How an Interview About T-Shirts Led to the Discovery of a Band Called Death

By now, you might have heard of Death, the Detroit band consisting of three African-American brothers whose 1974 single “Politicians in My Eyes” was a slice of proto-punk perfection. But five years ago, that wouldn’t have been the case. Until Ben Blackwell, drummer for the Detroit punk group the Dirtbombs, learned about the band while doing an interview about T-shirts with Jello Biafra, almost no one knew they ever existed.

Learning about the existence of that T-shirt changed a lot of things for the band's members. It led to Blackwell posting the song on the website Chunklet, and, by proxy, led to a New York Times article that raised the band’s profile considerably. As Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino -- the co-directors of the documentary A Band Called Death -- explain in their film, which sees theatrical release on Friday, there are a lot of Death fans running around these days. The band, which broke up in 1977, is now a touring and recording entity that’s playing festivals like Detroit’s Metallica-curated Orion Music + More, and club dates in Austin and New York -- not bad for an ensemble whose first single was pressed in an edition of 500, many copies of which sat in attics and garages for decades. But once people started paying attention, they started paying a lot of attention, to both Death and their literal offspring band, Rough Francis , which formed as a cover group consisting of the sons of one of the band’s members, after they learned of the music their father and uncles had made. Now, there’s a documentary, a tour, a record deal with Drag City and new music on the way.

Hive caught up with the filmmakers Howlett and Covino to learn how a band called Death became the subject of A Band Called Death.

How did Death go from completely ignored to something people suddenly cared about?

Jeff Howlett: The first band that came out from the gate with a, “We listen to this music, we gravitate to it, and we covered a song,” was the Dirtbombs in early 2008. And then the son’s band, Rough Francis, followed suit around the same time. They played the Monkeyhouse, which brought it to another level. Then The New York Times sort of helped it snowball after that.

Generally the first question we asked people in the documentary was, “When did you hear about them?” Mostly, they would say, “Well, my friend turned me on through the New York Times article." With rare exceptions coming from people like Jello Biafra.

Mark Covino: Jello had a crate of the 45, but he never really talked about it until the buzz came out.

How did the record start getting into people's hands, since it was so obscure?

Covino: In the '70s, Death had given a box of the 45s to a guy named Don Schwank, who had done the artwork for it. They owed him money for it, but the 7-inch never got out there. This guy waited until about 2000-something to bring this crate of 45s to record stores.  And that’s why it took so long for people to discover them.

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Nobody distributed the record until this one guy brought it to a record store?

Covino: They did a little distributing in the '70s. That’s how Jello got those records. But nothing got big because no one was listening to it. They didn’t like that music in that town at that time.

Howlett: Back then, record collectors would send a list of what they had to buddies and say, “This is what I have, are you interested?” Obviously now, it’s a lot different. Once Ben Blackwell heard it, he put the songs on the internet. They weren’t online up until that point. Very few people, like Jello and Ben, had copies of the actual record.

Covino: Didn't ?uestlove get a copy awhile ago?

Howlett: He did. He got it in 2002.

Did he get buy it off Jello Biafra?

Howlett: He actually got it from J Dilla, I think. J Dilla was really into record collecting, and that’s who turned ?uestlove on. It’s kind of interesting how that sort of dynamic works.

Alice Cooper [a Detroit native] found out about Death when the article came out. And [erstwhile MC5 guitarist] Wayne Kramer was like, “It would be so great if these guys back in the '70s played with us in the Ballroom in Detroit, because they would have gone over so well with our audience. You don’t understand how well they would jibe with our show. They would have just been the best opener.” He was really stoked on that. It’s one of those things where these guys were living in East Detroit, they were playing West, and it didn’t match up. But you’d think, Oh, my God, it was a perfect matchup with the MC5 or the Stooges.

And then maybe it wouldn’t have taken until 2008 for people to know about them.

Howlett: Exactly. I’m glad they’ve taken the tapes out of the attic now. Things have come full circle. [The guys in Death] talked about wanting to play the Band Shell on Belle Isle in Detroit, because that’s where all the big bands played -- the Jackson 5, the MC5 -- and now they’re playing Orion Fest, the Metallica Festival, at Belle Isle. So they made it. It just took a little longer than you would have thought.