Three’s a crowd, but four’s a party

New producer gives The Devil Makes Three a new sound

Piper Ferguson

The Devil Makes Three has been together now for a decade, but guitarist/ singer Pete Bernhard says he feels the group is only now starting to hit its stride.

“This is what we’ve done with our whole adult lives,” he says in a recent phone interview. “And I feel like right now, we’re sort of the best we’ve ever been, which is really cool.

“We’ve all got an album we’re really proud of now,” Bernhard says, referencing I’m A Stranger Here, the album the trio released in fall 2013.

“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/ multi-instrumentalist Cooper McBean and bassist Lucia Turino step up their game — particularly with songwriting and recording — was a decision to look outside of the group for a key collaborator on I’m A Stranger Here.

Up to now, The Devil Makes Three had been pretty much a do-it-yourself endeavor. But for I’m A Stranger Here, the band brought on Buddy Miller to produce the album.

Bernhard, Cooper and Turino had done well while keeping its albums in-house. Since forming in Santa Cruz, California in 2002, the group had steadily improved as it developed its rollicking brand of rootsy acoustic music (which draws from bluegrass, country, jazz and pop) over the course of three studio albums — a 2002 selftitled debut, Longjohns, Boots, And A Belt (2004) and Do Wrong Right (2009) — and a pair of live releases, A Little Bit Faster And A Little Bit Loose (2006) and Stomp And Smash (Live at the Mystic Theater) from 2011.

Along the way, the group slowly built a following that is now big enough to enable the group to headline theaters and large clubs. Bernhard says 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 says. “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. Miller turned out to be a key player in helping The Devil Makes Three takes its music to a new level on the latest CD.

In particular, Miller had a big impact as a song editor and sounding board for the songs. 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 The Devil Makes Three album.

Miller, who took a lead role in choosing the 10 songs that made I’m A Stranger Here, and helped refine the songs from their demo form.

“I think the thing Buddy did the most is he just edited heavily,” Bernhard says. “He just said to us, ‘Why is this part in the song?’ Or, ‘Why isn’t there a break here?’ Or, ‘It feels like this harmony isn’t right.’ Or, ‘Why don’t we extend this part because it’s cool.’ He sort of just kind of got in there with a pair of scissors and said, ‘This word is unnecessary. Take it out.’ 

“That’s more of what he did than anything else, is take things away, get sort of the bare bones of what was happening in there,” Bernhard says. “That’s something I tried to do in the writing, too, is take a lot away. A lot of the songs are a lot more simple than a lot of the other songs I’ve written lyrically.”

Miller also made an impact in helping The Devil Makes Three capture more of its live energy and sound on I’m A Stranger Here.

What stands out most, though, is the songs, which are sharper and catchier than ever. I’m A Stranger Here has the kind of frisky bar room bluegrassflavored 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. But there are surprises as well.

“Hellelu” takes things in a twangier old-time country direction, with great results. On “Forty Days,” the group brings some New Orleans ragtime to the song with the help of the Preservation Hall Horns. Then there’s “Hand Back Down,” the standout among an excellent collection of songs. Here the group slows its tempo and builds a spooky, but ultracatchy, melody around the grooving, steady thump of a rhythm.

Now The Devil Makes Three is bringing its music to life on tour.

“We’re playing something off of every record,” Bernhard says. “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.”