Well, in the hands of The Devil Makes Three, currently on another leg of a seemingly neverending tour, it’s … the opposite of that. Unlike your average acoustic group, the California-by-way-of-New England trio prefers to play standing shows and positively encourages dancing and, yes, drinking (a crowd favorite is “Old Number 7,” an ode to Jack Daniels).
They do all this without a drummer. “You can’t make [the crowd] be engaged,” vocalist/rhythm guitarist Pete Bernhard told Weeping Elvis in an interview this week. “So we try to approach out show with a lot of energy, like a punk rock or a rock and roll show. The challenge is that it’s really hard without a drummer. We don’t have any space to screw up. If you have a drummer holding the beat, you can slip up. But if you’re holding the rhythm together, you don’t have much room to make a mistake. Drums are also loud. There’s no cover.”
That attitude is also a direct tribute to their influences. While stylistically you’ll hear an amalgam of blues, redneck jazz, bluegrass and the kind of old-time country that would be right at home at a county fair, their live show owes more to the love of punk that Bernhard shares with the wonderfully named Cooper McBean, his high school pal and the band’s lead guitarist.
“Before we got into punk, me and Cooper were into old rock and roll, fingerpicking and blues,” says Berhnard. “Then we got really into punk rock. We always were into acoustic music so we never left one for the other. Our record collection had a lot to do with it.” In that collection, you could see Lighting Hopkins and Robert Johnson alongside the Violent Femmes; Django Reinhardt next to Townes Van Zandt and the White Stripes. “I’m always looking backwards” to find influences, he admits.
Curiously, Bernhard and McBean grew up in Vermont, and bassist Lucia Turino hails from New Hampshire, yet the band didn’t take shape until they all moved to Santa Cruz, California, in the early 2000s.
As Neil Young recently remarked in a New York Times Magazine profile, “For whatever you’re doing, for your creative juices, your geography’s got a hell of a lot to do with it.” Which leads us to wonder: Could it be that the muse isn’t as strong in New England? Why aren’t there more songs associated with a sense of place in the Northeast?
“I don’t know quite why that is,” says Bernhard. “Most of the songs with references to New England are very old. There’s definitely a tradition of music coming out of there.” But, he acknowledges, it’s hard for any region to compete with the south or the west.
Of course, they’ve seen it all over the band’s ten-year lifespan. “It’s a constant stream of touring,” Bernhard says of their strategy. “We stared out as a totally DIY band and we put out our own records. So we never toured around an album cycle, we just kept touring.”
And now, not only have they gotten some help from their label, but acoustic and roots music is having a moment, from Fleet Foxes to the Avett Brothers. Is it helping?
“I don’t know,” he says. “Our band has been steadily getting bigger since we started. If it is helping, then God bless them. The renewed interest in acoustic music is great. I’ve always been interested in this music. And I’ve always been a big fan myself. A lot of people outside of the little cult are getting into it. And I can’t complain.”
The Devil Makes Three’s touring schedule takes them to New York’s Grammercy Theater tonight, the Bank of America Pavilion in Boston tomorrow and the Fresh Grass Bluegrass Festival in North Adams, MA, on Saturday.