Devil Makes Three recorded their first three albums themselves, and so it was with some sense of trepidation that the bluegrass, folk, and country-tinged trio let famed producer Buddy Miller take the reins for their most recent album, 2013's I'm a Stranger Here. Guitarists Pete Bernhard and Cooper McBean, along with bassist Lucia Turino, had also self-produced the previous releases, so this was going to be a challenge for them. Surprisingly, it all went smoothly.
"It was really great fun," Bernhard says of the experience. "I think we were worried about it, but there was no reason to be. Buddy was easy to work with, and we got along really well. We didn't really have to argue about anything. He had really great instincts, and we really liked working with him."
Stranger continues the band's penchant for providing one of the most pleasingly subversive musical experiences around. Frequently juxtaposing upbeat tunes with darker — or, at the very least, more serious — content, the album will have you dancing, clapping your hands, and having a good time before you even realize the messages they are sending you in almost subliminal fashion.
Blitzkrieg bluegrass tracks like "Dead Body Moving" sound like perfect party music fodder until you realize the band is talking about the all-too-common plight of the mentally-drained who sleepwalk through life. And "Hallelu" is a rollicking bluegrass/old-time gospel hybrid that waxes philosophically about why Jesus has not returned yet. Putting these two sides of the coin together is something Bernhard has long been a fan of.
"I think a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," Bernhard laughs. "A lot of times my lyrics are pretty dark. I've always liked those kinds of songs. Doing an upbeat song with depressing lyrical content is a great way to get it across to people. It also makes it more fun for us to perform as a band. We want to have fun playing the music. We spend the majority of the year playing live, so we want to have fun out there as much as anybody else."
Bernhard mentions how frequently the band plays live, and anyone who has followed the band for more than 10 minutes knows that they indeed tour frequently, often playing close to 200 shows a year. All of this is borne out of a love of playing music whenever, wherever. The Santa Cruz-based band came from humble musical beginnings, a fact that they have made sure never to forget.
"We started playing in people's houses and in bars with pretty bad sound quality just like any band does," Bernhard laughs. "Touring around, playing anywhere that would allow us to. We didn't have much control over our show. We just played our songs and hoped that people could hear us. That was the best that we could do."
And in many ways, despite the commercial success and critical acclaim the band has received throughout the past decade, 2013's I'm a Stranger Here proves they are still that same down-to-earth band that just wants to play music. The easygoing, front porch folk track "A Moment's Rest" details the day-to-day struggles that plague the blue-collar worker and the need for respite that never seems to come. Meanwhile, the New Orleans jazz band-themed dirge song "Forty Days" serves as a modern application of the Biblical Great Flood story as it attests to the ongoing trials and tribulations people face every day. Even the bluegrass track "Stranger" seeks to correct people who would mistakenly glamorize the life of a musician.
"It's partially about being a musician in that, everywhere you go, you don't know anyone," says Bernhard. "A lot of people ask how you do what you do and where are you going and what it looks like. The experience of being a musician is spending a lot of time not knowing anybody, everywhere you go."
But despite spending so much time going to places where he does not know anyone, Bernhard would not have it any other way. Music is what he loves and has wanted to do all his life, so he recognizes how fortunate he is to be able to do this for a living. Plus, no matter how many records Devil Makes Three makes, no matter how many accolades they receive, no matter what kind of success they achieve, there is always something more for Bernhard to strive.
"The main thing that motivates me to keep playing is it never ends," he says. "You can never reach a point with music where you're as good as you're going to be, unless you die, so it goes on forever. Just like anything, you can only get better at it, so it's constantly a challenge for me to get better at playing and writing."