The Devil Makes Three has been together now for a decade, but guitarist and singer Pete Bernhard says he feels the group is only now starting to hit its stride.
"We've all got an album we're really proud of now, " Bernhard said in a recent phone interview, referencing I'm A Stranger Here, the album the trio released last fall. "Also, I think we're all just playing together on a much higher level than we ever have before and everybody is contributing more than they ever have."
Ironically, what helped the trio of Bernhard, banjo player and multi-instrumentalist Cooper McBean and bassist Lucia Turino to step up their game — particularly with songwriting and recording — was a key collaborator.
Until now, The Devil Makes Three has been pretty much a DIY endeavor, with three previous studio albums completely self-produced and home recorded. For I'm A Stranger Here, the band brought on Buddy Miller to produce the album.
"It was a big deal for us, being such a DIY band to finally have a producer we were going to work with," Bernhard said.
Bernhard, Cooper and Turino had done well while keeping their albums in house. Since forming in Santa Cruz, Calif. in 2002, they developed their own brand of rollicking, rootsy acoustic music over the course of three studio albums and a pair of live releases.
Along the way, the group slowly built a following that is now big enough to headline theaters and large clubs. Bernhard said he, Cooper and Turino, though, decided it would take working with an outside producer to take another step up in the studio.
"We already know what we can do ourselves," Bernhard said. "So it's kind of like there's not much mystery there. We did all we could do and we had kind of like reached our limitations there and we wanted to try something new."
Enter Miller, an acclaimed artist in his own right, who has also been building an impressive resume of production projects.
"He was really instrumental in helping us arrange, putting in different instrumentation; he didn't really edit lyrically, but he edited a lot musically. Also, he plays on the record. He had a lot of the guys who he's played with for years sit in on the record, which was really cool."
In particular, Miller had a big impact as a song editor and sounding board for the tracks chosen. Prior to setting up shop at Easy Eye Sound Studio, the Nashville facility owned by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, the group brought in completed demos for 20 songs — far more material than Bernhard had ever written for a Devil Makes Three album.
Miller also made an impact in helping The Devil Makes Three achieve one of its key goals for I'm A Stranger Here — to get the energy and feel of the group's live shows to translate to a studio album.
"We did use the studio to some degree, but it was live," Berhard said. "We did some re-amping of guitars and stuff like that, but for the most part, it was us playing in that room. That's mostly what you hear."
And the result? The songs are sharper and catchier than ever. I'm A Stranger Here has frisky bar room bluegrass-flavored romps ("Dead Body Moving" and "Worse Or Better") and rustic ballads ("A Moment's Rest") that have long been staples of the group's music. "Hallelu" takes things in a twangier old-time country direction, with great results. On "Forty Days," the group brings some New Orleans ragtime with the help of the Preservation Hall Horns. Then there's "Hand Back Down," the standout among an excellent collection of songs, where the group builds a spooky, but ultra-catchy melody around the grooving, steady thump of a rhythm. They're proud of these songs, and their new tour setlist shows it.
"We're playing something off of every record," Bernhard said. "But mostly I'd say it's heavily toward our new record. We're all just really excited about that stuff, so we're playing it a lot."
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