20 Questions: The Devil Makes Three
They're the barn-burning Americana stalwarts, and to celebrate their latest floor-stomping album, Pete Bernhard plays PopMatters 20 Questions from the comfort of his bathtub.
Anyone who saw The Devil Makes Three live knew what all the fuss was about: here is a group that infused Americana traditions with an unabashedly modern energy that caused any ears within a mile radius to buzz with excitement. Anyone who heard the early Devil Makes Three records heard something more: a solid group that showed promise but didn't necessarily light the world on fire. For so long, the trio of guitarist Pete Bernhard, bassist Lucia Turino, and banjo-player extraordinaire Cooper McBean hadn't figured out how to translate their live shows into the studio, at least not until 2011's Stomp and Smash and their 2013 followup I'm a Stranger Here.
Chris Conaton, in his review of Stranger, noted how Stomp was the album that "finally did capture the band's infectious live energy and assembled many of their best songs in one place. It led to prominent slots in all sorts of major festivals and several successful North American tours. It also led them to a higher-profile record label with the resources to ensure that the band didn't fall on its face when it came time to record a new album. New West Records hooked the band up with roots music veteran Buddy Miller as producer and, as a result, I'm a Stranger Here is far and away The Devil Makes Three's best studio effort."
Nowadays, the group is out promoting their latest barn-burner, Redemption & Ruin, again with their dear friends at New West. To help celebrate the occasion, Bernhard sat down to answer PopMatters' 20 Questions, and revealed to us a love of Dave Eggers, a kinship with Cheech Wizard, and why taking a Prozac sounds like a living hell.
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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
What is the What by Dave Eggers nearly brought me to tears recently but I try not to cry while I read. If I do end up crying I definitely lie about it in interviews. If you should ever find yourself feeling like your life is hard or that you can't make sense of things in this world, I suggest you check it out.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Cheech Wizard. Why am I like Cheech Wizard? At a very young age I started doing drugs and acting like a complete fool. This is basically all Cheech Wizard ever did apart from occasionally kicking people in the balls. I have kicked a few people in the balls in my life but not as many as I wish I had. If you ever find yourself thinking someone needs a solid kick in the crotch it's best to just do it and not think too deeply on the subject. You'll never regret giving a real SOB a solid kick in the privates, but you may never forgive yourself for missing the opportunity.
Truth be told I'm not as much like Cheech Wizard as I could be, but I love his creator Vaughn Bode and his son Mark Bode. I grew up reading comic books and planned to be an illustrator some day. Sadly everything went horribly wrong when I turned out to be a better musician than I was a cartoonist, and here I am sitting in a bathtub writing answers to your questions all these years later.
3. The greatest album, ever?
If we have to discuss The Greatest, I would default to Mohammad Ali. No, he wasn't a musician, but he did have an amazing sense of timing and rhythm. He was willing to stand up to the American government, he spoke out on the immorality of the war in Vietnam in a very public way during a hostile time in our country. As a result of his stance he was barred from boxing for three years. In my mind that makes him a hero.
What do you think his favorite album was? I know he liked Johnny Cash.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
I like both but for different reasons: Star Wars because it reminds me of being young but Star Trek because it was more important. Star Trek pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable, Star Wars told classic old stories with the addition of lasers and space ships.
5. Your ideal brain food?
Marijuana makes me sing, It really does: if I smoke it I either have an all out panic attack or sing my ass off and I never know which is coming. It can be a help or a hindrance depending on the day. No matter what the worst case scenario is ending up in dire need of a snack and some solitude. Marijuana should be legalized in all 50 states as soon as humanly possible.
Seeing a great live show is what feeds my creative brain-pan. There's nothing more inspiring to me than seeing another group or solo artist play and tear the roof off. After I see a show like that I go home and woodshed like crazy.
6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I'm proud of coming from the DIY side of the music business. I'm proud because I know what it takes to get to where I am. Everything I know I learned the hard way, for me that's the only way to learn anything that lasts. Musicians need to know how to handle their own business, it's essential these days.
