Acoustic talks to Pete Bernhard, one third of the rootsy rollicking trio The Devil Makes Three prior to their imminent UK shows…
‘There’s a road that goes out of every town. All you’ve got to do is get on it,’ says Pete Bernhard, guitarist and singer with American roots band The Devil Makes Three. It’s advice he and his band mates have heeded, and they have been on the road almost constantly since they started, accompanying legends such as Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, and the peerless Willie Nelson. In the course of such exposure, the band has used their time well, and developed a huge fanbase all over Europe and the UK, as well as their native US.
Some people call them country, some call them folk, some people call them Americana, and the latter may well suit them best – not that Pete especially cares about such things. ‘I don’t think labels matter all that much,’ he says in his soft Californian tones. ‘Americana is a very broad label, but we are, in fact, an American band, so it does fit in that sense. The bottle we come in doesn’t have a label, to quote Captain Beefheart.’
For non-aficionados, Captain Beefheart was a wonderfully eccentric avant-garde blues musician – the sort of player who gets Pete’s approval with his similarly non-conformist attitude to the craft of making American music.
Starting with the guitar when he was a boy, Pete Bernhard grew up in a family of musicians, but that does not mean that he took to the instrument as easily as he would have liked. ‘I really had to work at it,’ he remembers. ‘Everyone in my family was a better guitar player than I was, and I was surrounded by a family of good musicians, so the impulse was there to practice and be as good as I could be. I have quite small hands, which is not ideal for a guitarist but, hey, everyone works with what they are given, and it hasn’t stopped me learning and playing. My father gave me my first guitar and I have played from the age of 12; I don’t think I’m ever going to stop learning. I am still trying to get to grips with the mysteries of the guitar. To put it plainly: I’m still trying to learn how the damn thing works!’
The band’s sound seems to draw from a wide range of influences – country, folk, bluegrass, punk – but Pete’s voice has the enviable twang of rootsy Americana that so many young folkies would die for. ‘I’m not really aware of my voice when I am singing,’ he says. ‘I guess I’ve heard it for so long, I just don’t think about it anymore. When we play on stage, I just concentrate on getting my guitar lines right, and making sure I know where I am in the song, and just let the band carry me right along. The only time I think about how I sound is when we are recording, and I hear my voice played back, and I am always a little surprised by the sound of it. I know it is me, but it doesn’t sound how I think it sounds – I guess everyone thinks that. The voice you hear in your head is maybe a bit of how you hope you sound, and when you hear it recorded, you get to hear what everyone else hears, and that still feels a little odd, even now. When I sing, I concentrate on trying to sound like my heroes, the musicians I grew up listening to, and still love now; people like Willie Dixon, Lightning Hopkins, Little Walter, Hank Williams, there are just so many of them. Oh, and for the guitar, my hero is Django Reinhardt – he is the master.’
You spend a lot of time on the road, so does that mean you only get to really practice when you’re playing your shows? ‘No, I don’t think so. To me, playing shows is playing shows, and rehearsing is rehearsing – they are absolutely not the same thing. If you are going to practice, you are working on parts of your playing that need work. If you are playing shows, then you are playing songs you can already play up to a decent standard because you have rehearsed them. I think if you only play shows, you can get into a real rut and feel very samey about your material, which can make you lose concentration and get sloppy. I always like to practice when we are off the road, and I like to feel I can bring something new to the shows when we start up again. That keeps it enjoyable for me.’
So what about your songwriting process; I guess you do like to take your time… ‘Well, you can see, or rather hear for yourself, we put out an album on average about every three years, so no one would call me a fast writer! I like to take my time. I think if you want people you work with to feel happy and valuable, which of course they are, then everyone has to have a say in what we are doing, and that’s how we have always worked. The way I like to think of it is, we are a democracy, but I am the president. I don’t say that because I tell everyone what to do, but there comes a point where we need to make a decision, and someone has got to decide, and that usually falls to me. We do always talk everything over, and everyone gets heard, and we do usually come to an agreement… eventually.’
The Devil Makes Three is dipping their toes into the live UK circuit for the audience that has long appreciated their recorded output – and it’s pretty obvious the UK loves The Devil Makes Three as two London shows sold out almost immediately after going on sale. Pete is excited on two fronts; firstly, to be playing in the UK; and, secondly, to be playing in intimate venues. ‘I think with our style of music, it’s good to see the whites of their eyes! We like to interact with the people who come to our shows, and we can’t do that if we are on a massive stage, and they are 50 feet away from us. So, yeah, playing in London is always great, but we are looking forward to coming over and doing a full tour and seeing the rest of the country, and letting the rest of the country see us. We can’t wait for that!’
Returning to the authentic American sound of The Devil Makes Three, it is apparent that the music is a product of the surroundings in which it is written and recorded. Santa Cruz in California lends itself to a gentler lifestyle than the more full-on customs of some east and west coast cities, but what about the south? Surely a plethora of kindred spirits awaits the band should they travel south to Nashville, perhaps?
‘I’m not really attracted to living in big cities, so the idea of relocating the band is not something we are thinking about at all. I have lived in Nashville, in fact I have moved into the city twice, and I have moved out again twice, so I guess that tells you the answer to my feelings on living there. We all like living in the country, and it’s nice to come home and kick back and relax in the peace and quiet with family and friends. We do a lot of touring, so anything any of us needs from the atmosphere of a city we can get by just breezing in and playing a gig and breezing right on out again. That suits us just fine. I like to get ideas for songs when we tour around. I don’t actually write on the road, but I kind of make sure I take my impressions home with me, and then when I get to writing, I can work them into some new songs for us. I write on my favourite guitar, it’s a Gibson Recording King from the 1950s, and it’s just perfect for me – the sound, the feel, everything about it. I found it in Santa Cruz and I had to buy it – honestly, I had no choice. I don’t think guitar players choose their guitars, I think the guitar chooses the musician it wants to work with, and this one chose me. That makes me feel very happy.’
The Devil Makes Three’s I’m A Stranger Here is out now.