The glorious dichotomy to The Devil Makes Three is that the music, a seamless combination of bluegrass, ragtime, folk, blues and country, is soaked in rootsy authenticity—it reeks of old timey storytelling and an overt respect for America's musical history—but there's a hard edge that keeps the band well away from "quaint" territory.
Of course, the concept of outlaw country singers and bad-boy artists is as old as the music; this outfit is hardly the first to play with dark imagery within traditional styles—sex, drink, drugs and violence all pop up their stained heads in the poetic lyrics—but in this modern world, few contemporary bands go so dark without mixing harder genres, like punk or even rockabilly, into the sound.
That said, The Devil Makes Three turned 15 years old this year, and guitarist/singer Pete Bernhard swears that their sound has evolved massively in that time; originally it just consisted of Cooper McBean on guitar and banjo, alongside Bernhard. Around the time that the self-titled debut came out in 2002, upright bassist Lucia Turino joined and the core trio was in place. Other musicians come in and out without officially joining the band.
"Now, the type of music we write is different," Bernhard says. "We have a much bigger set-up. We have fiddle, baritone guitar, guitar, banjo, drums, bass, and now four of us singing. It's evolved a lot and it's still evolving. Right now I'm working on songs for our new record. I'm really excited about them—they're very different than anything we've done before, which is always what we're shooting for. All I can say is that it's really fun and exciting to play. I think we're leaning harder on the rhythm of the song than we ever have before."
It's quite unusual that a band that has been around for that length of time has managed to retain the three original members, and Bernhard knows that the stability is important. It's particularly impressive because the members of the band are currently spread between Austin, Vermont, and Nashville. But they make it work; the core three write and rehearse in Vermont, and then get the rest of the musicians together just before touring or recording.
"When we've been apart for a long time taking a break and then we get back together, it's just like riding a bike," Bernhard says. "We're all so used to playing with each other and it just clicks, and that doesn't happen with people you haven't played with for 10-plus years. I think it's really important. We don't have to talk about much."
Just over a year ago, in September of 2016, the band released Redemption & Ruin, an album of covers, carefully picked by the members of the group to showcase the artists that have inspired them over the years (Muddy Waters, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Robert Johnson and Tom Waits all show up). For Bernhard, the process wasn't nearly as satisfying as releasing a full album of original material, but it was still fun.
"We'd never done anything like it before," he says. "It's been good, but I don't think it's as good as an album of originals by any means. That's always more exciting for the fans and for us too. We have a tendency to take a long time between records. We're always trying to look for projects to do. Some bands put out a record every year, and we tend to be every two or three years."
Thankfully, the band is working on a new album, which features all their own work. It should be due out next year. That means that Bernhard is currently in full-on songwriter mode, soaking in inspiration from everywhere.
"I think we just tend to write about whatever's going on in our lives," he says. "Our last album of originals was kind of like a lot of sad songs, because we had a lot of bummer things happen in our lives. A friend died and stuff like that. This record, I don't know exactly what the theme of it is going to be. All of the songs are along different lines, depending on what's going on. We just went in and demoed the whole record. We did pre-production, and we're just now listening to it and thinking, 'OK, what album do we have here?' We're sorting through the songs and having a theme emerge but I'm not exactly sure what it is yet, thematically."
With the whole album demos, the guys are now meeting with producers, and Bernhard is hoping that they'll be able to finish it up in January, when the current tour is over and before the next one starts around February. The band is on a roll and wants to keep that momentum going, which is admirable. We'll be able to see that work ethic first-hand this week when they hit Tucson.
"We actually haven't been to Tucson in a really long time," Berhhard says. "It's been a while. I would say at least three years. But we love playing there, and we historically have a really good crowd in Arizona. We went there a lot when we first started touring, but I don't know why, it just came off the schedule for a bit. If you haven't seen us in a few years, you can expect a lot of new material. Since the last time we played in Tucson, the majority of it will be new to the people there, which is really cool for us. I like playing for audiences that haven't seen us."
Besides a well-earned break for the holidays, the stop here is all part of the bigger machine that these fine musicians have created and are happy to continue to oil and maintain. Like the many Americana bands and artists that have come before them, The Devil Makes Three know that only hard work and a desire to stay on the road and play will offer them any chance of continuing success.