Q&A with The Last Bison front man Ben Hardesty

Chesapeake, Va.-based band The Last Bison pictured from left to right: Teresa Totheroh (violin), Andrew Benfante (reed, organ, melodica), Ben Hardesty (lead vocals, guitar), Dan Hardesty (banjo, mandolin, guitar, background vocals), Annah Hardesty (bells, percussion, background vocals), Amos Housworth (cello), and Jay Benfante (drums, percussion).
Chesapeake, Va.-based band The Last Bison pictured from left to right: Teresa Totheroh (violin), Andrew Benfante (reed, organ, melodica), Ben Hardesty (lead vocals, guitar), Dan Hardesty (banjo, mandolin, guitar, background vocals), Annah Hardesty (bells, percussion, background vocals), Amos Housworth (cello), and Jay Benfante (drums, percussion).

You might have missed the release of Chesapeake, Va.-based band The Last Bison’s album “Inheritance,” but it hasn’t gone unnoticed by others. With an album released in early March, this seven-piece folk band performed all across the country this year and was part of a star-studded line-up at the annual SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas.

With a loyal home fan base, this group is ready to take the music industry by storm with their unique and vibrant sound reminiscent of bands such as Fleet Foxes and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros.

Front man Ben Hardesty, spoke with Connect2Mason in February, before the band’s release of their first full-length studio album.

Connect2Mason: When did you begin to play music?
Ben Hardesty: I guess I grew up around a lot of music, and my father actually played in a band. It was inevitable for me to play music. I just fell in love with music at a young age. I got my first guitar when I was two, and I would play behind my dad.

C2M: Did you know you always wanted to be a musician?
BH: I didn’t even think about it being realistic until the last couple of years. It was something I really loved. I’ve been playing for a long time, but I didn’t plan to be a musician in the sense that people plan to pursue that today, but I wanted to play music.

C2M: How did The Last Bison form?
BH: Everyone in the band was home schooled so we all took classes and certain homeschool lessons together. Some of [the members] wanted to go to college and not necessarily pursue music. We would play shows back at home and the community just responded well to the music. And so through a process of several months to maybe a year, people decided that this was going to be it, and it was a learning experience to see if this was possible. Once we all did get together and were committed, we just realized just how cohesive [the music] was in the practice room.

C2M: What is the inspiration behind the band’s name?
BH: I spent a good five months of the school year growing up doing only Civil War history and the period shortly afterwards, and I just fell in love with that. Particularly with the heart people had for exploration and people seeking new discoveries. So I think it is cool to take that mindset into the practice room and see how we can explore this and discover new talents and new things. So that whole era of that time sort of conjures up the fact. And I think the bison of being an iconic symbol of that time.

C2M: Growing up in Chesapeake, Va., what influence does that area have on your music? What music did you listen to growing up?
For me, I don’t have any musical influences from that area per se. The music scene has gotten a lot better over the last few years.

I live on the great dismal swamp, and there’s a place called Black Drum. And there’s just this huge flat lake, and it forms a giant fire and there’s these trees that come out of the water. And when it’s still, there’s a perfect reflection of the trees. So I grew up basically exploring that area. It just left me with a sense of mystery, awe and wonder. Being such an adventurous kid, I would just come up with stories about stuff that used to happen there. So some of the songs are mysterious and a lot of the songs come from storytelling. [The music] just comes from some of the natural beauty that you need to explore, which you don’t see on the road. There’s no place like that.

C2M: How did you guys begin to start recording and touring?
We originally started playing at house shows and coffee shops. Through that we had a handful of fans that said, “You need to make some songs, and we’ll buy whatever you make.” So in two days, we recorded “Quill” and released it in September 2011. A local alternative radio DJ liked the song “Switzerland” and started rotating it on the radio, which is kind of crazy ‘cause that doesn’t happen.

Then Republic Records saw that and a few months later flew us to New York City to do a showcase and after five months of haggling out a deal we got it underway. We signed a deal with them last May and since then there have just been a lot of tour offers. I guess you just have to get popular. A lot of places, nobody shows up. You just really have to start from scratch. Touring is just really grueling work for however long it takes to get people to come to your shows. We usually get about 100, which is nice to play. We just went out and went to places and didn’t give up.



C2M: The band writes its own songs and music. How does that process work from musician to musician?
For me the process of writing a song takes a while. Sometimes takes months on a song to make it right. A lot of artists write a lot of songs and pick ones just for the album. I write fifteen and take ten. So I will spend however long it takes writing a song. If a melody comes to me first I’ll figure the chords out later, or if it’s the chords I’ll get the melody later.

For me the process of the music, of the song, is to get the emotion of the lyrics and conjoin them to make the lyrics feel the same way the music does. And then in the rehearsals we work through the song, so if the line conflicts with the music we have to make sure all the instruments can kind of mesh and play together. The creative process is long, but by the end, it’s like, “That’s really awesome!”

C2M: You were recently at the Grammy Awards! What was that experience like?
It was kind of surreal. I’d never seen them on TV and to see them live was amazing, and we got invited to all the parties. The craziest moment for me was the first night. I’m sitting at this cool Irish pub, and I see MC Hammer is chatting with Akon. So it was weird ‘cause I’m just a little boy from the swamp of Virginia.

C2M: Since you’ve toured and performed a lot what’s your aim when you perform for a live audience?
Before we always go up on stage, we always pray that the same joy we experience up on stage is translated to the audience; to leave them with sense of awe, mystery and joy. That’s what my prayer is each night on stage and that the show takes them on some type of journey and that they end up being more joyful coming out and that they experience joy.


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