Animal Sounds: An Interview With Ben Hardesty

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Virginia-based players, The Last Bison, are gearing up for massive things.  The seven-piece outfit is about to release their major label debut on Republic Records, consistently sells out shows, and is booked across the festival circuit  including Savannah Stopover, Newport Folk Festival and Floyd Fest.  It’s just a short time before their sepia soaked sounds ring familiar to the masses and their admiring herd grows tenfold. We figured we’d catch up with front man Ben Hardesty while he’s still willing to talk to the little guys.

Donkey Jaw: We named our site after jawbone percussion.  To us, it’s a symbol of continual music discovery.  We’re fascinated by your goat toenails.  What prompted the use of those in your music?

Ben Hardesty: When I was a child my family lived and served in La Paz, Bolivia as missionaries.  My dad has always been into music, be it listening or creating it. As any musician in a foreign country would do, he was on the look for exotic instruments.  For that reason I honestly can’t remember a moment in my life when I hadn’t heard of goat toenails being an instrument.  Spending my younger childhood in South America, I was exposed to a lot of third world realities and culture that most American kids aren’t. That started in me a spirit of adventure and continual discovery be it in music, people, faith or just every day mundane things. Like your question stated so well, there is continual discovery in music. Spending those years discovering things as a child in Bolivia, being around ethnic music and seeing strange instruments being used, instilled that in me at a young age.

Mountain, folk, insert-your-favorite-banjo-inclusive-descriptor-here music has gotten mainstream attention lately with bands like Mumford. Any concerns with this sort of thing?

I don’t have many concerns. I actually quite enjoy listening to said bands on occasion, and appreciate that they have brought folk in to the mainstream again!  My only concern is for others who are creating amazing folk music that frankly doesn’t sound like the mainstream folk movement of today.  My hope is that they don’t get overlooked simply because they have a banjo and that they don’t get categorized as joining the bandwagon, especially if it’s a band that has been at it for many years.  We certainly are honored to be compared to bands like Mumford & Sons and hope that the comparisons are not allusions to imitation, but rather an appreciation of music and a placement within a genre.

You are releasing your second full length, Inheritance, on March 5. How is it different from Quill?

This being our first major label release, we have chosen songs from Quill that most of the world has not had the chance to hear, since that album is largely unavailable. So, the album consists of six songs from Quill and four new songs. That being said the songs from Quill are new recordings and contain new arrangements, and the whole sonic resonance of the album is brilliant in comparison.  When I listen back to Quill I honestly think for the couple days that we had recording in Richmond, it sounds amazing as well!  I’m really excited and proud of this one and truly impressed with all the people who worked on making it sound as good as it does.

The album name speaks to things passed down and onward.  What has been your greatest musical inheritance?

My greatest musical inheritance is most assuredly the one passed on from my father. He gave me my first guitar when I was very young.  At the point when I decided to take guitar more seriously he taught me the basics and told me that it didn’t matter how I played it as long as it sounded good.  He also, not through his words, but rather just through his actions taught me that you could make music out of anything, didn’t even have to be an instrument. That taught me to be creative with what I had.

What are your thoughts on his advice many years later?

I love that he told me that. It gave me the freedom to explore the guitar. Rather than learning the technicalities of guitar playing, it taught me to come up with chord voicing that weren’t traditional, or that I simply liked the tone of better. In the long run, for a band with seven members it’s turned out quite well!  Lots of the chords I play are much more stripped down versions of standard chords positions, which I have found allows us to add more instruments without muddying up the sound.  I usually have no idea what chords I am playing.  The more classically trained in the group (especially Amos) end up telling me what it is I am playing.

You share the stage with your father and your sister.  How does it feel having a handful of family members on tour?

It’s truly a blessing. To be able to travel as a family and experience all that’s happening together is wonderful! My whole family travels with us when we go on tour, and its nice to have the people you love and trust and who can keep you accountable along side you.

From the lyrics to the aesthetically pleasing web site that captures the band’s old time vibe, you guys deeply care for the details of everything you do.  Why is it so important to you?

Once we decided on the look and style of the band, we embraced it and we try to support it in every detail.  If we could tour in Victorian carriages and steamboats we would.  It is important for us not to betray the aesthetic we have established.  When Dad bought a new banjo, he looked for one that looked vintage.  When we get new drumheads for the kick, we stain them so they will look aged. The ladies in the band have had dresses hand made.  And we like to brew our own mead. We also run our instruments direct and attempt not to over color the sound. Our songwriting can be very painstaking, as we tend to deliberate for a very long time on very short bits of songs. Some of us are certainly more driven to the details than others, but all of us agree that people now have certain expectations of The Last Bison and we want to deliver.

We are based in Virginia and  understand the incredible diversity of its musical history.  Is there a particular sound that comes of the Great Dismal Swamp region that is unique? Say, something you might not know about unless you lived right in the area.

No specific music that I can think of comes out of the swamp region.  However, Lake Drummond and The Great Dismal Swamp are full of beauty, mystery, and untold stories. One of the less known stories is that of The Great Dismal Swamp maroons. These were encampments of run away slaves that found refuge in the swamp in 19th century America. I imagine the music that was being created or the songs being written in those camps were full of stories of hardship, lament and the hope of freedom.  Your imagination can wander when you visit the lake or are boating through the swamp.  You become a kid again adventuring through cypress knees and waterways.  It’s beautiful and there are few places quite like it in the world.

