Interview by Parisa Eshrati
I spoke with Bobby Hackney, Dannis Hackney, and Bobby Duncan of the punk band DEATH. They just released their latest album, N.E.W., so we discussed getting back in the studio and how fate played an important role in the process.
You guys just released your latest album N.E.W. I’m curious, did you guys always have the intention of making new music once the band got rediscovered or was this a fairly new idea to get back into the studio?
Bobby H.: Well you know DEATH was always about new music, even back when we were in Detroit with our brother David, we were always about new music. That was always our manifesto. When the music was rediscovered (or discovered) in 2008 and we really had started to perform out, a lot of the fans would ask if we were gonna put out any music as the performing band we are now. This one is for all those fans and those people who wanted to know if we would have new DEATH music. The inspiration was there. Once we came back as the band DEATH we always had our sights set on continuing the manifesto of DEATH which is always new music and good rock ‘n’ roll.
The album was released on Drag City as well as on your own record label Triangle. Have you guys ever thought about expanding Triangle and adding other artists onto your roster?
Bobby H.: [Laughs] That’s something we may explore in the future but we’re thankful that Drag City is working with us on this. It really is a kind of tribute to DEATH from Detroit in that David’s vision was for the music of DEATH to be on Triangle records which we conceived when we put out that first 45 [RPM]. It’s really kind of a nod back to the DEATH days from Detroit and the vision of a band from 1975 when very few people were putting out their own records. It’s a really great thing that since that time the independent record business among artists and among record labels has really blossomed into what we see today. There may be some things in the works for Triangle, we’ll see.
Awesome, we’ll stay posted on that. Another thing that I’ve always appreciated about the band is how spirituality is definitely at the forefront of your music, I’d love to hear your own thoughts on how you think that music can be a vessel for spirituality.
Bobby H.: Wow, I’ll let each one of us answer that question. Our music has been comprised of these wonderful 7 notes. Everything, every artist, has their own spiritual journey: when we grew up, our mom and dad, they let us listen to great singers like Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, and Reverend James Cleveland. They were heavily into Gospel music as well and they were into Blues. And of course, The Beatles, even their spiritual journey into transcendental meditation when they started doing their thing. And Bob Dylan! So, it’s like all these artists who have really touched us have always touched on a spiritual vibe in the music. I think it’s just a part of playing music. That’s why we have that name: ‘the muse’, you know. It’s almost a magical name. The muse is the spirit of music. I’ll let Bobby elaborate a little bit more.
Bobby D.: You know, spirituality is a song being put together. I feel that it’s just needed. It’s just a vibe. You look at the world, what’s happening right now. If you have a chance to sit back—we actually penned these songs, the album’s just dropping now, but we actually penned these songs (Bobby and Dennis and I) years ago. It’s almost like we wrote them yesterday. Look at what’s going on now in the world, it’s all very poignant. The songs that I penned, I just felt the world going the way it is and people need to hear something. Besides, music is the perfect vehicle to deliver a message: you’ve got a good beat and you put something meaningful on it (besides “Baby take your clothes off” or something like that). You can put something meaningful on it, just take the opportunity to do it. People need to hear a little bit more especially these days, something to grab on to, something to move forward to. What do you think Dennis?
Dennis: Well, in my situation, we grew up with the whole spirituality thing: my dad being a Baptist minister and everything. We grew up with the whole spirituality thing and like Bob said we listened to other musicians who had their spirituality kind of at the forefront; or if not at the forefront, they deliver a spiritual message through the music. Yes, I think music will always be a way to deliver spirituality and spiritual messages because this set of notes was given to us. As well as they can be used for “shakin’ your booty”, they can be useful putting out a poignant message. So, yeah, spirituality is definitely in the forefront of what we do. Even from the David days it’s been. Spirituality was the forefront of the band.
I love everyone's insight on that, thank you so much for sharing. I also just wanted to bring up that great story about how you all came in touch with Groovesville Productions and it was just by David [Hackney] throwing a dart into a phonebook. Do you think leaving some band decisions up to fate, or whatever you'd like to call it, like that is a process that you’ll carry into the future as well?
Bobby H.: Well, you know what? Let me put it this way. Fate has brought us here, we were doing reggae music in 2007 and we have been doing it for a number of years. Of course, David had passed away in 2000 and it took us a long time to absorb that. When we had just started to move on Dennis was like, well you know, we’ve been doing this , we’re looking at our kids, we’re looking at our younger generation and we said look let’s pass the baton onto them we could just be weekend warriors and just hang around the region. Then all of the sudden the DEATH thing happened. That right there was like David throwing another one of his darts. It came out of nowhere. Asking that question… we’re actually being guided, you know. So we don’t know what’s gonna happen. We always say to our fans and we always say to interviewers that every day is a good day for DEATH, because every day is a day that we never thought DEATH would see.
I imagine that DEATH is still at the forefront now, but are you guys still working on Lamb’s Bread music?
