Discovering A Band Called Death

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews, Music
Filmmakers Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett on finding the Hackney brothers, their unknown legacy, and what’s in a name.

A lot of the chatter around A Band Called Death has described the film’s subject as “protopunk.” Formed by three brothers from Detroit the in mid ’70s, there was nothing protopunk about Death. From their unmarketable name and music, which sounds like it bypassed Johnny Rotten’s pantomime straight to DC hardcore a decade before that became renowned, to their complete obscurity for decades, these guys were the real deal. While little remains of the band—two of the brothers, a few songs, and a lot of hype—A Band Called Death tries to give a fleeting sense of the band’s power. I talk to directors Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett about the making of the documentary and sheding light on a forgotten group of pioneers.

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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: I’ll start off with a general question. Why film?

MARK COVINO: Ever since the age of nine, I’ve known filmmaking was for me. It was a school teacher; I kept talking about movies all of the time, I didn’t know what directing was, I didn’t know what filmmaking was in general. I just wanted to make movies. And she told me, “you sound like a director, that’s what you want to be.” So from the age of nine, I knew my main goal in life was to direct movies. Through high school I would make little short films, instead of writing papers, I’d make short films to get out of writing and then when I graduated I was lucky enough to work on a feature film right out of high school. That was a crash course on working on a big set. It was on that set I was told about going to college, a film school in Vermont, that was around where I was living at the time. Basically my whole life I’ve been making movies.

BG: How did you end up working together?

MC: You know what’s weird? Jeff and I both went to the same film college. We never met at that college. Jeff when did you go?

JEFF HOWLETT: I went two times. I’m the old fart. I went in 1991-93, I got a degree in psychology, and then I later went after Mark went in 2006. I went again in 2007-2009 for film so I got in the game a lot later than Mark. I grew up as a musician. That’s how I met the Hackneys [the three brothers who made up Death]. That was 20 years ago. They were in a reggae band and I was in a hard rock band and we met at a Vermont music festival.

MC: I met Jeff, around the time he was graduating, he was making a couple of music videos around town. One of my friends who was the director of photography on one of the music videos asked me to come on board as an AD. So, I came on board, and I met Jeff. I think it was on the set of that that Jeff told me about the story of Death.

MC: Were you aware of Death before you met the Hackneys?

JH: No, I definitely was not. I had known them for 20 years, and I sort of felt the same way that Julian [Hackney, son of Bobby Hackney Sr.] mentioned in the film, “Dad, why didn’t you tell us you were in this amazing band?” You know, being a fan of the MC5, the Stooges, the Who, Dead Kennedys later, and of course stuff like Minor Threat, all of that ’80s punk stuff, I found out when I went to the Monkey House show in 2008, I really knew there was something pretty phenomenal about what was going on. It was music I had already heard before. When I first heard ‘Keep On Knocking’ it was so familiar, I had heard the 7” before. But I hadn’t. Or maybe I had, but I doubt it. To hear it fresh, to hear Rough Francis [the sons’ band] play it live, I thought it was absolutely amazing. Later, turning Mark onto it about the time the New York Times article came about, I had shot an interview and thought, “man I really need some help on it, it’s a bigger story here. I can’t do it all by myself.” I had worked with Mark before and he came on board.

BG: They sound nothing like protopunk, in fact it’s almost as if they bypassed to ’80s punk. How did you feel knowing this stuff came from the early ’70s?

JH: I was blown away. Just to hear that music at that pace and at that time. We’re talking ’74, ’75. That’s out of the element. You get some upbeat stuff, some outright rocky stuff, but you don’t get the syncopation of rhythm, what Dannus was doing on drums, the vocal delivery of Bobby at that point in time. Later, the Black Flag album and Bad Brains, you got that more syncopated, fast rhythmic delivery, but at that point in time, I can’t think of any band that had that sense of rhythm and vocals, and obviously guitar. Just the whole sound together at that pace.

BG: Why were they ignored? The documentary makes a lot about the name. Were there any other reasons Death never got the kudos?

