After traveling through England and Europe in 2010, Ben Hardesty came home with renewed artistic and spiritual perspective. He announced to his dad that he wanted to make music and with his father's support pulled together together an assortment of family and friends to create The Last Bison.
Almost two years later, they've put out one album, Quill, and are preparing to release their next EP, Inheritance, next month.
Hardesty combines his love for folk, bluegrass, and classical sounds to create a thoroughly Appalachian contemplation on relationships, spirituality and love. His father, Dan, never imagined being in a band with his children, but calls it providential. When he isn't adding vocals or strings, he's working behind the scenes to market the band and set up shows.
They sat down for a Skype interview with me just days after finishing their first 30-day national tour alongside musician and singer Kishi Bashi
You guys just did your first national tour, performing 23 shows in 30 days. What were some memorable moments?
Dan: When we did our home show in Norfolk, 1,200 people came out. It was a massive, hugely responsive crowd. At one moment, Ben turned to me as we're playing and said he was going to go out there and dance. He jumps out in the audience and starts dancing, the whole crowd just forms this circle and starts dancing in there with Ben. Those kinds of moments make it memorable. They're not contrived.
Ben: (smiling) I had a hard time leaving. I got to just hang out and watch my band play. I had never seen that. I didn't want to leave.
Let's go back to the beginning. How did this all get started?
Ben: I grew up in a musical environment with lots of folksy music in our area. We used to have bonfires every week and break out the instruments, play until we had to come inside and then keep playing. At 18, I went to England to attend Bible school for a year and then backpacked around Europe for 35 days. I grew up, I got know myself better, and I got to figure out what I believed. After wrestling with the Lord for 35 days, I came away in love with the Lord, but I also got to know the world better, both in its worldliness and in its beauty. That's when I fell in love with the classical side of architecture and music. I came home and told my dad I wanted to do music. He said now's the time.
Dan, what's your story?
Dan: Well, playing in a band as a career move was never a plan for me (laughing). Playing music for people is something I've always done as a worship pastor at a local church, but if you asked me if I would have liked to be in a band with my kids I would have thought that was a weird idea (laughing). But when Ben came home from the UK and wanted to pursue music, it was natural for us. I gave him the freedom to do that. It soon became obvious to me that God was opening doors and opportunities that we were supposed to walk through. It was very providential.
What has that been like, managing a family relationship alongside a creative partnership?
Dan: At first it was frustrating because I put unrealistic expectations on Ben. For example, I would encourage him to write music, but also pressure him to start planning shows, which he isn't really good at. I had to come to a place where I was able to realize his strengths, encourage him in those, and start taking responsibility for the other parts. It's the same with Anna [Dan's daughter, who sings and plays bells and percussions]. I realize she's a peacemaker. She has a beautiful and more gentle way of bridging people and keeping peace than I do. Sometimes she has to be the one I lean on.
Ben, that must have been huge to have your father's support.
Ben: (laughing) At first I was like, "Finally, thank you! About time!" And then I looked back and really just realized how huge it was. My dad probably does more work than all of us.
Where did the band name come from?
Ben: I've always had this fascination with the Civil War Era and eras that represented times of new frontiers and new discoveries. For us, it was about exploring new sounds by blending classical and Appalachian sounds together. I love the aesthetic and it pushes me to see where I can take the music.
What themes do you try to get across in your music?
Ben: It's always been important to me to stress the importance of relationship between family, friends, and loved ones, so one half is a message that says sacrifice in relationships and making them work is always worth it. The other half is Biblical themes. As a Christian and a songwriter, I pull inspiration from the Creator. Imitating him is a form of worship for me...every song I write is a worship song for me because I'm doing what I love, for him.
Dan, with your history as a worship pastor, did you ever have tension about what type of music to create as Christian artists?
Dan: No. There was never tension there. We never had pressure to be a worship band or a CCM artist. For us, art reflects who you are. If you're honest about who you are, it comes out in your art. We don't want to create art that is just contrived, where you just pick some theme and write about it because it's interesting.
Ben: Right. I think the fact that my songs are relational or Biblical is because those are the things that are so important to me.
Folk music is becoming more popular. How do you stay competitive?
Dan: Obviously, what influences you will come out in your art. Before we had a label, there was no conscious effort to imitate music. There was no desire to be strategically commercial at all. The only thing we're doing strategically is monitoring when these other bands are releasing music and not releasing at the same time. But from the art side there is no agenda.
Ben: When we first started playing music, we would get people who said your music lifts my spirit makes me joyful and your music is getting me through the day. We started to realize there's something unique about what we're doing, something God has blessed us with. So before concerts we pray that our music ministers to people, that it brings bring joy, life, and peace.
Ben, what is the songwriting process like for you ?
Ben: Sometimes I will sit down to write about with intent to write about a theme and then something totally different comes out. Other times, I'll be reading and get an idea, then weave music around it. Or I'll just goof around on a guitar and come up with a hook and then work to add lyrics to it…that's always harder though, when you come up with music first. It's easier to get the lyrics first and get the music.
Ben, which one are you attached to the most? Music or lyrics?
Ben: I've never thought about that.
I mean, I want the lyrics to accent the chord and I also want the music to accent the lyric. But, at the end of the day I think I'm most attached to the lyric. Its like a painting: there's ownership as a whole group, but I get to make the lyrics on my own, so that's probably why I cherish that part more.
Dan: (nodding) As a band we're really picky about melody and arrangements. We have a phrase we say when a lyric doesn't fit with the music. We say it "musically betrays the lyric." For us, it's not bang out four chords and throw some lyrics over it. We're searching for the most effective arrangement to create this piece of art. We can spend hours on a 10 second section of a song. We realize how music affects people's emotions, we don't want to manipulate that, we want it to be genuine and true.
Ben: Right. If it's a really delicate lyric the melody and arrangement needs to be softer. I think there's a powerful side of music and lyric that is the music and lyric accenting each other.
What inspires you? Where do you create?
Ben: Right in the living room on a guitar I've had since I was 10. Our living room is a place of security and comfort.
So, what's playing on your iPod right now?
Dan: Deep Sea Diver
Ben: Ah! They're so good. For me. I love U2 and Vampire Weekend, which I know is weird since I'm a folk artist. But my playlist usually shows a combination of modern alternative, old country, and bluegrass, I just love how refined American bluegrass pulls on your heart strings. I feel like besides the Blues, it really captures America. I just love it when music can create a picture of a certain geographic location.
How do you all define success?
Ben: We think we're being successful as long as we're doing what we love. If our chief end is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever, then we're doing that. We're knowing God and enjoying Him every time we play music. Sustainability would also be nice. I would like to get to a point where each person in the band can have the income to sustain themselves and their family.
Dan: After several years in ministry, on the mission field and working in the non-profit sector, my wife and I have not had the trajectory that most people have: career, home ownership, etc. We don't define success in the confines of the American dream. Success for us is the fact that all our kids love God, we have a solid marriage of 25 years, strong friendships and connections that encourage us and we can pour into. If I died tomorrow, I could say my life has been a success even though we've never owned a home or had lots of money. We are at peace with God and man, that fulfills me. The fact that I get to make music and art with my family…we couldn't ask for more.