With the release of Redemption & Ruin - a dark and beautiful covers album featuring their take on Muddy Waters, Tom Waits, Hank Williams, and more - we chatted withThe Devil Makes Three for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. Read on to discover the inspiration behind the album’s dual-theme concept, their unbelievable guest list (Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas, Mickey Raphael), and which covers came easy and which ones didn’t.
NoiseTrade: I really dig the concept of your new album Redemption & Ruin, giving fans a peek at the band’s DNA through 12 hand-picked cover songs. What first sparked this split-themed idea for you guys?
Pete Bernhard: When we're asked about the origins of our band's sound, we usually end up listing over twenty artist - none of which have much in common with each other. With this album, we want to point the finger at some (but not all) of our musical heroes. We’d like to thank them all in person but sadly most of them are long dead. In a way, this album could be thought of as our attempt to communicate with those beyond the grave. Not to bring them back to life, but just to get the chance to shake their hands and tell them how much their music has meant to us. Also, Tom Waits, if you happen to read this, we would like to meet you in person at some point. Set a time and a place and we will be there.
NT: Once you officially decided on the album’s concept, what was the first song you guys decided just had to be on there?
Bernhard: "Drunken Hearted Man" was one of the first. Robert Johnson was the second blues musician I had ever heard - Lightning Hopkins was the first- when my older brother bought me his complete recordings for my birthday when I was about 12 years old. Robert Johnson was poisoned some say by a jealous husband and died somewhere near Greenwood, Mississippi in 1938 at only twenty six years old. I’m still listening to his music today and still trying to figure him out. It seem appropriate to start at the beginning with "Drunken Hearted Man" where it all started for me, musically.
NT: What cover proved to be the hardest to nail down exactly the way you wanted it? Which one came out the easiest?
Bernhard: "Come On Up To The House" by Tom Waits was a hard one for us to get our brains around. No matter which way we tried to approach the song, it seemed to change shape. If we tried to fry it like a rainbow trout, it magically became steak tartare with a raw egg on top. Finally, we gave up on doing it the way Tom Waits had originally written it and sped the whole thing up to an almost unmanageable speed. That seemed to make it more agreeable. Speed can be helpful.
"I Am The Man" by Ralph Stanley came together real quickly. It was almost like we'd already been playing it for years. That one is by far my favorite to play at live shows. "I’m Gonna Get High" by Tampa Red also clicked for us. On that note, I’ll take this moment to cast a vote for full legalization of marijuana. Not just for smoking but for medical and industrial purposes as well. Hemp is an exceptionally useful plant and a renewable resource as well. These United States, the birthplace of all of this wonderful music on this album, has more people incarcerated than any other nation on the planet. Many of these people have been jailed for non-voilent drug related crimes. Why jail all these people who want nothing more than a long nap and an abundance of snacks? This is a great mystery to us.
NT: Were there any songs that you guys considered or even recorded that didn’t make the final album?
Bernhard: There were at least ten songs that we considered for the record that didn’t make the cut for various reasons. We tried to do a Warren Zevon song while we were in the studio and it went real wrong, I’m still not sure quite why. You can’t tell what’s going to work until you try it. We threw a lot of mud at the wall and eventually you find out what sticks. It can be dangerous to take that experimental dive into murky waters, but when it’s hot outside you have to take your chances.
NT: How does the studio experience differ when you’re making an entire album of covers? What parts are easier and what parts are more difficult?
Bernhard: For this album, we left the arrangements pretty wide open. Which we usually don’t do. We wanted to leave space for our guests to help decide what direction the track went. Recording covers, we were more willing to write and come up with ideas in the studio and see where the song went. We also have never had so many guest musicians on any of our previous albums. We always have people sit in but this time was more of a party than a simple gathering. It’s our hope that people will listen to this record and go back and listen to all the artist who we covered. We want to send people back to do their own digging in the bone yards. There's so much good music back there and it’s where we got our start.
It’s easier in the studio when your recording other peoples songs, but it can be harder in the pre-production phase of the album. Choosing the songs is what’s most important with this kind of project. When we record an album of originals, we don’t really get to choose the songs. We just have what we have and sort it all out. This record required a lot more listening and experimenting before we went into the studio. It proved harder than we thought it would be.
NT: Redemption & Ruin features an unbelievable cast of special guests – Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas, Duane Eddy, Mickey Raphael, and more. How’d you go about compiling such a musical all-star team?
Bernhard: It's a great cast of players on this album. Some of the players we knew and so we invited them personally. We were lucky enough to open up for the Willie Nelson/Alison Krauss tour, as well as for Emmylou and Rodney Crowell a few years ago. We had help from our manager and David Ferguson at The Butcher Shoppe as well. It helps that we recorded in Nashville this time around, since that's where most of our guests call home.
NT: While you guys play around with a variety of genres, it all really comes together when the three of you are playing together on stage. How has that musical relationship evolved over the past decade and a half of playing together?
Bernhard: We have grown a ton in our time as a band. We learned how it all works through a ten-year, no expenses paid, boot camp of trial and error. There are many ways to skin a cat and our approach has been to stalk the little mongrel down very slowly year by year. When we finally caught up, we accidentally set the little fuzzball ablaze. After he ran around for awhile and burned himself out, we all finally found our balance. In short, we’ve never been fond of doing things the easy way.
NT: Finally, what are some of your favorite covers by other bands/artists that you like to listen to as a fan?
Bernhard: I would say one of my favorite covers right now is “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, originally written by Anthony Newley.