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Devil's Advocate

Local punk-ass country trio The Devil Makes Three get their oink on at the KPIG Swine Soiree

By Mike Connor

They sure don't look like hillbillies. No--you'd think this trio would be more comfortable hanging out with pierced and tattooed hipsters at Caffe Pergolesi...which they do. And you'd think that they might be in a band that's plugged into that whole underground DIY house show network, touring up and down the West Coast with other young bands, playing gigs for rowdy 16-year-olds with studded belts and mohawks.

And you'd be right. But you probably wouldn't have guessed that their songs are in regular rotation on KPIG. Or that they've gotten glowing reviews from both The New York Times and the notoriously vicious editorial staff of Punk Planet. (And hey, if you did, then you should stop reading this article and get the hell out of the country, because the feds are out to nail you, Miss Cleo.)

Still, I'd bet that even an honest-to-Jah psychic could not have predicted the unlikely success of a trio of Santa Cruz twentysomethings playing old-timey acoustic music that even the rowdiest punks would love, but The Devil Makes Three have nailed a sound full of graveyard blues and old ragtime romps that are fingerpickin' good and big with the kids.

"We're kind of an acoustic version of punk rock music," says singer/guitarist Cooper McBean, trying to explain his band's varied appeal.

But, considering the fact that they're booked to play the KPIG Swine Soiree second stage on June 22, we can assume that he doesn't mean they're just cranking out acoustic versions of the three-chord screamers that originally defined punk. On the contrary, they stick closer to the old-timey flat-picking of Doc Watson and the twangy, boot-stompin' bluegrass harmonizing of the Monroe brothers. Yet somehow they keep the punk rock attitude alive and well in their music. The befuddling part is trying to figure out how in the hell they do it.

Well, it's no secret that a miserable experience can inspire a great song. For some reason, the Misfits' "Last Caress" comes immediately to mind, but there are undoubtedly countless better examples of songs that stick in our heads by virtue of their curious ability to transmute tough times into kick-ass art. Boldly stretching logic to its extremes, I'd argue that the members of a band with a debut album full of great songs about down-and-out, whiskey-swilling depressives hanging around graveyards and dodging bullets will be able to trot out at least a few downright shitty jobs they've had to inspire them. Turns out I'm totally right.

"I shovel horse poop right now," says bassist Lucia Turino, totally matter-of-factly--she works as a groom at a ranch. "But it's actually really fun. Well--I love my boss and I love working there...shoveling shit is not the most enjoyable experience, but I love hanging out in the country and being with the horses."

Hanging out in the country with horses...how apropos for a band that cranks out country with a capital C. Coming on like the ghost of a bullet-riddled hillbilly, Pete Bernhard (steel guitar), Cooper McBean (acoustic guitar) and Lucia Turino (upright bass) are exhuming the rootsy, back porch country rockin' acoustic trio with otherworldly success. Lyrically, Bernhard spins a wicked web of transfixing tales--the songwriting is at times as captivating as a good ghost story told around a campfire, with Bernhard's persona straddling the line between the grand tradition of the gritty, whiskey-swilling depressives of yore and your modern-day barfly, with a scratchy, scrappy vocal style. They've got some giddy two-stepping romps for those looking to cut a rug, but most of the songs on their self-titled debut are, at least lyrically speaking, pretty dark fare. Take the chorus of the somber, minor-chord ballad "Graveyard," for example:

That's me--just a-drinkin' off this bottle and a-driftin' out to sea.
That's me--just a-sittin' here staring and shakin' like a leaf.
That's me--just a-leanin' on my shovel in this graveyard of dreams.

Bernhard blames the weather in Olympia, Wash., where most of the songs were written. "I tend to write those kinds of songs anyway, but having it rain and be dark every single day helps," says Bernhard. "It was pretty miserable there during the winter."

Even still, more than a few of their songs are light, bouncy and a whole lot of fun. And it's no surprise that the band sounds so relaxed and natural together, considering that they've all known each other since their high school days in Vermont.

"You should see pictures of us when we were younger," recalls McBean, "I had a pair of pants that was more patches than pants...we were fucking dirtbags, man."

"When I met Cooper, he had his two front teeth knocked out and a big green mohawk," recalls Turino. She didn't end up joining the band until two years ago when, as McBean puts it, "she totally fucking muscled her way into the band."

And she certainly didn't let a piddling concern like the fact that she had never played an instrument in her life get in the way of her goal: "I was like, 'I'm coming over and you're gonna train me to be the replacement bass player for when Jackie leaves.'"


Grim Pickins: Guitarist Cooper McBean at work on one of the band's dark country tunes.

Country In the Time of Punk

McBean and Bernhard go back even further; they've been playing songs together since junior high, when they were both listening to a lot of punk rock, but also a lot of that old-timey shit.

"Me and Cooper started playing together when we were really young," recalls Bernhard. "I grew up listening to old blues and fingerpicking stuff a lot, and Cooper was one of the only people I knew who was into fingerpicking old styles and ragtime, which were not very popular--especially when you're really young. I started learning fingerpicking blues stuff and most of my friends were like, 'That shit sucks.'"

