Dannis Hackney used to call Death — the mid-70s protopunk band he formed with brothers David and Bobby Hackney — “the greatest band that never was.” But as “A Band Called Death,” a documentary about the Detroit trio’s history and late 00s rediscovery, hits theaters this week, Death is very much a living proposition.
Directed by Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino and shown at the Los Angeles and South By Southwest film festivals, “A Band Called Death” chronicles the Hackney’s journey and misadventures as a raw, all-black rock band that had nearly ever single door closed in its face, from record labels to rock clubs. There’s tragedy in oldest brother David’s death from lung cancer in 2000 but a happy ending as a 2008 discovery of Death’s obscure, self-released single “Politicians in My Eyes” set in motion a chain of events that led to the release of two Death albums — “…For the Whole World to See” in 2009 and the demos collection “Spiritual*Mental*Physical” in 2011, both by Drag City Records — and the rebirth of Death as a touring concern with Bobbie Duncan, who’s also the guitarist Bobby and Dannis Hackney’s reggae band Lambsread in Vermont, where they now reside.
The group recently came home to play Metallica’s Orion Music + More festival on Detroit’s Belle Isle. It’s released a new single, “Relief,” with plans for a full album soon, while Third Man Records unearthed an early single the original Death trio recorded as Rockfire Funk Express.
“To have all this happening is unbelievable, but it’s bittersweet,” singer-bassist Bobby Hackney tells Billboard. “It’s very emotional for us. We get emotional right from the opening shot (of the movie). We just wish David was here to see this and enjoy everything that’s going on.” It was David, in fact, who handed Bobby all of Death’s master recordings for safekeeping before his death . “He said to me, ‘One day the world’s going to want to hear this and come looking for it. And when they do, you’ll have it. Once the record comes out… man, that’s going to change everything.’ I think about that a lot with everything that’s happened to us the last few years.”
Dannis says that he “can’t watch (the movie) too much. I get too emotional.” Both Hackneys are happy to have their story on screen, however. “That was a good experience” says Dannis, adding that Howlett and Covino “worked really hard. I would be watching these guys and they would actually put their lives on the line to get certain shots. Those guys are crazier than musicians! But we had a good time doing it, and the film crew was sometimes traveling with the band and it was a lot of fun to do.” Bobby adds that the documentary duo “really got into the heart of our story and into the spiritual and mental and physical aspect of brother David so much, and that really became the gateway for opening up the story regarding our whole family.”
“A Band Called Death,” which won an Audience Award at South By Southwest, begins showing Thursday (June 27) in Miami, then opens the next day in 13 more cities, including Detroit. Additional openings are scheduled into September, and the film is also available on various cable On Demand services and online at iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube and more. A full list is available at the www.drafthousefilms.com web site.