A conversation with Pete Bernhard of The Devil Makes Three

Photographer: Press photos (Piper Ferguson)

The Sirens let loose their sultry harmony, and Everett, Pete, and Delmar – unable to resist temptation – follow the call to the river’s edge in the Coen Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? On stage, The Devil Makes Three perform a similar spell, reeling the crowd in with a line of focused, intense energy – the audience hanging on every word, every note, in a foot stomping trance.

By bending musical genres to create their own unique sound – a fusion of folk, punk, ragtime and blues with a dash of old-school country – TDM3 has amassed a treasure trove of loyal fans from coast to coast and across the pond while charting their fantastical journey. With more than a decade on the road under their belt, TDM3 has seen – and played – it all, from house parties in Santa Cruz, CA, to festivals in the Netherlands, the Newport Folk Festival and Bonnaroo. When I caught up with Pete Bernhard in mid-May, the band was on tour with Old Crow Medicine Show, playing a string of dates in Florida before heading west. On Saturday, TDM3 makes its long-overdue return to the region to play the Chameleon Club in Lancaster.


Michelle Ciarrocca: Whether coincidence or serendipity – I’ve no idea – but I happened to watch the Coen Brothers’ film last night. Is that where the band’s namesake originated – from that Gillian Welch song?

Pete Bernhard: Actually, a friend of ours came up with it. We had already recorded an album and couldn’t figure out what to call the band. She said, “there’s three of you, and the devil makes three,” and we just went with it. I’m pretty sure the line is from a traditional song, but a lot of the folk thing is taking traditional songs and making them your own, so I’m not sure. I love that movie and the Coen Brothers.

MC: How did you get your start as a band?

PB: We’re all from Southern Vermont – same area, but different towns. Cooper (McBean) and I go back to elementary school. We met Lucia (Turino) in high school. We all had mutual friends in Santa Cruz and just kind of gravitated there – that’s where the band started. Our first few tours were mostly house shows and small bars – the whole D.I.Y. punk scene. I have a lot of respect for that scene.

The Devil Makes Three

MC: More than 10 years as a band, touring and playing, I imagine you’ve learned a few lessons during that time.

PB: We always hoped to be doing this for this long. We’ve sort of grown up as a band. We’re better songwriters, better players, better at recording. We’ve had a slow and steady progression, but we’ve always done better than the year before. I guess that’s not necessarily what everybody wants, but it’s worked out pretty great for us – especially as independent musicians. It’s probably the best way to build a fan base.

MC: What’s gotten easier or harder?

PB: Everything has gotten easier. As you get older, it is a lot of time away from home. But, I’m so used to it as this point, I don’t know what I would do otherwise. Sometimes we complain about it, but you know, it’s a pretty good problem to have.

MC: What’s your process for creating a song? You’re on tour so much, when do you write?

PB: It’s hard to write on the road. Some bands can do that – we’re not one of them. I sort of have to wait for inspiration. I always try to write when I have free time, every day. I don’t necessarily have a routine, but I do work every day. I try and provide the space and make it possible. I write a lot of songs, find one that grabs me – one that I can’t get out of my head – and work on that one. We’re actually going to be taking a little time later this summer to write. I write the songs, the lyrics and basic music, then Cooper and Lucia write the harmonies, and we arrange them together.

MC: Your songs, the lyrics – they’re very visual, like short films.

PB: Painting a really vivid picture – that’s the goal of songwriting, as far as I’m concerned.

MC: Upright bass, a banjo, guitar – people might be surprised when they hear a punk vibe in your sound. What are some of your influences?

PB: I’ve never tried to steer us in one genre direction. We learned everything we know we from punk music, but we’re also really influenced by the blues and jazz, old country, all kinds of different stuff: Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Lefty Frizzell.

MC: What were some of the punk bands?

PB: Operation Ivy, Rancid, a lot of noise and experimental music, the Ramones, Misfits, The Clash. Johnny Cash – even though his music is not really punk, I read his autobiography; he was the punkest guy alive.

MC: What’s on your playlist today?

PB: A lot of old music: Django, Hank Williams, Lefty, Willie. Also, the bands I’ve met and have a personal connection to or have shared a stage with. There’s so much out there, I sort of wait for things to come to me, so people like Joe Fletcher, J.P. Harris. I’m a big fan of Brown Bird – we were pretty close with them, toured a lot together before Dave [Lamb] passed away. Sometimes MorganEve [Swain] comes out and plays with us.

MC: Your most recent album, I’m A Stranger Here, released in the fall of 2013, is a really solid album from beginning to end.

PB: I really like that album a lot, it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had making a record. It was also the first album we’ve made working with a producer proper – Buddy Miller. I’m hoping we can make another record with him.

MC: “Goodbye Old Friend” hits so sad and beautifully on the duality of love and hate, relationships lost, moving on, letting go. Was that written to anyone in particular?

PB: All songs are to somebody to some degree… I don’t think I’ve ever written a song to one person. And if I did, I’d definitely lie about it. [For] that song, a lot of people that I was close to passed away – that’s part of it. It’s also a relationship song – being attracted to the wrong person over and over again and losing some people close to me. It was a tough year. Experiences point in that direction. It makes for that kind of song…a great song to end the record with.

MC: What’s on the horizon for you – near and far?

PB: To be honest, writing more material – that’s big for me. I really want to go back to Europe. I feel like we started building something there. I’d like to demo some new material. We’re also in the process of putting together our own record label so we can re-release all of our back catalogue – release all our own records.

MC: Would you produce others?

PB: I’d really like to. I don’t really have the time, but that’s the idea behind it – to put out our records, then eventually get behind others and put out an EP, take them on tour. It’s just hard to carve out time, but I’d like to give other people we believe in a hand.

MC: Who helped you out?

PB: Lots of people – a local Americana music promoter, radio DJs getting the music out there. Todd Snider took us out on one of his tours – California, Texas, New Mexico.

MC: I love Todd Snider!

PB: When Todd’s on, it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen… He’s really got that thing, that…

MC: Little bit of magic?

PB: Yes!


Catch The Devil Makes Three at the Chameleon Club (223 N. Water St., Lancaster) on Saturday, July 25. Sam Outlaw opens. 8 p.m. All ages. $17.50 adv./$20 at the door. Click here for tickets.

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