Fourteen hands, seven voices, two guitars, a banjo, mandolin, cello, violin and drum kit. Four friends, one father, his two children and an assortment of bells and noisemakers: that’s a breakdown of Chesapeake’s The Last Bison by the numbers, and it’s a racket to deal with when it’s time to pack up this more-or-less family band and ditch Virginia for the open road.
It’s impressive that The Last Bison has pinned this nationally touring thing down between the release of a their first EP, last October’s Inheritance, and the following full-length record of the same name. According to Benjamin Hardesty, The Last Bison’s bandleader and guitar-wielding belter, this efficiency isn’t a new thing. His dad, Dan Hardesty, and sister, Annah, join him onstage every night, so the confined spaces of a van feel familiar for a few reasons. It’s home, just of a different kind.
“We don’t live in a very big house, so we’ve always been very close,” he says, calling in from a highway that’ll take them from California to Phoenix. “Not just in the way family’s close close, but actually close to each other because our house isn’t big. We’re used to interacting in small spaces, so that really doesn’t add stress or anything; it’s just more that we are on the road as opposed to being in our house at home.”
So far, the road has brought them through the Appalachian Mountains, urban landscapes and sprawling plains alike, and though they’ve gleaned plenty from their wide-eyed adventures on the festival circuit and touring cycles behind Inheritance in its two-album entirety, The Last Bison are firmly entrenched in a century-leaping sound that’s grown stronger with every rediscovered banjo riff plucked from the folk songs of days gone by.
Hardesty’s voice is a stylistic chameleon, charging through earnest, pleading choruses until the cracks and gravel make themselves known. His intensity would work in a milieu of molds, either in the form of a tortured boy with an acoustic guitar a la Dashboard Confessional, or the kind of dark, slightly sinister and wise-beyond-his-years crower that would give Caleb Followill a run for his money. But the beauty of Hardesty’s showmanship—and that of The Last Bison at large—comes from the delicate balance between hard and soft, light and dark, old and new, tradition and breaking the mold.
Unlike some banjo-wielding peers, which some would consider a punchline of a genre, The Last Bison sets themselves apart with the ability to compose and exquisitely perform five-minute love songs with the complexity of a small orchestra.
This musicality and skill—and approachable nature—is what Hardesty’s most proud of, and the first thing he names as an achievement when discussing Inheritance. “There are a lot of technical parts on this album, really meticulously thought-out ones that remain accessible to any listener. I feel like we created a product that is creatively done with a lot of orchestrated parts that have to work together. It all gets muddied up, but it’s still easy to listen to and accessible by the listener. I think that’s a pretty big feat in my eyes. I’m pretty proud of that.”
Inheritance also proved to be a bit of a challenge for Hardesty, who typically crafts his songs through a slow, thoughtful process.
“It’s really important to me that the lyrics always accent the music, and that the music always accents the lyrics in such a way that if you stripped one from the other the same emotion would be portrayed in either entity,” he says. “Sometimes it takes me two months to write a song. It’s hard to write on the road, but I do get some time to think through stuff, or mostly just finish ideas I come up with when we aren’t on the road.” This all dissipated when they went into the studio to record “Sandstone,” as the song threw a bit of a curveball once the mics were on, and it forced the band to lock themselves in a room and come up with the missing piece in less than an hour.
“What came out of that hour was just this perfect bridge that we had been working on for so long and trying to make work, and we just kind of let it go, and it’s just absolutely amazing. The most important thing is that you can’t force it. We weren’t trying to do this, but I realized that you can’t really force creativity. It has to be genuine.”
It might as well be a new mantra for the band, this whole “Don’t force creativity” thing, because this embrace of the stanzas and chords that spring from their lips and fingertips only fortify their staying power. It’s a good thing they opted to go the route of the well-worn folk rock vibe that’s been tread before. It’ll just provide them with plenty of opportunities to gather up their handful of instruments and people and prove that Inheritance and the songs that come after it will just grow better with age—even if it results in a bit of a timeless racket.