I knew long before our interview that The Last Bison was of a unique situation, considering four of the band members are relatives — three by blood (consisting of two generations) and one by marriage. Every part of their lives are interlaced with a remarkable kinship, that which defies all standards and limits. I arrived at the Mercury Lounge, headed past the curtain, down the dark staircase, and through the maze of stone walls and your usual basement piping, eventually to arrive at the small room tucked away in the farthest corner. The room was…to put it nicely…cozy. Not only in size, but also in temperature. I was greeted at the door by a gush of warm air, as well as by Carla, The Last Bison’s tour manager, who also happens to be the mother of band members, Ben (lead vocal/guitar) and Annah Hardesty (bells/percussion), and wife to band member Dan Hardesty (banjo, mandolin, guitar). Ben Hardesty (Carla’s son) immediately made note of my presence by calling out my name and inviting me to sit with him. As long as we were going to be in that small room, Ben and I agreed that excessive body sweat and odor would also be present for our interview and we’d come out better friends because of it.
Ben, then, called out for Amos Housworth (cello and Ben’s brother-in-law/Annah Hardesty’s husband) and asked if he wanted to participate in the interview. Amos quickly joined us. I sat on the wooden bench on the back wall, while Ben and Amos sat in their chairs directly in front of me — each leaned in towards me — enthusiastic and completely engaged in the moment, which I can affirm is how The Last Bison handles every moment and situation. The dynamic I felt as soon as I crossed through the doorway into that room was thrilling — I was no longer Lauren, their first-time acquaintance from Heartstrings, but more like the cousin they haven’t seen in a couple of years.
Ben fanned himself and then me, with his hat, and I pulled out my recorder and some of my materials and we began…
Amos Housworth: You planned out questions (laughs)?
Lauren Jahoda: I do a lot of research and always over-prepare (laughs). It’s the English major in me.
Ben Hardesty: I’ll try to be grammatically correct then (laughs).
LJ: The reversible V symbol is a big part of your album — it’s the title (VA), the album art and it’s the shape of the cabin, “the Wigwam,” where you recorded the album — was this intentional? How did it come about?
BH: Nope. We didn’t really know what we were going to do with the recording of this record.
LJ: What came first…the Wigwam or the title?
BH: We came up with the title while in the Wigwam.
AH: …but not as an icon.
BH: Yeah not as an icon yet. We went to record in a more prestine studio in town just doing single tracks, like pretty standard stuff. We felt it wasn’t capturing the life that we wanted it to…we had to record these core tracks live. We wanted a safer environment that’s more free and where we can more freely express our creativity and art. We grew up on this summer camp and there’s this building that sits in the woods, The Wigwam, it’s an A-frame building and it was used being used for storage. The director is a really good friend of mine…I said “Dwayne, I need this place. I need to record our practices and I need to do the album here.” And he was like “Okay.” Then I convinced the guy we were recording with, Jim Parroco, who runs a production company in our area, that I wanted to move the entire studio to the Wigwam for a week and at first he was hesitant but I told him to trust me, I really feel good about this and we did it. He said during the first session, yeah you were right. So I felt good about that.
We moved everything in there and we started recording in there and I said what if we name the album Virginia and at first everyone was like ehhh…and I was like well a lot of these themes in these songs and lyrics represent not only our state but what our state means to us…like why not? And then Annah, we were all posting Instagram photos of the Wigwam, had said it looks like an “A”…what if we flipped it upside down and just made the album a picture of this place and then it became what has driven the whole aesthetic of this cycle.
AH: Yeah Annah took a shot of the Wigwam and then Ben flipped it and was like ah, that looks awesome. Annah’s photo became the album cover.
BH: Yeah, it’s actually an iPhone photo.
LJ: Very cool. That’s incredible how it all came together that way.
AH: Yeah it’s pretty minimal but it just stuck with us hard.
LJ: What equipment did you record with?
BH: This one was all digital because we had to do it fast.
AH: Yeah we had a very short time frame.
BH: Not because of any particular time or deadlines to meet…because we aren’t on a label right now. Because we knew if didn’t give ourselves deadlines, it would probably just drag on and drag on and drag on.
LJ: Did you feel the need to give yourselves a personal deadline because you felt like you were bottling up all this music inside and you had to just spew it out?
BH: Yeah. We had sat on the music and the songs for about a year and we were like we’re not on a label right now and we’ve been waiting to release it to do another album for awhile and we parted ways with the label in January. It was a humbling experience because it didn’t work but at the same time it was freeing.
AH: Yeah it was also freeing because we then knew what to do, we had been waiting on what to do…ya know should we do another album…what do we do…and there just wasn’t a lot of communication and it was like alright finally, let’s just do this. It felt right.
