Vermont Drummer Urian Hackney Is on a Wild Ride Through the Rock World | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Drummer Urian Hackney Is on a Wild Ride Through the Rock World

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Published August 23, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated August 30, 2023 at 10:04 a.m.


Urian Hackney - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Urian Hackney
The wheels of the roller coaster screeched and groaned as the cars climbed toward the ride's zenith. A lone rider came into view in the first car of the otherwise empty train, his black hair framed against the blue sky like some sort of bas-relief.

Urian Hackney's smile was easy to spot even from the ground. The 31-year-old Burlington musician certainly has plenty of reasons to grin. He's come into his own in recent years, as an in-demand drummer for punk and hardcore bands, touring internationally and rubbing elbows with icons of the rock world. But for Urian, riding the Comet, the ancient wooden roller coaster at Six Flags Great Escape in Queensbury, N.Y., provides a different sort of thrill.

The coaster cart paused at the top of the track, and Urian's bellow of laughter was audible from terra firma 90 feet below. It was the sound of a man who still takes a boyish joy in amusement parks and builds roller coaster rides into his touring schedule from Coney Island to Barcelona to Myslowice, Poland.

Still, Urian's own musical career might be his wildest ride yet, one that so far is nearly all ascent. Rough Francis, the band he formed with his brothers, Julian and Bobby Hackney Jr., recently signed a record deal with Chicago label Drag City. On his own, he's recognized in rock circles as a prodigiously talented drummer and has been recruited to sit in with the legendary hardcore band Converge and post-punk critical darlings the Armed. He's signed sponsorship deals with instrument makers Ludwig and Paiste. In March, he was asked to sit in for a week with the house band on "Late Night With Seth Meyers."

But for all of his globe-trotting, he remains rooted in Vermont and deeply connected to the sprawling Hackney clan headed by Bobby Hackney Sr., whose rock and reggae bands have been a Burlington-area fixture for more than four decades. Here at home, Urian has joined his father, uncle and brothers in the reincarnated punk band Death. The original band, started by his father and uncles in Detroit in 1971, has become the stuff of rock and roll legend — its music lost for 30 years before being rediscovered in the 2000s and hailed by rock critics as punk's "missing link."

He doesn't have an agent to book gigs or arrange travel, or an assistant to help run the Box, his Burlington recording studio. For all of his family support, Urian largely navigates these adventures on his own, with little plan other than to enjoy the hell out of the ride. Sometimes that means drinking tequila with members of Queens of the Stone Age backstage at a big arena in Connecticut. At other times, it means worriedly checking his bank account to see if there's any money in it.

Even as his climb seems to take him higher and higher into rock's stratosphere, he holds tight to his family and the music the Hackney clan makes.

"All this stuff is amazing. I'm having an absolute fucking blast," he had said on the drive to the roller coaster in upstate New York. "But nothing is more important to me than playing with my brothers and my dad and uncles. I don't know what to call it — destiny? Yeah. Maybe it's my destiny."

Now, up on the coaster, he plummeted in his cart like a diving seabird. Urian's prolonged yell of joy was lost in the rumble of the coaster as he appeared and disappeared, moving far too fast to track from below.

"Once he's on the move, forget about it," his father would say later. "His life seems to move so fast now."



Like a Rolling Stone

My phone rang just shy of 1 a.m. When Urian wants to talk, he rarely texts to see if you're around — or awake. He just makes the call.

"I skated Forest Hills, dude," he said from New York City, speaking in awe of the famous tennis stadium and music venue. "I had to wait for John McEnroe to finish!"

Urian always brings a skateboard with him on the road. If he forgets, he'll buy one, as he recently did on summer tour with the Armed. The band is supporting rock giants the Queens of the Stone Age, along with synth-pop act (and Champlain College alums) Phantogram. It's a proper, big-time tour that's featured chance meetings with rock stars ("Watching Queens rip with Geddy Lee side stage," Urian posted on social media after encountering the former front man of Rush) and hanging out with some of his biggest idols, such as Queens of the Stone Age drummer Jon Theodore.