Bobby H.: Well right now we have some plans for Lamb’s Bread but right now this is kind of at the forefront of our attention. We have a new album out. There’s been a book that’s just been released, and autobiography on DEATH, and we’re gonna be doing some appearance dates, we’ve got a lot of things going on. But we haven’t forgotten about our whole legacy by any stretch of the word. Every once in a while we give the audience a little taste of the fact, we let them remember that we did play some reggae music. It’s just a little taste because we know that our fans want to come out and see this rock ‘n’ roll music that’s been kept hidden away from them all these years. Our first commitment is to giving them the best rock ‘n’ roll we can give them as the band called DEATH.
Since I am calling from a college radio station, I wanted to ask: if I’m not mistaken it was Bobby that worked at WRUV at the University of Vermont. Is that correct?
Bobby H.: I was! I was a disc-jockey there for at least about four years.
I read somewhere that you got to meet Peter Tosh while working there and he gave you some advice on music. Is that true?
Bobby H.: That is very true.
If you don’t mind me asking, what kind of advice did he give you?
Bobby H.: You know, at the time it was really that Dennis and I were contemplating putting together a Reggae band. Through my association with WRUV the promoter who also had a reggae show on WRUV was the one who brought Peter Tosh to town and he recruited a bunch of us from the radio station to work as tech support for the show and my job, believe it or not, was to run the main spotlight so I had the spotlight that was way up in the balcony and I was on Peter Tosh. We all got to meet him at the end of the night. He was backstage of the auditorium and basically I had told him me and my brother, we’re considering starting a reggae band here in Vermont. I’m a bass player and he’s a drummer. He said “Bass and drum? You must play reggae music, man!” and he said it just like that. [Laughs] That was the beginning of that.
I guess I’m just curious too—while you were a disc-jockey out there did you ever consider pulling some DEATH tapes and playing it on shows out there?
Bobby H.: Oh my gosh, well you know what, it was so funny because by that time it was the early 80s and we had gravitated to Walkmens and CDs like everybody else. Even though we had those DEATH tapes we did not readily… reel-to-reel tapes were starting to be scarce. After all the pain and rejection that me and Dennis and my brother David went through, even though David was alive and well at the time, he was in Detroit. We had really started to have success in reggae and our kids and our family and our friends and everybody saw us (me and Dennis) as those kind of reggae stars and those guys that were doing this amazing thing all throughout New England. It started from basically just an idea. We wanted our children liking the other parents, we wanted them to see that so we never really explored getting the tapes out because that was just a me, Dennis, and David thing.
We went through all that rejection. I think even at that point we felt like nobody in the world would understand or would appreciate that except maybe us and the people we interacted with in Detroit and our family. I never really had the inspiration to do that during that particular time. Even though there were certain things me and Dennis heard like The Clash. I was playing these records and it was wild. It kind of reminded us of some of that stuff we did with DEATH in Detroit. There was even one time that I had even told Dennis—I said I wonder what would happen if we took a couple of songs like “Keep On Knockin’” or some of the other DEATH stuff and trying to mix it in with the Lamb’s Bread stuff like the way Bad Brains did it and we just looked at each other and said ‘nah.’
It's interesting because now DEATH records are being sent to every college radio station in the US. It’s awesome that that time’s come.
Bobby H.: It’s great. And we really appreciate that stuff, and we know that all the college radio stations and all the college kids that they love rock ‘n’ roll and we just hope that we can stay true to the cause of just bringing out some fine rock ‘n’ roll music. It’s been a long time since the world has had some good rock ‘n’ roll music and we know there’s a lot of good rock ‘n’ roll bands out there and hey—rock ‘n’ roll will never die. We hope that we’re proof of that.
You definitely are. Just to wrap up, you guys just released a new album, what else can we look forward to seeing from DEATH in the near future?
Bobby H.: Well, in the near future we’ll be making some appearance dates. David had it resolved, when we asked David (he was the leader of the band in the 70s) so how are we gonna tour when people get to know DEATH? David says “well the name of the tour will be called For The Whole World To See…, which was the name of our first album which means that DEATH plans to play everywhere in the world if not but once. So wherever time you are if we haven’t been there we definitely plan to come but in the meantime we’ll be doing some appearance dates to support the album. We’ll be in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, we will also be in New York City and we’ll be wrapping it up in Boston so you know we’re looking forward to that. Later in July we’ll be in Vancouver, British Columbia, we’ll be doing a festival there, and there will be a number of other festivals coming up as well. We’re pretty stoked about it.
Well, I feel like I can speak for the whole city when I say we hope you come to Tucson sometime soon.
Bobby H.: Aw, we definitely will be in Arizona. We definitely plan to come to Arizona. As a matter of fact, we played in Phoenix and we love Arizona and we will be back.
For more information on DEATH:
All interviews posted before October 2015 were originally recorded for KAMP Student Radio.