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14 Apr 2015

The Odd Band Out: The Devil Makes Three Rides a String of Successful Folk-Bluegrass Albums All the Way to Stagecoach

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The Devil Makes Three. The Devil Makes Three. Piper Ferguson

The Devil Makes Three is used to being “the odd band out”—yet that has not stopped the band from enjoying a lot of success since its founding in 2002.

After touring with big names such as Willie Nelson, and playing at festivals such as Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, the band will be sharing its folk-bluegrass sound with the crowd at Stagecoach on Saturday, April 25.

The Devil Makes Three’s members—Pete Bernhard (vocals, guitar), Lucia Turino (upright bass) and Cooper McBean (banjo, guitar)—originally hail from Brattleboro, Vt. During a recent phone interview, Bernhard talked about the band’s name.

“To be honest, it was just sort of convenient, because there were three of us,” Bernhard said. “When we first started the band, we were all arguing over what the name should be, and no one could agree—and we had already recorded our first album. We were really needing to put the album out, and we didn’t have a band name. A friend of ours suggested it, and it instantly sounded like it was the right thing. Everybody simultaneously agreed—which is really rare in a band—and we went with it.”

While they call Vermont home, the members all eventually made their way to California.

“We all moved out West separately,” Bernhard said. “Cooper went to Olympia, Wash. I went to Northern California, and we all started gravitating toward Santa Cruz, eventually. I think when we were kids in Vermont, we thought California was about as far away from home as you could get—and that was just really appealing to us. We all sort of fell in love with Santa Cruz, and that’s where we eventually started the band, and where we lived.”

The Devil Makes Three’s music often features storytelling and dark themes.

“Most of the songs are inspired by things that have actually happened,” Bernhard said. “Occasionally, I write a song that’s a character-driven song, which is almost like writing fiction. Most of the time, it’s stories of people I know, or songs about political events or satire. I just try to write a song that makes sense, and not to write a song that’s typical with the sound of the music we make, which is very old.”

The band has had success—including a series of Top 10 albums on the bluegrass chart—and it’s come, in part, because the band often plays to audiences that are not used to their type of music.

“We’re almost always the odd band out,” Bernhard said. “We’ve played with all kinds of different bands. We’ve played with punk bands; we’ve played with rock bands; we’ve played with experimental bands, and straightforward country acts and folk acts. No matter what, we tend to always never fit in. It’s just sort of the nature of our group, and when we first started the band, it made things really hard for us—but now, I think of it as a positive attribute. Being a band that is hard to define is a good thing.”

The Devil Makes Three’s newest album, I’m a Stranger Here, released by New West Records, has been the band’s most successful. Produced by Buddy Miller, the album was recorded at Easy Eye in Nashville, a studio owned by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys.

“This album was the first album we ever worked on with a producer,” Bernhard said. “… We also put a lot of extra instrumentation on the album that we usually don’t do, so that was very different. The process of songwriting was partially in the hands of Buddy Miller as well. It was about as different of an approach as we could get compared to our previous albums.”

Bernhard said Auerbach’s studio is basic—in a good way.

“It’s a very simple studio,” he said. “It’s one live tracking room that’s fairly big, and it’s sort of a low concrete building. It has a lounge and a control room—and that’s really about it. It really lends itself to recording. There’s no isolation like in other studios, where there’s a room for the drums, a room for vocals, and a room for a guitar amps. His studio has nothing like that at all. It’s like the Sun Records studio and those old studios that were two-track recording studios, so basically everything had to be live.”

The simple, live approach works well for the Devil Makes Three.

“We always play live in the studio,” he said. “We’re definitely happy after making the last record with Buddy—that was his approach, too. He was like, ‘We all play together, and we try to get the best take.’ That’s what you hear on the album. His approach was to get not nitpicky, and he told us, ‘When we have the best take, that’s what goes on the record.’ That’s really how we like to do it. We’re a band that needs to play together at the same time to sound good. That’s the approach we’ll take on future albums as well, and that’s the best.”

After more than a decade with the Devil Makes Three, Bernhard said he has no regrets.

“I think for us, most of our tough times came early on,” he said. “We really struggled for a lot of years with a lot of hard touring and no money. That can be hard and really tough. We were also in our early 20s, and that brings another host of problems. We were just young and didn’t really know what we were doing.

“Even though it’s taken us a really long time to get where we are now, I don’t think I would do it another way. We’ve had a chance to learn how to be in a band before we were a big enough band to where it was necessary to know it all.”

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