MC: They lived in the town of Motown and not a lot of their friends and relatives were into that music at all. I don’t even know if they had heard that type of music until Death played it. They were pretty much just shunned because of their sound, not because of their name. I know they didn’t really play many live shows because of that, they might have played…

JH: They did some backyard shows and stuff.

MC: But that was the extent of it, and Ann Arbor. The audience at that point wasn’t getting what they were receiving. They were told, “you guys can stop, you’ve been paid, you can leave.”

BG: Given they were so ignored, was it a difficult task for you as documentary makers without any primary footage?

JH: It was very hard at first. We didn’t know what we were going to do at the very beginning. There was no footage that existed of them at all, except for this one 4th Movement [the brothers’ gospel rock band after Death] that you see in the film and this tape of David you see playing guitar. But other than that, all that we had was hundreds and hundreds of family photos. I personally travelled from Vermont, to Detroit, to Cleveland, scanning as many photos as we could. We got lucky. We brought him to life with this company Stellar Hawk out of Florida who did this pretty amazing job adding 3-D effects to him.

BG: How keen were the remaining Hackney members to be on the documentary?

MC: They were very into it. They were willing to give us the goods and talk about this entire history of their lives. The only thing they weren’t too interested at first was talking about David Hackney’s dark years. Being an alcoholic, and not being a successful musician, they really didn’t want to talk about that. It took about a year and a half of interviews until they finally opened up about it. That kind of history really hurt them; it brought back too many dark memories.

BG: Obviously the sons were very keen to see their Dad’s work. They were very keen to be involved too?

JH: Oh yeah, their sons had been actively playing punk rock for as long as I can remember. Bobby Jr., he’d been playing in bands probably from the time he was 11 or 12. Punk rock bands. For almost 20 years he’s been playing that music. For him, and his brothers too, they had all grown up playing punk rock, they were all really shocked the subject was never brought up. When you think about it, all of the rejection they [Death] went through and they talked about, it sort of makes sense. Well, “we got to a point, we did what we could do, but it was something we didn’t want to present to our sons.” It wasn’t until their interest of, “Dad, we want to hear that stuff, why didn’t you tell me about all of this,” that it sort of validated they were something special.

BG: Was it bittersweet making a film about essentially the driving force behind the project, who no longer was there to see it?

MC: It was definitely interesting. During the making of the film, being somebody—I’m talking about myself here—who doesn’t believe in God and doesn’t believe in the afterlife, I always felt David’s spirit was here with me. I always felt like he was there, standing over my shoulder, saying, “that’s right, you’re getting a good shot, that’s the right question to ask.” It’s strange to see this movie with the family, and cry with the family and feel David’s story.

BG: He looms large throughout the film. Was he a difficult character to put across to an audience?

MC: I don’t think it was too difficult because I feel like there was a lot inside of David that people can relate to. Or at least I could relate to. Every single movement David made in his life was probably a movement I would have made. Being so passionate about his art—and I’m very passionate about filmmaking—there was definitely a lot to relate to and it made it easier for an audience to relate when they were watching our film.

BG: What’s next?

MC: I’m currently in production on my new documentary. It’s a short doco on two Irish-American cousins, who learned about each other through a family invitation to go back to Ireland, and who revisit Ireland on the Blasket Islands, which is where their ancestor are from. Both of them are related to this King of the Blasket Islands, and not only did they just learn about each other for the first time, they’re also both surfers—one in San Diego shapes surfboards, and the one in Cape Cod paints them. One of them brought two boards he shaped over in San Diego, and the other painted them right next to the King’s house, and they both took these boards out and surfed the water of their ancestors. It’s almost completed and we’re both doing minor shooting here and there. It’s called the Crest. (crestmovie.com)

BG: Are you gratified to see the Death story become this big thing, in terms of people talking about the band?

MC: It’s very warming. All of the time Jeff and I made this film, our main intention was to make this great movie that would get this story out, so that people would discover this band who they hadn’t even known had existed before. Jeff’s original intention was just to get the word out about the band. It’s great to see the response, to see that people loved the film, and want to know more about the band. As a filmmaker myself, it’s great to finally make a film that got out there. I’ve been struggling for 13 years to get a film out there. This is the first one.

A Band Called Death’ screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.