Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pete Bernhard of The Devil Makes Three Discusses "Stomp and Smash"

Hi Pete, thanks very much for taking the time to do the interview. Before we dig into the new live album, I'd like to briefly discuss some history of the band.

First, let's start with your own personal musical experiences. When did you begin playing music? What inspired you to begin playing, writing, and performing?

Pete: My family was my biggest inspiration to play music. I started at about age 12 and my father gave me my first guitar and guitar lessons. My dad, my brother, my uncle and my aunt were all musicians. My brother probably encouraged my the most of everyone in the family and I grew up wanting to be a guitar player like him. Cooper also had a musical family I watched his mom perform with my aunt when I was in high school.

How did The Devil Makes Three get together? Can you describe how the band formed?

Pete: The Devil Makes Three was formed in Santa Cruz California in 2002. Cooper and I had been playing together in Olympia, Washington and when we broke down in Santa Cruz we borrowed Lucia's truck to finish the trip we were on. We all grew up in rural Vermont originally but we met up and started the group 3000 miles away in Santa Cruz. Lucia joined the group and we recorded our first record in the Santa Cruz mountains.

The band's sound seems to draw from a wide range of influences (country, bluegrass, rock, punk, etc). Can you describe some of your biggest influences?

Pete: The big influences for me would be Townes Van Zandt, Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Willie Dixon, Howling Wolf, Little Walter, Hound Dog Taylor, Doc Watson.... I could go on forever, so I will quit there. There is also rock and punk rock like you said, but I think all music has a lot in common and that if you like something, you should play it.

We have never really worried about genre in our group, we play what appeals to us. Our music leans hard toward blues, Jazz and swing and away from bluegrass but we love so many different styles that we do our best to fit them all in.

Can you discuss the band's working relationship?

Pete: I write almost all of our lyrics and the skeleton of our songs but Cooper has penned a few songs: "10 Ft Tall", "Gracefully Facedown", "River Deep", and "Judgment Day" (the ones he sings). About one per album. We collaborate on arrangement and parts. We all record and we all sing but we have yet to do a song where Lucia sings lead vocal.

The Devil Makes Three has an impressive discography. Without asking you to re-trace the band's trajectory with a fine tooth comb, can you briefly take newcomers through a little bit of each record?

Pete: Our first record was mainly songs I had written and stored up over the years and Lucia doesn't play on that record. Cooper and I didn't have any experience in the recording studio other than demos we had made with our friends. We learned a lot but not as much as we could have! Ha ha.

Our second album was also recorded in Santa Cruz and this was Lucia's first with the band, although she had been playing live for years at this point. That record was our first attempt at capturing the feel of our live show and the tempos sped up and we all sang harmony as well, which was a first. We started to play together as a band and arrange as a band as well.

Our third studio record, Do Wrong Right, was basically recorded live direct to tape in the basement of our house. We had professional gear set up and we just played and recorded it with minimal over dubbing or fixes. This album had a much more raw sound and also much more traditional country sound. The idea was to take as much time as we needed and just archive what happened in that room in the same way many of our favorite records were made at Chess Records and Sun Records.

With each recording I  think we learned what we liked and how we wanted it to sound and our first record and last sound very different from each other which, personally, I think is a good thing. Although it does make some people angry.

Can you describe how the idea turned into the decision to put together and release this live record? How did it all come together?

Pete: The idea came together when we played a show in Nashville awhile back and a friend told us that our records didn't capture the energy of the live show, and we all agreed. We wanted to make a record with the sound of the crowd loud and really line up the songs to mimic the set from beginning to end.

Basically, if you came to see us live and you wanted to take a piece of that home with you, here it is! I think we succeeded. Plus, being a live album, I think it fills a gap that we had in our recording history.

Speaking of the "live experience", what would you say is most rewarding for you most about performing live?

Pete: To put it simply: playing live is our favorite part of the whole package of being musicians. When it is clicking, it is the best feeling I have ever experienced.

Have you discovered something new or unexpected about your songs while performing live?

Pete: We are always tweaking and changing our songs and we come up with new ideas for songs long after we record them. Doing that allows us to keep things moving forward and never feel like we are finished with something for good.

Seeing us live should be fun if its not then we failed and we will refund your money! (Unless you're lying to save cash!). We encourage dancing and we want people on their feet and feeling that they are part of what's happening. When they are, we always put on a better show. Our set usually is written about 20 minutes before we go on stage on a napkin or piece of cardboard.

I loved your set at the Newport Folk festival (sadly I could not attend this year, but I have really been digging the NPR recording). How would you compare festivals vs more intimate venues? What does each offer for you personally?

Pete: We loved playing Newport, we got people out of their chairs- which I thought would be hard to do. It was such a great time.

We like festivals and clubs. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. At festivals, you can get a chance to see a lot of other musicians from the side of the stage. That has always been the best part for me, personally. If the stage is giant and the crowd is far away, at times a festival can feel like it is empty. Even when tons of people are watching, and that is not good for us. We like to know people are there.

Along those lines, can you name some of your favorite venues to play?

Pete: Newport folk Festival, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, One Eyed Jacks in New Orleans, The Grey Eagle in Asheville (even though we almost died from overheating last tour).

But to be honest, or us it has less to do with the venue than it does the crowd. A good crowd in  a high school gym or a tiny bar can be better that coolest club or festival.

How does touring and performing live influence your writing process afterwards?

Pete: The two are fairly separate for us. We write when we are off the road, and then test the new material out on tour. After the tour is over we see what's working and then try to make it work better.

What's next for the band? More touring? Is there a new studio record in the works?

Pete: Always more touring, and definitely another studio album. We have almost enough songs, all we need to do is finish them and maybe add a few more. We also need a producer (David Rawlings if your reading this your should write us a postcard). I think we found our engineer and studio.

On a final note, what have you been listening to lately?

Pete: Leo Kottke 6 and 12 String Guitar, Hank Williams, Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, The Byrds (Sweetheart of the Rodeo), and Old and in The Way.  

Well Pete, this has been great. Thanks very much for doing the interview. Good luck with the new record and I'm looking forward to seeing you when you come to New York next time.

Pete: Thanks for taking the time to do this. I'm looking forward to reading it.

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