I’m a Stranger Here Just Like You: An Interview with Pete Bernhard of The Devil Makes Three

The Devil Makes Three
“I would say this is our darkest album to date but I also think it is one of the best we have ever made. This one is about things dying, which all things eventually will,” Pete Bernhard said. — photo via The Devil Makes Three

The Devil Makes Three w/ Shakey Graves

Blue Moose Tap House – November 6 at 9 p.m. ($15-18)

Rarely do I run across a band whose sound is so unique that it’s hard to describe their music, but any attempt at defining The Devil Makes Three leaves me stumbling for effective adjectives. Raw, unruly and dynamic, but these descriptions say nothing about the intricate proficiency of the band’s guitarists’, Pete Bernhard and Cooper McBean. The melodies they dole out are as devastating as they are downright pretty, and yet, no song is without its own energetic momentum. Especially, with the steady percussive picking of upright bassist, Lucia Turino, whose style feels more like racing a fast-flying freight train than it does two-stepping in your Sunday best.

And so as I flail around for words made useless by this acoustic trio’s complexity, I reach for musical genres — folk, ragtime, country and old timey — as a means of understanding and then conveying their sound. But the truth is The Devil Makes Three encompasses all of these genres. Perhaps it makes more sense to say that their story-time melodies are as dark and lonesome as drinking alone in the bitter cold of Vermont. Or, to say that their boot-stomping anthems reminds me of those moments when I’m wound up so tight by the tension of day-to-day that I’ve lost sight of my purpose, and, briefly, I have no choice but to let loose into a fit of howling, a fit of home-alone-no-one’s-watching-dancing by myself to a favorite song.

And I’m not the only one who struggles to define this brood of musicians. Most reviews, from Rolling Stone to SF Weekly, default to a jumbled list of genres in an attempt to make sense of the band.

When I ask singer/songwriter Pete Bernhard for his thoughts about these wide-ranging descriptions, he tells me: “The harder music is to describe the better. I don’t really believe in genres, anyway. I think genres are just a way to categorize music and don’t have a lot of meaning. I figure if you listen to the music and you like it then it’s for you and if you don’t you don’t…”

But I find myself unsatisfied with this answer, there must be a more apt way to describe the music. Or, is it possible that all of these genres can be bent, wrestled into one unique sound? The answer is yes, and then some.

“I think the one thing that is missed in our music is the influence of the blues. We draw more from country blues and Chicago blues, like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf more than from Bill Monroe, but we are always called Bluegrass,” Bernhard says. “Most Bluegrass bands accuse us of not playing Bluegrass at all, which we freely admit. I love Bill Monroe but would not cite him as a big influence songwriting wise. We are a confusing bunch of people so no doubt the music will be confusing, as well.”

I like this lean toward the personal that Bernhard offers; because it’s true that there music is as eclectic as people are different. Besides, it’s reassuring to know we can at least scratch Bluegrass off the list.

It’s home, back in Vermont, and his family, that Bernhard cites as being his major musical influence. “I grew up surrounded by guitar players and singers. My father, my uncle, my aunt and my older brother all played music. They influenced what I listened to and inspired me to start playing in the first place.” Bernhard lists learning folk and country songs as a kid, as well as the influence East Coast punk shows: “It would be like 6 bucks for 13 bands, everyone playing for 20 minutes,” Bernhard says. “I had so much fun going to shows like that. The energy coming off the stage makes a circle with the crowd and comes back. We were really attracted to that.”

The three studio albums leading up to their fourth, and upcoming, I’m a Stranger Here, practically spill over with an energy so vivid one can feel the sweat and stink coming off the musicians as if they were playing live in your kitchen. I ask Bernhard for his thoughts on the new record, I want to know how I’m a Stranger Here fits into the band’s overall narrative.

Pete tells me, “I would say this is our darkest album to date but I also think it is one of the best we have ever made. This one is about things dying, which all things eventually will.”

DM3 recorded their new record with Buddy Miller at Dan Auerbach’s (Black Keys) studio, Easy Eye, in Nashville, and according to Bernhard, Miller had a lot of positive influence shaping I’m a Stranger Here: “Recording with Buddy Miller was the best recording experience that we have had as a band to date. It was the most fun we have ever had in the studio hands down. Buddy helped us edit our arrangements and added some amazing musicians to the mix, as well.” Some of those musicians include The Preservation Hall Jazz Band who plays on the track “Forty Days.”

The new album is a testament to the hard times and good times of life on the road as a touring band. “It’s about the rootless nature of traveling from town to town with little sense of community, represented by a devil-like character ‘Stranger.’” Travel, and rootlessness, is in the bone marrow of this trio. Turino, McBean, and Bernhard all left their rural homes in Vermont and moved out west—“We all grew up in the same very small and rural area of southern Vermont and migrated West like large stupid drunken birds in our early twenties,” Bernhard tells me. Since then the band has been based out of Santa Cruz, Sacramento, Austin, and Vermont. Even now, each member spends his or her off time in different cities. And if there were hard times throughout the band’s history, they’ve grown from them. “We made it through our internal struggles successfully, which many bands don’t, so I think we are lucky in some ways. On another note, it was a lot of hard work so maybe we were just willing to do that work to keep the band together,” Bernhard says. “Getting to be a musician and not have another job is all we ever wanted, but the last few years have been some of the best. Our shows have been amazing and we are getting the chance to open for and play with some of our heroes.” Some of these heroes include Willy Nelson and Emma Lou Harris.

Perhaps the secret ingredient of The Devil Makes Three’s music is history. Not just personal history, nor musical predecessors, or capitol H, timeline, dates and names, History—but the insides of history, the guts and heart, the grief and stunning truth of it all.

If you don’t believe me, come see them play on November 6 at the Blue Moose Tap House. One thing is certain about The Devil Makes Three they put on one hell of a show. And I’d be surprised if you don’t find yourself clapping, stomping and hollering along to the lyrics. In fact, when I saw them play Iowa City last fall, I witnessed a young man so enraptured by the music, as if in some spiritual ecstasy, he had no choice but to yell RAAR and pour an entire tall can of beer over his head. Now, if that’s not religion, I don’t know what is.

Stream I’m a Stranger Here via Paste Magazine before its October 29 release.

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