents the feeling that after all of these years what a relief it is to play rock and roll. Bobbie contributes to the other new songs, so we have a total of 10 songs. We’re going to put out a special limited edition vinyl later this month of ‘Relief’ and another new song. There’s also a strong possibility that there wil be another historic project with Drag City records. Last but not least, we’re going to be working on a tour that will bring out Death and Rough Francis [Bobby's sons' band] to a number of cities.
And what about the reggae band, Lambsbread?
Bobby: Yes, there will be some Lambsbread music! There will be. As my son Junior says, it’s been over 35 years since this music has been heard by anybody. Our first and foremost agenda is to get as much Death music out to the Death fans as we can. It’s just sitting there waiting to happen.
Dannis: Plus, the last thing Lambsbread was doing was completing a brand new album. Then the Death thing hit us and kind of put the album on the back burner. We still have a lot of Lambsbread music that hasn’t hit the market because Death just fell like a house on us.
Bobby: Eventually, we’ll be sharing it all. Lambsbread and also the 4th Movement archive will be shared, it’s really all connected to this story. This is another prediction of David’s, that everything we did would be balled up and connected to a story. The story will continue, man.
Watch Death Perform ‘Politicians in My Eyes’ at New York City’s le poisson rouge