Jeff Howlett, a Band Called Death and a Bag of Chips
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The music of the once-arcane Detroit rock trio Death foretold the future of punk music in the early ’70s through knifing guitar riffs and a pugnacious adherence to ideology, but some of frontman and guitarist David Hackney’s last words to his bandmate brothers would prove the most prophetic: “One day the world is gonna come looking for this music.” Nearly a decade after he passed from lung cancer in 2000, it did. It came in the form Drag City Records reissuing their recorded catalog and earliest demos, then it came as a New York Times feature on his nephews resurrecting the long-buried work of their father and uncles on stage. Most recently, it has come as A Band Called Death, the result of three years of work by documentarians Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett, a friend of the Hackney family for two decades. The film is a story of family, of tragedy, and of the origins of punk coming clearer into focus, and will screen daily at Geeksboro Coffee Cinema starting July 19-25, with Howlett hosting two in-house Q&As on July 20.
Y!W: You knew Dannis and Bobby Hackney via their reggae band Lambsbread, but were you not aware of their backstory?
JH: I was not. Bobby Jr. came up to me at a punk show at 242 Main in Vermont and asked me to come and see he and his brothers playing their dad’s music. I just assumed it was Lambsbread, but I was blown away. Not that Lambsbread was bad, on the contrary, but I was completely blown out of the water by what I heard. I knew I had to do something and my co-director Mark just jumped
in feet first. When I told him about the New York Times article and the tracks on the Chunklet website, he actually blew me off for three weeks. Tthen he calls me back and says he was completely blown away and was all in. I had already started filming at that point, but I coerced him into spending three years of his life on this, though we didn’t know that at the time.
Y!W: Having known the family for so long, how did you overcome your personal biases to treat it as a documentarian?
JH: When we started, I just sat down with Bobby and said look, you just have to get it out there. We’re going to ask you guys some very difficult questions. I just have to be assured that you’re going to lay it all out there. And they did. They didn’t hold back on anything. They let the honest truth of the band bleed through. It took a while to talk about some of the issues with David, his alcoholism and drug addiction. It wasn’t something they wanted to talk about initially, and it took a couple of interviews, a few actually — probably a year and a half into it. Two of the interviews that thread throughout the film were like 10 to 12 hour interviews. We sat in a room and went through six to eight pages of questions. It was a pretty intense process and we asked some very heavy questions. It was very emotional, for all of us.
Y!W: Did find that the truth came more easily the longer, the more worn down the interviewees were?
JH: It wasn’t so much that they were worn down, we had just developed a really deep trust at that point. We would go over and barbecue and hang out at the house. Bobby will tell you that we became a part of the Hackney family. It’s true that sometimes you try to find a balance — “Should I engage at a deeper level with my subject, or should I hold back?” I think as a viewer of documentaries, you almost can tell when that line is crossed. You get more of a deeper story and we were already really good friends, but we became more so. It’s a risk, sure, but one well rewarded.
Y!W: That’s the Cameron Crowe method.
JH: Definitely, for some films that doesn’t work and production is lost, but whatever. I think for this film it was worth it. It was a natural thing.
Y!W: Keeping concurrent documentaries on the topic of music disinterred from obscurity like Searching for Sugar Man or 20 Feet from Stardom in mind, were you concerned that this would be remembered more as part of a filmmaking trope?
JH: We did not have a clue that that was going on. We just went in to make a film; we don’t know when the Sugar Man film started, but I do know we submitted to Sundance last year at the same time they did and I know they had distribution at that point. There’s probably a lot of comparisons drawn, but really, we just wanted to get the music out there. My first intention was to make a 20- to 30-minute local PBS special just to get it out there.
Y!W: You mention at first they didn’t want to talk about certain things. Near the beginning when you meet their mother, she says, “Oh, we talk about David all the time.” Was part of the challenge just overcoming their reluctance to remember him a certain way?
JH: They always honored David and what he meant to the family. It was always very positive with them and they’re a very positive family. That bleeds through in the film, but that’s them. That is how they are.
Y!W: Their other brother Earl definitely had one of the best laughs I’ve ever heard.
JH: He is unbelievable. When we started to interview him, it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. We were in a hotel room in Detroit. It was the first time we had ever met Earl and we had everything set up for him to come in. That first time he laughed, I wanted to laugh with him, but obviously you don’t want your own laugh in the film so you just had to let him do his thing. I mean, we were just cracking up. His laugh is so infectious it’s hard not to do anything else.
Y!W: I was struck by how David’s presence was magnified through the simple act of rendering the old photos of him into 3D. It made the shift in tone midway through that much more impactful.
JH: We had a bank of photos that the band had given to us and it just made sense. Rich Foster, our editor, cut a rough cut that was basically the framework of the entire piece. We watched it and we were really blown away by it. He had two months and we gave him 200 hours of footage and thousands of photos and he was able to cut basically what you see, which is pretty remarkable. But we saw those images and felt like they needed some breathing, really.
Y!W: Who was the photographer in the family? The images all seem to come from a similar perspective.
JH: We got them from all over the place, different family members, cousins, uncles, you name it. Tammy Hackney took sort of the iconic photo that was used in the New York Times piece. That particular picture is the one that’s on our poster of them getting kicked off the bus en route from Detroit to Vermont with the signature David smoking something, which is why they got kicked off the bus. We asked Dannis about this and said, “What are you holding in your hand there?” Some people think it’s a light, like he’s lighting David’s joint. There was a theory that it was a butterfly in his hand. He said, “No, no man. If you look under my armpit, it was a bag of potato chips. I was hungry.”