Four years ago, the New York Times published one of the most rock and roll stories of all time about a band that never found sex, drugs, fortune, or fame. That band was Death, made up of three black brothers from Detroit—Dannis, David and Bobby Hackney—who in the early 70s made music with all the machinations of punk rock, years before the Ramones broke onto the scene as genre pioneers. In the beginning, Motown record companies agreed the demo was worthy. Clive Davis came knocking with a record deal. But one hardcore and ultimately insurmountable hiccup prevented Columbia from cutting a record. David, the leader of the band, who had written the songs and created the band’s concept in response to their father’s passing, refused to change the name. And America, still exiting the Vietnam War and ramping up for the disco, disco 70s was not in the zone for morbidity, or so the record companies believed. After years of endless rejection trying to make it on their own, the brothers put the masters in the attic and all was forgotten. Before his death in 2000, David said one day the world would come knocking and a decade later with the discovery of their two singles “Politicians In My Eyes” and “Keep On Knocking” the band’s 1974 demo tape was released as a full length album “…For the Whole World to See.” Since 2009, Filmmakers Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino have been tracking the story down to its roots. Last Friday, A Band Called Death, their documentary, premiered in theaters. Read on for more on the near-legendary band and the two men who beat out Mos Def to make the most captivating music documentary of the year.
So how did you two hear about a band called Death?
JEFF: Through Bobby Jr. He came up to me and he said, “Me and my brothers have a band Rough Francis and we’re going to be covering my father’s music.” I had assumed they were covering Lambsbread, Dannis and Bobby Sr.’s reggae band, and he said, “Oh no, no, no. Come check it out.” So I went and I was completely blown away. Just being a musician, there’s amazing craftsmanship behind the music, but seeing the boys playing their father’s music and honoring their father and seeing Bob there so emotional, I knew there was something very special. Shortly thereafter, the album came out and the Times piece followed. I had shot an interview around that time with Bobby Jr. just going over the Death story and what he knew about it, and I knew at that point that we had to do a documentary. That’s when I emailed my buddy Mark.
MARK: Long story short, Jeff had shot this interview with Bobby Jr. down by the waterfront and told me he was trying to do this short little documentary about this band called Death. It kind of went in one ear and out the other because I was trying to wrap up my own feature length documentary. I was kind of burnt out on docs. I completely blew it off for 2 weeks, then I read his email and, of course, the New York Times article blew me away. When I heard the two tracks, “Politicians In My Eyes” and “Keep On Knocking,” I fell out of my seat. I called Jeff back immediately and I said, “You’re crazy to want to do a 20 minute doc. We have to go out and do the feature length rockumentary.”
There must be a certain fear when making a music documentary to have it be the just some talking heads, a Behind the Music type of glossy end product. Were you worried about that?
JEFF: At first that was what we were going for, but when we sat down and talked about it, we realized there was so much more to it and so many archival photos that we were able to come up with through family members. At that point, it just really wrote itself.
Was there anyone else who vied for the story? Did you have exclusive rights?
MARK: Essentially, we had exclusive rights. There was a brief period of time where there was some interest from Mos Def in making a documentary on them. He had done some press, I think for FILTER magazine, and we ended up seeing his crew one or two times and that kind of fizzled away once Jeff and I cut a movie trailer for everything that we had done. His whole crew kind of disappeared after that. I don’t know what happened.
You scared them off.
MARK: [Laughs] I guess so. It’s a good thing too.
The Hackney brothers seemed to be very calm about letting that huge Columbia Records opportunity go. And if there was resentment or regret it was very well handled, I thought. Do you think that’s because they were so far removed from that history?
JEFF: In the film, it touches on it. After all the failure and rejection that they went through, they just said, “Let’s just put this up in the attic. Let’s forget about it.” Honestly, they never opened up to the kids about this band until 2008. And knowing the kids all these years, I’d see them at punk shows. Bobby Jr. had a band called Common Ground that put out two 7” and full length. It’s surprising. Even if it was, as Bobby mentioned, just rock and roll, he never pulled it out and said, “Hey guys check it out.” They just thought of it as a rejected piece in their formative years.
For a band with only a few years in the spotlight, so many famous musicians were willing to speak to you. Were people like Alice Cooper and Henry Rollins eager to talk?
MARK: We had heard through friends or interviews that they had done, that they knew about the band and that they were fans. And we knew right off the bat that to get the Death story out to a mass public that we would have to get names in the film that people could connect with. We knew Elijah Wood was a fan. He had connections to Burlington, so he would come and spin the Death 45. For the most part, it was a combination Jeff and our producers going through publicists and managers and getting in these interviews after we found out that they knew who the band was and that they had something to say.
What’s the next story for you two?
MARK: I have just had a successful run on Kickstarter for raising money with my film. It’s a documentary called The Crest, about two Irish American cousins who live on opposite coasts on the US and recently learned about each others existence through a family invitation to come retrace their heritage in the Blasket Islands, right off the west coast of Ireland. They’re also both surfers, and ironically, one of them shaves surfboards, one of them paints them. Considering their ancestors are from the islands where the surf is a crucial part of living and crossing the water, their plan was to take some boards there, paint a couple of them right next to the house of the king of those islands, their relative, and go surfing. We just finished filming all that.
JEFF: I’m working on a documentary about the world’s hottest pepper and a company located here in South Carolina that has basically cross-hybridized habanero peppers to make a one that’s hotter than the quote un-quote hottest. They have one now called the Reaper. So it’s about that and the community that surrounds it—bloggers and folks that are really into hot pepper scene. The owners of the company were just on CBS News two days ago, talking about how habanero peppers could potentially cure cancer.
MARK: Tell her the name of the pepper company.
JEFF: It’s called Puckerbutt. It’s a great title too. I think I’m going to call it Puckerbutt: The Movie.
Has Death opened doors for the both of you?
MARK: I don’t think I would have been able to have a successful run with our Kickstarter if it wasn’t for success of A Band Called Death. I think for sure, it’s always going to be there to give us a leg up to say these guys know what they’re doing, which I’m very grateful for. It was never my intention to make a film that’d do that. It was always my intention to just make a good film, but I think it’s always going to be there to help Jeff and me.
JEFF: Definitely. The Puckerbutt owners just turned down having a reality TV show about the company. The owner said to like, “I want you to make my film.” That feels good—building trust as a filmmaker with your subjects. I would not have had that without making this film.
How does it feel to on the end of the ride?
MARK: Even though it’s being released in theaters, it’s kind of sad to feel like it’s nearing the end of its run, even though it’s just the start at the same time.
JEFF: I think it’s just going to open a whole new chapter for the folks who haven’t heard of the band at all. Going into this project, I just wanted to help the band. I wanted to make something so that they could show people, “This is who we are.”