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Music: Rough Francis continue Death’s dance

By Lee Pepper on August 7, 2016

Aficionados of punk rock history will want to visit Zaphod’s this weekend to see Rough Francis, a band with deep and complex roots in the genre’s history (and one that plays some fun rock’n’roll in their own right).

Rough Francis began as a way for brothers Bobby, Julian, and Urian Hackney, along with friends Paul Comegno and Steve Williams, to pay tribute to the music of Death, a band that the Hackneys’ father had been in in the 1970s with his brothers. While Rough Francis now writes original songs as well, it was the discovery of their unique connection to music history that brought the band together.

The 2012 documentary A Band Called Death carries the tagline “Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones, there was a band called Death”. The movie tells the story of band that three brothers in Detroit formed in 1971. Death combined funk influences, a hard rock sound that was punk before punk existed, and the philosophical views of its guitarist, David Hackney.

Equally punk was their refusal to compromise and change their band’s name to something more radio-friendly, but this refusal also limited the band’s success. It wasn’t until 2008 that the band was rediscovered, with A Band Called Death later bringing them to wider attention.  

Death, along with many other pioneering bands like the X-Ray Spex in England, The Bags on the West Coast, and Bad Brains on the East Coast, to name just a few, give lie to the notion that punk has ever been the exclusive domain of white musicians, making them an important touchpoint for contemporary punk musicians of colour.

Rough Francis carry on this legacy with a sound that, like Death’s, draws on diverse musical styles to create a sound that’s all their own.

Apt613 spoke with Bobby Hackney Jr. of Rough Francis via email. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Apt613: Watching A Band Called Death, I was trying to imagine what how weird it would be hearing Jello Biafra talk about how cool my dad’s band was.  Was it strange having a band your family members were in be rediscovered?

BH: It was super weird and amazing at the same time. I was so smitten to find out that some of my punk heroes such as Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins were hip to Death. When Death emerged in 2008, we saw it as a huge discovery, not a rediscovery. The band was pretty much unknown but dudes like Jello knew about them all along and that blew my mind!

Apt613: How has starting out as a Death tribute band affect the original music you’ve since been putting out?

BH: Starting as a Death cover band definitely influenced our sound and taught us how to play together. Once my dad and uncle decided to tour, we naturally had to move on from the covers and write our own songs. Our music definitely carries the spirit and energy of Death but we definitely have our own direction, style and approach. In many ways we are doing exactly what Death set out to do in the 70’s, to play wild rock music. 

Apt613: Another thing that comes up in A Band Called Death is how Death ran into expectations and stereotypes of who plays what types of music. In your own experience playing music, have you encountered stereotypes or racism in music communities?

BH: We experience it every now and then. I remember one time we were setting up at a gig and a group of frat dudes walked in and insisted that we were a fusion-funk-reggae band. I’m sure they made the assumption because three fifths of us are black. When we fired up those instruments, they were the first ones to run away covering their ears. It felt good to send those boys running for the hills, they definitely weren’t expecting us to sound like that. We love catching people off guard. We love challenging silly stereotypes.    

Apt613: What’s the music scene like in Burlington, VT?

BH: The music scene in Burlington (Vermont) is so great. So many awesome bands and musicians. We love our local scene. We wouldn’t be who we are without it. 

Apt613: What bands or records are you especially excited about lately?

BH: We’re always digging the crates for older sounds. We’re fortunate to have the luxury of playing with some great bands that slip under the radar. We really connected with a few bands from Providence RI: The Low Anthem, Ravi Shavi and Gymshorts. We also try to pay attention to certain California groups like Thee Oh Sees and The Ty Segall Band. We tend to seek out music that has youthful energy, soul and drone… we love the drone. 

Rough Francis plays Saturday, August 13 at Zaphod’s. Doors are at 8:30pm, and tickets are $10, available online or at Vertigo Records (193 Rideau). For more on Rough Francis, visit their website or find them on Facebook, Twitter, or Bandcamp.