Vermont Americana trio The Devil Makes Three have made an impression over the last few years on the festival circuit and, especially, with strikingly boisterous live albums. Eschewing drums for a simple arrangement of guitar, upright bass and vocals, The Devil Makes Three — guitarist/frontman Pete Bernhard, bassist Lucia Turino and guitarist Cooper McBean—melt the likes of blues, ragtime, rockabilly, country and a punky ethos that calls to mind Northern brethren like Deer Tick.
With their upcoming fourth studio album, recorded at Dan Auerbach’s Nashville Easy Eye studio with Buddy Miller, the trio hopes to translate the knockabout fun of their live performances to their more formal recordings.
“We’ve been big fans of him as a guitar player and musician for quite a while,” Bernhard says of Miller, who has recorded such American music luminaries as Emmylou Harris. And while the group was keen to record with him, “we honestly didn’t think we could make that happen.”
It has been seven years since The Devil Makes Three’s last studio recording. “We were chomping at the bit. We’d been working on these songs for years,” says Bernhard. But a little patience paid off, and the group was able to find a time when their schedule aligned with Miller’s.
Miller has a very nicely appointed home studio, but he opted to record in Auerbach’s Easy Eye for a few reasons — he wanted to work with Auerbach’s engineer, Collin Dupuis, and he wanted everything to be tracked live.
“Everybody has to play all in the same room. It’s exactly what we would have wanted to do had we recorded the record ourselves,” Bernhard says. The recording process, which Miller made sure was as much like a live performance — the trio’s strong suit — as possible, was “fun” and “cool” and “relaxing,” according to Bernhard.
Miller and the band spent the bulk of their time teasing out the best in their performances.
“We added musicians like a fiddle player, or a extra guitar. We all played live with barely any overdubbing,” says Bernhard.
Miller also contributed to the songs themselves. “He didn’t change the songs necessarily, but he definitely changed the structure in terms of musical ideas, harmonies, really cool guitar parts. He had his hands on the record and his ideas were really great. He played guitar on the record,” Bernhard says, noting that Miller also helped cull the 20 songs the trio came into the studio with down to 12.
With these shifts in structure and style, Bernhard is aware that there may be some backlash from the audience.
“Buddy did joke a lot about, ‘There goes your bluegrass crowd!’ It’s true that they won’t like this record because it’s distorted and live and gritty. We laughed a lot about how we were annihilating our bluegrass fans,” Bernhard says.
Perhaps most alienating to the bluegrass contingent is the element of darkness that colors many of the songs on the still untitled album, particularly on the track “A Hand Back Down” and the blues-inflected “Stranger.”
“It sounds to my ear a little bit like Howlin’ Wolf or those Chess Records groups,” Bernhard says of “Stranger,” which will be the lead single from the record. “It’s a very dark record thematically, lyrically and sonically. Also we have some percussion on this record, a little more than the last record, so that changed up the sound as well.”
Finally, Miller’s touch can be heard in the roomy feel of the record overall.
“I think that Buddy, you’ve heard his records, and there is a lot of air in the records and the feeling of hearing people actually playing their instruments. He definitely pushed things in that direction,” Bernhard says.
The Devil Makes Three still have a bit of work left to do before LP4 is finished, including mastering and sequencing. They hope to have the album, which will be released on New West Records, ready by the fall. In the meantime, they’ll kick off a U.S. tour in Burlington, Vt., on July 10, the first five dates of which they’ll be supporting Emmylou Harris. They’ll later be joining up with Trampled By Turtles and then Yonder Mountain String Band. So while the band remains eager to release their new studio record, at least they have the next few weeks on the road to start trying out some of their new material.