Read up on Santa Cruz-by-way-of-Vermont outfit the Devil Makes Three and, within the first paragraph or so of practically any article, you’ll encounter some reference to the group’s proclivity for genre-bending hijinks. (See? There it was.) And for good reason. Over the past decade, six records and countless shows, the acoustic trio has built a reputation for mingling a variety of sounds and styles, from old time and bluegrass to rock and early jazz, all held together with a frayed thread of punk-rock ethos.
The band’s latest full-length album, I’m a Stranger Here, should bolster that reputation even further. Produced by Nashville songwriter and producer Buddy Miller, the record simmers with a dark, brooding intensity, punctuated by wild-haired moments of unbridled release. And, true to form, it pulls from the entire spectrum of the group’s formative influences, presenting a thrilling confluence of styles that would be equally at home on the back porch and in the garage.
In addition to Bernhard, DM3 includes stand-up bassist Lucia Turino — the two are now living back in Putney — and guitarist/banjoist Cooper McBean. In advance of the band’s homecoming show at the Higher Ground Ballroom this Sunday, November 24, we spoke to guitarist-vocalist Pete Bernhard by phone from a club in Washington, D.C.
SEVEN DAYS: You grew up in Vermont. What was your childhood like here?
PETE BERNHARD: I grew up in a musical family. My dad, my brother, my uncle and my aunt all were musicians. My dad’s and my mom’s record collections played a big part in that. It was outside of Brattleboro, in the middle of nowhere.
SD: Why did you move to California?
PB: I had lived there briefly when my parents split up when I was a kid. It just seemed like it was as far away as you could get without leaving the States. There was an excitement and sense of adventure and really wild times.
SD: When you were here, you used to sneak away to Boston to go to punk shows. What clubs did you go to?
PB: Me and Cooper [McBean] used to go to shows at the Middle East and the Rat, which I think is now no longer. We’d go see shows where there were 20 bands for like five dollars. We had a blast. Boston was the closest place we could go to see that kind of music. There wasn’t a whole lot of that going on in Vermont when I was younger. So we spent a lot of time making that trip.
SD: What did you find appealing about the punk scene?
PB: A lot of things. I think the punk scene sorta takes in anybody who feels like they don’t belong. I like the creativity. But the energy at shows was the most fun. And that’s the thing we really try to translate into our own shows. Because we don’t really play punk music. But we try to grab some of that energy.
SD: You have a reputation for bending different styles to your will, I think including punk. Is that something you consciously set out to do, or even something you consider when you’re writing?
PB: Not at all. We never give it any thought. We just do what we want, and that’s how it comes out. I think we do make an effort at times not to point too directly at any specific genre, and that’s why our songs are all so different. But we don’t pay much attention to genre, because there isn’t really any reason to. Good music is good music. I think genres largely were created to help understand and categorize music, which is helpful when you’re selling music. But I don’t think it’s helpful as a listener. I don’t think it matters.
SD: The new record is pretty dark. I understand that’s partly because your producer, Buddy Miller, gravitated toward your darker songs.
PB: Well, it was all pretty dark material. I think the songs Buddy picked went together pretty well. But it was all pretty dark. We have that tendency anyway, with all of our albums. Buddy was a huge help with editing the songs and helping with arrangements. It was really great to have someone unrelated to the band to bounce ideas off of.
SD: Did you enjoy the experience of working with a producer?
PB: It was equally terrifying and liberating. But once we got over the terrifying part, it was really nice to have help. It just allowed us to have a lot of fun. Oftentimes, recording for us is pretty stressful.
SD: Everyone needs a good editor from time to time.
PB: Absolutely. And from a musical equivalent that’s what a good producer is. You gotta have it.
SD: You’re on the road quite a bit. Any tips for keeping your sanity?
PB: A lot of the typical stuff. Not partying too much is the biggest thing. But also not going out for too long. A month is pretty normal for us. We make a concerted effort not to go much longer than that. Because I think at a certain point you turn into a robot, and that translates onstage. But the true key is to love it. If you love what you do, it’s hard to do it too much.
SD: I see you toured with Willie Nelson.
PB: We didn’t tour with him. But it would probably sound a lot cooler if you say we did. We played with him in San Luis Obispo. It was great. He’s a legend.
SD: Just be careful of his weed. I hear it’s high octane.
PB: Well, it all is in California.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Bend It Like Bernhard"