In the relationship between music and popular culture, most people will agree that there is no genre as mythically complex and fascinating as Rock ‘n’ Roll. With the ever-present and rarely resolved myriad of urban legends revolving around the genre, fans are hard pressed to tell between fact and fiction in the stories of rock stars or what could have been. But sometimes, the most fascinating and gripping stories about Rock ‘n’ Roll take place outside of the music, such as in the case of A Band Called Death, in limited theaters from Drafthouse Films on June 28th. Providing the audience with an incredible story about family, punk rock and philosophical karma, directors Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett find one of the lost gems of the ‘70s Rock ‘n’ Roll scene, and explore what exactly led them to obscurity and their resurrection in the present. Covino and Howlett were generous enough to speak to Diabolique Magazine about the film, their motivation and the lingering potential of A Band Called Death.
DIABOLIQUE: How did you two first discover the band Death? What inspired you to tell their story, specifically?
JEFF HOWLETT: I actually met Bobby [Hackney] Sr. about twenty years ago. My dad was in a hard rock band and at the time, they were playing with [Bobby’s] band Lambsbread, so they played this show, a Vermont Rock Festival sort of thing assembling Vermont-based musicians. So they played this show and that sort of kicked A Band Called Death off. We’ve communicated over the years, like, “How’s your family doing? How’ve you been?” And then I went to that show that’s actually in the film at The Monkey House, since Bobby [Hackney] Jr. said he had a band called Rough Francis, and that they’d be covering his dad’s music.
So I went and checked the show out, and I had been expecting them to be playing Lambsbread, you know? But they went up and started playing Death’s music, and I was completely floored. I knew there was something special in that music. I didn’t even know it! I grew up in the punk rock scene and I hadn’t even heard about Death since there’s only a finite number of records out there. To hear that music completely blew me away. I’d known this family for over 20 years, and right then, I knew they had a story to tell. So I met up with Mark, showed him the New York Times article and turned him on to the project.
DIABOLIQUE: David Hackney’s refusal to change the name of the band from Death was pivotal to the group’s demise. Objectively speaking, do you agree with David’s decision? Do you think the rediscovery of Death now gives the band a greater appeal in the form of a lost gem rather than if the band had been met with success initially?
HOWLETT: I completely agree with David’s decision, being an artist myself. I know where he was coming from, and his music was his children, and he didn’t want to compromise that. I really respect the decision of sticking to his guns, and that helped make Death’s story pretty remarkable and amazing. But I feel that if Death performed at the right location at the time when they were playing this music back then, things would have been different. They actually would have gotten recognition at the time.
DIABOLIQUE: A Band Called Death found an unusual producer for the project in the way of Kevin Smith’s longtime producing partner, Scott Mosier. How did Mosier board this project? Likewise, how were you able to attract so many celebrity personalities to speak about Death, considering their rediscovery was so recent?
MARK COVINO: Jeff and I spent a year, maybe a year and a half making A Band Called Death out of pocket, and around that time, we decided it’d be a good idea to take all the footage that we had and put together a movie trailer to let people know, “Hey, we’re making a documentary on these guys.” I don’t think it was too long after the trailer hit that Death played South by Soutwest, and then Scott Mosier got a hold of their music, saw the trailer and started tweeting about it. And my friend, Nathan Beaman, who follows celebrities on Twitter a lot started texting me, saying, “Scott Mosier is tweeting about your movie! He wants to know more about it!” So I texted Nate back and said, “Give Scott my email! We’re looking for a producer!” Within an hour, Scott emailed me and that night, Jeff and I were on a conference call. He essentially became our producer overnight.
With all the interviews, especially the ones with bigger names, we knew through word-of-mouth or through interviews online that we’d read. We wanted to showcase that there are fans of the band that people know, and that they’re really into the band through their interviews.
HOWLETT: And also, we were digging deep to find some people. Like Don Swank, who did the artwork on For The Whole World to See when it was released, we had to find him. And also, if we thought, “That’d be a cool one to do,” we’d go after those guys, like Jello Biafra, who is a big record collector himself. They all agreed and they were great interviews. I don’t think I had one interview that was like, “Oh no! Get out of here! We don’t want to talk to you!” Everybody was very receptive to talking about Death, which was really important in telling the story.
