The Devil Makes Three: Carrying tradition forward
The Devil Makes Three, you might not immediately guess their sound. With his short cropped hair and vintage suit, singer-guitarist Pete Bernhard looks like he could play in a swing band. The same goes for upright bassist Lucia Turino; if it weren’t for the cow skull tattooed to her chest, you’d think she came straight from an orchestra rehearsal. Meanwhile, oft-bearded banjo man Cooper McBean could be in a bluegrass band. And yet these three come together to create a very distinctive brand of folk punk. Live, they’ll play a waltz like “Walk on Boy” and then shift musical gears for a Blind Willie McTell cover such as “Statesboro Blues.” Embarking on a tour to promote Draggin’ Chains, an EP of two songs available on 7-inch vinyl at their shows, Bernhard phoned us to talk about the band’s history.
You’ve said you were raised by “hippie parents.” Talk about your upbringing a bit.
Sure. How honest should I be? My parents were “back-to-the-land” hippie types. My dad was a musician. So was my older brother. My aunt and uncle. There are a lot of artists in the family. Graphic designers and comic book artists. They came back to Vermont and lived a simple life. We didn’t have much money. They were into raising us in a certain way. We spent a lot of time outside and we didn’t have a TV and that whole thing.
From what I read in the band’s bio, it sounds like the Boston punk scene had a big influence on you.
I think it was because I was raised by such hippie parents that punk was really attractive. What’s less hippie than punk? I was attracted to the Celtic punk rock. They were more radical than hippie politics. The punk scene was so loud and so different. I think people often end up in the punk scene because their parents are conservative and religious. People I met were that. Their parents were right wing religious people. My reaction was to the hippie thing. I just wanted something different.
What drew you to roots music?
I was already into roots music before I was into the punk stuff. I got into it with my family and my father when I was a kid. Even when I was into the punk scene I kept playing acoustic music. It was considered uncool. When I was 12 or 14, all my friends listened to metal. It was Megadeth and Metallica and Sepultura. That was what was cool at the time. I was listening to Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt and Muddy Waters. There is a connection between the two. When we started The Devil Makes Three, we really wanted to take acoustic music act and make it as much fun as a punk show. We had no other choice because our only contacts were in the punk scene. We were a DIY band. We could call people for shows. That was our only option at the time. It was our friends and our network and that’s where we ended up.
You initially met Cooper in school. What were your first impressions of him?
We met in eighth grade. We met our first punk rocker. It was this girl from New Hampshire. She had punk rock records. She was also into country music. She was into Johnny Cash. Her name was Ingrid. That changed the course of our lives. We listened to all her records. [Cooper] and I played in high school with different bands. He was the only guy who listened to the same music. We drove around and listened to the oldies station. We loved the early rock ’n’ roll. Again, it was not a cool thing to do. We both got into punk rock at the same time too.
When did the band form?
We started when we moved out west and found Lucia in Santa Cruz. It started before she joined. Cooper and I played as a duo. We went on a couple of rough tours. In 2003, we put out the first album. We toured the west coast quite a bit and thanks to our friends we got shows.
Buddy Miller produced your last album. How did you meet him?
We are on the same record label now. New West is a great label. Maybe to their detriment, they put out music they think is good. It’s really cool. You’re hard-pressed to find another label like that. We met Buddy through them. We didn’t know that much about him. Cooper had some of his albums. We loved his guitar playing and tenor. We saw him play a couple of times and really liked him. I would love to get ahold of his record collection.
What was it like recording at Dan Auerbach’s studio?
It’s a great studio. I don’t know because I’ve never been to Chess, but it seems like it’s modeled after Chess. I have been to Sun, which is awesome. It’s similar to the Sun tracking room. It’s a live room and a console. You don’t have much more isolation. They didn’t have a vocal booth. It sounded great. We set up in the room and played the album. It was great.
You had 20 songs written for the album?
We almost have enough for another record. I worked hard on the songwriting. We left a lot on the cutting room floor. A lot of it is really good. Hopefully, we’ll record it soon. I demoed the 20 and then we cut it down to 12 and put 10 on the record. We have a B-side 7-inch coming out for this tour with two songs that didn’t make it on the record.
What is it about your music that appeals to young people? Why is this music suddenly cool?
At the risk of sounding like a dick, I think the roots of the music is just so good, it’s undeniable. It’s the roots of rock ’n’ roll. Who can say that isn’t great? In a big way, we’re pointing a finger at all the people we love. I try to be original with the songwriting but more than anything else, we’re trying to get people interested in the people we love in the same way the Stones did for the blues and the Dead did for folk music. They were great bands in and of themselves but it was the people they were copying that were great. That’s similar to us. I’m trying to carry forward this tradition that I think is awesome and pay it respect along the way. Even though they don’t necessarily know it and might not be as nerdy as us to listen to those old records and geek about them, they can hear that it’s good.
That’s kind of what The Black Keys do.
I think a lot of people are doing it with different styles of music. We do all different genres. We do old time and blues and swing and swing jazz. It’s all over the map. It’s not necessarily one kind of music but just all of the records we tried to learn. In the process of trying to learn them, we fucked up and learned our own sound.
Do you think you’ll ever play with a drummer?
No. On the album, it’s great to have someone like Marco [Giovino] play percussion. Certainly not a drum set. He never had a drum set. It was great to have him and I love it on the albums. We’ll use a percussionist on the albums. My feeling with drums live is that if it isn’t somebody like Marco it has a tendency to make everything sound the same.
You’re playing bigger rooms.
It’s great. It’s been happening all over the country, which is great. We’re not a band that’s blowing up. We’re burning real slow but it’s always brighter. It seems like a good way to be doing it, honestly.
Upcoming 2015 Tour Dates
Toronto, Canada – The Opera House
Cleveland, OH – House of Blues
Detroit, MI – St. Andrews Hall
Chicago, IL – House of Blues
Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue
Madison, WI – Barrymore Theatre
St Louis, MO – The Pageant
Manhattan, KS – The Wareham
Denver, CO – The Fillmore Auditorium
Flagstaff, AZ – Orpheum Theatre
San Diego, CA – House Of Blues
San Diego, CA – House Of Blues
San Luis Obispo, CA – Alex Madonna Expo Center
Oakland, CA – Fox Theatre
Chico, CA – Senator Theatre
Arcata, CA – Humboldt State University
Eugene, OR – McDonald Theatre
Vancouver, Canada – Commodore Ballroom
Seattle, WA – Paramount Theatre
Indio, CA – Stagecoach Festival