The Devil Makes Three, a ragtag bluegrass punk band outta Vermont, made quite an impression when it last played in town. At a sold-out show at House of Blues Cambridge Room in 2013, the band had a capacity crowd hooting and hollering during its vigorous 90-minute set.
Looking at the three members of the band, you wouldn't necessarily think they belong in a band together. With his short-cropped hair and vintage suit, singer-guitarist Pete Bernhard looked like he could play in a swing band and the same went for upright bassist Lucia Turino. If it weren't for the cow skull tattooed to her chest, you'd think she came straight from an orchestra rehearsal. And bearded banjo man Cooper McBean looked like he should be in a bluegrass band. And yet these three sounded great together as they played their distinctive brand of folk punk.
The show started slow as the band played fan favorites such as "All Hail" — the song featured some great harmony vocals and a mid-song banjo solo — and the waltz "Walk on Boy." It then shifted musical gears for the Blind Willie McTell cover "Statesboro Blues" and the energy on stage and in the room began to increase. That shows serves as a metaphor of sorts for the band's career. It's been slowly picking up steam ever since forming in 2002 and its current tour to promote Draggin' Chains, an EP of two songs available on 7-inch vinyl at their shows, is its biggest yet. Bernhard hasn't been bashful about talking about his "hippie parents" and says he reacted against them — to an extent.
"My parents were back to the land hippie type people," he says via phone. "They were musicians. My dad was a musician. My older brother. My aunt and uncle. There are a lot of artists in the family. Graphic designers and comic book artists. They came back to Vermont and lived a simple life. We didn't have much money. They were into raising us in a certain way. We spent a lot of time outside and we didn't have a TV and that whole thing."
But then he discovered the Boston punk scene.
"I think it was because that I was raised by such hippie parents that punk was really attractive," he says. "What's less hippie than punk? I was attracted to the Celtic punk rock. They were more radial than hippie politics. The punk scene was so loud and so different. A bit part of it was a reaction to my upbringing. I think people often end up in the punk scene because their parents are conservative and religious. People I met were that. Their parents were right-wing religious people. My reaction was to the hippie thing. I just wanted something different."
And yet, he didn't forsake the roots music that he grew up listening to. In fact, he embraced it, something that brought him and McBean together when they were still in high school.
"I was into the punk scene and kept playing acoustic music," he says. "It was considered uncool. When I was 12 or 14, all my friends listened to metal. It was Megadeth and Metallica and Sepultura. That stuff was cool. That was what was cool at the time. I was listening to Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt and Muddy Waters, which was not considered cool at the time. There is a connection between the two. [McBean and I] played in high school with different bands. He was the only guy who listened to the same music. We drove around and listened to the oldies station. We were 16 years old. We loved the early rock 'n' roll. He was one of the only guys I met who wanted to do that. Again, it was not a cool thing to do."
When he started the Devil Makes Three, the group was initially just a duo. He wanted to take acoustic music and make it as much fun as a punk show. He had no other choice because our only contacts were in the punk scene. He would call his punk friends for shows and he and McBean went on a few "rough tours."
But after signing to New West Records for 2013's I'm a Stranger Here, things began to turn around.
"New West is a great label," he says. "Maybe to their detriment, they put out music they think is good. It's really cool. You're hard-pressed to find another label like that."
The band met singer-songwriter Buddy Miller, the guy who produced I'm a Stranger Here, through New West.
"We didn't know that much about him," he says of Miller. "Cooper had some of his albums. We loved his guitar playing and tenor. We had never met him. We saw him play a couple of times and really liked him. I would love to get ahold of his record collection."
They recorded the disc at the Nashville studio owned by the Black Keys' singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach.
"I've never been to Chess, but it seems like it's modeled after Chess," he says of Auerbach's studio. "I have been to Sun, which is awesome. It's similar to the Sun tracking room. It's a live room and a console. You don't have much more isolation. They didn't have a vocal booth. It sounded great. We set up in the room and played the album. It was great."
So what is it about the music that appeals to young people and why is roots and bluegrass suddenly cool?
"At the risk of sounding like a dick, I think the roots of the music is just so good, it's undeniable," he says. "It's the roots of rock 'n' roll. Who can say that isn't great? In a big way, we're pointing a finger at all the people we love. I try to be original with the songwriting but more than anything else we're trying to get people interested in the people we love in the same way the Stones did it for the blues and the Dead did it for folk music. They were great bands in and of themselves but it was the people they were copying that were great. That's similar with us."
Bernhard says he's "trying to carry forward this tradition that I think is awesome and pay it respect along the way."
"[People] can hear that it's good," he says. "As soon as I heard the music as a kid, I was hooked and have been listing to it ever since. We're not a band that's blowing up. We're burning real slow, but it's always brighter. It seems like a good way to be doing it, honestly."