an interview with Death (about the new LP, reggae, unreleased material, Iggy Pop & more)
by Andrew Sacher w/ photos by Kellyann Petry
Death @ Purchase
"Forgotten except by the most fervent punk rock record collectors -- the band's self-released 1976 single recently traded hands for the equivalent of $800 -- Death would likely have remained lost in obscurity if not for the discovery [in 2008] of a 1974 demo tape in Bobby Sr.'s attic. Released [in 2009] by Drag City Records as "... For the Whole World to See," Death's newly unearthed recordings reveal a remarkable missing link between the high-energy hard rock of Detroit bands like the Stooges and MC5 from the late 1960s and early '70s and the high-velocity assault of punk from its breakthrough years of 1976 and '77. Death's songs "Politicians in My Eyes," "Keep On Knocking" and "Freakin Out" are scorching blasts of feral ur-punk, making the brothers unwitting artistic kin to their punk-pioneer contemporaries the Ramones, in New York; Rocket From the Tombs, in Cleveland; and the Saints, in Brisbane, Australia. They also preceded Bad Brains, the most celebrated African-American punk band, by almost five years." [NY Times]
I met with Bobby Hackney, Dannis Hackney, and Bobbie Duncan of the legendary proto-punk band Death before their set at SUNY Purchase's Fall Fest this past Friday, to discuss their second full length album, Spiritual, Mental, Physical, which is set to be released on January 25, 2011 through the label Drag City. As previously posted, Death sent out this message via Drag City back in October:
BASEMENT OF WHAT WAS ONCE KNOWN AS GROOVESVILLE STUDIOS - DETROIT, MI - May 7th, 2010
"After searching for almost eight hours, I removed a box with a Master in it and vaguely saw some big red letters on the box below it. I shinned the light on this box to clearly see the writing in big red letters DEATH. I screamed with excitement DEATH!!, DEATH!!, DEATH!! Everyone in the building starting to scream and wildly cheer and applause. Upon seeing those tapes, it brought it all back, David had written those big red letters on the tape. Engineer Jim Vitti had jokingly drew a skull and crossbones on the box after the name to which David did not like telling him "We are not that kind of Death". I was full of emotion, I cried. We were all elated, Jacque was elated, I called up Dannis who was in Vermont and he began to joyfully celebrate. I thought about David. If David were here with us all that has happened to Death up to this point would pale in comparison to what we found today. The tapes were right where Brian said they were sitting there awaiting us for 34 years." - Bobby Hackney
Bobby and Dannis are brothers and both original members of Death who were active from 1971-1976. Their other brother and original member, David Hackney, died of lung cancer in 2000. Death reformed in 2009 with new Death member Bobbie Duncan on guitar. Bobby, Dannnis and Bobbie all also play together in Vermont-based reggae band Lambsbread.
BV: Welcome to New York, how was your trip?
BH: Trip was great, thank you for welcoming us, first time in Purchase.
BV: I know it's not the most conventional setting to play, being that it's a small college an hour outside the city, but from what I gather, you guys have performed as Lambsbread at a number of colleges, so you are no stranger to performing at colleges.
BH: Oh no. We've played a lot of colleges in New England, just about every college in New England. A lot in the state of New York too, so you are correct about that.
BV: How is that, performing for kids at school, especially being that Death is now appreciated by younger fans who weren't even born when you first formed?
BH: It's amazing, I mean it's really magical to us, we just really appreciate the fact that people are tuning in to our music. It's great, it's really great.
Death fans @ Purchase Fall Fest Friday
Death -- "Politicians In My Eyes" @ Fun Fun Fun Fest 2009
BV: I personally love the album, For The Whole World To See, and I never would have heard it when it came out so I think it's awesome too that you guys are reaching out to these fans.
BH: I think we had to have a couple generations to go by before kids got over saying the word "death." Your generation seems to have no problem, where previous generations did. I guess it was just one of those things where time took care of it, you know? It's just one of those things you realize when you look into it.
BV: Yeah, absolutely. So, I know that in January you are releasing a new Death album called Spiritual, Mental, Physical. I'm excited about that and I have other of questions about it, but to start, how did you come up with the title?
BH: Well, actually, that was the title from our brother who was actually the late David Hackney, well we don't even like to say the late David Hackney, we always call him early (laughs). Because he was ahead of his time, but it was his concept, this whole spiritual, mental, physical theory that surrounded around the word "death." We had always talked about that if we released albums, we would release those in succession, so the first one was called For The Whole World To See and the second one was called Spiritual, Mental, Physical. But it's kind of a retrospect you know? It's a lot of really raw footage and some demo recordings that we recorded in Detroit. We have a lot of interesting things and a lot of Death projects to come.
BV: So there's more Death to come?
