“You look at someone like Johnny Cash, well there was no punk then, but Johnny Cash has got to be one of the most punk figures out there!” declares Pete Bernhard, guitarist and frontman for The Devil Makes Three, speaking by phone from the band’s Santa Cruz base.
The Devil Makes Three, a trio formed by stand-up bassist Lucia Turino and guitarist Cooper McBean took their name from an old song “You and me and the devil makes three.” However, despite loving traditional music, the band has developed a reputation for putting on the liveliest bluegrass shows around, with driving rhythms that could be the envy of even much larger groups. To do this they have taken inspiration, Bernhard says, in highly rhythmic traditions such Django Reinhardt’s “hot gypsy jazz” where the danceability comes about without any percussion instruments.
But there are more ways that the group stands out in comparison than the usual suspects in bluegrass, and Bernhard explains how the band has developed their edgy, highly energetic style: “The Devil Makes Three has been a band for about ten years, and we started playing with punk bands. We were always interested in acoustic music, fingerpicking, blues and old country music even when we were into punk rock, but we played those gigs and venues because all our friends were in the punk community and they were the ones that gave us the opportunity to play with them.”
“There’s always been a connection between punk music and country and bluegrass,” Bernhard continues, “especially in terms of the songwriting – they all depend on storytelling, particularly hard-luck stories.” Bernhard, who is the main composer for the group, does clarify that his stories – which tend to tales of whiskey, helplessness, wrong-doing and other trials and tribulations – don’t all come from personal experience. This is part of the power of the music, he adds: “A great song is like a gift. Once you’ve done it, it no longer belongs to you, it came from somewhere and goes from the audience. You don’t have any ownership and everybody has a different relationship with it, like a child that goes out into the world and grows up.”
The Devil Makes Three also likes to take their swinging beats to venues that are more characteristic of punk and rock music, says Bernhard: “Anyone who has been to a punk show knows its not like going to a theater to sit down and listen. We’ve made an effort to play venues where people stand up, like a rock show, where young people can come.”
It’s about giving the audience something special to take away, Bernhard concludes: “When you put on a great performance, you have this experience of not thinking at all, most musicians love it for that – you are very much in the moment. Punk shows have great energy. We want people to leave with that energy. Our musical mission is to have that happen in our live performances, and for people to leave inspired.”
The Devil Makes Three plays the Aragon with Flogging Molly on February 18