INTERVIEW BY JOE FITZPATRICK
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY THE LAST BISON AND THERON HUMPHREY
Ben Hardesty may look like the hammer-wielding god turned superhero, but he does have his own unique musical powers, that are eloquently complimented by his friends and family, who are collectively known as THE LAST BISON. Six of the band’s seven members have known each other since they were kids, including Hardesty and his younger sister, Annah, who plays bells and sings backup vocals. Hardesty met percussionist Jay Benfante and his older brother, Andrew, who plays the antique organ, grew up going to church with the Hardesty family, and instantly had great chemistry with them. Add classically trained strings players Teresa Totheroh on violin and Amos Housworth on cello, and the band’s richly layered sound was a match to be met. Inspired by the folk and bluegrass music of southeastern Virginia as well as an appreciation for classical music Hardesty cultivated while studying in England, THE LAST BISON have developed their own brand of “mountain-top chamber”. I had the opportunity to talk to Hardesty about the band’s recent trip to Alaska, the importance of community in their music, and their major label debut with their Inheritance EP.
You guys recently returned from Alaska. What was that experience like?
Gosh…Alaska! It’s a place you don’t want to leave. We were in Anchorage, which is 30 minutes out from the wilderness of Alaska, but we ventured out there a few times. We were staying there with a good friend of mine, and while we were there we enjoyed some of the freshest seafood—crab and salmon. We only got to play one show there, but we want to head back as soon as possible. We would love to tour all over Alaska. It’s very beautiful there and good all around.
I saw on your Instagram that while in Alaska you wore some deer antlers. Whose idea was that?
While we were there, Theron Humphrey of THIS WILD IDEA was touring through the area at the same time, and I was a big fan of him. He has over 350,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter, but we ended up connecting and met up on our last day there to hike up this mountain. My buddy that we were staying with had these random antlers, and everyone just happened to have cameras with them (laughs). So we decided to take them up to the top with us, and we just had fun with it.
According to the band’s biography on your website, your father gave you a guitar when you were two-years-old, and later told you, “It doesn’t matter if you play it right, just make it sound good!” Is that something that you still believe to be true?
I was 12-years-old when I started taking guitar seriously, but when I was two or three, my dad gave me this cream white guitar. When I turned nine, he gave me my first real guitar. It was around that time that he said that to me, and I still use that guitar to write most of our songs, even though its smaller, it still holds a lot of value to me. I’m not classically trained by any means, but my dad and my sister are. I always write by ear and just play whatever sounds good to me. I tend to use a lot of strange chord voicings, and it’s just something that I have always held onto.
That’s cool. You have the creative mindset for your songs, and your dad and sister can apply the technical skills to make the song even better.
Yeah definitely. We have been starting to get a better handle on writing songs together better in our creative process. We can understand each other better, and we have been able to write a lot of new songs much faster. Our next local show coming up is at the Norva on November 30th, and we will be playing a bunch of new songs that we have been working on at that show.
How important is family in your relationships with the rest of the band and in your music?
Our cellist actually just got engaged to my sister. I think the closer knit we are, the better. Community is huge for us, especially with our music, and it was hugely important to us when I was growing up. At the end of our shows, we even invite everyone on stage to join us in our performance.
Though your music, style of dress, and overall lifestyles may seem very traditional, how do you manage to be relevant to mainstream society?
I know we give off the folk farmer vibe, but that is more of the classic late-1800s aesthetic we are going for. We try to make it seem like we have stepped out of an 18th century stagecoach, but that goes along with the genre and the image we project. I think the important part is just owning it and sticking to your guns. We just create music that we love, and we hope that it remains relevant.
You just released your major label debut Inheritance EP through Republic Records. Why did you decide to switch to a major label?
Well we weren’t signed to a label before, and we made the trip to New York more for the experience. The people at Republic though were so congenial, and nice and personable. We really liked that maintaining the artistic side of our music was important to them. A lot of our band members have aspirations outside of music, but this felt like the best option for us. We thought about it over five months, and all the indie labels are running themselves like major labels but try to maintain that “indie” street cred. It has been fun and kinda not fun to see the veil of the music industry change before our eyes. We signed a five record contract with Republic, so one down and four to go (laughs).
What songs off that record have the most personal meaning to you, and why?
There are a few, but the one that has the most personal meaning is “Take All The Time”, which is a sacrificial love song. I wrote it about my girlfriend of three years, and it’s a song about lasting commitment. It’s about me telling her, ‘I’m not going anywhere.’
What other local artists from Virginia have influenced your band’s sound?
Though I am not really a pop punk fan, AUDIOSTROBELIGHT were a big influence in our early days as a band. Gabe is a really good friend of mine, and he helped us with a lot of technical advice that has helped us improve our live performances. I also really admire LOGAN VATH. He is doing great things in the local music community, and he will also be playing with us at our Norva show on November 30th. ESBERN SNARE is another really great band. They make beautiful music, and on one of our tours, their vocalist Luke filled in on organ for us. Also, I can’t forget the classics like ELLA FITZGERALD and CLARENCE CLEMMONS.
For more updates on THE LAST BISON and to hear Inheritance EP, visit their website, “like” their Facebook page, and follow them on Twitter.