Many of you all were home schooled.  What was your experience like?

Each individual in the band would answer this differently. For me however, home schooling is what gave me the love for history that I now have. Home schooling gave us the flexibility to go places and see things and experience history first hand. Being from an area so rich with history, as you well know, we are surrounded by landmarks, battlefields, and even a full town that perfectly and beautifully depicts 1770’s Colonial Williamsburg.  Home schooling gave me the opportunity to not only read of these things but to actually experience them and experience them when desired and often.  It also allowed us to spend more time studying subjects or topics that seemed to match our particular gifts, and interests.  I believe that all us are very thankful for the schooling experience we were given.

Are you intentionally trying to make our hearts swell and burst with those gorgeous, sweeping arrangements?

Is it working?!  Ha ha. There is a lot of emotion in the process of writing and arranging and certainly a lot of attention to detail.  Often the emotion is joy, or a sense of sacrifice for something greater than ones self.  We would like the music to convey the lyrics in a way that even if the lyrics were stripped out of the song, the music itself would carry those emotions.  If the emotion is being translated through the arrangements then I’m joyous to hear so!

The band’s name conjures up many things.  Solitary, strong, but somewhat melancholy if you picture some poor creature out on the plains alone.  Tell me about the origin of The Last Bison moniker.

I love the way Steven Rinella puts it in his book, American Buffalo,” At once it is a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness; it’s a symbol of Native American culture and the death of Native American culture; it’s a symbol of the strength and vitality of America and the pettiness and greed of America; it represents a frontier both forgotten and remembered; it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation.” For us it presents a statement of strength and freedom along with a sense of vulnerability.  Dark am I, yet lovely.

The name was originally Bison and stemmed from my fascination with the westward expansion of America and the strength of the word as an iconic symbol.  We later added The Last to further distinguish the name and thus the band from others using Bison.

How do you manage to keep one foot grounded in traditional sounds, yet make music that isn’t stuck in so much of the past it stunts the band’s growth and/or creativity as songwriters, players, etc?

I think that one of the keys is that we happen to use traditional instruments, but aren’t placing them together in expected ways or writing music for the instruments at hand.  For instance, Dad isn’t trying to just play banjo on a song. Rather, he’s creating a musical part that happens to be played on a banjo.  Adding Amos (cello) and Teresa (violin) to the band created a whole sonic layer that really helped define our sound.  When they began to play with us in the style that was natural to them, the blend with what already existed on traditional folk instruments was refreshing.  Another key is that we listen to and are influenced by a wide assortment of music.  At any given moment in the tour van you could find on various headphones U2, Chopin, Beach House, The Allman Brothers, M83, Allison Krauss or Django Reinhardt.

The band embarks on an extensive trek across the country for the next few months.  Be smart; see these folks in snuggly venues while you can.

THE LAST BISON UPCOMING TOUR DATES:

2/14 ­ Washington, DC ­ Sixth & I Historic Synagogue
2/15 ­ Richmond, VA ­ The Camel
2/16 ­ Asheville, NC ­ Altamont Theatre
2/19 ­ Nashville, TN ­ Third & Lindsley
2/27 ­ Durham, NC ­ Motorco Music Hall
2/28 ­ Charlotte, NC ­ The Evening Muse
3/01 ­ Jackson, TN ­ Barefoot Joe¹s @ Union University
3/02 ­ Augusta, GA ­ Sky City
3/04 ­ Jacksonville, FL ­ Underbelly
3/05 ­ Athens, GA ­ The Melting Point
3/06 ­ Decatur, GA ­ Eddie¹s Attic
3/07 ­ Savannah, GA – Savannah Stopover Music Festival
3/10 ­ Denton, TX ­ 35 Denton Music Festival
3/11 ­ Houston, TX ­ Fitzgerald¹s Downstairs (free show)
3/18 ­ Denver, CO ­ The Soiled Dove Underground
3/20 ­ Salt Lake City, UT ­ Kilby Court
3/21 ­ Boise, ID ­ Tree Fort Music Festival
3/22 ­ Wenatchee, WA ­ Caffe Mela
3/23 ­ Seattle, WA ­ Tractor Tavern
3/24 ­ Vancouver, BC ­ Media Club
3/26 ­ Portland, OR ­ Doug Fir Lounge
3/29 ­ San Francisco, CA ­ The Rickshaw Stop
3/30 ­ Los Angeles, CA ­ The Mint
4/02 ­ La Jolla, CA ­ The Loft (UCSD)
4/05 ­ Kansas City, MO ­ The Record Bar
4/06 ­ Ames, IA ­ The Maintenance Shop (Iowa State University)
4/08 ­ Minneapolis, MN ­ First Avenue & 7th Street Entry
4/09 ­ Milwaukee, WI ­ Club Garibaldi
4/10 ­ Chicago, IL ­ Schubas Tavern
4/12 ­ Bloomington, IN ­ The Bishop
4/13 ­ Cleveland, OH ­ Beachland Ballroom
4/14 ­ Louisville, KY ­ Uncle Slayton¹s
4/19 Norfolk, VA Norfolk Botanical Garden
6/21 Sellersville, PA Sellersville Theater 1894
6/26 Floyd, VA Floyd Fest
6/27 Newport, RI Newport Folk Festival

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