High concept alert! The impossible-to-pigeonhole Santa Cruz outfit—are they Americana? Punk? Indie rock?—enlists a stellar casts of guests for their new covers album and lives to tell about it.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Over the course of four studio albums and a decade and a half on the road, The Devil Makes Three has managed to bring together punk rockers and the cowboy booted set, bluegrass devotees and folk purists, Americana hipsters, and even the occasional jam band fan. Despite—or more likely, because of—the Sisyphean task of trying to categorize the trio, they have managed to attract fans of all ilk.
Pete Bernhard, the guitarist/front man for The Devil Makes Three, is just as surprised by their appeal to all kinds, as he shared in a recent interview with Blurt. Surprised, but still stoked by the reaction they get from fans of just about every genre out there. On the eve of the band’s latest release, Redemption & Ruin (New West Records), a concept covers album, Bernhard talked about the record, the stellar lineup of guests on the record (which include Emmy Lou Harris, Tim O’Brien, Jerry Douglas, Darrell Scott, and guitar great Duane Eddy) and their inexplicably broad appeal. (Bernhard is joined in the band by Lucia Turino and Cooper McBean.)
BLURT: I didn’t realize at first that this was a concept album, I just thought you had a lot of songs about weed. How did you come up with the idea of not only doing a covers album, but having it revolve around a concept?
BERNHARD: It’s sort of a two-pronged thing: it’s a way for us to pay tribute to all the people we admire and also a way to let people know about the influences on our band. That’s why we decided to do a record of covers. A lot of time we’ll do interviews and people will say, “You don’t sound like any other band.” This is sort of a way for us to show the roots of the band and where we got our inspiration from.
As far as the concept is concerned, we thought it would be really fun to do something where the concept hinges on two separate sides of the record; so you have Side A being “ruin,” and Side B being about “redemption”. So one side about weed, drinking, heartache, and sort of screwing up your life, and the other side of the record is all gospel songs and about trying to piece your life back together. Gospel is another big influence on the band, especially the rhythm of gospel music; it’s such fun music to play. Everybody in the band is big fans of vinyl so we really liked the idea of two different sides of the record.
This does seem like the ideal record to buy on vinyl.
Yeah, we all have pretty substantial vinyl collections. I guess in a way, too, it’s also a way to inspire folks to buy it on vinyl. I like the way you have to pay attention to what you’re listening to on vinyl. You have to put it on and when the side ends you have to turn it over. I think it’s the exact opposite way people tend to experience music these days: throwing on an infinite mix and listening to it all day.
The cover art is also pretty compelling on this record.
Thank you. The cover art is from a Santa Cruz artist who we’ve known since we started the band. Her name is Janinia Larenas and she did a bunch of artwork for us over the years. She’s done t-shirt designs, she’s done stickers, but this is the first time she’s done an album cover for us. We just love her work and most of the art work we’ve done with this band we try and use artists we know and most of the art work is from Santa Cruz.
Was it easier to find songs for one particular side of the record (Ruin vs. Redemption)?
The whole thing was actually pretty hard to find songs for. This is the first time we’ve done a whole record with a concept behind it and it became hard to find songs that we liked, that fit the band and that fit the concept. It was a lot harder than we thought it would be. We’d find a song and then realize, “Oh, we already have a song about smoking pot or about heartbreak. We need a song about being suicidal now.” Or, “We already have a really upbeat gospel songs, what about a slower one?” So it was a lot harder than we thought it would be. We probably started with 40 or 50 tunes, they were all great songs, but we started to demo them and some were great, but just didn’t click with the band. When we finally got into the studio with the songs we wanted it was really easy and fun.
With only three members of the band it’s got to be easy to be democratic about it.
Yeah, it really is. We all have been doing this long enough that we know pretty quickly when something clicks with the band. And like you said, it doesn’t sound like a record of covers and that’s what we were going for to try and pick songs that suited the band. We wanted to pick songs that sounded like something we would play and that showcase our influences. Some of the songs are really obscure, some are in public domain, some are traditional songs, some are more popular, but we felt that each one clicked with us as a band.
You also have some pretty solid guests on this one. Did you ever have a moment of intimidation playing with any of these musicians?
Yeah, we did for sure. One of the things that was really fun about this is most of the recording we did was live, so we would have the guest come in, we’d sort of work on the arrangements and we didn’t really have them set in stone, because they were all really good players, so wanted them to add their own things to the songs; so we’d record it right afterward, which is definitely intimidating… It was really fun, and because we were playing with really great people we all wanted to do a great job, so I think it put a lot of pressure on the record, but in a good way. It was really a lot of fun. I hope to do it again that way. In a way, these musicians kind of co-produced each track – we’d all sit down and talk through the ideas.
Had you met most of these folks prior to showing up at the studio?
We had not met Duane Eddy, Darrell Scott, and a couple of the other guys. Most of the people we had already met, like Mickey Raphael, who’s the awesome harmonica player for Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas, Chance (McCoy) from Old Crow Medicine Show, we’d met a lot of these people because we’d opened for a lot of them before or played shows with them. We said to a lot of these, “If we ever record in Nashville would you play on a song?” and that’s what happened. It was also a record of songs by some great artists which I think attracted a lot of people, like Emmylou Harris doing a Townes Van Zandt song. We’ve been keeping a list of people we wanted to record with in our back pocket.
Below: no pigeonholes allowed.
The fact that you guys are hard to pigeonhole – some call you punk, others Bluegrass or country – has that led to some odd tours or pairings?
Most definitely and it almost always worked, with a few exceptions. We’ve played with Social Distortion. That is a weird pairing and it worked. We’ve played with the strangest combinations of bands. We’ve played with Flogging Molly, we’ve played with Willie Nelson, we’ve played with Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, it’s really been all over the map. We’ve also played with some Grateful Dead inspired bands – like the Yonder Mountain String Band—that are way into the jam side of things and we don’t really do that at all. The Dead or cool, but we are more inspired by the early version before they really became a jam band.
Do you see that as a challenge?
Yeah it is a challenge, but I really like to see what happens and how opened minded people can be. I really like doing that. We’ve sort of decided we’ll try anything once. If someone wants us to play a jam band festival, we’ll do it; if someone wants us to play a punk festival, we’ll do it or if its bluegrass. And we don’t really fit into any of these genres necessarily, but with a few exceptions, they tend to work out pretty well.
(The band is touring. Duh. Check dates at TheDevilMakesThree.com. Below: watch the band in a live studio performance from last year)