Pete Bernhard and I are both getting ready to split town, both of us headed to South by Southwest, the annual Austin orgy of beer, bands and breakfast tacos—in other words, heaven. Strange place for a devil—talkin’ about Bernhard, who fronts Americana trio The Devil Makes Three.
Maybe callin’ him The Big D, without any substantiating evidence, isn’t fair. He might be cruising casually through the hotter-than-hell 150-mile expanse of Las Vegas desert, but he ain’t evil—or is he? “We are headed out into the world,” he says. This statement, if in fact Bernhard were ol’ Scratch, would sound ominous and smell of brimstone— especially if you were raised with hold-and-cold-runnin’ fear of Satan in your veins.
That was me about 18 years ago, always on the alert for any emblem of evil, whether it was on Procter & Gamble products (as my born-again daddy insisted) or in subliminal flashes during Super Bowl commercials, Top 40 hits and summer blockbusters. Back then, the litany of references that journalists, publicists, bio writers and TDM3 members themselves have made about the band would have sent me into an internalized tizzy.
Let’s run it down: Gumbo pots, pirates, devils, traditionalists, new traditionalists, fateful journeys, epic goat rides, Ravi Shankar, electroshock therapy, Vermont. Pretty fuckin’ scary, eh? Nah? What more do you need? Perhaps a devilishly sly response from Bernhard (Burnhard?) himself. “[TDM3’s aesthetic] is designed to confuse all who read any of it, but truly, it is kind of confusing. It’s all either based on truth or humor, and it’s hard to say which is which.”
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled wasn’t convincing the world he didn’t exist—it was to discombobulate us so we didn’t know what to think—throw us into an agnostic limbo, which, to any saved soul, might as well be the on-deck circle of Hell. Once more, Bernhard is impishly cryptic: “We feed the lies and references with smiles on our faces.”
Aye, the paranoid imagination runs wild like little lizard demons in the desert outside the City of Sin. He’s enjoying this, and says so. “It is good. It’s good to be the band we are; it’s good to confuse and anger people far and wide. It’s good to draw a crowd who wouldn’t usually share each other’s company. We have always depended on people taking and spreading the word about our band.” The evil bastard.
About that band: Bernhard (guitar, tenor banjo, harp, vocals), Lucia Turino (upright bass) and Cooper McBean (guitar, five-string banjo, musical saw) are as coy about their origins as the band aesthetic. They might be from New Hampshire, Santa Cruz or “the dark depths of Vermont” via Manitoba Canada, thanks to a family of marmot farmers who adopted the “orphan siblings.” After that, they either grew “weary of the marmot-farming life” and joined a “traveling medicine show” or went to college. The one constant is that they wound up playing music. Whether they started out playing “songs from the old country” that were huge in Scandinavia until they retired to a California cave, or simply traveled the country playing an “infectious amalgam of styles” comprised of old-timey country, blues, bluegrass and ragtime is up to the listener. You don’t have to hear their records (the 2007 reissue of a 2002 eponymous debut or the upcoming Do Wrong Right—both on Milan Records) to guess the truth.
The music conjures a dark, Robert Johnson “Crossroads” vibe, creepy and portentous—like all those Johnson tales about making deals with the devil, but focus thematically on the natural, inherent evil (or just badness) of man, in the alky wife-beater sense. Its haunted feel takes cues from Hank Sr.’s country, Johnson’s delta blues, and the Violent Femmes’ country death punk. At times, it’s even as unnerving—though certainly not as loud, fast and brutal—as Slayer, if you consider the sociological undercurrent of some of their songs. On this, Bernhard agrees “completely.”
“Old country and blues is the creepiest music around,” he says. “I have always loved that about it, and we embrace it. It seems that new country music is devoid of any substance or anything that might scare anyone.”
Clearly, frightening folks isn’t the aim for The Devil Makes Three. Nor are they a legion of unreliable narrators who aim to perpetuate some Keyser Soze myth about themselves. At least as far as I can tell. Might as well ask Bernhard pointblank: If the devil makes three, which one of them is The Big D? “It’s not that big, but perhaps we could compare sometime.”
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled.
THE DEVIL MAKES THREE Burt’s Tiki Lounge, 726 S. State, Thursday March 26, 10 p.m.