Good stories and good beats: Proto-punk innovators DEATH open up about N.E.W., their first album since the 1970s

The story of Death and their late founder David Hackney has become near legendary following the ’70s Detroit band’s rediscovery and a series of reissues.

With the 2012 documentary A Band Called Death covering the story of Hackney’s brothers and bandmates Bobby and Dannis reactivating the group, with their Lambsbread bandmate Bobbie Duncan replacing David on guitar, the only remaining question was if any more music would result. The answer is due in late April on Drag City: N.E.W., consisting of both unreleased songs from David and new efforts from the current trio, is the first proper album release of their career. Like their music from the start, it’s not punk as stereotype but the kind of brash, swift and still swinging hard rock that builds off their roots and Detroit background.

Interviewed over the phone via their homebase in Burlington, Vermont, the three band members convey the same feeling of enthusiasm, good humor and reflection familiar to anyone who has seen the film or their shows in recent years, and while the story of the group is now much more well known, it hasn’t yet ended by any means. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

The PR indicates that N.E.W. is a mix of songs, old and new, and one of the songs had been released as a single three years ago I think — ‘Relief’, it was?

Bobby Hackney: That was kind of the starting point, we released that as kind of a thank you to the fans who come out to see us play. So as we were working on the album, we had these two songs finished that we were really excited about and we said, “Hey, why don’t we just do a limited edition and give everybody a preview of what we’re doing in the studio?” And it was really well-received. It set the tone for the album that we have coming out now.

When it came time to record the songs, did you feel like this was the first time that Death could properly make a record? Or did you just want to capture the spirit of how you did the original recordings?

Bobby Hackney: Oh, yeah, definitely. It wasn’t about proper recording. What we really wanted to do was to capture that same magic that we got at United Sound in Detroit in 1975, and we were true to that. So we went into a state-of-the-art studio, we recorded the album as a band — as opposed to, say, the drum track being laid down and us building layers on top of that. We recorded it just the way we did at United Sound. We loved the spirit, the vibe of the record, because what you hear is a performance of us really playing. When you hear the bass, the guitar, and the drums, the foundation of the album in every song — that’s all of us playing together.

One thing that really struck me about the performances on this album, which is also the case with many of the earlier recordings, is how clearly you’re getting the lyrics across. There’s always this sense that whatever’s being sung is being delivered, that you can’t miss it. Is that something very conscious or just simply the way it comes out in the recording?

Bobby Hackney: Back when we first started writing songs for Death, David would have a song and he would always just play the guitar or have the music worked out. For instance, ‘At The Station’, David wrote the music for that and he said, “Bob, this song is about the station of life, because we’re all at the station, man.” Just like a train station, you know. Like, some people are going to be late. Some people don’t believe the train is coming, and then all of a sudden the train is here. Others are going to be playing around and miss the train. He said, “That’s just like the station of life,” so “at the station,” that’s where that concept came from. So we always talked about what the songs mean, and I think that helped to make the words come out a little more clear.

Bobbie Duncan: Also, we believe in a story with the songs, so there’s always a story there. It’s more than just music. Yeah, maybe we do pay a little more attention to making sure the vocals are clear, because just like any classic song, you remember the words — or at least the melody or the hook. If you can’t hear that hook, the song’s lost. So you’ve got to have a strong hook and you have to have a story behind it. Just like the great songs, like the Rolling Stones, ‘Satisfaction’. Listen to the story in that. Every Motown song was a story, and that’s what people gravitate to. I think the science to it is to put a really good story to a really good beat. That’s the secret to making good records.

Bobby Hackney: Yeah, man. The Beatles wrote some of the greatest stories, you know? Some of their songs — when you hear ‘Eleanor Rigby’, you actually see it.

Bobbie Duncan: It could bring a tear to your eye, especially stuff like that. That’s what we kind of focus on, not just playing and singing songs and everything, but you can tell, if you listen to Bob’s lyrics, they’re saying something to somebody. It’s not just a scream, you know? Even the screams mean something, instead of just an effect. So again, we take pride in putting the story down. We want to make sure you hear it. It makes no sense to put the story down if you can’t hear it.

Bobbie Duncan, a question specifically for you: the film spoke very eloquently about how you took the spirit of David in terms of performance, and now you’re here recording with that. Is it a question of balance or just integration about what you bring and what you’re carrying forward from David’s own spirit and creation?

