The Devil Makes Three: Redemption Songs
by Matt Inman on January 20, 2017
Pete Bernhard is onstage at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Rough Trade for a short matinee performance with his band in support of their new album that dropped a few days earlier. The Devil Makes Three guitarist and lead vocalist is flanked by childhood friend and banjoist Cooper McBean and their longtime bandmate and bassist Lucia Turino. The in-store session marks the soft beginning of their fall tour.
“Instead of being about killing yourself with drugs and alcohol,” Bernhard announces in anticipation of the next song, “This one’s about Jesus.”
The trio then launches into their rendition of “I Am the Man Thomas,” a tune written and originally recorded by bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, which now finds a home on the “Redemption” side of The Devil Makes Three’s new covers record, Redemption & Ruin. It’s a collection of tracks written by artists ranging from Robert Johnson to Tom Waits, all of whom have influenced the old-timey-punk ethos that TDM3 have curated since the Vermont-by-way-of-California trio officially came together shortly after the turn of the Millennium.
The “Ruin” side of the album doesn’t come as a surprise—throughout the band’s first four studio albums and two raucous live releases, Bernhard has spun tales of drinking, drugs and self-destruction in his songwriting—but the “Redemption” side of things, which draws heavily from gospel tradition, might seem a bit more ill-fitting. But, as Bernhard says, in certain ways, he and his bandmates have been misjudged since the beginning, and they’re just fine with that.
“A lot of times, when we talk to people about our band, they don’t really understand where we’re coming from,” Bernhard says. That misunderstanding might start with appearances— Bernhard and McBean both sport tattoos that cover their left arms, which can be seen when they’re strumming their respective guitar and banjo; McBean dons long hair, a bristly beard and ear gauges; and Turino occasionally reveals a large steer skull tattoo that stretches across her collarbones.
While one might expect some noisy, three-chord punk from such a trio, they instead deliver a hefty dose of rockabilly-influenced twang. “Musically, it’s like a mystery to them,” Bernhard continues. “‘You’re not this and you’re not that—what exactly are you?’ Personally, I think it’s great when you can’t figure out a band because that just means that it’s something different.”
This clash of styles made for an interesting start to the group’s career. At their early shows, The Devil Makes Three paired with a wide variety of acts as both the band and bookers tried to figure out just exactly where this type of music fit.
“We didn’t know anything about the regular touring scene, the folk music scene or anything like that,” McBean remembers. “Pete had a copy of Book Your Own Fucking Life—a DIY-punk collection of email addresses and phone numbers—so we just started calling people and basically booked punk tours, playing in basements and living rooms between really, really fucking loud bands.”
“I mean, we look like punks,” Turino adds. “So they were sort of like, ‘Alright, get in there.’”
For the most part, the punk scene tended to welcome the folky newcomers. “Some of the time, there were a lot of blank faces—like, ‘What the fuck are these guys doing playing at a hardcore show?’” McBean says. “But the cool thing about the punk scene, at that point at least, is that people tend to have pretty open minds. They’d go to see a hardcore band, but if there was a weird folk band playing, they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s cool.’ Or they’d go out and smoke a cigarette—didn’t matter.”
“In those early days, we played with pretty much anyone who would let us on the stage,” Bernhard adds. “We did some very strange gigs— everything from playing with a thrash-metal band that was on tour in California to playing with a totally Dead-inspired, one-song-is-40-minutes-long kind of band. Really, we’d play with anyone who would give us a chance.”
On the other side of the spectrum, the trio also found themselves on bills with more traditional folk and bluegrass acts, which yielded mixed results from both fans and the bands themselves. “We got more raised eyebrows when we tried to play the super folky shows,” Turino says. “Our music was very influenced by blues and bluegrass and old-time and jazz, but we’re not traditionalists—we’re not good enough to play a lot of that stuff the way it was originally designed to be played—so we made it our own.”
“A lot of the people who were playing bluegrass during that time didn’t really like the fact that we had a drummer,” Bernhard says. “I think we were a little too hard-edged for that scene. We wanted people to dance, and we did a lot of, like, drinking songs. We had a hard time getting shows at first but, later on, it did really help us to gain momentum.”
“But even then, back when we were young, most people were like, ‘It’s good to see young people [playing this music]. It’s great that you guys are even trying,’” Turino says. And despite their unorthodox mash-up of genres, The Devil Makes Three have benefitted somewhat from folk and bluegrass music’s rise in popularity over the past decade and a half. Besides more pop-influenced bands like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, the art of traditional bluegrass has been revived and revamped by groups like Old Crow Medicine Show, Yonder Mountain String Band and Greensky Bluegrass, all of whom, like TDM3 themselves, face the challenge of interpreting pre-war music for a modern audience.
“One of the things I hope to do for the tradition in general is to keep the subject matter current, to try to talk about things that are relevant to what’s happening now,” Bernhard says. “It’s our responsibility. Some people stick to the older things—they just stick to the ‘old-timey’ nature of the genre as far as songwriting is concerned. For us, I really try to write songs whose subject matter makes sense and will really grab people who are living on the planet Earth now. It’s the only way we’re going to keep this musical form alive. It can’t just be us playing the songs that people played years ago. That’s not gonna work because, eventually, people just tune out.”