BH: I just had this wild feeling to just put it out there and if it fails, just release another record. Just go, go, go and just keep putting out music. So that’s what kind of just started this month with the record release. We have more music that’s supposed to come out hopefully soon again next year and then I’m ready to start working on another record.
LJ: How long did it take you to actually record the album?
BH: Well, um, we experimented in the other studio over the course of several weeks to just feel it out and when we had three songs done and we were playing them back, listening to them and they sounded okay professionally and production-wise, but there wasn’t life in them. That’s when we made the shift. We had six full days in the Wigwam. One day I did just 15 hours straight of drums. I had bruises on my legs from just getting hit by the sticks. Then other days would be 13 hours straight of just vocals and then we did a lot of the overdubbing back at that other studio because of time crunch. Very minimal though.
AH: Just to polish it off.
LJ: Did you sleep in the Wigwam while you were recording there?
AH: No we didn’t. His house is right across the road so…
BH: I slept close. I would just wake up and walk right over to the Wigwam.
LJ: I get the impression you guys do a lot of things that way…everything is sort of across the street or already with you…the band is obviously very close knit.
BH: Yeah a lot of the band is family. My sister, my dad…(points to Amos) he’s my brother-in-law…
AH: Yeah, I married his sister.
BH: …and the other two are our best friends. It wasn’t like I had to put an ad out on Craig’s list to start the band, I said to my friends let’s play music together and we became a band.
LJ: That’s interesting because often the process for musicians is first, recognizing and deciding that you want to pursue a career in music above everything else and second, finding your band, which can be difficult. What was coming together as a band like considering you never really had to “come together”?
AH: Yeah it was crazy different.
BH: Yeah I knew I wanted to do music and it was just natural for me to gather my friends and family rather than find others.
LJ: It’s a blessing. A lot of musicians would cherish that.
BH: Yeah, it really is.
LJ: There doesn’t seem to be, but are there any negatives to being together with your family all the time?
Amos: None. Definitely zero.
BH: I never want to get away. We grew up…I heard someone say this recently that families who grow up in smaller houses don’t need to get away from each other as much and we grew up in a really small house. And mom and dad’s room wasn’t like this off-limits room like it is in some cases. The doors are open, come lie down on the bed, talk, just like that kind of dynamic. And because of that being in a band really is no different. I cherish that I get to travel with the family. And see everything we get to see with the family. Ya know the people that you leave, you can never relate those experiences back to them, they can’t understand…The people I’m close to get to experience that and I don’t have to explain it to them and tell them and show them without them fully grasping what it is like. It’s special.
AH: And now we’re growing up in a band.
LJ: You guys really define the term communal, in the best way.
BH: I hope so.
LJ: Besides this interview (laughs), what do you guys do the day of or an hour before you go on stage?
AH: Ben and Theresa Do warm-ups. Annah and I like to go on walks. I like to find clothing stores.
BH: I like to make sure that anything that is in my body that needs to get out of my body is properly flushed. I know that sounds bad, but getting on stage and realizing you have to go and you’re going to have to hold it in for an hour and a half…yeah. It’s not pleasant (laughs).
LJ: I’m totally with you (laughs). Amos, do you go to clothing stores because it takes your mind off things?
AH: I think it’s because when you’re in a different city there are just new things to find and I just love clothes, whether it’s buying it or looking at it.
BH: We’re girly, we don’t care that we like to window shop.
AH: The only Wolverine store in the United States is down the road from here and we are huge fans of Wolverine. It’s a boot company. Both of the boots we are wearing now are Wolverine.
LJ: Oh awesome…I love those.
BH: I detox by sitting in sweaty rooms (laughs).
LJ: Me too (laughs). Did you all grow up in Virginia?
AH: Yeah, primarily. Andrew is originally from California, but has lived in Virginia longer.
BH: My parents were missionaries in Bolivia when I was a child so when I was 3 I lived in Costa Rica for a year and from ages 4-9 I lived in South America and so I went from the jungle to the Virginia marshland. I was bread and honed for adventure.
LJ: Ben, touring must have been somewhat familiar to you since you traveled so much as a child.
BH: Yeah, I traveled a lot in high school and I lived in England for a year after high school.
AH: I think it’s just our adventurous spirits. Just getting to see and be in different places is the best part.
BH: We did a 2-month tour last year, which is really long for us…it was 40 shows in a row. There weren’t many breaks, it was all just crunched in there…but you know how when you are on a run and you have a goal and you can’t give up until you hit it…it’s like that on tour. So you cannot give up, you cannot fall asleep, you just go, go, go. And then you come home and you sleep for like two days. We had a show in Tennessee, Teresa didn’t make it, she was puking in the hotel…
AH: I puked right before and again after. It was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life.