Bobbie Duncan: Great question. I had this one phrase I thought as a young man playing, doing music — it’s called bringing it to yourself. And it’s hard to explain. But I listen to David and his work, and he’s a phenomenal guitar player. Something he was saying — his phrasing, his voices — he had a certain color to that. So without losing myself, I just really started mimicking him to a certain extent, but still maintained my own thing. There were certain things David would do which were quite unique. I’d been playing for a while, but I had to sit down and listen to what he was doing for a minute, you know? Like any musician, you’re going to learn a new record, you’re going to learn a new song, and eventually you’re going to start injecting yourself. So I do embellish, but I try to keep it — especially on the songs that David and Bob wrote — as pure, as close to the message he was trying to send with his guitar as possible, just to convey what he was trying to say, and doing it in my way in a sense too, but really just trying to stick to what he was doing. And songs that I wrote myself, I was just trying to be true to the groove, man.

Is there one particular song of the ones that you wrote from the album that stands out for you as, “I nailed it”? “I’ve got it right here”?

Bobbie Duncan: Let me tell you, man, they’re all a blessing. We all love our children. I just hope that people like the songs as much as we do. We want the whole album to be heard, and that’s what it’s all about. I think we painted a picture by placing the songs in the right places. As a matter of fact, if you look at the titles, Bob had this thing — if you look at the titles of the song, actually, the titles of the song are in a sequence where it actually says something. What’s it say, Bobby?

Bobby Hackney: Well, when we put together the whole album, and then looking at the lyrics and looking at the song titles, it was amazing. We almost thought that we had help from David, because this is one of the crazy things that he would do. But if you look at the song titles they kind of read like a brief synopsis of all of our lives. Basically, it starts off with ‘Relief’, and what we say is, “If you want relief, look at your life” — which is the second song. It’s the story of the world and the times that we’re living in. It’s playtime right now, but remember, we’re at the station, where we must ask ourselves, “Who am I?” You are what you think, waiting for the resurrection which will bring about the change. It’s quite a concept. It’s one of those crazy things that worked out — we always look at David as being our guiding spirit. And we don’t know what goes on in that afterlife, but David really talked about that. And we always said that if there’s anybody that could penetrate the spirit and give us the message, it would be David [laughs].

Bobbie Duncan: We didn’t intentionally put it together like that, see? The album just got burned that way, and one day Bob looked at it and said, “What is the story here?” And that’s how that came out — that’s how that other hand might be touching things.

The title of the album is apparently short for something — may I ask what that is?

Bobby Hackney: Well, you know what? That’s our rock ‘n’ roll mystery, man. What does N.E.W. mean to you? N.E.W. means something to everybody. To me, I think Now Eternal World, but for somebody else, it might be something different. So that’s just a rock ‘n’ roll acronym, man. Everybody can apply their own.

When I was listening to the album, one thing that stuck out at me — this may seem like a really strange comparison point, but maybe it doesn’t. I was thinking of Wayne Kramer from the MC5, his solo albums of the mid-nineties.

Bobby Hackney: Wow. I love Wayne.

Dannis Hackney: I love Wayne. Yeah.

Bobby Hackney: You’re talking about one of our mentors that we grew up with.

Dannis Hackney: We grew up listening to Wayne and the MC5.

Bobby Hackney: There’s some people who, all you’ve got to do is say their name and I think about Detroit. And Wayne is just one of them, you know? And the MC5. So that’s a compliment! We really appreciate that.

It was funny. When I was rewatching the film the other day, I saw his name in the credits, and I was like, “Wait a minute. Was he in the film?” And I just couldn’t remember —

Bobby Hackney: You know what? I don’t know why, but they didn’t put him in, man. But it’s now one of the best outtakes that everybody talks about in the film, so they released it as an outtake. You’ll see — what he said was really crucial, man. We love Wayne Kramer.

Let me end on this question: the story has now gotten to this part, continuing on from the rediscoveries to the touring and now to here. If there’s something still you’d like to accomplish or just something that would be a logical or spiritual next step, what do you think that would be?

Bobby Hackney: Oh, man.

Dannis Hackney: Maybe playing in China.

Bobby Hackney: Yeah. Some of the places that we haven’t been to, like London, like China, like Japan. But for the most part, we would like to go on an excursion with some of the top-notch bands, man. Let’s play some rock ‘n’ roll, man. Let’s take it to the stage. Let’s make it happen.

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