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'A Band Called Death': The 'Punk Before Punk' Band Gets Their Due (INTERVIEW)

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In the late sixties, David Hackney was a skinny teenager playing music with his brothers on instruments bought off their mom’s car accident settlement. Fast forward four decades, and the Hackney brothers are a musicological mystery: a lost punk band from a time before the genre existed. The Ramones, typically called the first punk band ever, hadn’t even formed by the time the brothers wrote "Politicians In My Eyes" in their Detroit home, a perfect punk wail. Earth, Wind and Fire was the music of choice in the Hackney's largely black neighborhood. At a family reunion, their uncles and aunts, a generally cheerful bunch, went quiet when David proudly revealed the band name he'd come up with -- Death.

The incredible story of the band's disappearance and reemergence -- told in A Band Called Death, a new documentary in theaters today -- is as punk as punk gets. Executives at Groovesville Productions (the record label David chose by throwing a dart at the Yellow Pages) had a similar reaction to the elder Hackneys. The band name was too nihilistic, market suicide for a trio of black men, whatever David said about death being beautiful. David’s response: go to hell. If you let them change your name, he told his brothers, they can change anything.

Of course, everything changed anyway. Dannis and Bobby started a reggae band in Vermont. David, who stayed in Detroit, died of lung cancer in 2000. Then the change he should have witnessed: Bobby's son recognized his dad's voice in a song played at a party. His finding that their sole single was now a collector's item set in motion a public rediscovery. Today, the brothers are touring as Death, with original singles slated for release on Jack White’s label, and a full album in the works. The Huffington Post rang up Bobby, Dannis, and Death’s newest member, Bobbie Duncan, to talk about David's vision, that name, and how it feels to pick up where they all left off.

The Huffington Post: With you guys, the story starts with the name. Why was David so adamant about “Death”?

Dannis Hackney: It was real. It was the opening chip, and he really thought of it in a positive light.

Bobby Hackney: We liked it as a rock and roll name, but me and Dannis saw the burden right away. When [David] explained the concept, my reaction was, ‘Man, people are going to be scared of us.’ It was still the seventies. We went through so much rejection with that name, and even now, even though we’ve heard of groups with names that would make Death sound tame, when people ask the name of our band, me and Dannis still almost cringe a little bit. But David just enjoyed it. He would look at you, and as dramatic as James Earl Jones could ever be, he would hit it at you like he was shooting a torpedo. And he would wait for your reaction.

HP: Kanye West recently gave a much talked about interview to the New York Times, about the concessions black artists often have to make in the recording industry.

BH: I don’t know what Kanye’s circumstances were, but when you sort of assign yourself to that kind of situation, there are certain concessions that you might have to make in order to stay on the roster, so to speak. In most cases, they’ll just pass on you and seek the opportunity elsewhere.

DH: I think there’s concessions that a lot of people have to make to do what they want to do.

HP: Do you ever wish you’d just changed the band’s name?

DH: We’ve had conversations about it. And we did have an argument with David afterwards. But no, we never did regret that we never changed it. We talked about it and debated about it as the months went on, but it always came back to the same thing: had we given up that name that would not be a good beginning for us. Anything could be asked later.

HP: In the film, you talk about how David saw your switch into reggae as a concession. But it clearly kept you playing music professionally. What was your thought process in jumping over?

DH: For three years me and Bob stayed up in our apartment practicing the Death stuff, the Fourth Movement stuff [the second band the brothers started], the rock and roll stuff. We were in a power struggle [after David moved back to Detroit] to where David would come to Vermont occasionally. Me and Bob were on this rigorous practice schedule, but we were left with just a bass and drum section. One night Bob found himself working the lights for a Peter Tosh show, and he got the chance to go backstage and talk to Peter. He explained our situation a little, that we were thinking about starting a reggae band, because all you need is bass and drum. He said, ‘You must play reggae.’ The next thing I know, Bob is the head of this reggae festival, and we were booking jobs. We were doing great. The reggae scene was big at the University of Vermont. All the kids knew it and loved it.

HP: What was it like moving to Vermont from Detroit? In the film, you talk about a cop mistaking you for a gang while you were putting up Death posters. Was that a typical reaction?

BH: The musician’s community was very welcoming, and so were the common people. But city hall, the police and the mayor had other opinions. There again, we ran into trouble because of the name.

HP: It's striking to hear you talk about how vibrant Detroit was when you were growing up.

BH: To be honest with you, it’s heartbreaking. When we did the Orion Festival at Belle Isle, we had to stay downtown. Those are streets we walked on and grew up on. We used to work part time downtown. You’d just want to walk around just to breathe the vibe -- it was just a wonderful, wonderful vibe. To see it so desolate makes me feel lonely. I hope and pray that the city does rebound and come back without losing the Detroit identity.

HP: This question is for Bobbie Duncan. You were playing reggae with the brothers when the Death discovery happened. Can you talk about how it's affected you?

BD: It’s awesome. I remember, at a Thursday rehearsal, Bob came down with a CD and started playing a Death project. At that point, I just fell in love with the songs. I grew up in the sixties and seventies in Harlem, so pretty much, my experience was the same as growing up in Detroit. After some forty odd years of being a musician in New York City, things didn’t happen for me. I took my sister up on the offer to take my [late] mom’s estate. What brought me to that specific area, 2.5 miles from the only other two cats who are reggae musicians in all of Vermont? It’s like we were in parallel universes.

HP: What's it like relaunching Death without David?

BH: It’s like picking up an old suitcase. You have all this unfinished business in it, and now you have a chance to continue. We talk about David all the time, like he’s not even gone. We always reference what we talked about in that room, the things we had planned.

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