The Life of Death; A Q&A with Bobby Hackney Sr. | Solid State
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Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Life of Death; A Q&A with Bobby Hackney Sr.

Posted By on Thu, Dec 4, 2008 at 5:02 PM

As promised in my column yesterday, here's the full transcript of my recent interview with Death — and, of course, Lambsbread — drummer Bobby Hackney Sr. I hate repeating myself, so if you need background info on why this is cool, just read the effing column already. But I'm sure you already have, right? Right.

Unfortunately, the Luddites at Drag City — the label that is re-issuing all of the Death recordings in February — have asked that I not post MP3s of the original material . . . even though the Freeps did yesterday.I guess the label thinks that actually hearing a few tunes before you can buy them is somehow a bad thing. How deliciously 2005! However, they didn't say anything about pointing you in the direction of where I found them. If anyone asks, you didn't get this stuff from me, OK? And when the album comes out in February, do everyone involved a solid and buy the damned thing. You won't regret it, I promise.

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Anyway, I don't often demand that you go see shows. But if ever I were to insist upon mandatory attendance, it would be to see Bobby Hackney Jr.'s band Rough Francis playing Death this weekend. You have two shots, Friday at 242 Main and Saturday at The Monkey House. If the band is half as good as their old man and his brothers back in the day, it should be pretty epic. Plus, you can say you were there when Burlington out-hipstered Williamsburg with music created by three Detroit teenagers more than thirty years ago. Put that in your skinny jeans.

But that's enough from me. On to the interview!

DAN BOLLES: It's remarkable to me that this stuff has essentially been forgotten about for the last thirty-plus years. What does it feel like to have your son revisit music you made before he was born?
BOBBY HACKNEY SR.: It just kind of blew our minds. We had really thought that this was something that was just a slice of our lives, that it was that time, you know? . . . It was just something, that chapter, that we thought was over when we left Detroit.

My brother, David, he was the leader of Death. He always held this resounding faith that the world would someday here this music. We all believed at that time that we were playing some really pretty good rock and roll. But we weren't trying to "predate" anybody or be the first first to do anything. We just wanted to be a good Detroit rock band. That's all we were thinking about. So for this to come out and for [people] to find about about it . . . I mean, we were sort of in the world of reggae and blues, that type of music. So  we weren't really in touch too much with what was going on in the underground rock scene. So fo our kids to dig this up . . . I get a call from California one day and it's like, "Dad, do you realize they're playing your old music at undergroup parties?" And I'm like, "What are you talking about?" It all hit us by surprise.

DB: You've mentioned being influenced early on by R&B and reggae, so I'm curious about when or, rather, how the rock influence entered into the equation.
BH: Well, this was before the reggae influence. But living in Motown . . . you can't live in Detroit and not be into R&B and the Motown music. We started out in 1971 as a funk band. We did a little  bit of backing up for some soul singers in Detroit, but we all . . . well, rock just kind of exploded on us. And we started just going to a lot of concerts. Iggy and The Stooges, MC5, Bob Seeger, Grand Funk Railroad. And we'd see some of the bigger acts that would come into town like Zeppelin and The Who. Being in Detroit at the time, you just had a feast of any kind of music that you wanted to get into. And we just got into the rock and roll. And David just didn't look back.

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DB: I stumbled across some MP3s of the original 45s on the web, so I've actually heard a couple of the original tracks. To the casual listener, they really sound like they could have been recorded in Williamsburg earlier this year. But they predate the retro indie-punk thing by a good thirty years.
BH: Yeah. That's what we were told. But we didn't know!

DB: So what was it specifically about that rock influence that led you to make music that, in retrospect — and without hyperbole — really seems to have been ahead of its time?

BH: It was kind of a three-part element. David was the main catalyst. Being a guitar player in the early Seventies, how could you not be influenced by Jimi Hendrix? But we liked the power trios. There was something about Grand Funk Railroad, who lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There was something about The MC5. There was something about Iggy and The Stooges — even though Iggy was fronting the group, he still had a power trio backing him up. I think that's really where the rock influence came from. There was a lot of crossover in Detroit, you know?

