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Looking DEATH in the Face – An interview with DEATH by Jeff Howitt

A few weeks back I had the pleasure of screening the documentary "A Band Called DEATH" at the Birmingham 8 where it'll have a limited engagement beginning June 27th – July 4th - please check the theatre for specific times. DEATH, the band itself was in town to perform on Belle Isle as personal guests of Metallica for Orion Fest and this was a special showing for the media and contest winners followed by a Q & A and signing afterwards. In attendance were friends from the old neighborhood including their Pastor, also Matt Smith who assured the band that it wasn't his copy of the original DEATH 45 that he put up for sale when he worked at Car City Records, music scholar and Rapper Mister, culinary aficionado Brent Foster, Laura Klein reppin' Found Sound, Robert Trujillo bassist for Metallica and Nadir Omowale who I would be tagging in on an one on one interview with the band the following afternoon at the Magic Stick where they played their hometown reunion show in 2009. The only other official performance in Detroit proper by DEATH since the days of rocking in their practice space bedroom or rolling up the garage door for the neighbors to clearly hear.

As I was "Hangin With” Nardo (from Navdo Presents), who had previously interviewed the band in Austin for Fun Fun Fun Fest that same year for MotorCityBlog, things were friendly and I ended up on Belle Isle with the band as they checked into the festival and toured the site, especially interested in "the stage" that as Guitarist Bobbie Duncan quietly said "We're gonna leave it on..."

It was the first time since the Brothers had been on the island since they left Detroit's Eastside in the mid-Seventies. Following the riots of the late Sixties there just wasn't "White Flight" but a "Black Exodus" too. As Drummer Dannis Hackney noted "When Motown left it just ripped the Soul out of the City." A story that wouldn't get explored publicly with much salt until the documentary STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN premiered and the region began as well as the fan to piece together another worthy saga of Detroit's diamond faceted past.
Bassist and Vocalist Bobby Hackney recounted waiting in an enormous snake of a line outside the Renaissance Center after the shell had been erected and they were hiring labor to finish what is still Detroit's tallest building inside. After a few hours Bobby turned to the woman behind him and said, "Mam, you can have my spot." and walked home. He was a Rocker and knew playing it straight wasn't an appointment he was going to make. 1975 was as hard a year for the Country as any and even more dire for a radicalized but exhausted Detroit.

No Illusions. 
No Promises. 
No Future. 

We all got a taste of what modern life would be like arguably 
a generation earlier than the rest of America.

The band "...bearing the Clive Davis incident." moved out of the state of Michigan not long after and though always keeping their Spiritual premise engaged in their music left DEATH, it's concept and songs intact from the music industries manipulations and was almost completely unheard until three decades later.

As we were loading back up in our vehicles that day Nardo pulled out the Third Man Records recently issued 45 from an early project of the Brothers Hackney called ROCKFIRE FUNK EXPRESS and pointed out the hand scribed inscriptions in the center of each record. Side A reads "Lovely Learning Lads Of Lilly Bridge" and Side B states "I Bet David Knew Rodriguez". Something they hadn't seen yet or a notion they also hadn't openly considered.

Iggy famously has joked but without irony that the MC5 just wanted to be Black when in fact they just wanted to rock out like John Lee Hooker, James Brown and John Coltrane. At the same time though bands like The Chamber Brothers, Sly and the Family Stone and locally Black Merda were playing what some could consider a brand of hyped up White Punks On Dope Rock 'n' Roll but DEATH somehow hit harder. Was more direct. They weren't playing "White People's Music" by any stretch. As The Stones and The Animals started posturing Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley the decade before, DEATH wanted to kill it like The Who and Alice Cooper with their own brand of what Dannis would describe as "Pure Rock 'n' Roll."

This was Fucking Detroit and still is. 
Say Something Nice About It. 

You Gotta Have Art. Kick Out The Jams ...For The Whole World To See.


MCB: All right, all right. Gentleman thanks for getting together with Mototcityblog to talk about DEATH being back here in Detroit. It's a pleasure to have you guys.
Dannis: It's a pleasure to be here.
Bobby: Thanks to Motorcityblog for all the blogging it's been doing for DEATH.

