In an age when electronic beats and autotuned pop dominate the airwaves, heartfelt musicianship often goes overlooked. Chesapeake, Virginia’s The Last Bison, however, has been delving into America’s rich musical history in search of a new frontier. The band’s self-proclaimed style of mountaintop chamber music has spread like wildfire since they put out their debut album Quill last year, gaining the band radio airtime, garnering national recognition, and catching the ear of a major label.
The band began as a small family affair, with song writer, guitarist, and vocalist Ben Hardesty being joined by father Dan Hardesty on mandolin, banjo, guitar, and vocals, and sister Annah Hardesty playing orchestra bells and harpophone. “It started out when we were just growing up playing music; we were always goofing off with instruments in my house,” says Ben. “When I went and started the band, it started off with Annah and Dad and I arranging stuff in the living room, around fires we would have.” It didn’t take long for friend Andrew Benfante to join the band on organ. Amos Housworth soon followed on cello, recommending violinist Teresa Totheroh join the band as well. Andrew’s brother Jay Benfante soon became the band’s primary percussionist, rounding out the seven person lineup.
Though having seven acoustic instrumentalists and no kit drummer is far from the norm, the band embraces both the challenges and benefits that the lineup presents. “We always knew we wanted there to be a bigger, more classical element to the band; we just didn’t know where we were going to find that,” Ben says of the days before Housworth and Totheroh joined the group. As the lineup filled out, the band took it at face value. “All of the instrumentation, a lot of it just happened,” Annah says of not having a traditional kit drummer. Andrew adds, “Once it did happen, though, it was a conscious decision to keep it that way.”
Ben is the spark behind the band’s alternative folk, “sketching out songs” that the rest of the band then embellishes with their own parts. The songwriting process is far from simple, however, with Ben describing it as “meticulous.” Dan adds, “Most of the time, it is really working hard… There’s a lot of going back and forth, and cooperation. You have to be pretty humble, because you can make parts and then they really don’t work. We all respect that there’s a song that we’re trying to discover, and we’re all on this path trying to discover what that song’s going to be. It’s pretty exciting when all of the arrangement parts that everybody’s contributing to finally emerge after a lot of hard work. Hopefully that comes out in the music, it’s not just, ‘Really? It took you that long to write that?’”
The band’s sound, though undeniably unique, has received comparisons to other folk-inspired acts such as Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes. “I think it’s a great reference point. [Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes] are definitely heavily folk, and I love both of those bands. To be compared with them, I think, is an honor,” Ben says when asked about the comparisons, though the band is quick to point out differences in their own sound. On the success of other folk-influenced groups, Dan feels it is both a blessing and a curse seeing them enter the mainstream. “We don’t want to be seen as, ‘Oh, they’re just jumping on the band wagon,’” he says. “We don’t feel our music necessarily is like those bands’ totally, but it is folk music. Our hope is that people listen to ours and say, ‘You know what? There’s something unique about that.’ It fits in that folk genre – the trend right now – but there’s something different.”
Although the band says they have seen the emergence of a more folk-based sound in their hometown in the last year or so, The Last Bison is the product of a scene in which it was the odd band out. “Other than playing some house shows with singer-song writer types, the shows we were playing were with pop punk bands, indie surf bands. It was different,” Dan says. The band did manage to build a following, however, and before long the demand for a recorded release was evident. The result was a trip to Richmond, VA, where the band spent just 18 hours recording its self-released debut Quill. “Jacob [Marshall, The Last Bison’s manager] said, ‘Don’t tell people that, because it will draw from the grandeur of the album.’ And I said, ‘Yeah right, it makes it awesome-er!’” Ben shares. The band’s live approach to recording takes in all of the instrumentation at once, capturing a sense of the live energy between band members even in the studio.
Once Quill was released, The Last Bison began working feverishly to support the album, playing shows and promoting the record. Traveling to play with such a large outfit might seem like a difficulty, but Ben seems to have figured out the key to keeping the group happy: “[The mood] depends on if we’ve had food or not,” he says with a smile. Dan goes on, pointing out that each member of the band is different. “Some of us are people-people… we draw our energy from being together in a van. Others are a little more introverted and need that time alone… We learn as a team, as a band, as a family, to respect those things.” The dynamic works for the band, contributing to a remarkable energy during performances. “The pleasure of going on stage together, I think we would all agree, is pretty amazing,” Dan finishes. “Any stress throughout the day is just gone, getting up on stage.”
The band’s effort to promote Quill was well placed, eventually leading to the album being featured on NoiseTrade, which offers free band-endorsed downloads to increase exposure. “They actually reached out to us, which was exciting,” Dan says. “They made us an offer to be their feature album for the week. I think to today there was about 30,000 downloads through NoiseTrade, so it was huge for us. We’re definitely a testimony of what NoiseTrade can do for a band.”
The band’s next break came when Quill was picked up by local radio, which brought them to the attention of Universal’s Republic Records. Once signed, the band wasted no time getting back into the studio to record a follow up to Quill. The band hopes to see their major label debut, Inheritance, released as soon as March, but they have released the digital only Inheritance EP to tide over existing fans while reaching out to new ones. Inheritance will feature rerecorded songs originally released on Quill, as well as never before released material. “For us, we’ve been living with these songs for a long time,” Dan says, speaking about the songs on Quill. “As have our local fans,” Ben adds. “We’re ready to take the next step, but we also recognize that there’s a lot of people that have not heard our music,” Dan continues. “Republic was that way, they were like, ‘This is a great catalog of songs, we want to use it.’”
The band certainly realizes that things are different now that they’ve signed a deal, but they don’t plan on relinquishing control of their creativity. “One of the best things of doing things independently is any idea you come up with, you run with,” Dan says. “Signing with Republic, there’s a little more of that cooperation and that process with the label, but we certainly hope to keep turning out things that artistically represent us well.” Like Quill, The Last Bison recorded Inheritance live. “There’s a little more dubbing going on than on the first album,” Dan admits, “but all of those tracks – the guitar, the organ, the cello, the violin, the banjo or the mandolin – those are live tracks.”
“One of our prayers is that people experience joy through the music we play,” Dan says in closing. “We love creating art that’s beautiful, good, and true. I mean, that’s one of our goals is to put that out there. We see things beyond music, we really do feel that we’re trying to create art that impacts people, and it’s not just a band just creating music.”