With no other goal but to play acoustic music that was fun to see live, Pete Bernhard and Cooper McBean dropped the punk rock.
In those first days, The Devil Makes Three was somewhat directionless, mildly reformed hellions who simply wanted to put on an energetic show. The Devil Makes Three returns to Tucson for an early show on Thursday night at Club Congress (18+, 7 p.m., with Jonny Corndawg opening).
“In a sense it happened by accident,” Bernhard says. “I was always into acoustic music and so was Cooper. We’d been in other bands and they were mostly punk bands or louder bands. When we started paying together, only real intention we had was playing acoustic music. I don’t think we knew what we wanted to sound like then, but we do now.”
Bernhard and McBean met in junior high in southern Vermont and moved out West afterwards, settling for a while in Olympia, Wash. Visiting Lucia Turino, another old Vermont friend in Santa Cruz, Calif., they found not only a new home but recruited Turino to join the band on upright bass.
It’s no surprise that the band started out with little in the way of a specific plan drew on a long string of largely bygone influences: country, blues, ragtime jazz and bluegrass, all stitched together with a strong sense of get-up-and-dance rhythm. But The Devil Makes Three plays neither strictly old-timey music nor the sort of revival folk that’s taken bands like Mumford & Sons to platinum sales.
“Even with a lot of acoustic bands out there now and the big surge of folk music, our band is unique,” Bernhard says.
So while it may be a little tough to define The Devil Makes Three, it suits the band just fine to be without an easy descriptive term.
“We’ve never taken the time. We like the fact that there isn’t one,” he says. “Acoustic music is huge now. It’s funny it’s such a big genre, there are so many different bands under the same umbrella and they don’t belong under the same umbrella.”
The band released its self-titled debut album a decade ago and has put out four more since, the last three on Los Angeles-based Milan Records. Do Wrong Right (2009) and the live Stomp & Smash (2011) in particular have gained the band nationwide attention, with songs of hard times and self-inflicted hard times played expertly on guitar, banjo and bass.
“I like to write about things that I feel are true,” says Bernhard. “Some people are really into writing love songs and maybe that’s what true for them, but that doesn’t interest me much. There are already so many great songs out there about that subject matter, so I’m trying to writer a different type of song and tell a story.”
Songs like “Gracefully Facedown” and “Old Number Seven” aren’t just about drinking, but filled with lyrics that expose a whole world of down-and-outers searching for better days.
In “For Good Again,” Bernhard writes of drifters, artists and songwriters who’ve hit the trail in search of inspiration, crashing in couches and attics along the way. It's a “low-level existence,” of paying rent in illegal drugs, but with a silver lining: “I wrote songs in that attic that I now get paid to play.”
“Everybody who’s anybody in my opinion at one time lived in somebody’s hallway,” Bernhard sings.
It’s those writers — Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt — who spent part of their days roaming who’ve given Bernhard the itch to do the same.
“Those people have always been my heroes, they really have. God knows why, but I’ve always felt a real kinship with them and loved them as artists and songwriters. I’ve always wanted to travel, so listening to their songs and hearing about their lives was a big inspiration in my life,” he says. “Being a musician or an artist, everybody has to make sacrifices in their lives and for me they’re worthwhile sacrifices to make. A nomadic existence is part of the deal, but for me it wasn’t that hard of a choice to make.”
Like his heroes, Bernhard finds his songs out in the world, picking up characters from stories he’s heard, things he’s read, things he sees rolling into new towns.
“They’re almost always from my friends or friends of friends,” he says. “Most of them are just things happening in life or from people I know. In a lot of ways, I just collect stories and if I’m not doing that, it’s usually inspired by something somebody says. I’m always on the lookout. I almost never stop.”
And like his blues, country and folk heroes, those stories tend to be mostly about hard times and struggles.
“Those are the kind of songs I grew up listening to, so I’m really draw to that type of story. I want to tell those types of stories. It really is hard in the states now and especially when we travel and see a lot of places where none of the businesses are open any more, it’s really hard,” he says. “You can go into a city that really isn’t a major city any more. It’s pretty depressing. It’s hard to not notice, I think, when you do what we do. I have hope for the future, I don’t want it to be the way it is, but at the same time you have to see it.”
But while his songs are stories, Bernhard isn’t interested in turning his pen to “message” type of songs.
“We record and we play and I sing what I have to say at the time. I think if you thinking about it too much it becomes forced. You can really start to micromanage you’re own creative process. If it doesn’t come out I don’t try to make it,” he says. “A really great song is one I don’t feel like I worked on that hard, it’s just sort of come along. Townes Van Zandt called ‘Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold’ a sky song, he sat down and write it on one sitting.”
The Devil Makes Three is in the early stages of the band’s first album of new material in almost four years. They’ve recorded some demos and have been working a bunch of new songs into the live shows. And, Bernhard says, making some clear progress as a band.
“The sound of what we’re doing is definitely changing. We’re trying some things out we’ve never done before. Lucia is singing more, she’s going to lead a song on our next record, which she’s never done before,” he says.
The last time The Devil Makes Three played Tucson was March 2009 (on an eclectic pre-SXSW Plush bill with Jason Lytle and Richard Swift) and Bernhard says the band is much improved since then.
“I think we’ve learned a lot about putting on a good show and how to have a lot of fun when we were playing. When we first started w were still kind of learning our instruments so there was a ton of concentration going on in the show, but now we just can relax a lot more.
“We were pretty young and now we’re a lot more comfortable on stage. We were a little afraid performing and kind of hanging on for dear life learning how to play and now we can enjoy ourselves a lot more on stage and it transmits to the audience. We had a blast when we first started, but we didn’t necessarily put on a great show. It gets better and better all the time.”