BH: I was so shaky and green. And it was a really important show with a lot of important people in the audience. We were supposed to do 5 songs, it was one of those showcases. They gave us 30 minutes and I cut it to 4 because after the 4th song, I put my guitar in my dad’s hand and ran off the stage to an alley behind the venue and I just puked. I could feel it come up during the set and I was like “No! I will sing!” And then after the 4th song, that was it. That was the worst. Sometimes you just can’t help it.
AH: And then during SXSW, Teresa puked right off the stage during the set!
LJ: Teresa seems to have all the bad luck when it comes to getting sick.
BH: Yeah. She’s small. The guy who recorded our album he used to play for the navy, they would fly him out and he would play for aircraft carriers, and he got sick but he was right next to the water so he would play his bass and every song he would puke. And apparently every time he did the sailors would just scream “YEAHHH!!!” Every single time (laughs).
AH: What was the original question?
BH: It was how often do you puke on tour (laughs).
LJ: What’s the story behind the name The Last Bison? I know you used to go by just Bison.
BH: We were mostly home-schooled, so with that I was able to really focus on things that I found interesting. I spent a big chunk of time in high school studying solely civil war and post-civil war history and that era of American history because it wasn’t the century I was born in. It felt like it was history but it was still accessible. I liked that because it was still removed enough to be mysterious. I think that was why I was so drawn to it. I fell in love with that aesthetic and to me the bison is the most iconic animal of that era because it doesn’t just represent the power, it represents the vulnerability of America, but also the forward-thinking of America. It represents the best and the worst parts of us. I’m a Virginian, I love America, but I know that there are bad and good parts — that’s why I love that animal, because I feel like it represents both those sides of the American people and I love that.
LJ: That’s a great answer.
AH: Yeah that was pretty good (laughs).
LJ: I read somewhere that on stage you use a pile of goat toenails for a rattle sound…
BH: Yeah we do. We’ll use it tonight.
AH: My wife uses it and she smacks it on stuff. She also uses nuts (laughs) to make noises.
BH: When we were in South America, they use them a lot for music there and so we brought some back with us and when we started band we said we gotta use these.
LJ: That’s great. Did you guys have day jobs or commitments before the band?
BH: Not really. I just had gracious parents who believe in a dream.
LJ: Dan was the only one that actually worked. Andrew had just gotten back from Bible school. Teresa, Annah and I had just finished high school before we did the band. When we go back home a couple of us do little things…Teresa does some waitressing.
BH: We’re kind of in this juxtaposed position where I love it but I grew up in a tight family so I really want to start a family as soon as possible but I am incapable of doing so because we don’t really make any money. I want to be able to sustain a wife and a family but those are the challenges that come with it. You have to find ways to think creatively.
LJ: What do you see yourself doing in the future then?
BH: Putting one foot in front of the other. I’ll probably live in DC. My girlfriend lives in New jersey so we’ll probably meet halfway because she’s going into a career of serious government things.
AH: I would love in the future to be a producer or studio engineer…I’d love to work with other people’s music that I am not emotionally attached to…not because it’s no strings attached but because I’ve seen working with producers in the past that their insight is almost worth more because it’s not emotonial for them. They’re not hung up on something because it’s there. I feel like I would like to do that. I might be terrible at it but (laughs).
BH: There is this place called Mutiny DC and it’s just this small high-end clothing store and I’d love to own my own little fashion boutique or a mini fashion brand that is just one little store. If I had the money to do it or the capital to start a store like that in DC, I’d probably move there and do that.
We officially concluded our interview, turned the recorder off and Amos stood up to grab his cello to start practicing, while Ben and I continued to talk and get to know each other. We talked life, Shovels & Rope, the similarities between Ben’s hair and Brad Pitt’s hair in Legends of the Fall and more. We finally parted ways prior to their 11 PM performance at the Mercury Lounge and I made my way back up the stairs to the bar area on the main floor. Carla was at the merch table setting up and began showing me some of the materials they had for all to see. Among the items were pumpkin beer soaps, made from the scrap beer of a local Virginia brewery, in addition to a song/art book, which the band put together after giving many of their artist friends a song off the new album, VA, and asking them to create a piece of art in response to the song’s lyrics. The results were beautiful — each page represented an individual’s unfiltered visual interpretation to the music. Included among this handful artists are Dan Hardesty and his son, Ben. This book is yet another attestation to the continuing accessibility into the hearts and lives of The Last Bison family.