Interview: Death on pre-dating punk, recording new music after 40 years, and that hard drivin’ Detroit rock and roll

It can only be described as a bit of classic rock and roll lore when a band ahead of its time gets lost in the years and years after their formation, only to be rediscovered as a highly influential act that very few in the mainstream ever knew about. Detroit-bred and Burlington, VT-based proto-punks Death have come back to life ever since their demo tapes were discovered in an attic at the start of the decade and the documentary A Band Called Death launched with critical acclaim to excite music fanatics all over the planet with another kickass early-’70s rock band from the Motor City that wasn’t the MC5 or the Stooges.

Death are going to be setting the Middle East Downstairs ablaze this Sunday, so Vanyaland had a chat with bassist and lead singer Bobby Hackney, drummer Dannis Hackney, and guitarist Bobbie Duncan about how life has been for the trio ever since the documentary’s release, their thoughts on religion and rock and roll, reggae and ska’s unique relationship with punk rock, the band’s latest release N.E.W., and the state of punk rock in 2015.

Rob Duguay: Ever since the documentary A Band Called Death was released with such critical acclaim, how has life been for Death ever since?

Bobby Hackney: Before the documentary we were enjoying some wonderful shows with a wonderful reception since the discovery of the story itself. After the documentary came out, things elevated a little bit and there are a lot of people around the country and around the world who know about Death and new people are discovering the band every single day. It’s kind of an ongoing thing and we’re just thankful, it’s been great.

After the first incarnation of Death, Bobby and Dannis formed a different band with their late brother David called The 4th Movement in the early ’80s. The sound was a meld of the punk style of the ’70s with Christian lyrics and themes. You guys started performing during a time where a lot of televangelists and preachers were associating rock and roll with The Devil. What made the band have a different opinion of rock and roll and its relationship to Christianity?

Bobby Hackney: That was really one of David’s passions for doing it but it was really all of our passions that made it go in that direction. We didn’t really care what all those people said about rock and roll, they said it was the devil when Elvis Presley and Bill Haley & The Comets were doing it way back in the day. Little Richard and all of those guys got accused of playing the devil’s music and rock and roll has always been associated like that. From playing rock and roll and being involved with it, we saw the spiritual side from within, especially David. To us, it was just a transition that was natural from all standpoints of rock & roll.

Especially when the roots of rock & roll comes from gospel and blues. Along with being in Death, all three of you have been in a reggae band called Lambsbread. Back in the ’70s, were any of you aware of punks in the United Kingdom listening to reggae and ska artists like Peter Tosh, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff?

Bobby Hackney: What you’re talking about came in the late ’70s, that was when the punk movement started to interact with the reggae movement and that mostly came from London. You had bands like the Clash, the English Beat, and the Specials and a lot of Jamaican artists moved to England and were making records there. That was between ’78 and ’80 so back when we were doing this the term “punk” hadn’t really been coined yet. We just called it hard drivin’ Detroit rock and roll, we’re really thankful that historians have pinned us as predating the punk sound by five years. Back then we were just emulating what we heard which was MC5, Grand Funk Railroad, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, the Who and all of those other bands.

Not a bad cast of bands. Last month Death released a new album called N.E.W., what was it like playing and creating new Death songs for the first time in over 40 years?

Bobbie Duncan: My impression was that working with the brothers while creating new songs after 40 years was a total gas. We went into the studio the same way that it’s always been done, we sat down and we put the songs together, went in as a full rhythm section and laid the tracks. Stayed very true to the music and used as little overdubbing as possible. We basically used songs that were originally intended to be in the For The Whole World To See album that Bobby, Dannis and David had put together and I had the opportunity to add a few songs myself to the album. It came out the way we wanted it.

“Look At Your Life” is a killer song.

Bobby Hackney: Thank you, we’re happy that they’re performances as opposed to just a bunch of tracks put together at different times. Like Bobbie said, we did the album like the way we did it in the ’70s. Well, these days who is to say how recording should be because all sorts of great stuff is coming out whether it’s on Pro Tools or analog but that’s just the way we like it, the way we did it and we’re pleased with the results.

You’ve seen what’s been going on with punk since the explosion in the mid- to late-70s, then it was very underground in the ’80s, experienced a resurgence in the ’90s and now for the past 15 years it’s been pretty transcendent. Once in a while you’ll have a punk band put out a great record but a lot of it has been very under the radar lately, you have to look for it. What do you think the state of punk rock is in 2015? Do you think that it needs to come back to the forefront of pop culture or do you think it’s right where it needs to be in the underground?

Dannis Hackney: I think it’s right where it needs to be in the fact that rock and roll has always moved that way. Rock and roll has a lot of factions, you got punk rock, you got heavy metal and all of your classifications. It moves with history, from Beatlemania to the start of the Ramones and throughout the rest of time rock and roll has a way of working itself into history at the right moment and growing with the people. It has to have grown because even from the stuff that we put out at the time people didn’t want say “death,” it was just an ugly word to them.

It took a whole new generation to come along to not be afraid of the word “death,” because now “death” is common with all of these bands having the word in their name. The state of the music I think has really evolved. From the punk revolution to now we’ve enjoyed a lot of good punk bands from the New York street bands like Dumpster Juice and Cro-Mags and bands like Gwar. Now you have bands that are more in the forefront while a bunch of others are still underground.

BOWERY BOSTON AND BOSTON HASSLE PRESENT DEATH + DOWNTOWN BOYS :: Sunday, May 31 @ the Middle East Downstairs, 472 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge :: 8 p.m., 18-plus, $23 in advance, $25 day of show :: Advance tickets :: Do617 event page




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