DIABOLIQUE: In previous issues of Diabolique Magazine, we’ve discussed the symbiotic nature of horror culture and rock ‘n’ roll, since they both tap into emotional reactions, frenetic energy and people’s primal instincts. Had Death met initial success, do you think their live shows would have been more in line with more theatrical performers, like The Who, Alice Cooper and MC5, or would they have been strictly business, like many of the hardcore punk bands they preceded?
HOWLETT: That’s an intriguing question, actually. I know personally, from speaking with [David’s wife] Heidi [Hackney], I learned that David had stage-fright and he didn’t like to perform in front of people. That’s one reason why Death didn’t perform in a lot of places back when they were playing that music. I think that held them back as much as the name change. I think it’s interesting. If they did play at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit, what would have happened? I don’t know. I think it’s one of those questions we’ll never get answers to.
DIABOLIQUE: Even though David had tapes hidden away, Death only released so much music that was mastered and mixed properly. How did you go about acquiring the rights to use that music? Were you afraid of overusing any particular song in the documentary?
HOWLETT: There’s actually a ton of music that isn’t in the documentary that’s been discovered, which I think is in one of our deleted scenes. Death has a ton of music that’s not even released yet on those demo tapes. Obviously, we went through the process of licensing everything properly through their current label, Drag City Records. We licensed everything through the band or the label.
But, Death has a ton of other music that hasn’t been released that will, hopefully, one day be out there, and there is more to come of unreleased material. There’s actually some of the Rock Fire Funk Express stuff out on Jack White’s label, Third Man Records, which dropped late last month, actually.
DIABOLIQUE: Since this tale is not only close to you both but also to the Hackney family, was there any territory in the subject matter that you didn’t necessarily want to encroach upon?
HOWLETT: Personally, I wanted to get it all out. I wanted the band to be as honest as possible. There were certain things that we shot that didn’t make the cut that were personal with the family. The Hackney family has been through a lot over the years, and we had enough to pull heart-strings with the audience. We didn’t need more, so we cut back there, but I didn’t want to hold back on any of the story. I wanted it all out there, but you can only make a movie so long.
DIABOLIQUE: A Band Called Death seems to have had a long, strange process in becoming a reality. Did the final film end up matching your original vision for the documentary?
COVINO: Well, what threw me for a loop was that the documentary became more about family. I’d initially thought it was going to be a straight-up Rock-doc when I started working with Jeff. Once it became more about family, that’s when I really got more engaged in helping Jeff make this film. It felt like there was something more important that needed to be told because I like films about families and the connections of family, because I grew up with very little family in my life.
HOWLETT: Yeah, I felt the same way when A Band Called Death started taking that shape. Mark and I had talked a lot about this, and actually the guys in the band, too, because I’ve known the guys for years and have sort of a strong connection through our families. And Mark can attest that Bobby’s Wife calls [Mark] his son, so he’s really become a part of the Hackney family. In making this film, we wanted to really show that and show that they’re a really great family as well as awesome musicians to boot.
DIABOLIQUE: After this documentary is released and the unreleased material finds its way out there, what do you think will become of Death’s legacy?
HOWLETT: I would hope that A Band Called Death would open eyes to the band. It seems like it already is. We get tons of messages on our Facebook page from people all over the world that want to see the movie now, which is great. It’s a great feeling to know that we’re helping Death get known even better than the New York Times article. As for how big they’ll get, only time will tell. Anvil did pretty well with their documentary. But you never know.
DIABOLIQUE: Now that A Band Called Death is seeing release, what lays in both of your futures as filmmakers? Do you have any projects on the horizon?
COVINO: I actually started production on my new documentary a couple weeks ago that I funded through Kickstarter called The Crest. It’s a documentary on these two Irish-American cousins that learned about each other through a family invitation to go to Ireland for The Year of the Gathering. Not only did they realize they both existed, but they realized they’re both surfers, and one of them shapes boards while the other paints them. So they’re going to Ireland to the island where their ancestors are from to shape a couple of surfboards, paint them and go surf the waters there. So that’s what I’m working on at the moment.
HOWLETT: And I’m starting preproduction on the story of the world’s hottest pepper, which is close to me and has a seed that has been germinated into a really potent hot pepper. So it’s about that but it’s also about the community that surrounds that, like the blogosphere or “Hotheads”, if you will. They’re very interesting characters.
A Band Called Death is currently available on iTunes and VOD, and will be in select theaters starting June 28th. To learn more about the film, please visit the official website. For more about Death, please visit their official website. You can also follow Mark and Jeff on Twitter: @markcovino and @howlermano.
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he recieved an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.