BH: Oh definitely, more Death to come. We have even started a recording project ourselves for the current Death that's performing now. We're using some of the songs that were written in 1975 and some new stuff that we're coming up with now.
BV: Are you playing any of that tonight?
BH: We'll play a little bit from Spiritual, Mental, Physical but I think you're going to have wait a little bit for the brand new stuff.
BV: We'll I'm very excited to hear it.
BH: We're excited to do it, I mean, the great thing about Death is that between 1971 and 1976, my brother and I [David Hackney] wrote a number of songs, it was just incredible how many songs we wrote and how many songs we demoed. So we have enough material that there will be a lot more Death music to come.
BV: In terms of the old material, I know that you guys recently discovered these tapes in the basement of Groovesville in Detroit. Are there other tapes with music that won't be appearing on the new album?
BH: Oh definitely, definitely. We have a wealth of Death material recorded that was recorded between '74 and '77 that we want to share with the world. Hopefully we'll get a chance to demonstrate some of that music on stage.
BV: I actually just got to listen to a copy of Spiritual, Mental, Physical earlier today and I noticed it's definitely a little rawer in quality than For The Whole World To See. Are these earlier recordings?
BH: Well like I said, it was raw footage. It was material that was slated to go into the studio. Some of it was just really raw power, you know? I mean, David did a lot of experimenting with two track recording at the time, as a lot of other bands in Detroit were doing. Fortunately, we were able to record and preserve a lot of the sessions.
BV: I definitely noticed some of David's experimenting with the recording, with over dubbed and double tracked guitar parts.
BH: Well a lot of that, believe it or not, David had the uncanny ability to play and sound like two guitar players. For instance, on the song "Can You Give Me Thrill?" (on Spiritual, Mental, Physical) that was no overdub, that was David playing, just him. It's amazing, I mean I even listen to that recording and I'm like, "Wow, it sounds like there are two guitar players there," but that was just his ability to play those chords. He studied a lot of those rock and roll chords, Chuck Berry-esque barre rock and roll chords from a very early age, so by the time he got into his late teens playing that type of music, his fingers would just naturally do things that people would just be amazed about.
BV: David is an excellent guitarist. Another thing I wanted to know about the new album, you [Bobby] said, in the press release, "We found the tapes! DEATH DEATH DEATH!" you mentioned that Brian said they'd be there all along, and I assume this is Brian Spears of Groovesville? Have you guys been in contact with him over the years or did you recently get back in touch with the reformation of Death?
BH: Oh yes, we talk with Brian quite a bit. Brian has been a friend and the whole Death thing has rekindled a lot of relationships that we've had with the music industry in Detroit. So yeah, we've been in touch with Brian quite a bit.
BV: Did you guys find any other interesting things in Groovesville? I hear it's rumored to have records scattered across the floor to this day.
BH: In boxes! But they are scattered across the floor! (more laughs) But believe me, Don Davis knows everything that's going on in that building, and just because those master tapes are there-I mean he has a whole other vault with the finished masters. So it's not like they were just left neglected. Although what we were able to do was go in and find the original tapes, and him allowing us to do that was just amazing.
BV: Is that building being used for anything anymore?
BH: No, it's just a storage building right now, but he does have plans for it in the future.
DH: He's actually renovating it.
BV: Do you guys know anything about the future plans for it?
BH: No, I mean Don Davis may do something with it, we're not really sure, but he definitely has hinted that he wants to get in there and do something.
BV: When exactly did you finally uncover these tapes?
BH: This was in July of this year.
BV: Did you find other tapes of yours while you were there?
BH: Of ours? We found a number of masters, yeah.
BV: Speaking of other masters, I've read that "Let the World Turn" was one of David's mini rock operas, and that he had actually written many of these. Do you have other recordings of those?
BH: Yes we do, we have a lot of David's mini operas that we want to share. David left an extensive catalog of recorded music and we'll share as much of it as we can.
BV: It's great that you guys really do want to share your music with as many people as possible.
BH: Thank you.
DH: It's been a long time coming. When you find out people finally want it, you want to give them as much as you can. That's what they were made for and obviously it's become apparent to us that this purpose is going to be fulfilled, so you might as well ride with the wave instead of against it, you know? So yeah, we plan to share a lot of the stuff that we've dug up.
BV: After playing shows with Lambsbread for a while, what is it like getting up there and playing these Death songs again?
BH: I'm going to let Bobbie [Duncan] answer that question, because you know what? Bobbie came with us through Lambsbread and he had no idea that he would be playing with us in Death, it just kind of worked out that way, it was one of those magical things. So Bobbie, you can answer that question.
