I’ve been Jaded in Chicago for several years now but I was born in Detroit and raised on its music, so I was stoked to see the city that first brought you punk rock represented so prominently on this year’s Riot Fest bill with proto-punk trio Death taking the Riot Stage on Friday afternoon and the indefatigable Iggy Pop headlining the Rock Stage on Saturday night (plus a performance from Bootsy Collins, if we want to discuss his Parliament-Funkadelic years, which we most certainly do).
If you’re still unfamiliar with Death, not only are they an incredible band, they have one of the most incredible back stories in the history of rock music too. You can watch the award-winning documentary, A Band Called Death (here’s the trailer) to learn more, but here’s the short of it: Death was formed by brothers David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney in Detroit in the mid-70s. As black teens playing raw, unbridled rock ‘n’ roll, the group was marginalized, overlooked, and misunderstood (they even turned down the chance for a recording deal with Clive Davis, who wanted them to change their name), before they finally disbanded out of frustration in 1977. David passed away due to illness in 2000 but not before giving his brothers Death’s master tapes and promising that someday the world would come looking for them. It may sound like something out of a fairytale, but a couple of years later that’s exactly what happened (seriously, watch the documentary). Bobby and Dannis reformed Death with guitarist Bobbie Duncan in 2009, and the trio has been going strong ever since. They’ve continued to celebrate David’s memory with a series of archival recordings and frequent touring and in April, 2015, they revealed the latest chapter of the Death story with an album of all new material, appropriately titled N.E.W..
I caught up with Death following their performance at Riot Fest. Our conversation follows:
Interview by Jamie Ludwig
Jamie – Between Iggy and Death you’re like the elder statesmen of punk here this weekend. What is it like for you to play such mixed-generational crowds at festivals like Riot Fest?
Bobby Hackney – We appreciate people saying that. We’ve been playing this music since 1974-1975. If you were going to call someone a punk back then you were looking for one of two things; either a black eye or a bloody nose. We always just called [our music], “Hard-driving Detroit rock ‘n’ roll,” but we’re very grateful, we’re very honored to be from Detroit where great artists like the Motown artists, Iggy, Bob Seger, Grand Funk Railroad, Alice Cooper, and all those great bands. We’re just proud to be a part of that.
Dannis Hackney – Definitely. Just coming out of Detroit alone gives you a step up, you know? Because a lot of people respect Detroit for its music. There’s been a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, a lot of soul music that came out of Detroit. We’re just lucky to have come out of that in the “good days,” when the factory was teeming, and business was teeming, and Detroit was a really vibrant city. We were blessed enough to take part in all of that, and still last, and come out here and do our thing. So, this multi-generational thing to me, man, is just great.
Bobbie Duncan – It’s amazing that the audience – it’s fresh and new to them and they treat it as such, and you can tell from the response that it’s refreshing to them, you know? We’ll get so many comments, people come up to us, come up to the brothers, and the inspiration these guys give to people, carrying the torch for so many years and bringing it to fruition. I feel honored to be on the sidelines and in the middle of it at the same time, and have the chance to feel the freedom of what we do.
Jamie – That’s so great. So now you have the new record, N.E.W., which came out this year. What is it like for you to play these new songs and mix them in with the original material you wrote with your brother?
DH – You know what that feels like? I don’t want to change the mood on you, but but it’s like the good lord has reached down and blessed us enough to come through all of this generational stuff and still be able to do our thing. To us, that’s such a blessing. We’re going to ride that until extinction. We’re very lucky to be able do that.
BH – We’re fresh and new. We’re going to make good rock ‘n’ roll. That’s why we call it N.E.W.. It’s fresh and new. It’s a continuation of our story on the musical side.
DH – And I just want to thank my brother Dave. If he had not set the precedent for this, we would not be here, ok? I wish you guys could have known David the way we know David.
BH – But you do know David if you know his music.
Jamie – It’s an incredible legacy.
BH – He always talked about the vibe. That meant a lot more sometimes than anything else.
Jamie – I remember the first time I heard your first record […For the Whole World to See] I had goosebumps. I think that as long as you’re interested in music, those days when you get goosebumps is where it’s at.
DH – That’s it. That’s something Quincy Jones once said. “If the music gives you goosebumps, then it will give everyone else goosebumps.”
BH – I think we feel that because we want more people to feel what we feel—all the fun we have playing this rock ‘n’ roll music. When we practice for our shows, there’s nobody in the room with us. There could be a million people there, but because we just have such good times doing it, it’s a really good feeling. Being away from it for so long and coming back to it just double-underlines that to us. We can testify to the fact that rock ‘n’ roll never leaves you. You come back to rock ‘n’ roll.
Jamie – Somewhere like Riot Fest where there are so many genres and scenes are represented, where do you think Detroit music fits in?
BD – Detroit’s always been known for Detroit Motown, Detroit soul… it’s always been a bright and hopeful sound. It’s a forward movement. Think back in your mind, it’s always been forward. It’s always like, “This is the way it should be.”
DH – I think that was a blessing that was given to us by none other than Berry Gordy himself, because he said that his sound was “The sound of young America,” and he was able to transcend all the boundaries and I think he blessed a lot of local musicians when he said those words because most of us took it to heart.
BH – When you’re playing good music, there are no boundaries.