Rough Francis: Coming up under Death, proto-punk’s unsung hero

Rough Francis: Coming up under Death, proto-punk’s unsung hero

Photo by Robin Katrick

Imagine the early sound of The Who, when the band was hellbent on achieving the cleanest, loudest sound possible before smashing their instruments to bits. Now, send that running–full force–into the early 2000s thrumming garage rock sound of The Hives and you have Rough Francis.

It’s a magnificent mash-up but those aren’t the only notable influences the band has in their docket. The Burlington, Vt. based garage punk outfit originally began as a tribute band honoring the proto-punk project of their father Bobby Hackney (bass) and two uncles Dannis (drums) and David Hackney (guitar). They called themselves Death and they very well could have kicked off the entire punk movement, if they were given the chance.

The ‘70s trio was a powerful, all black group that was turned down by label after label as they tried to break into the music scene–listeners thought their rock n’ roll approach was off-kilter compared to the Motown sound that was typical of black musicians at the time, labels said their band name was far too “risky.” After record executing Clive Davis offered the band $20,000 contract offer–as long as they changed their name–Death stuck to their guns. The name was non-negotiable, particularly to the band leader David.

After several years, the band had stopped playing. It wasn’t until about 35 years later, after the passing of David Hackney in 2000, that Death finally got the spotlight it deserved. “One day the world’s going to want to hear this and come looking for it,” the guitarist had told his brother, while handing over the band’s masters, before he died. They did.

In 2008, while Bobby’s son Julian Hackney was living in California, a friend came home from an underground punk show, gushing about a new track she heard. When Julian heard the song–”Politicians in My Eyes” by Death–he immediately recognized his father’s voice and called his brothers and they went to their father in search of more.

When their father dug out the bands full tape from the attic, the boys were taken with the band’s massive sound.

“From there, that’s when things started to get crazy,” Bobby Hackney Jr. said. “When I heard that music I was blown away. I had no idea.”

To pay tribute to the unsung heroism of their father and uncles, Rough Francis was born. Taking their name from a playful nickname their Uncle David used to pursue solo “country music style” projects late in life, the young tribute band played the entirety of that unearthed tape–which would eventually come to be released as a vinyl called …For The Whole World To See in 2009–to any audience they could.

“It was virtually unknown music and we were the only ones who had heard it, you know, [aside from] the few people who were there when they recorded it before it got shelved,” Hackney said. “We were the only ones who could do this music.”

The band consists of Bobby Hackney Jr., the vocalist and oldest son of Death bassist Bobby Hackney, his siblings, Urian (drums) and Julian Hackney (guitar) and their friends Steven Hazen Williams (bass) and Paul Comegno (guitar). As the public and media started to catch on to the family legacy, Bobby and Dannis Hackney came together with guitarist Bobbie Duncan–from the brothers’ ‘80s reggae band Lambsbread–to revive Death for a series of shows.

“Our work was done,” Hackney laughs. “They took it and started running and it was like, “Ok, we can start being our own band now.’”

While the screams, distortion and heavy early rock influences of Rough Francis’ sound echoes Death, the band has configured their own musical identity by throwing early millennium garage rock and hardcore elements in the mix.

“All of us, we grew up in the punk/hardcore scene so a lot of our energy comes from going to punk shows and playing punk shows. Even that early Who, that had a little bit of punk to it,” Hackney said.  

“We’re too rock for punk and too punk for rock. I feel like sometimes the music plays us,” he laughs. “We just let the music take us. Sometimes live, we don’t really know how it’s gonna be. We love the energy that it brings to us and the crowd, where we just feed off each other. That’s my favorite thing about punk, it’s a mutual energy that you pass back and forth.”

After recording some demos, the band self-released their first full-length album Maximum Soul Power in 2013. Soon after the drop, it was picked up by an independent punk rock label out of San Diego called Riot House Records and re-released. Rough Francis has since left the label and reverted to working in-house.

“In a lot of ways, we feel very similar to our Uncle Dave,” Hackney explained. “We try to do everything our own way and try to keep the integrity of the band a certain way and a lot of that has to do with the way Uncle David ran Death, that’s the same way we run Rough Francis–very hands on, DIY style.”

The band has begun focusing on promoting themselves through social media and digital release outlets, such as Bandcamp, where they put out their Don’t Look Back EP in January. The three tracks are “reimagined” demos from 2010 that the band decided to put out while recording their upcoming album MSP3: Counter Attack, set to release on August 10.

“We’re trying to create new things for people to check out because I want people to become familiar with the Rough Francis brand first,” he said. Building that brand involves nailing down a standalone sound and identity for the band.

“We always approach new cities or a new show as a band that people want to see. If people know who we are, that’s awesome, because people respect that,” Hackney says of their Death connection. “What’s so cool is when people will see us and they’ll listen to us and then they learn about all that other stuff later. Either way, it’s inevitable that it will affect us. It’s pretty unique, but for the most part, we’re just like any other band that wants to play cool shows and hang out with cool people.”

Even without their legendary backstory, Rough Francis packs a serious punch. Their sound is equal parts tight-knight and flowing, clean and psychedelic. Their songs spark like rallying cries, bursting in Hackney’s howling screams in songs like “Msp2.” Through it all, they honor their family beautifully. In Maximum Soul Power’s “Comm To Space” they sample their Uncle David’s notorious distorted prank calls (which were featured in the 2013 documentary A Band Called Death) in a face-melting six-minute trip.

Building upon Julian’s guitar riffs to maximize their sound, the band works as a group when it comes to songwriting, making sure to craft lyrics that reflect upon current social issues.

“In this new record, a lot of the songs were written a couple years ago when Ferguson happened and there was a lot of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement was taking off,” Hackney said. “We’re not a political band but we definitely call out what’s happening around us. We wanna be fuel for the fire to get people excited and revved up for the change that needs to happen. We want to be the soundtrack to that and get people thinking.”

Musically, the vocalist said the band has been able to expand upon punk rock sounds the didn’t quite reach in Maximum Soul Power. Following the release of MSP3, they’ll hit the road on tour–something they haven’t done in a while. Hackney muses that they might even try to hit Europe.

“There will be some cool stuff coming down the pipe soon,” he said. “The purpose of the band has always been the same. We just want to create music that people want to listen to and that’s pretty much it.”

Rough Francis will play Paulys Hotel in Albany with The Spirit of Violence and The Death Vacation on Saturday, April 7 at 8:30 PM.

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