MCB: Absolutely. I saw you guys down at SXSW and you were playing some new songs down there at the MetroTimes showcase. Was that some things you guys had going back in the day or was it something you were able to kinda step back into taking off where you guys left off.
Bobby: It was something we were able to step back into. The great thing about the For The Whole World To See... album is that we have a wealth of songs David and I myself that we wrote back in the Seventies. And that project was intended to be a twelve song project but we only got through seven... bearing the Clive Davis incident. (laughter erupting from the band) But we were able to record some of those songs and to incorporate them in a new DEATH project. We also collaborated on some new stuff and Bobbie who was inspired by our story and the story that he is living now and the music has written some songs also and contributed to it. So we have a great new album project that we hope will be coming out this year.

MCB: Wonderful. Bobbie did you find it easy to step into the situation coming from the Reggae background, like the Political/Spiritual content of the music or was it something that was a stretch?
Bobbie: It wasn't a stretch. First of all I think a blessing for the whole thing was we were currently playing. We were already musicians working. As a matter of fact when Bob introduced the whole DEATH project to me I think we were just coming off a couple of gigs, Reggae gigs. And when he brought the stuff to me wow... I was like blown away. I was totally blown away because the stuff was so great. Dave was such a great guitar player. I had some big shoes to fill. But once we worked on it we spent a lot of time ya know working each other into it. Basically it's changing the station I call it. We flipped the script sorta and we started doing what we call the DEATH project right now. It just kinda fell together. We were always hardworking guys anyway, hardworking musicians so we put a lot of time into it and it came together quite quickly actually. It really did.

MCB: The documentary went into when you guys started to cultivate an arsenal of instruments when you were young. You were like we gotta get drums, we gotta get the bass as far as being drawn to either one, I mean was there any lessons that you guys took or did you learn together off like off the attitude of what you wanted to do?
Bobby: We learned together.
Dannis: There was no money for musical school so we collaborated.
Bobby: I mean I took a few lessons at Grinnell's Music ya know... (laughter) Do you remember Grinnell's? It was right here on Woodward right Downtown. I mean I took a few lessons there but that was boring to me compared to the stuff that we were playing together so we really did learn together and of course David, I mean I was in school so I was too young to hang out on the streets. Dannis was into that transition, just into the age where he where he could kinda be free like David but he was working jobs. But David would hang out at old Blues players houses and he would go and hang out with all these street musicians and studio musicians and anybody that he could get information from and he really got a lot of his chops man from hanging out that way and interacting with a lot of older blues players and ya know just hanging out all day in and day out just playing music and then by the time we got home he would always have some new stuff or a new chord. He'd be like "Hey, let me show you this new chord." and "Hey guys listen to this new chord I just learned today" and he would just play over and over again all the stuff and that, he really was the catalyst for us.

MCB: Was David the primary lyric writer in the band?
Bobby: No, I was the lyric writer. David would always write the music. David, he never did write too many lyrics. I mean later before he died I'd say within the Nineties he started writing some beautiful lyrics once in awhile but he always depended on me. He would come to me with a musical concept and he would tell me what he was feeling when he wrote the song and I would try my best to convey that in the lyrics.

MCB: I guess I'm asking because one thing if you are self taught for a bunch of young guys it's very tight, aggressive music and by the mid-Seventies the MC5 mantra of Dope, Guns and Fucking in the Streets had peaked in some ways and the music was going a different way and you guys were going a different direction yourselves as far as bringing it down. Was the White Panther Party or what John Sinclair went through, was any of that on your radar or were you still a little too young for that?
Bobby: Well ya know what, David had some... He was the one in Sixty Seven when they had that big concert on Belle Isle where they had that confrontation...