And I think that's what it was really all about. We were just really into rock and roll. We liked the clothes, we liked the hairstyles, the music, what the music was saying. And this was a period of massive protest and consciousness. So I think we just really tuned into that to, you know? I mean, being in Detroit, having seen the '67 riot and all that. And rock music was a huge part of all that. So it wasn't really hard to be influenced by rock and roll.

DB: How did Bobby Jr. come across the old recordings?
BH: It's funny. We had been trying to tell him . . . when Bobby was born we had changed the name from Death to The Fourth Movement and were doing this Gospel-rock thing. And he was too young to really remember that. He really more remembers the reggae thing [Lambsbread]. When David went back to Detroit he left me and Dannis here just being a bassist and a drummer. And we were kind of doing some exploring into either keeping the rock thing going or doing some other things. And our involvement with the University of vermont — we were woking and going to school part time. So during our involvement there, I ended up being a DJ for a little while at WRUV. There was a whole crew of people from that time who went on to do some great things in the community. In particular my friend Jay Strauser who was doing Trenchtown Rock and bringing people like Peter Tosh and Bob Marley inbto town. And that's where a lot of our reggae influence came from, jusrt meeting all these reggae stars and going to those shows. It didn't take a rocket scientist to do the math: This music loves the bass and drums, were a bassist and a drummer. People seem to love reggae, you know?

We were still dabbling into the rock. Because once it's in your blood . . . but we did go full tilt into reggae. But we thought that the Death thing  was just something we'd sit and talk of fondly. But we never thought there would be a big interest in what we were doing. We got sparse airplay in Detroit and there were circles of people who knew about what were doing. And we did a lot of garage show. But we just thought it was a chapter that was over. We'll just go on.

So Bobby, he grew up seeing more of the reggae. But we used to tell him, "You know we were in a rock band," when he  started liking hardcore and punk rock. When he started learning how to play, he was playing with his friends and I used to tell him all the time, "You know, me and your uncle, we played rock way back in the day." And he was like, "Yeah, yeah Dad." But we never really sat down a had the whole gist of what Death was all about. We thought OK, we've moved on. It'll be something that everybody will  be fond of, like a family heirloom or something. Every once in a while we'll say, "Hey, look what we did. look what we used to do." And we can laugh at the clothes and the hairstyles.

My son Julian was in California and he calls me up and tells me that they're playing old Death records at these underground parties. So Bobby went on a couple of websites and dug up this whole thing about these collectors trading the records and one guy bought one for $800. And I was like, "Wait a minute. Are you sure you're talking about the right band here?" I almost fell out of my seat. And then to find out that we had predated a lot of the punk bands that were doing anything like that. That's something that really took us by storm. I mean, we were just trying to keep up with bands like The Who and Iggy and the Stooges and MC5. We weren't thinking about "hey this is a new thing called punk rock!" Nobody had even heard of punk rock then. If you had said "punk rock" to somebody back then, it would have been an insult! "What do you mean Punk? You calling me a punk?!" We didn't know what we were doing, except fot the fact that we just wanted to be a good Detroit rock band. 

So Bobby informed us about it. I can be thankful to my son, because I always tried to convince him to play more worldly-type music or reggae music. And they were adamant about playing hardcore. But it was probably just in his blood. And I put it there and didn't even know it! I just didn't know what I did, you know?

DB: So have you heard Rough Francis yet?
BH: I haven't. I'm going to hear it for the first time tomorrow night. I know that they've been practicing. And they've been telling me, "Dad, I hope that we do the songs justice." And I'm like, "I'm just surprised that you're doing them." So I'm just looking forward to it like everybody else is, just to see it.

One last thing is that I want to be sure that people realize that none of this would have happened without David. He was our mentor. Not only getting into rock and roll, but to getting into music. And it goes way back.

My dad sat us down in front of the TV and made us watch the beatles the night they came on "The Ed Sullivan Show." He told us then, "I want to you boys to watch this, this is history in the making. America is never going to forget this." And he literally made us sit in front of the TV and watch it. The very next day, David went out into the alley and found an old guitar that somebody had thrown away and he took some nylon or some thread or seomthing and made some strings for it. He was always the one that really influenced us to become a band and to play music. And throughout this whole thing, it's that his name is honored. It's really a testimony to his faith and to his dream that all of this is happening right now.

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Dan Bolles

Dan Bolles

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Dan Bolles is Seven Days' assistant arts editor.

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