Apparently the younger generation's tastes have mutated since those days, amply proven by the band's successful tour of over-and-underground venues from here to Olympia, Wash. When I met with the band, they had just returned from their tour and were still high from all the excitement, but equally disappointed to be back to deal with "reality."

"We've been fuckin' having fun every day for like two weeks, and then we get back here and I lost my job...they kinda let me go while I was on tour," says Bernhard, before assuring me that he's still "loosely employed" in town.

Turino wasn't excited about dealing with all of the shit built up in the horses' stalls while she was gone, but at least she's still gainfully employed, as is McBean, who works at Caffe Pergolesi. Without warning, the whole band starts gushing with gratitude about their boss at the Caffe, who has basically sponsored the band since the beginning, going so far as to outfit them with a converted van for touring. And judging by the stories they tell about their touring experience so far, they're ready to stay out on the road. Encounters with drunken sailors and 11-year-old punk rockers? No problem. Once, they even got to play a Dominatrix party in Oakland.

"We didn't know what to expect," says Bernhard "but it was just like playing in a really cool, old Victorian house. All the domination takes place upstairs, and we were just playing acoustic in the living room. There were a bunch of punk bands playing in a carriage house. It was just a house party, really, but when I heard about it, I was like, fuck yeah, we gotta play there. The weirder the better."

Continuing the weird tradition, they played for a room full of drunk Navy dudes up in Astoria.

"All the sailors came through the bar in their little white suits and hats, and they were all hammered," says Turino, happily pointing out that they actually sold a bunch of CDs to the hapless sailors, who were too drunk to realize that they were spending $5.

McBean does an impression: "'Sir! I am so fucked up, sir!' We actually heard them say that...Drunk sailors are so easy to scam. And have you ever seen the sailor suits? They're fucking ridiculous."

I can't help but agree, and then slightly swoon as they tell me about the cute little minipunks they played for in Redding.

"We played a city park in Redding where a bunch of 16-year-old punk rockers were putting on a show," says Turino, smiling. "There were a lot of 11-year-old punk rock kids putting on their mean faces to go into the mosh pit."

Awww!

"And that was a really cool thing about the tour," adds McBean, "we played a lot of punk shows with punk bands and punk kids, and we didn't necessarily expect it to go over well, but they liked it."


Hell Comes to Your House: The Devil Makes Three at home.

The KPIG Connection

So did KPIG's program director, Laura Ellen, who decided to throw three of DMT's songs into regular rotation after hearing them on "Sleepy" John Sandidge's live music show, Please Stand By.

"They were on the live music show, I heard them on the air, and Dave and those guys--DB and John--were raving about 'em," says Ellen. "Based on that, we added them into rotation...then we kicked it around a bit and asked 'em if they'd do the [Swine Soiree]. We try to do at least one local band every year. This year we did two from Santa Cruz--the Sherry Austin Band is opening the second stage. It's what we're supposed to do; in corporate-ese, 'it's part of our mission statement.' It's what we all feel is really part of the station."

Which is a happy stroke of luck for DMT, who got the call out of the blue. Says Bernhard, "KPIG just called us and asked us. We were totally shocked. We were like, 'Really? OK!'"

"I'm so excited," Turino says, "it was so nice of them. They're catering and giving us backstage passes and stuff. We're gonna be like rock stars."

But the folks at KPIG aren't the only ones giving the band a huge vote of confidence. College radio stations from the Boston-based WMBR to KZSC and Free Radio Santa Cruz play their songs. Their loyal fans in SC follow them all over town, singing along so loud they can't even hear themselves harmonizing. And then there's Punk Planet magazine.

"We just got reviewed in Punk Planet," says Bernhard, "I didn't even know they were going to review us, and I was like, 'These reviews are only good when they rip on somebody.' Usually that write reviews that make bands want to stop playing guitar. So we're reading through, I turned to the "D" section and I'm like 'HOLY SHIT--oh no, they're gonna fucking slaughter us.' But they actually gave us a good review. They even put the little ear next to it, which means, 'Listen to this, 'cause it's good.'

"We got an ear."


The Devil Makes Three performs Sunday, June 22, at 12:30pm on the second stage at the KPIG Swine Soiree at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds. Tickets are $28 in advance, $33 day of show, available online at www.KPIG.com or through Snazzy Productions at 831.479.9421. Gates open at 10am, show runs from 10:15am to 8:00pm.


Robert Earl Keen

The KPIG Swine Soiree

The fourth annual KPIG Swine Soiree will be held Sunday, June 22, at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, from 10:15am to 8pm. Tickets are $28 advance, $33 day of show, available online at www.KPIG.com or through Snazzy Productions at 831.479.9421.

The Acts, In Order of Appearance:

Main Stage
Paul Thorn and Band
Todd Snider
The Subdudes
Robert Earl Keen's Texas Uprising

Second Stage
The Sherry Austin Band
Devil Makes Three
The Jackie Greene Band
Mother Truckers

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From the June 18-25, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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