Singer-songwriter Pete Bernhard and his Devil Makes Three bandmates came of age as artists about a decade ago, in Santa Cruz. Bernhard, who’s since moved back to his hometown in Southern Vermont, is returning to Santa Cruz this weekend with the band for two sold-out shows at the Catalyst to close out the year. They’re touring in support of their new cover album, Redemption and Ruin, and Bernhard spoke to GT about their latest homecoming.
You said five years ago that the members of Devil Makes Three sort of see yourselves as a Santa Cruz band. Is that still true?
PETE BERNHARD: I feel a lot of connection to California. My mom lives in San Diego. I went to middle school in California when I left Vermont. I love Santa Cruz, and I miss California, even now. That’s still pretty much right on. I do feel like Santa Cruz is a second home. I did spend over 10 years there, and I really love it. It’s a great place.
The last show you did here was three New Year’s Eves ago. Have you been back in between?
Personally? Yeah, I’ve been back quite a bit, actually. I still have a good amount of friends out there.
So why the three-year break?
Sometimes you have to choose between playing San Francisco and playing Santa Cruz. They’re too close together. The last few times we’ve come through, we’ve played the Fox in Oakland. So, we had to make the executive decision. But we love Santa Cruz. We’re still gonna come back. It just might be more time in between shows.
In the song “For Good Again,” you talk about an attic you lived in on Lincoln Street above a bathroom and paying your rent in illegal drugs. It all seems too real to be made up.
I was doing a lot of working and a lot of trying to save money. That’s why I was living in the attic. It was a lot of working regular jobs and touring and trying to get it together. I was having a lot of fun, but I wasn’t really doing a whole lot [laughs.] It belonged to a buddy of mine, and he had lived there for years. I had nowhere to live at the time, and me and him used to play music together. And he just kind of gave me a room. He was trying to help me out, and I stayed there for a while, actually. We worked together. It was just a little place. It honestly was not big enough for the three of us who lived there at all. But he was cool and decided to help me out. We had a blast. We just spent a lot of time hanging out together and drinking. I wrote a lot of songs at his house.
Back in your California days, you had a lot of ups and downs as a band. After so many years, I wonder if it can be difficult to stay together.
If you’re asking if we get along, yeah, we get along. Most definitely, we certainly do. You can’t be a band as long as we have and not get along. You go check out how many bands have been a band as long as us. I think you’ll find it’s very few. You can’t make it as a band if you’re not close friends. We’re about as close as you can possibly get. I’d say we’re more like family than friends at this point. And that’s the only way you can make it work as a band. If we didn’t get along, we never could have made it work this long. If we were actively fighting with each other, we would have broken up 10 years ago. We operate like a team.
You mentioned three years ago wanting to do a gospel album.
Yeah, that’s kind of what this last album was, in a sense. More the idea behind the album was to show a lot of the influences of the Devil Makes Three, and a lot of the artists that have inspired us. We separated into redemption and ruin. Half of it was gospel songs, traditional songs. And half of it was songs about ruining your life, I guess. That’s what the gospel idea turned into. It was always the idea to show the stuff that we were into and the music that influenced our band and made us want to start doing what we’ve been doing for so many years. It took a long time to get off the ground, but it eventually happened.
You guys don’t rush putting out an album. One comes out every three years or so.
Honestly, we’re not not rushing on purpose. It’s just that I’m the main songwriter of the band. I don’t really come up with an album every year. I probably could come out with an album every year, but I just don’t think it would be very good. The music industry really pushes artists to put out a lot of material. As soon as your album comes out, it’s like, “When’s your next album coming out?” That’s great and all for people wanting to buy stuff. I don’t really think it’s great for artists. That’s not what it’s supposed to be. You’re not supposed to just hammer out an album to make money. It’s got to be at least somewhat inspired [laughs]. I don’t get inspired every year.
The album does a nice job balancing your two themes—the biblical and the, uh, wanting to get messed up.
It’s the two sides of the coin. It’s always a theme that I’ve loved and also a theme in all the music that I get inspired by, too.
How many times have you read the Bible? Your allusions feel like second nature.
I always read it in a very non-religious way to some degree. My mom was definitely raised Catholic. I went to a lot of different churches with my mom, actually. Honestly, most of the Bible that I’ve read, I’ve done it on my own, not through church. I’ve read the Bible a lot of times to inspire a certain song or understand a certain song. The only part of the Bible that I’ve really read that I remember is the New Testament—the Sermon on the Mount and the gospels, of course. I think the Bible has some great lines into it. Like lots of religious texts, it’s got some really great passages. At its best, it’s really poetic, and at its worst, it’s really boring. I think the Bible is a cool, inspirational text, but I don’t really think I’ve read it in quite a long time. I don’t consider myself a religious person. I don’t think, in a lot of ways, religion has lived up to what Jesus was talking about.
Devil Makes Three plays the Catalyst in Santa Cruz at 9 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 30 and Saturday, Dec. 31. Both shows are sold out.