While he doesn't avoid the usual postshow parties, it's common for Urian to quietly slip out of hotel rooms to look for a nice place to skate alone. He's by nature a social creature with an easy laugh and effortless charm. But when his battery runs out, he'll disappear mid-conversation, like Batman leaving Commissioner Gordon talking to himself on a rooftop.

"All these things I'm getting to experience, I honestly try not to dwell on them too much because I don't want to tweak myself off," he said over the phone, his voice sounding simultaneously excited and exhausted. "You really don't want to lose yourself with something like this."

His father doesn't think his son will.

"We don't really worry about Urian, honestly," Bobby Sr. said over a cup of coffee at a café near the family home in Jericho.

For one thing, there's Rose, his 7-year-old daughter. She was born just as Urian was becoming a full-time musician and beginning to tour the world — not long after her birth, he was in Switzerland playing with New York City punk rockers Burn. He shares custody with a former partner but tries to avoid extended time away from his home in Burlington. When he's on the road, his parents pitch in to care for Rose.

"He's grounded by parenthood," Urian's mother, Tammy Hackney, said. "He'll be out here, playing with his dad, and suddenly he pops up and says, 'I have to go get Rose!'"

Even when he's back home in his studio and bouncing between any of the half dozen projects he's working on at once, the one part of Urian's schedule that always seems to be written in stone is time with his daughter.

"He has little Rosie now, so he knows the responsibility of having a family," Bobby Sr. said.

Another night, Urian's name lit up my phone screen — thankfully, before midnight this time. He was ecstatic after a day of visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., where he saw the exhibit there honoring Death. To see his father and uncles featured beside Jimi Hendrix memorabilia and Louis Armstrong's trumpet was a special thrill.

"This all might be overwhelming if I wasn't living in the moment, taking these things as they come," he said of his success. "But with all these relationships I'm making, I feel like I'm being myself, not some version to please people. And I think I can do that because I have the anchor that's my family."

Which is not to say he isn't dazzled by the stars who are increasingly part of his orbit or that he's averse to the occasional name-drop. Often in the middle of a seemingly mundane exchange, he will suddenly mention, as casually as one brings up their lunch plans, his latest amazing collaboration. Most recently, he sent me an early morning missive that he's about to release an EP with Bryan Konietzko, the cocreator of the hit animated television series "Avatar: The Last Airbender."

Not long ago, that announcement might have elicited disbelief. Now, whether the news is that he'll perform an opening solo set for reggae musician Ziggy Marley at Burlington's Flynn or that he'll be doing remixes for members of ska-punk legends Rancid, it's not startling.

"There's probably some people that are jealous of what's happening with Urian, but no one is surprised," Hackney's longtime friend Daryl Rabidoux said. The Rhode Island-based producer is a former Vermonter who played in the local hardcore band Drowningman. "If you don't have any fear, you can manifest what you want to happen. That's what's going on in general with Urian right now. And, really, he's been doing it since he was 11."



The Prodigy

Urian (left) and Julian Hackney in the late 1990s - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Urian (left) and Julian Hackney in the late 1990s

When Richard Bailey first laid eyes on Urian, age 10, at the rock music camp for kids that was housed at 242 Main, the iconic all-ages punk venue in the basement of Burlington's Memorial Auditorium, he didn't need an introduction to recognize one of the Hackney kids. Urian's eldest brother, Bobby Jr., had already established himself with post-punk new-wave band the Static Age. And Bobby Sr. was one of the counselors in the program.

"Urian was there, beaming, cracking jokes, and people were just flocking to this kid," Bailey recalled. "Which they still do, really."

Bailey, formerly of the Burlington band Dysfunkshun, helped run the rock camp in the early 2000s. 242 Main, now closed, featured heavily in all the Hackney kids' lives.

