David Hackney left his brother, Bobby, a boxful of master tapes from their long-defunct band Death and these prophetic last words: “The world’s gonna come looking for these one day.” He knew what his brother didn’t believe. His dreams would go unrealized in life. In 2000, he died of cancer. And for four decades that boxful of records created by David and his two brothers, Bobby and Dannis, went unnoticed in the dark and the dust to brood and wait.
But no longer.
In 2009, the New York Times published a piece covering David’s band called “This Band Was Punk Before Punk Was Punk,” giving steam to the rising recognition this proto-punk trio from Detroit named Death was receiving. It is this story that the new documentary “A Band Called Death” follows and will release to audiences on June 28 at the Birmingham 8 Theater cinema. For this reason, band members Bobby and Dannis Hackney and Bobbie Duncan sat down with the Michigan Daily to talk about the band’s history and their future.
“We were just being family and making music that we loved,” Bobby said. “We had no idea that we were laying down the groundwork for punk music, you know. In 1974, if you called somebody a punk, you got a bloody nose. Especially in Detroit.”
Both Bobby and Dannis insisted all that drove them in their passion was to make “hard-driving rock ‘n’ roll.”
“Detroit was a much different town then,” Bobby said. “Just so much activity. We used to get inspired to write rock songs just by driving down Jefferson Avenue because it was so vibrant.”
As in the rock-saturated movie itself, the trio rattled their neighborhood with the vicious energy of their songs in a time when Motown was the popular genre and black artists flourished. They were rebellious, loud and with a band name like Death, different.
It was David who believed in the band’s aesthetic. It was he who, after all, formed the band and led it. When it comes to telling the story of Death, you inevitably tell a story about brothers and the band’s visionary leader.
“You know, we were approached by other people with those ideas (of making a documentary),” Bobby said. “But the one thing about Jeff, as a filmmaker, is he really got into the heart and soul and spiritual mind of David. That was kinda the doorway into our entire family and to our entire music legacy.”
Bobby is talking about Jeff Howlett, a new filmmaker who marks his directorial debut with “A Band Called Death” alongside co-director Mark Covino (“Lucid”). Together, they crafted an intimate portrait of a decades-spanning family epic in the hope of bringing us closer to a talent unrecognized for half a lifetime.
“We just kinda led him into being a member of our family,” Bobby said. “And we trusted him and he gained not only our trust but the trust of members of our family across the country.”
The film itself has achieved measurable success. At the 2013 South By Southwest festival, it nabbed the Audience Award for the 24 Beats per Second category. Whether Howlett and Covino’s efforts will popularize Death is uncertain.
“We’re just on the journey and we’ve been told that the journey’s only really just begun,” Bobby said. “We’ve gotten such a tremendous response — from top actors in Hollywood to just the man on the street.”
This kind of reception comes at a surprise to the two brothers. According to Dannis, the aversive material the band recorded required time for it to be appreciated to any great extent.
“In my generation, people were afraid to say the word ‘death’ because of the stigma or whatever. But when we come down to (the younger) generation, they’re not afraid anymore. They’re not afraid to say ‘death,’ they’re not afraid to deal with the associations of it.”
“In a lot of ways, they’re a lot smarter than we were,” Bobby added with a laugh. “Knowledge is so accessible now. The average 15-year-old knows just as much as a 25-year-old where back in our day a 15-year-old was just a 15-year-old.”
Those forty years have gained them an audience. They have liberated Death of its repulsion, its stigma, but yes, they stole things, too. Those 40 years spent in obscurity crushed David’s artistic pursuits. They separated a musician from his deserved fame. They killed him and they took away a brother who will be missed greatly.
Death goes back on tour in David’s honor, to finish what he started. In doing so, they recruited guitarist Bobbie Duncan who brings a “refreshing New York style,” as Dannis said.
“David left a wealth of songs,” Bobby said. “David and myself wrote so many songs together that we had intended to record because we were convinced that we would eventually end up getting a big contract, so we better have a lot of songs ready. I’ve got a wealth, a wonderful well to pull from of all these great ideas and great music. There’s gonna be a lot of great Death music to come.”