MCB: The First Love-In, yeah.
Bobby: David rode a Stingray bike to the Belle Isle. We had to keep it away from my Mom because she asking where David was and we knew that he had gone to Belle Isle and it was funny because we was watching the Six O'Clock news and they were showing the National Guard going across the bridge and we knew there was going to be some trouble and we were like praying for David and we were like "aw, man David!" and then he pulled up in the backyard! He said that he was on one side coming off the bridge as the National Guard was coming on. So he managed to see a couple of songs from the MC5 but he got out of there... which we're glad of. But David he would go and check out all of that stuff. I remember me and Dannis was upstairs and David was watching a popular show called "Robin Seymour's Swinging Time" and it used to come on every Saturday out of Canada and Robin Seymour would have like... I mean back then they didn't call them video, they would just say film clip. "Hey we got a film clip from a band in England" and he would play like The Who and he would play ya know like Cream even stuff like that but this one particular day he was playing Jimi Hendrix. That was the first time we had heard the Jimi Hendrix Experience and I remember David hollering to us, "Y'all come down here quick! Come down here quick! Come down here!" We come running down the stairs and we see this, uh, ya know psychedelic... I mean our television was in black and white so we didn't see the colors (laughing), but it was this psychedelic film clip of Jimi Hendrix ya know and David was just mesmerized by that and matter of fact he went out right after that and he went and bought the Jimi Hendrix album and that was the first time Jimi Hendrix came into our musical collection. So yeh he was really in tune to all that. When it came to guitar players, he was keeping up with the guitar players, I mean he loved Wes Montgomery. He loved Phil Upchurch. He loved B.B. King. Ya know he loved like all the guitar players, he was always tuning in. We'd always read the liner notes for our own interests and David would read the liner notes and wanted to know who the guitar players were. He was all about the guitar.

MCB: I noticed last night in the Q & A after the documentary that about half the people that got up and asked you guys questions... your story spoke for them. It was like what you did thirty five years ago was laying tracks for their lives.
Bobby: Wow.

MCB: Do you have any sense as to why your story was so relatable? Because I mean there are folks who of course comparing it to let's say to the Rodriguez thing that has happened in the last few years where people are uncovering this
but this is a whole different story... yours was even more hidden.
Bob: Well we never thought... I think it was just the determination and for the most part determination on David's part in the belief that... I mean so many people tried to get us to change our name. To change our music. To change our direction and these were people who were around us. Family members, friends. Just relatives and certain people ya know who... And David just held to that conviction and I think that's what speaks to people is ya know you just never give up. We used to say to David, "We are getting a lot of resistance with this name DEATH, man." and David's reaction was "Look, man we're not crazy. it's the world that's crazy." Ya know? (laughs) That was the way he was! He was convinced we were right and even there was times he would say to us "Listen. You guys gotta be with me on this 'cause the world is gonna love this concept" and we were like "OK Dave." We just thought we were giving him respect and love but as it turns out we're glad that we stuck with him and backed him up because he proved to be right.
MCB: There are so many early inspirations of things that can get lost because they are more raw acknowledgement...
Bobby: Right.

MCB: And you can go on but the fact that is was such a hidden package and you guys were able to go on and live lives as musicians but it almost seems the message of DEATH when it was conjured down and you felt it and stuck to it seems maybe even a more relevant message now. Like if you would have changed the name you might have gotten some flak about the lyrics then. There are so many things that could have happened...
Bobby: They would have kept chopping us down...
Dannis: It was a whole concept. You give them the name. You give them the lyrics. You give them your identity then everything is gone.
Bobby: He was convinced. He (David) used to say that "What's it worth to have a big advance that you're gonna have to pay back anyway?" He said "What's it worth to have a big advance and lose your identity? To lose everything about yourself?" And then David said "I'm not gonna play music man under someone else's name. What other name would Clive Davis have for us? If we told him you give us a name, what name would that be?" He'd say "That's not our band that's his band!" Ya know! (laughs) So that was the way he looked at it.

MCB: Much blessings for holding the faith and even though it was hard...
Bobby: Yeh.

MCB: Maybe it's been a long road but i think everyone is ready to hear the album...
Bobby: We honor him everyday for that decision and at the time we just thought it a passive decision but now it was a life changing decision and we know that.

MCB: Thank you very much for meeting with MotorCityBlog..
Bobby: Thank you to MotorCityBlog!

MCB: Bless you guys. I can't wait to hear the new album.

photo credit: Rebeccamich , navdo, ashley cass