"There were no other drummers one year, and Urian played in every single group," Bailey said. "He was in a synth band, a reggae band, a classic rock band ... all of them! And he could do it all. He picks up new skills so quickly."

"They were huge life events for me," Urian said of those camps. "I was only 11, but I knew then that I wanted to make music for the rest of my life."

His first band actually precedes the rock camps: He and his older brother Julian formed the Garbage Flies, a drum-saxophone duo, when Urian was 7 and Julian 13. By middle school, Urian was playing with Julian in the hardcore punk band Punch Out and had developed a reputation as a prodigy, a whirling dervish of energy and aggression on the kit.

"Most drummers are ambidextrous to some degree," Rabidoux said. "But what Urian does is well beyond that."

Rabidoux, who now works out of the Radar Studio in Connecticut, observed early in Urian's career that, on top of his explosive speed and power, there was something strange about the way he started his fills — that is, the gap between musical phrases where a drummer performs a quick transition, like a small solo. It was hard to tell in the flurry of hands, but Rabidoux realized that Urian was starting his fills with his left hand on a right-handed drum kit but not losing any speed or feel. The answer, Rabidoux learned, was that left-handed Urian had learned to play on his right-handed uncle's drum set.

"Now his limb independence is just insane: He's equally fast and efficient with either hand," Rabidoux said.

"Urian always had the unique gift of picking out that thing that makes a particular song recognizable and unique," Bobby Jr. observed in an interview a couple of years ago. "Once he started becoming a serious drummer, he started playing with bands who had members much older than him, but he was instantly a force behind the kit. His playing ability surpassed his age."

By the time Urian was 18 and came to record at Rabidoux's studio, the producer recognized a maturing talent. As he played, Urian's arms seemed to be flying everywhere with impressive speed tempered with a level of precision that surprised Rabidoux. For all of his memories of the über-talented kid with the huge smile who learned to play by climbing on his uncle Dannis' drum kit, he knew he was staring at something altogether different.

"A drummer that's good can get gigs," Rabidoux said. "A drummer that's like Urian? They can pick and choose."



'Punk-Rock Prices'

Urian Hackney at the Box studio - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Urian Hackney at the Box studio

New York City is no place to be broke.

When Urian landed at LaGuardia Airport in March and climbed into the black limousine sent by NBC, he was worried about exactly that. Sure, he was about to play a week's worth of shows on "Late Night With Seth Meyers," a true career highlight. But as the limo ferried him toward the studios at 30 Rock, Urian was on his phone, checking his bank account. The news was not good.

"I was definitely broke when I went on Seth Meyers," Urian recounted a few months later. "It's just super hard to make a living playing music right now."

Urian supplements his income as a drummer with what he makes as a producer. In his rented studio, the Box on Marble Avenue in Burlington, he does commercial postproduction work, records voice-overs for medical companies and produces records for local musicians, as well as recording his own bands.

It's a one-man show that operates on word of mouth. There is no website for the Box, nor a place to submit music to Urian to see if he'll produce it. If he's recording your project, it's because he wants to.

"Every corporate kind of job I'll do with the studio enables me to record a young band I like and hook them up with what I call 'punk-rock prices,'" he said. "Obviously I need to pay my bills, and sometimes that ain't easy, but I try to keep my rates at a level where I can feel good about what I'm doing."

Urian sees his work with local bands at the Box as his way of helping to fill the void left when 242 Main closed in 2016. There, he and his brothers, who introduced Urian to hardcore punk music, had found a scene of misfits that didn't exist anywhere else in Burlington.

"Being Black dudes who play punk music in one of the whitest states in the country, we always had some sense of outsiderness," Urian said.

