A Band Called Death has one of the best stories you'll see in a movie this year. Or next year. Or any year. It's almost too good to be true, but it all really happened.
On the surface it seems like just a simple documentary about, well, a band from the '70s who called themselves Death. They were never a big deal, but they should have been. They were a trio of brothers (Bobby, Dannis and David Hackney) living in Detroit who were playing punk music before punk was even a thing. They predated the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, but unfortunately they were never able to break out. No one was interested in watching black teenagers play heavy, fast "white-boy music" in the home of Motown, and, on top of that, no one wanted to book a group with such a morbid name. Defeated by constant rejection, the band faded away.
One of the brothers never fully gave it up, though. David gave Bobby their master tapes and pleaded that he please keep them safe because he insisted that some day the world was going to come looking for them. David passed away not long after that, and Bobby and Dannis once again put Death behind them. What happened next is just downright incredible. A professional screenwriter couldn't top it if they tried.
A Band Called Death is about so much more than a band that was ahead of its time. It's about a family who believed in one another even when no one else did, and whose story ended up continuing long after they thought no one was paying attention. It was our honor to sit down with the surviving members of Death (Bobby, Dannis and their new guitar player, Bobbie Duncan) to talk about their remarkable journey, and we highly, highly recommend you catch A Band Called Death on VOD or in theaters to share in it as well.
Movies.com: When did you first start to notice a resurgence of interest in Death?
Bobby Hackney Sr.: It was right around 2007, 2008. Me and Dannis had been doing reggae for 20 years and we had had some marginal success, but it had come to a point where we were kind of looking at our direction. We were thinking about toning down and redefining and doing some other things, and all of a sudden we find out our Death music from Detroit is being discovered. And at the time we were thinking, oh, that's nice. But we had no idea what we were in for. That was the time we were really beginning to feel it was something that was going to be significant. Especially when the New York Times did the piece on us and came to our house and Robert Manis, the record collector, flew in. We began to feel, "You know, if people are taking the time to actually come do this, maybe something bigger is going on."
Movies.com: Did you feel like you needed to start managing Death again? Were you guys pushing the band, or were people just asking for it on their own?
Dannis Hackney: Everybody was just coming, man!
Bobby Hackney: We just kind of answered the call as to what we saw was going on.
Dannis Hackney: That's when we initially heard what Robert Manis was doing we thought, man, who would pay $800 for an old "Politicians in Our Eyes" record? And then we started to feel it. Up in [Bobby's] office, he'd be getting calls from record collectors--
Bobby Hackney: During our reggae days I'd get calls every now and then from people in California saying, "Do you have any Fourth Movement records or any Death records?" And I didn't understand why they were interested. I'm thinking these are just people who like to collect old things, and I kind of played them off. We never knew the gist of it until my son gave me that call and said he was in San Francisco and that people were playing our music in underground parties and they're going crazy over it. I just couldn't put it all together.
Movies.com: After Death first dissipated, did you guys track other bands and say, "Hey, we did that first!"
Dannis Hackney: No, we just put it away and forgot about it. It was sort of a bad dream. Once David took the tapes to [Bobby's attic] and said, "Keep these tapes, Bob, because the world is going to come looking for these one day." and he just thought, oh, great, another thing to keep, but he took them anyway. And that's how the stuff just kept piling up in the attic, because Bob's the keeper. I'm not the sentimental type, so Dave was like "I'm not giving them to you!" He knew Bob could keep them.
To go back to your other question, they really did just keep coming. It was first the call from Julian, and then the record collector made us put our head up a little more, then the call from Drag City, because Robert Manis had taken the tunes to Drag City. They wanted to know if there was more music, and once they started looking, they found out that we were the two guys left and were playing reggae up in Vermont but still had these tapes up in an attic. And then [Bobby's son], who is the leader of the Rough Francis band, heard it, and they went through some changes. They started to be a tribute band, and that's when me and Bob were like, "Whoa, wait a minute. Something's cooking. We need to dig in and see what's happening."
