Virginia-based indie-folk septet Last Bison, led by musician/songwriter Ben Hardesty, plays Altamont Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 16 (8 p.m., $10; Bombadil opens). The show is advance of the band’s full-length album release, but they’ll be playing new songs and an array of unique instruments (harpaphone, melodica, Bolivian goat toenails) along with their trademark rootsy-mystical catalog.
Hardesty is joined by his father, Dan (banjo, mandolin, guitar) and sister Annah (bells, poercussion), along with brothers Jay and Andrew Benfante (on drums and organ, respectively), Teresa Totheroh on violin and Amos Housworth on cello. Here, Dan talks to Xpress about the band’s campfire jam aesthetic, orchestration and iPod playlists.
Mountain Xpress: The band bio says that Ben is “joined by a cast of family and close friends – drawing authenticity from many nights spent jamming around backyard bonfires, spontaneously creating music in the living room, and leading songs with the extended community at their local church.” Does this make it easier to tap into that energy on tour and on stage, or is tour hard on the simple magic of those bonfire jam sessions?
Dan Hardesty:You are right, there is simple magic around bonfires, where things seem very spontaneous and natural. And though we can’t build a fire on stage, or fit everyone from a show into our living room, we still find playing for people anywhere is inspiring and energizing. We can be dead tired from driving all day, and weary from the routine of setting up, but when people show up and we get to play music, it’s magical for us.
From the look of the website to the band’s profile pics, to the fairytale magic of the “Switzerland” video, there’s a cool and folkloric aesthetic. How did that evolve?
We knew early on that our music evoked a certain imagery. It seemed natural to create other elements of the bands art to match those images. Ben has always had a fascination with the late 1800s, Victorian styles, and Westward Expansion, so we kind of latched onto that and have saturated our aesthetic with that feel. Remaining consistent and loyal to this theme is important to us. If we could tour in classy stagecoaches we would.
The songs on the Inheritance EP are so rich in orchestration, storytelling and passion. Do you have any rituals for getting into the creative space either for writing, recording or performing live?
There’s no real rituals or anything like that. Although for song writing I do have a go-to guitar. It is a mini acoustic Squire that my dad gave me early on. I just love life. I love its richness, the adventures it has, the places it takes you. Life is inspiring and not something to take for granted but to cherish and hold dear and love. Ultimately I would have to say that, as a man of deep faith in God, my passion, joy, and zeal for people and life comes from the fact that I believe I was created to create. The fact that I am privileged to do that is a huge blessing to me. What can I do but be joyous and passionate about life, and share that joy and passion every chance I get.
Your bio mentions comparisons to the likes Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes, and you have a fun video with Langhorne Slim – with so many roots/folk indie-rock outfits out these days, do you think this points to a need among music listeners for a return to folk traditions? Perhaps a yearning for banjos? What does it all mean?
Music definitely has its rhythms and cycles and there will always be waves of styles that rise and then recede. Folk music is definitely experiencing the upward motion of that wave. I think a lot of it is a longing for something simple and authentic, for something that feels like a homecoming. It is also music that seems to foment community, where people actually sing along at concerts and feel like they are a part of the show rather than simply a visitor in the room. We have become a technology saturated culture, and roots/ folk / indie music is a rest from that. Don’t get us wrong, you will find Beach House, Purity Ring, and M83 on our headphones, too.
On Inheritance, I catch themes of nature, loss and longing. Is there a story that you had in mind while writing these songs?
I think the story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration is one that impacts our creative process and songwriting. It is not necessarily a conscious effort to do so, but art will naturally reflect the worldview of the artist. Certainly some the songs like “Switzerland,” “Distance” and “River Rhine” stem directly from personal experiences, while others, like “Dark Am I,” come out of my encounters with reading the Bible.
What is the deal with the Bolivian goat toenails? And what other unusual instruments do you use, either on stage or in recording?
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, so, as any musician in a foreign country would do, he was on the lookout 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. They are basically a very earthy sounding rattle. We also use a Melodica, which is not all that unusual. It is a hand held, reed organ that you blow into. And Annah plays a harpaphone, which is a set of bells (glockenspiel) set over resonating tubes. I don’t think it is on any of the EP songs, but you can hear it on the full length (coming out on March 5) and at live shows.
What we can we expect at your Asheville show?
What we like to call a genuine hootenanny! People tell us that our live shows are full of energy and that there are so many people and things going on, that there is not time to rest your eyes. We have put together a set for this tour, so the visual side of things is going up yet another notch. And we don’t even use lasers!