The Hackneys have been a part of the Vermont community since moving to Underhill from Detroit in 1977 — Bobby Sr. founded and ran the Vermont Reggae Festival in the '80s. But there's no doubt his boys stood out. Tall, handsome and all with the same infectious laugh, the kids soon became inseparable from the punk scene and were clearly shaped by it.

Offering cut-rate prices to some of his clients, such as punk act Gone Wrong and singer-songwriter Ivamae, might not be helping with Urian's finances — but it's completely in keeping with his character, Bailey said.

"Urian is the Johnny Appleseed of the Burlington music scene," he said. "This is a really inward-facing musical community and always has been. But Urian is the total opposite of that — he loves it here, but he's starting to belong to the music world at large."

Bailey couldn't suppress a slightly guilty smile and leaned in closer, as if admitting something.

"I mean, look, I've come across some cool people in my time as a musician. I can be a name-dropper sometimes," he said, laughing. "But these days, I name-drop Urian to friends."



Modern Drummer

Rough Francis - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Rough Francis

In July, Rough Francis played in front of thousands in New York City's Central Park, but there's nothing like seeing the band in a small, sweaty bar. One month before, they were at the Monkey House, where they have played epic shows since 2008, including their first. The tiny Winooski club was packed tight, bodies pressed against one another in a way that could give a concertgoer pandemic-flashback fears.

The power of songs such as "Deathwire," from their 2020 LP Urgent Care, was on full display at the Monkey, with Julian's blistering guitar work and Bobby Jr. prowling the stage, ready to unleash a primal howl.

As the band roared through its set, Urian was a blur of speed on the kit, punishing the drums with astonishing fury.

When we talked on the phone a few weeks later, I asked how such an outwardly cheerful dude can summon that sort of almost violent, high-octane energy.

"I really need an aggressive outlet," he said. "I skate and play crazy music because they're my therapy, my way to channel the stuff I don't want people to see. It's an easy way to consolidate it all into a useful thing, rather than being something that eats me alive."

That admission might surprise those who only know Urian as a happy guy who is always cracking jokes and full of clever insights, musically and otherwise. He is those things, but he is also someone who's learned to keep his dark side in check. Even when discussing what he sees as shortcomings in local music, he stays positive, for the most part. He has strong opinions about the Vermont rock scene — "or lack thereof," he said.

"It drives me fucking crazy sometimes, the way music in Burlington is booked," Urian said. "Like, there's a reason the rock scene seems so anemic. There are really good rock bands in town. There's just hardly anywhere for them to play regularly."

Even that gripe quickly turned into a happy fantasy (or future plan, perhaps) as Urian began to plot out ways to bring his new rock-star friends to Burlington for a blowout show.

Consider also that despite playing in two overtly political bands — Rough Francis and Death — Urian rarely wades into political topics himself. Though he upholds the tenets and beliefs that come with being in multiple Black punk bands, he does so with his signature style. For example, he recounted only semi-jokingly how Rough Francis always have their white bassist, Tyler Bolles, sit in the front seat of the vehicle while on tour to hopefully avoid undue attention from cops.

Urian would much rather talk about a vintage mixing console he found online or a spot he found to skate near a hotel while on tour. Any unpleasant thoughts are distilled straight from Urian's mind to his drum set.

That type of harnessed power on the drum kit has helped him gain increasing acclaim among his peers, though it's hardly a recent phenomenon. Not long after the 2012 release of A Band Called Death, a documentary about the elder generation of Hackneys, Jack White came calling. The Detroit rock icon and onetime White Stripes front man was looking for a drummer and asked Urian — not yet 20 years old — if he wanted to join his backing band.

Urian was tempted but ultimately turned White down, choosing to stay in Vermont and focus on Rough Francis.

"If he went with Jack White, we would have supported him the whole way," Bobby Sr. said. "But he didn't. He wanted to stay here and keep playing with his brothers, and that made me so proud, man."

