Sunday, November 16, 2014

Q&A with The Last Bison

Photo: The Last Bison

One of my favorite albums of the late summer and fall this is year is VA by The Last Bison. There's lots to appreciate about the album. You'll find a range from soft strings to explosive percussion, all coated in a folk-y warmth specific to The Last Bison's sound. 

I had the chance to chat via email with lead vocalist Ben Hardesty about the record. Here's what he had to say about cabins, swamps, drones, and Journey.

Tell me about the new album.

Firstly, I love summer. When I think of my most memorable times or gatherings in my life with the people I love, I think of sunshine and warmth. I wanted songs that captured how I feel when I plunge into the ocean and I’m covered by wind and water. I wanted the songs to convey the joy I experience when I'm canoeing down the Northwest River, with swamp to my left and right. I wanted the songs to capture the nostalgia I get when I think of my favorite summer pastimes. Or the memories of where I grew up, and adventuring with the people I love most. Those themes were a central force driving each song written for this album. The energy of the album captures the joy and thrill of what summer is to me. Then there are songs that mellow out. Those parts of the album are a look back on the dark nights by a blazing fire where no words are spoken, but there is mutual comfort in the silence.

I read you guys worked on the album in a cabin. That seems to be a popular choice these days. What is it about cabins that make them a good spot for writing?

Haha, we kind of recorded in a cabin, yes, but not your typical log cabin in the mountains. The Wigwam is a building was used as a cabin for the summer camp, Triple R Ranch. It sits in the forest along the banks of the northwest river and her A-frame shape points high into the trees. The Wigwam has its own vibe, that feels free and earthy. Yet, because of its sharp geometrical shape it has a modern edge to it. I think for that reason it was the perfect place to record VA, as the record has those old time elements, yet also has a more progressive newness as well.

Describe your songwriting process.

When I sit down to write a song I don't know what direction it's going to take at first. Nor do I know when a melody or lyric will come into my head, or for that matter, if they will at all. Writing, for me is an organic process. I seldom sit down and say to myself, “this is how I will write this song” with the end in mind. Sometimes a melody comes first, sometimes a lyric comes first, and whichever does usually sets the pace and trajectory of that song. The makings of songs are already out there, you just need to reach out and find them.

Tell me about "Cypress Queen," what's the concept behind the song and how did it come together?

The Northwest River, the river the Wigwam sits so close to, flows through the land I grew up exploring. The Cypress Queen is a boat that was used to explore the deep surrounding swamps and bends of the Northwest. As a child my wandering nature took me deep into the swamp to find solitude and adventure. I would go by myself when I wanted to think, and go with friends to “seek thrill” and jump from trees into the rivers black water. Even now, when I can, I journey into the swamp and down the river. I do that because it's a place of rest for me. Its wild thrushes and cypress trees are comforting to me. It's mysterious, and often times can be intimidating, but I love it. The "Cypress Queen" is about the place I grew up, and the swamp in which I find a sanctuary.

Is there a song on the album you're most proud of? Why?

That's a difficult question as different songs have elements that I am proud of. They are each close to me, and each are about themes or experiences that I hold tightly. I'm proud of "Bad Country" because I feel it conveys the adventure that it was a reflection on, in a great way. I'm proud of "Endview," because I feel like it is haunting, yearning, yet hopeful. I feel that its message rings true for lots of people. The song is a love song, and a song of commitment. It says, I love you and I'm sticking with you, and someday we will be closer. Lastly, I'm proud of "She Always Waves at the Gate."  I wrote that song when I was 17. The song has through the last 6 years crept in and out of band conversation, and I feel that it finally found its perfect home on this album.

Is there anything from the writing or recording process that sticks out as memorable?

Our good friend Jonathan Hildebrand, or Hildy, was filming lots of the recording experience. He had just purchased a drone helicopter for his GoPro to get those overhead sweeping shots. Well, Teresa asked him how high it could go, so naturally Jonathan being a young adventurous man, was going to push the limits. Long story short, the drone went a good 200 feet up into the sky, and the battery died. As they looked up they saw the drone dropping rapidly to its certain demise. Jonathan ran to catch it but it landed inches from his grasp. Because of its warranty all damaged was fixed for free! Also, the footage from 200 feet above the tree tops that surround The Wigwam was stunning, and the footage of it falling was awesome as well.

I saw on your site that you all wanted to approach this album as "summer music," what's your quintessential summer album? Why?

U2's War. Not because I feel like the album is inherently summery. Actually the branding of that record is quite the opposite. I chose War because I listened to it on repeat as a young man in the summer as I mowed our large country lawn.

What's a song you wish you could have written and why?

"Don't Stop Believing" by Journey, because I would love that royalties check....

On a serious note, probably "Ragamuffin" by Michael Hedges. The song is one I heard growing up on a regular basis. My dad played parts of it on the guitar, and I spent lots of time just watching him. When I started playing guitar more seriously I listened to a lot of guitarists – Phil Keaggy and Michael Hedges were the best to me. The Keaggy song "Shigeo" and the aforementioned Hedges song were my absolute favorites. The song "Ragamuffin" defined the way I listened to and thought about guitar. I wish I wrote it. If I had, I could likely actually play it.

What's next for you guys?

Touring, and continuing to work as our own label. Hopefully we will get some SXSW love and showcases in the spring. Who knows what else, we take one step at a time! Whatever comes next, we will embrace it, I can tell you that!

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