'Til Death Do Us Part: The Detroit Rockers Talk Punk, Their New Album, and the Brother They Lost

Resurrected Detroit rock icons DEATH still have a hell of a lot to say.

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Apr 25 2015, 4:00pm

Photo by Samdarko Eltosam

Often the most interesting stories happen on the margins and never find their way into history. This is particularly true in music history and was almost the case with Death. Starting in 1971 in Detroit, siblings David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney developed a sound that combined Bad Brains-level seditionary musicianship with '70s hard rock swagger. Their music pre-figured punk and ought to be remembered alongside Motor City rockers like The Stooges, but, until 2008 when their records began to surface, few people had ever gotten to hear it.

The music industry wasn't ready for three black brothers who called themselves Death, and their neighbors didn't understand it either. They almost signed with Arista Records, but refused to change their name to something more marketable. They kept their master tapes, and in true punk fashion, released their music independently, getting only the thinnest radio play. They broke up in 1977 following a move to Burlington, Vermont. David Hackney was the band's driving force; he wrote the music and conceived of the name and concept, and it was David who vehemently refused to change the band's name or compromise its vision. Not just a visionary, he had moments of apparent clairvoyance—before his passing in 2000 he told his brothers someday the world would come looking for their tapes.

With the fairly recent addition of guitarist Bobby Duncan, Dannis and Bobby Hackney had a lifelong career as working musicians with their reggae band, Lambsbread, until they learned their records had gathered a cult following and their few surviving 45s were selling for huge sums online. The rediscovery of thier music led to a full-length release of material ...For the Whole World to See on Drag City, which was followed by two more archival albums Spiritual-Mental-Physical, and Death III. In 2009, the band reformed for a series of triumphant tours. Their incredible story has been told in the 2012 documentary A Band Called Death.

34 years down the line, the world was finally ready for them, and wanted more. For years, fans have been asking if they'll ever write new music. Death is now releasing N.E.W., their first freshly-recorded material in more than three decades. With songs developed from those written by Death in the 70s and some new ones, including a few written by Duncan. It's a new album built on the bones of songs written over 30 years ago, fleshed out by two of the same musicians. Talk about rewriting history.

Over the phone from Vermont, the band reminisced about the early days in Detroit and reflected on what their brother Dave would think of the new album.

Noisey: Can you describe what some of your early gigs were like?
Bobby Hackney: We didn't really do much gigs in Detroit. We tried a few experimental things, you know, under the leadership of our brother Dave. He tried to book us at some all-black cabarets. These were mostly people who liked rhythm and blues and the soul music of Detroit. This was kind of a cabaret where your bring your own bottle and we were performing. For the most part, we were received kinda weirdly, with all the rejection, with people wanting to hear just soul and rhythm and blues and here we are playing hard driving rock 'n' roll. Some of these cabarets, it would be a packed house and you could hear a pin drop. We tried to get ourselves booked at one of the rock 'n' roll clubs but, there again, the name was a stumbling block for us. We did get booked in one rock 'n' roll club in Ann Arbor but the guy that booked us had us playing on a Monday night when no one was there. So, we stuck to the studio and stuck to developing our music.

You started out playing a little R&B, right?
Dannis Hackney
: We started out playing a little bit of R&B behind some song and dance cats but, you know, that got a little dangerous. Practice time with those dudes ain't no joke. A couple of times 12 gauge shotguns came out. There was always some kind of incident. We played a couple of gigs with those guys but we had to move on from that.

Were you into R&B and soul growing up?
Dannis: Oh, heck yeah! We lived around the corner from the whole Motown thing. So, we were into Motown, James Brown and all the R&B stars at the time. But it was a counter kind of thing for us, because on the other side of town was Detroit Rock City where we went to the Cinderella Theatre to watch J. Geils and down to the Cobo Arena to watch Alice Cooper and all kind of other acts. It was a good time for us because we lived right smack in the middle of both sides of town. We could catch either. It was a musical place to be.

How do you feel when you are described as a punk band or being seen as part of that history?
Bobby: When we played this music in Detroit we just called it hard driving Detroit rock 'n' roll. Back in 1974 the term punk wasn't even used for music. You either got a bloody nose or a black eye if you called somebody a punk. The fact that rock historians have labeled us the band that was before punk … at the time, we didn't know it, but for us now, it's an honor. It's an honor for our music, to even come back and be equated with great rock 'n' roll. That's all that Death ever really wanted. We never considered that we were breaking ground on anything.

You music still sounds very modern now. How did you arrive at that sound?
Dannis
: It was anger, frustration and being on the streets! Our music tended to be a little faster than everybody else's, because we were a little more angry than everybody else.

I felt you were really able to capture the spirit of the Death that recorded For The Whole World to See and also the spirit of an era.
Bobby: Well, a lot of that is due to some of those great songs that we have in the Death archives, which was just a continuation of that great rock 'n' roll time. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that we all come from that time and we relate to it. We still remember how that rock 'n' roll made us feel. And we had made a promise that with this album that we would stay true to the sound that Death had intended.

What do you think David would say about the results?
Bobbie Duncan:
He'd like it. I wish I could have had the chance to play with him. Not to get too sentimental about it, but I wish I had the chance to jam with him at least one time.
Bobby: He was the big inspiration for us making sure that the sound stayed intact, you know, that we didn't over produce it, or under produce it for that matter. We recorded it the way we did at United Sounds for the most part. Recording like that is rare now but we were fortunate enough to have a state of the art studio right here in Vermont. This guy's recorded everybody from Phish to Alice Cooper. We were fortunate enough to be able to go in and record it live rather than track by track by track. We were able to go in and record it as a band. You always get that feeling in a recording when it's done as a performance.

Do you think you'll keep making music as Death?
Bobby: 'Til we die! 'Til Death do us part!

Does it feel strange to tour all over and play these songs you originally wrote with David?
Bobby
: Yes, it does. It makes me feel sad. You kind of think about things while you are palying the music, you know? People ask, “what are you thinking about when you are playing the music?” I'll be thinking about things David said, stuff that David did and the more prophecying stuff that he did. To me that takes him out of the realm of being just a regular brother, man. He was something else over that.

Is there anything else that you can think of that he said that came about?
Bobby
: Yeah! There's a theater in Burlington called the Flynn Theatre and I remember back in the '70s when we first got here to Vermont David told us that one day we'd be playing there. It was a movie theatre, they didn't even put on shows or anything. I said “Dave, that's a movie theater.” Lo and behold, when I'm on the stage at the Flynn Theatre, I remember he said that. Strange things like that happen. He told us we were going to Britain one day. I'm looking forward to that.

Beverly Bryan is staying alive on Twitter- @DJBBCheck