Eventually, Urian branched out on his own terms, sitting in with bands such as California punk act Strife, while still gigging and releasing music with his brothers in Rough Francis. His growing acclaim caught the attention of Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou, who handpicked Urian in 2019 to sit in when the band's drummer, Ben Koller, was injured.

Urian went on tour with Converge to his delight — he's a lifelong fan of the band, which is considered one of the earliest metalcore acts, combining the aggression of punk with the complexity and polyrhythmic twists of progressive metal. He described playing the shows as an "out-of-body experience."

Then, when Ballou was getting ready to produce a new record for the Armed, the band's drummer bailed. Ballou wasted no time asking Urian if he'd play on the record.

Keeping his business in mind for once, Urian replied, "Cool. How much does it pay?"

Financial matters aside, Urian was happy to join the Armed, as the band presented him with an increasingly rare experience: a challenge on drums.

"It never showed, but he was always a little out of his comfort zone," Ballou said of Urian's session work. "In Converge, he learned someone else's parts. In the Armed, he had to learn parts written on a drum machine."

Urian and the singer-Svengali of the Armed, Tony Wolski, hit it off quickly. Wolski is the enigmatic leader of the band, which maintains a revolving lineup that's included contributions from everyone from singer-songwriter Julien Baker to Jane's Addiction bassist Eric Avery. A drummer himself, Wolski would build the beats for the Armed songs in a computer program, often compiling beats beyond most human drummers.

"Tony programmed drums and wanted to see if I could play them live," Urian said, a faint note of pride in his voice. "It's kind of like when another skater dares you to hit a handrail and bets you that you can't do it. I'm like, Fuck, I have to do it now."

To see him drumming with the Armed is to see explosiveness on the edge of descending into chaos. But Urian is always in control of his power. Clad in a black Stooges T-shirt with headphones balanced precariously on his thick crop of hair, Urian pummels the kit during the band's video for "ALL FUTURES (Live)," pushing the Armed further and further into the kind of post-punk disco pandemonium they've made their stock-in-trade.

"He just doesn't seem to get nervous when these big career-altering things come his way," Rabidoux pointed out. "If you see the Armed live, the whole band is incredible. But you're not going to be able to take your eyes off of Urian. He's the rock in the circle of that circus."



Death and Resurrection

Urian Hackney opening for Ziggy Marley on the Flynn Main Stage in July - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Urian Hackney opening for Ziggy Marley on the Flynn Main Stage in July

Before his death in 2000, David Hackney gave his brother Bobby Sr. the quarter-inch tape of Death's music, along with a prediction.

"He said to me, 'Bob, I'm giving this to you, because when I know the world comes looking for this music, you're going to have it,'" Bobby Sr. said.

Many years later, the world did indeed come looking for it.

As the story goes, a friend of Julian's sent him a link to a playlist she heard at a party in New Zealand. Julian listened, and when he heard "Politicians in My Eyes," he did a double take. Though he had grown up thinking of his father and uncle as reggae musicians, he was sure he heard his father and uncles on the raging rock track.

Julian wasted no time calling his family. The secret was out: Unbeknownst to his sons, Bobby Sr. had been one-third of a punk band so ahead of its time, no one knew what punk was yet — "punk before punk was punk," as the New York Times described the group in 2009.

Bobby Sr. and his brothers, Dannis and David, formed the band in 1971 and called it Death. The name turned out to be a career-damaging move, as record companies were reluctant to sign a group with such a dark name, especially in the heart of Motown. Death recorded a series of singles released in 1975 on their own label, but the music failed to win a following.

When the boys learned this history, they were understandably worked up.

"Those three boys cornered me," Bobby Sr. recalled. "Cornered me! They said, 'Dad, please, please tell us you know where the master tapes are.'"

The elder Hackney just shrugged and replied, "Yeah, they're upstairs in the attic."

Eventually, in 2009, Drag City collected the tracks and rereleased them in album form as ...For the Whole World to See. The album attracted attention from the New York Times and outlets around the world. Three years later, the story was told in a documentary, A Band Called Death.

Urian said he and his brothers often considered themselves music outsiders. Now they learned their father and uncles were iconoclasts long ago.

"They were living in Detroit, the home of soul and pop music, playing rock and roll when no Black people were in rock bands," he said.

This history inspired the three younger Hackney boys to form their band to play the music of Death. They named it Rough Francis after their uncle David's country music side project. Soon they became a force of their own, writing and recording original music.

Death - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Death

Meanwhile, Bobby Sr. and Dannis reformed Death, bringing in Lambsbread guitarist Bobbie Duncan to play David's parts. When Duncan moved on last year, Julian slotted in on guitar. Urian and Bobby Jr. both joined Death this year, making it a family band once more.

"My brothers and I are the biggest Death fans in the world," Urian said, "We're the perfect people to do this."

Playing together in two bands has also cemented ties among the brothers, Urian said.

"Bobby was in his thirties when I was 17," he said. "Now that we've matured — as much as we're going to, anyway — what we're doing musically is so much more authentic. We've matured into people that love playing music together."

"We really lean on each other now," Julian added. "I guess the secret is to wait 30 years to form a family band."

It's not only fitting that Rough Francis has joined Death but also convenient. The bands plan to put shows together soon and to drop a split EP on Drag City this fall. They might even do some light touring.

"The chance to do this with my family means everything to me," Urian said.

Bobby Sr. said it was "a sort of right-time move" for his sons to join Death — but he sees more than a punk drummer in Urian.

He talks with awe of watching Urian's opening slot for Ziggy Marley at the Flynn last month. Pushing a long dreadlock out of his eyes, Bobby Sr. leaned across the table. "I've been in reggae music a long time. I've been to Jamaica. I know my way around that world," he said. "But when I heard the dub set Urian put together, I thought he must have found a connection in Kingstown or something, to have such authentic-sounding dub sounds."

Dub music is an electronic offshoot of reggae, sometimes presented as a B side on early reggae records, where a producer remixes the raw tracks of a reggae song, often augmenting the drums and bass. So it floored Bobby Sr. when Urian revealed that he had recorded the tracks himself, laying down the guitar, bass and drums before creating his own dub remix to perform at the Flynn.

"I went home that night, and I tell you, I couldn't sleep," Bobby Sr. said, shaking head with a rueful laugh. "I couldn't get over it. I had the best reggae musician around in my own damn house for years — years — and didn't even know it."



Dreams for the Future

Urian Hackney riding the Comet at Six Flags Great Escape - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Urian Hackney riding the Comet at Six Flags Great Escape

Urian's last phone call to me from the road was winding down, his energy finally flagging sometime after midnight. His tour with the Armed was headed to Atlanta the next day. I asked if he still considered himself a Vermont artist, given all of his globe-trotting in recent years. I mentioned the long list of Vermont musicians who had bid Burlington adieu in recent years. Was he on that trajectory?

"No, not really," he replied in a tone that said he expected the question. "Being in Vermont and making music there is amazing because I'm surrounded by so many incredible people and artists, friends and family."

Besides, as he and his brothers asserted, they feel that Rough Francis is getting ready for a higher level as a band.

He has an idea what that higher level might look like. Last summer, while sitting side stage at the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, as he watched indie rockers Dinosaur Jr. play, Urian had a fantasy.

"I had a dream of Rough Francis playing Primavera one day soon," he said. "I think we can make it happen! Wouldn't that be fucking amazing?"

I agreed, then asked which rock stars he'd be hanging out with in Atlanta.

"Who knows, man," he said. "We'll see. Doesn't matter anyway; there's a Six Flags there. I've got a roller coaster to ride."

Learn more at thearmed.com, roughfrancis.com and @deathworldwide on Instagram.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Thrill Ride | Vermont drummer Urian Hackney's wild journey through the rock world"

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