The Devil Makes Three plays Red Butte on July 19.
Drawing from folk, hot jazz, all types of acoustic music and just enough edge to put punk on the list, The Devil Makes Three is a one-of-a-kind act that has been spellbinding audiences around the country. This drummer-less three-piece conjures up thoughts of Depression-era sting and jug bands, but remains relevant to the present day. I had a chance to talk to frontman Pete Bernhard about the genesis of such a band and where The Devil Makes Three fits in this contemporary music scene.
SLUG: How do three kids from the Northeast start playing in an all-acoustic folk band in Santa Cruz, Calif.?
Pete Bernhard: I was playing and interested in this kind of music before we started the band, and I met Cooper (guitar/banjo). We both moved to Washington about the same time and started playing together. Back then, this is about 10 years ago, it was hard to find like-minded people, so we knew each other from home and were the only other people we knew who were into old blues and ragtime. Then, when we went down to Santa Cruz, our bass player Lucia had gone to college at UC Santa Cruz and was already living there. She joined and that was where we started the Devil Makes Three.
SLUG: When did you first hear this kind of music?
Bernhard: I was pretty young when I first started to hear folk music from my family. My dad and uncle and brother were all guitar players. From a very young age, my dad introduced me to old blues stuff from his record collection. It was great to have my family to use as a resource.
SLUG: What other kinds of bands had you been in?
Bernhard: Cooper and I had played in a couple of punk bands, but not together. I started playing just by myself with an acoustic guitar, and Cooper and I were in this kind of country band, but since we started Devil Makes Three, that’s all we’ve really done.
SLUG: What was the initial reception to the band and your style?
Bernhard: People hated us, but we didn’t worry about it and just kept doing it. If you worry too much about what the audience thinks, everything just sounds the same. Everyone I knew was in a punk band, and that just wasn’t interesting enough for us. There’s a connection between punk and folk and country, I think. They all tell first-person stories that are usually true. It’s why Johnny Cash is so big in the punk scene. In our minds, it wasn’t that big of a transition. It was all hard-luck stories, and we would play with punk bands. It just took a while for them to come around.
SLUG: Do you identify with bluegrass bands like Old Crow Medicine Show or the Del McCoury band?
Bernhard: When I think of those bands, I put them in a more bluegrass tradition than I think we are. Those guys are amazing pickers and players, but we come from more of a Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Three school. Melody and lyrics are more what we’re about. I guess you could say they’re more Van Halen and we’re more Ramones. I think we’re more based in blues.
SLUG: Being an acoustic three-piece without a drummer, what challenges do you face in a live setting?
Bernhard: Without a drummer and only three of us on stage, we’re limited, but we let our songs do the talking. The songs have great rhythms and people really respond to them. We get people dancing and yelling at every show. It’s a lot of great energy. We want to have fun. My favorite thing about our shows is how different the people are—people who usually don’t hang out together. We get people who don’t really like the genre we play, but they like our band, which we take as huge compliment.
SLUG: Lyrically, where do you draw from?
Bernhard: I’m always kind of listening for interesting stories. Anything that happens to me will generally get turned into a song. I do some fictional character writing, which can be a lot of fun, but for the most part I just am always watching and listening for anything that could make an interesting song.
The Devil Makes Three continues to grow their audience on the basis of originality and authenticity. They tell stories of real people, and that’s what folk music has always been about. In the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Robert Johnson, The Devil Makes Three are the rare genuine modern outfit. The Devil Makes Three plays Red Butte on July 19.