BD: Well you know, Lambsbread was like a segue into Death, really. It was also a blessing also because a lot of times opportunities come about, and we had been playing with Lambsbread all these years so we had never had to be like, "Okay well, the Death albums dropped again so let's pick up our guitars and learn these songs again," it was nothing like that, we just said, "Oh okay, let's play these songs!" It was a minor transition but it was like going back home, we all just set our minds to what the music was and what it was all about, and here we are now.
BV: Is Lambsbread still active?
BH: Yeah, Lambsbread is still active. We still do our reggae shows, but of course with Death we're on a much more broad scale, and I have to admit, Death has been taking up a lot of the time, but yes we still do Lambsbread.
BD: Another thing is, we've been musicians almost all of our non-adult and adult lives and we've played so many genres of music separately and collectively. We look at it as just one big world of music so we just play, you know? It wasn't a transition at all really when you think about it, just what we do naturally.
BV: Can we expect a longer tour supporting the new material, possibly playing in smaller cities?
BH: Well, Death has plans to do a mini tour out in the West. We're also going to be going out to the Northwest and we have some things that are cooking up in Brazil, so we're going to be all over. You see what our goal is, Andrew, is to play all over the world, but we can't guarantee that we'll ever come back to any place that we play. See our motto is "as in life, Death only happens once." We want to play everywhere. We'd like to play underneath the pyramids of Egypt. We'd like to play in Brazil, we'd like to play in Israel, in Germany. So, you see, this is what our resolve is.
BV: Well, that's really great to hear. I find myself lucky enough to see you guys at least tonight, and if you never come back, but you spread Death around the whole world, I'll still be really happy about that.
BH: Thank you Andrew, thank you.
DH: I guess we had to wait for your generation to have the bravery to accept it, like I said, because we got a lot of rejection. But then again, that was an earlier time like I said, this generation found it and accepted it and it seems to be going well. They've been calling us like a missing page, which is pretty interesting. They say we were "punk before punk was punk" but back then we didn't call it punk, you know? I mean to call somebody a punk, you'd be in a fight! We just called it rock and roll music, and that's what we were out to do. I don't want to say louder, because there was a lot of loud music, but I guess the speed of it, the pace of it, the energy just came on kind of strong for that generation. I guess it did have to wait a while. But we're glad it waited out and everything worked out and we can still deliver it, which is good.
BV: I've read that in the '70s you were into The Stooges, you were into The Who, but now do you have the same influences? Are there any new bands you guys like? What bands are influencing you?
BH: Well, you know, with today's bands, I mean some of the bands I've been giving a wink to, like Kings of Leon, checking them out a little bit. There's also a few other bands, but most of the real stuff that I'm still tuning into surprisingly enough, is still that same great music. I mean it's still Iggy, it's still the Who. When I want to hear some rock, I think one of the best rock songs that I would put on for my enjoyment would be Deep Purple - Made In Japan. If you really want some real good rock and roll, of course you know Johnny Winter, a lot of the Black Sabbath, I mean great bands, Thin Lizzy, Grand Funk Railroad; E Pluribus Funk is still one of the best albums that enjoy. So I mean today, yeah, there are some bands that we're tuning into, like the band The Roots is pretty good, but for the most part we're just loving that hard driving rock and roll.
BV: I've heard rumors that you guys are supposed to possibly play a Detroit show with Iggy Pop (possibly with The Stooges) and the surviving members of MC5?
BH: That's just a rumor, man. It would be nice though! But stay tuned, you never know.
BV: I mean I'd fly to Detroit for it.
DH: I mean we would love to do a show with Iggy. I was blown away by Iggy when I was sitting in my bedroom and I was watching a current program that was running a story about Iggy and The Stooges being elected to the Hall of Fame. As he was going down the list of bands that he thought were important, great bands, he named us! And I'm sitting there watching the TV and I'm blown away, like "Iggy just called our name!" (laughs) I called up everybody and said, "Iggy said thanks to Death!" I got excited about that, to tell you the truth man, I would very much welcome playing a show with Iggy.
BV: Have you guys met Iggy yet?
DH: No, we haven't, I'd like to, but we haven't.
BV: It'd be a great show.
DH: Oh yeah, it'd be a great show anywhere.
BV: One last question. Have you talked to Drag City or any other labels about reissuing what you recorded as The Fourth Movement?
BH: That's been mentioned, and the only thing we can say is stay tuned.
BV: Well it was great meeting all of you, it was great talking to you, I'm really excited for your set tonight, and good luck tonight!
Death: Thank you man!
BV: Thank you!!
Death playing Purchase, not long after the interview
Death's new album: Spiritual, Mental, Physical drops January 25, 2011 through Drag City. Here's the tracklist:
2. The Masks
3. The Change
4. World of Tomorrow
5. Can You Give Me A Thrill???
6. People Look Away
7. The Storm Within
8. David's Dream
9. Bobby Bassing It
10. Dannis on the Motor City Drums