Truth be told, The Devil Makes Three are less devil-oriented than their name would imply.
In fact, two-thirds of the band is currently creating its own slice of heaven on earth. It turns out that tattooed guitarist and frontman Pete Bernhard and bassist Lucia Turino are farmers, and they recently purchased land in Vermont, where the band first met as high school kids.
“It’s not quite like the Garden of Eden, but we’re in the process of making it better,” says Bernhard by phone from his house.
After 10 years in Santa Cruz and catapulting from coffee-shop gigs to signing with Milan Records, Bernhard’s reclaiming his roots. “I used to landscape, herb garden, and work for a farm and apple orchard before playing music. It’s nice to be home,” says Bernard, who’s hoping for musical inspiration from the new abode. Banjo and guitar player Cooper McBean is in Vermont for the summer, but still lives in the West.
The band’s near-perfect debut, Do Wrong Right, could have easily been picked from the Tree of Music Knowledge of Acoustic and Americana, with its mature approach and quality recording. But that didn’t happen overnight.
Bernhard and company are used to scrappily assimilating their sound over the years. At 12 years old, Bernhard taught himself finger-picking from his father’s record collection—Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis and the like. Later, McBean, whose family was into Western swing, introduced him to the classic country of Hank Williams. Then, with Turino on board, they all turned on to ragtime and jug band music, like Gus Cannon.
“It’s like old-time house-party music. It’s not serious, just a good time that you can dance to,” Bernhard says.
That’s the notion they started with: Above all else, create an engaging live show, emulating rock, because most acoustic shows are boring, Bernhard says. Well, most acoustic shows are at least not their type of fun, and creating raucous good times has become vital to the band’s success. On stage, Bernhard laughs, “Cooper, I think, is playing metal in his mind. It’s an imaginary world. If he were to be in another band, it would be metal.”
Despite an affinity for metal or droning stoner-rock, the band’s become more musically versatile within its own oeuvre. They’ve picked up five-string and tenor banjos, as well as slide guitar. “We’ve come a long way. I think we play better together, as
a unit. We are better to see [in concert], and the songs are just more fun now,” Bernhard says. He adds they’d love to learn the fiddle, too, but it takes too long. However, they’re on the lookout for a player.
The Devil Makes Three’s new approach shows in a refined tunefulness backing the many autobiographical songs—mainly Bernhard and McBean’s—which, much like their tattoos, act as markers of their history.
“It’s a tradition in folk to write hard-luck songs. Some of the drinking stories in our songs are definitely true, but they’re usually pretty funny,” says Bernhard, who, now 30, says days of getting blackout whiskey drunk are long gone.
His approach to writing lyrics is evolving, too, diverging from his own experiences to creating characters, as in “The Bullet.” A lover of outlaw tales, Bernard’s first experiment was loosely based on the book You Can’t Win, whose protagonist is a bugler and opium dealer. “That’s one of the coolest things about folk music, to put your own spin on an interesting story, making it your own,” Bernard says.
While moving in this direction, Bernhard still fondly recalls its precursor, where he used Bible quotes for their only song referencing either God or the Devil. “Help Yourself,” illustrating a point about self-reliance, muses “The good Lord helps those that help themselves.”
THE DEVIL MAKES THREE
The State Room
638 S. State
Thursday, Oct. 7, 8 p.m.
$12 advance/$15 day of show