[Bobby] talked to Robert Manis, who came up to Vermont to see us. Everybody was, I guess, looking for us. Then Drag City came along and all of a sudden there was talk of contracts and this and that. And Lambsbread just kept getting pushed out of the way, and Death just... boom! It dropped on us, and we dropped it on Bobbie [Duncan]! The first practice was me and Bobby on the side of the studio, crying like girls.
Bobby Hackney: I think one reason we kept the music almost a family secret was because we faced so much rejection in Detroit that me and Dannis were of the mind-set that if we played it for somebody, they'd say "Oh, I can see why nobody liked you guys." But David, who was always fixated on the name, always said, "When they find out what we're doing with the music, that's going to change everything." That's what this whole story is about. The music has come and overshadowed the whole name issue.
Dannis Hackney: That's what made Dave more special than just a guitar player.
Bobby Hackney: And that's what made our union more special than just brothers in a band.
Dannis Hackney: When someone tells you something and it comes true, you just have to let it change you. They interviewed Wayne Kramer for the movie, and we saw his interview and him saying, "We know everything that's happening in music, and this is too perfect. Someone had to make this up." But, it's a real story. We're still here.
Movies.com: Have you guys been approached by anyone to turn your story into an actual biopic?
Bobby Hackney: Yes and no. We did finish a manuscript. There's a book that has more details than even the movie. Scott Mossier has read this manuscript and is very supportive of it. He's assisted in trying to help us get it published. That could happen, we don't know. But we have also been told it would make a great feature film, so we'll just have to see. Right now we're the unwitting characters in this thing. It's like our brother David is operating this whole thing from somewhere beyond.
Dannis Hackney: It's almost like he's saying, "Just hold on boys, let's go for a ride."
Bobby Hackney: I mean, how do you find a guitar player like Bobbie? We're living in Vermont – and all due respect to Vermont, we love it, we raised our kids there – but, and this is what people in Vermont say to us, "You do realize Vermont is the whitest state in the union, right?" For us to find a guy like this in Vermont... it was a spiritual thing. And he completes the picture for what we're doing now. And then we went to his house in Queens!
We were in Queens on some other Death business and we said, "Hey, let's go see Bobbi's house, where he used to live." It's unbelievable. When we went to his house, we pulled up and out of all – this long block of houses – the only house with two triangles on it was his house. And he gets out of the car and is gone because he's excited to be back in his old digs, and Dannis and I are just stuck in the car, staring at the triangles. We were like, "David has been here, man!" Because David was obsessed with triangles. Obsessed! And his house was the only house on the block with triangles on it. We know now that David was instrumental in us finding this guy.
With Lambsbread, we were always able to find a good keyboard player, or horn player, or anything we wanted to find, was no problem. But we always had a hard time finding a guitar player. And David told us when we were first started Lambsbread, he told us "You guys will never find another guitar player like me!" So he put that curse on us! For 20 years, the guitar was always the problem. There were always issues with the guitar players, so we're glad he somehow picked Bobbie for us.
Bobbie Duncan: It was nine or so years ago, and I had no inkling to leave New York City yet alone move to Vermont. But my parents went up there and so did my sister, so that's what prompted me to go up there after my mom passed away. Next thing I know I meet these guys. We start playing reggae and jazz, then Death came down on us like whoa!
Bobby Hackney: Bobbie had a good analogy. Because we'd been doing Lambsbread for so many years, and we were winding down. And Bobbie said, "It's like when you're married to someone for years, and you're drifting apart, and then you get pregnant and it's like bam!" And now everyone is just helping us usher the baby into the world, and I just want to tell everyone, thank you. Thank you for assisting in the birth.
A Band Called Death is now available on iTunes, VOD and digital download. It's also in select theaters. You will love it. Also, here's a free download of a demo recording of "Politicians in My Eyes" from 1974: