- Courtesy Of Luke Awtry
- Rough Francis
If you're a music nerd, or have followed Vermont's music scene throughout the last decade, you probably already know this story: In the 1970s, Bobby, Dannis and David Hackney — three black brothers living in Detroit — nearly changed the course of music history with their proto-punk band, Death. But Death's time in the spotlight wouldn't come until years later. Unable to harness the momentum needed to break out, the siblings relocated to Vermont, put down roots and buried their past, only to have everything surface in the late 2000s. The 2012 documentary A Band Called Death chronicles their fascinating, one-of-a-kind tale.
Though Death didn't find widespread acclaim and notoriety until decades after their inception, their work did inspire Bobby's sons — Bobby Jr., Julian and Urian — to start a tribute act called Rough Francis just before Death's story went viral. Soon after, Rough Francis began writing original material. Along with bassist Steve Williams and guitarist Paul Comegno, the punk- and garage-rock quintet has become one of the most popular groups in Vermont, with pockets of fandom all over North America.
However, it's been five years — roughly half of Rough Francis' lifetime — since they put out a record. A number of factors contributed to the delay, such as hitting some snags with former label Riot House Records, building out a custom recording studio in Burlington's South End and generally being perfectionists — not to mention all of that life stuff that happens as you get older. (Urian, the youngest member, was in his mid-teens when the band first started. Now he's a father.)
The eight tracks contained in the new, entirely self-produced LP MSP3: Counter Attack are worth the wait. Furthermore, the group's message of standing up for justice and speaking out against the forces of evil in the world is perhaps more important now than ever.
The band celebrates the new album's release on Saturday, August 11, at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge in South Burlington, with support from locals Cave Bees and Jessica Rabbit Syndrome.
"When we first started, a lot of people were excited to see a punk-rock band that had three black members in it, because that's pretty rare to begin with — especially in a place like Vermont," says Bobby, Rough Francis' front person. "That helped us stand out. But, at the same time, we were like, 'It's all about the music. It's not about the color of [our] skin.'
"But now we're like, 'It's about the color of our skin,'" he continues. "It's about us being a primarily black band with a message."
When Rough Francis played their first show in December 2008, many Americans had a more hopeful (or naïve) outlook about the country than they do today. After all, a month prior, Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected president of the United States.
"When we first started, [there] was a lull," explains Julian, one of the band's two guitarists. " feels like a lifetime ago. [People thought,] Oh, we have a black president. Racism is over. [But] that gave ground to these nationalist organizations. These people were allowed to grow and to become louder and louder. As we've seen it happen, we've responded to it out of sheer necessity."
Loud and proud, Rough Francis' message manifests early on the new record's opening track, "Big Box Law Enforcement." The band wrote it just after the 2014 police-perpetrated death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The song has become the group's flagship anthem.
Over sawtooth riffs and busy drums, Bobby confronts racism head-on: "Shotguns won't shut me up / Rebel flags don't really freak me out / The cross you burn / Won't hold me back / Peace and love / Is my counterattack.
"We were fired up," he says of the band's reaction to the shooting. "When you hear stuff like that, you don't know what to do. I felt like the best way I could react was to write a song."
"[With] everything that's happening in the country right now, I almost get scared listening to [MSP3: Counter Attack]," says drummer Urian, who, as co-engineer, is also hugely responsible for the way the album sounds. "We're kind of a target. [But] it feels good to make unsafe music."
Safety has been a concern on particular tours. When playing in the South, for instance, the band jokes about having its white members, Comegno and Williams, be in the front seats when driving. It's more horrifying reality than ha-ha funny.
"Being a target is something every black person in America has to deal with on a daily basis," says Julian. "It's like breathing at this point."
"The thing going on racially in America — people are just trying to be people," says Urian. "It's cool to inspire other brown people, or people who are not part of the white norm, to think, You know what? I want to do that, too. But I'm boxed into this thing because I'm this person or I'm that."
Given Vermont's nearly 95 percent white population, Rough Francis' hometown audiences are accordingly similar. But, as Bobby sees it, that's an opportunity.
"We need people to help back us up," he says. "And most of those people have to be white people. I'm personally done doing emotional labor for white people. Here's the information. What are you gonna do with it?"
Williams — who recently departed from the band to pursue his career in Portland, Ore. — thinks that white people in black-fronted bands have a responsibility to be visibly supportive.
"Obviously, I'm a white man [and] I have white privilege," he says. "The best thing I can do is stand up beside those guys and say, 'I support you.' That's where a lot of white men need to be."
Comegno notes that being in a primarily black band has been eye-opening.
"Ten years ago, I didn't think about this stuff nearly as often as I do every day now," he says. "I've had some very real conversations with close friends and family since I've been in the band — [which] I probably wouldn't have had if I wasn't in Rough Francis."
Indeed, the band and its work bring up heavy themes. But messaging isn't everything.
"You can't take yourself too seriously," says Bobby. "Even if you have this intense message, at the end of the day, you're a band. You're playing music with your friends, and you're having a good time."
The newest friend to step into the group is Dan Davine, who took over Williams' spot playing bass. But Davine is by no means new to music in the Burlington scene. He has played with and produced/mixed/mastered for numerous local acts.
Finding the balance between in-your-face maxims and full-throttle rocking out is something Rough Francis have had 10 years to perfect. And they don't plan to quit anytime soon.
"Whenever I think about this band, I think about doing it when we're 90 years old," says Julian. "We have a lot of patience and resilience."
As Bobby notes, the most important takeaway from Rough Francis and MSP3: Counter Attack is for listeners to "be inspired to speak up more, be proud of themselves [and] not take shit."
And Julian reminds fans of a final important detail.
"The record should be listened to at maximum volume," he advises. "But you probably already knew that."