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
I want to be remembered for doing what everyone in my life told me was impossible from a very young age: making art for a living. I want to be remembered for tuning out every word I was told about creativity, possibility and how the world was reported to "work". I pride myself on my ability to create my own reality. It's easy kids. Give it a try.
8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?
Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Mohammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Django Reinhardt, Hank Williams.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
Slaughter of the Soul by At The Gates.
10. Your hidden talents ...?
My elbows hyperextend and I can tell your fortune.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Long ago in the forests of Oregon I was told by older and much wiser musicians that I was doing good but didn't understand my influences yet. Being all of 18 years old and on my first solo tour of the West Coast, I was of course angered by this hasty and uneducated appraisal of my music and musical knowledge.
Later I realized that these musicians were completely correct and I did my best to listen to every artist they suggested. I'm still doing that today and I feel like I have a lot left to learn. The more you dig the more bones you find, the more bones you find the more you have to dig, that's my motto. That's also the story behind our new record Redemption and Ruin, but I'll save that for another conversation.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
The best thing I ever bought stole or borrowed was by far music. I'm still borrowing, buying and stealing every chance I get. If you have an ear and can hear changes, anything that makes its way to your eardrums can become part of your own music. I've always loved that about folk music, borrowing and stealing is allowed and it's understood to be part of what makes it great.
American music evolved in part by immigrants stealing sounds and instruments from each other. Without immigration we would not have jazz or blues or rock 'n' roll, not to mention country and bluegrass. We are all immigrants here. It shows in our music, if you following the bread crumbs.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or ...?
Levis, fuck Armani.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
The Ritz seems kind of a strange setting for this particular get together but here goes: Cezar Chavez, Gandhi, Lemmy, Joe Hill, and Emma Goldman. Everyone on my list is long dead but you did say anyone.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I think I would stay right here. There's too much to do and so little time to do it in. My greatest fear is dying before I finish my next project. If I could hop in a time machine, though, I'd like to see the world before we paved it over to build convenient shopping malls.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Hit man-spa-vacation sounds great to me but something tells me that is not yet legal. As to Prozac I think I'd rather dig my eyeballs out with a rusty spork. As a friend once described the effects of Prozac to me: "I can't cry and I can't have an orgasm." That sounds like a world in which I would rather not dwell, my friends.
Not to mention the known side effects which include: nausea, nervousness, insomnia, weakness, anxiety, drowsiness, tremor, diarrhea, dyspepsia, headache, decreased libido, anorexia, xerostomia, and decreased appetite. Other side effects include: bulimia nervosa, dizziness, skin rash, and diaphoresis.
If you weren't suicidal to begin with, that last little list should help speed you on your merry way. Pharmaceutical companies in this country have us convinced that being unhappy is a personal problem. Perhaps we are unhappy because the world is in a serious state of disrepair and we all know it. I don't think drugging that feeling away is a solution. Perhaps trying to change the course of history would help.
But what do I know? If only we had a pill for anxiety that caused anxiety I'm sure we'd all be happy as clams.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ...?
Coffee is good, I never liked Vodka, quit smoking, chocolate must stay. Biscuits and gravy, sharp cheddar cheese and homemade apple pie make my world function.
Cooper McBean, my bandmate, has showed me the light when it comes to making pie and it has changed my life forever. A good pie can do that.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Country, I love the country. I would like to live in France some day but for now I call Vermont home and I love it.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
I would like to say: Hey Boss how come you have allowed corporate interests to elbow in and ruin our democracy? Seems to me that your golf buddies are ruining our environment and asking us to pay them to do it.
I'd like to say: What are you going to tell your children and their children about how you ran the country? Are you going to tell them that before we destroyed the planet you created a lot of value for all your share holders? Do you think that's going to make them feel better?
I'd like to say that it's time for real change in this country and this world if we are going to make it as a species, and that it's time to move away from fossil fuels and wars for fossil fuels. I could fill a book with all the things I would say.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Right now I'm working on catching up on sleep and demoing new songs also gearing up for our new album to come out and the tour that will follow.