by Mike Hixenbaugh
photography by Rich-Joseph Facun
illustrations by Joseph Wagner
The sun is cresting over the horizon, and I’m riding through pine forest in the bucket of a front-loading farm tractor. Seated next to me is a 17-year-old home-schooled boy I met a few minutes ago. We’re clinging to the edges of our makeshift metal seat, our legs dangling in front of us as the tractor rumbles along a muddy trail, past swampy thicket and cow pasture, deeper and deeper into middle-of-nowhere Tidewater.
We hit a rut that rocks the tractor front to back, sending me flailing a short distance into the air and down hard against cold steel. Another kid, the burly one behind the wheel, laughs and brings the tractor to an idle. “I’m sorry!” he shouts over the rumbling engine, though his lingering smile tells me otherwise.
And that’s when it hits me: This doesn’t feel like an interview with a wildly popular indie folk band on the verge of a major record deal. I should be sitting in a sleek downtown condo sipping imported craft beer and asking cliché questions. Who are your biggest influences? When did you start playing that guitar? Is this real mahogany? I shouldn’t be riding through the countryside folded inside a rusting farm implement.
Then again, Bison is anything but typical.
Take the band’s 20-year-old frontman and creative founder, Ben Hardesty. He’s the lumberjack-looking wild man with his hand on the gear shifter. He’s wearing faded blue jeans and a red thermal, unbuttoned to mid-sternum to expose tangled chest hair. His 4-inch beard and golden brown ponytail flutter in the brisk morning air as he navigates us through the sprawling ranch where he grew up and fell in love with music.
He’s the man responsible for piecing together the seven-member ensemble that has seemingly risen from the marshes of southern Chesapeake to captivate the Hampton Roads music scene with a rare blend of alternative folk and classical influences.
The band has drawn flattering though imperfect comparisons to indie rock superstars the likes of Mumford & Sons, The Decemberists and Fleet Foxes. Flattering because each of those bands has carried folk rock into the mainstream; imperfect because none of them uses a 75-year-old pump organ or Bolivian goat toenails on stage.
Bison describes its sound as “folkestral” or “mountain-top chamber.” Haunting melodies accent unabashedly spiritual lyrics. The band’s Christian faith bleeds through its music, but not in a preachy way.
Bison’s live shows transport audiences from urban music halls to another, less familiar, era. Band members appear to have stepped out of an 18th century stagecoach. The girls wear modest floral dresses; the guys are outfitted in an eclectic mix of bowties, vests, top hats and suspenders. Performances feel more like free time around a campfire than concerts.
Ben Hardesty appears every bit the man to lead such an outfit. His husky frame and thick facial hair match his gravelly yet soulful voice. He drives a 1989 wood-paneled station wagon – the muffler fell off during a recent off-road escapade – and he brews mead in his family’s kitchen. He’s also surprisingly soft-spoken, compassionate and humble.
He hopes his music is an encouragement to whoever hears it, he says, “a vehicle to carry people to a better place.” He wants to leverage the band’s success to help feed homeless people or drill wells for clean drinking water in Africa.
“I don’t believe I’m responsible for the success we’re having,” Ben says. “We shouldn’t be the only ones benefiting.”
That ethos, like the music it inspires, is family tradition of sorts. The Hardestys picked up those goat toenails – they produce a soft rattle – during a five-year mission trip to South America when Ben was a young child.
Little more than a concept this time two years ago, Bison cut its first album, Quill, at Richmond’s Minimum Wage Recording last summer. By year’s end, the band had two serious offers from record labels, including one from Universal Republic. (It’s kind of a big deal. Ever heard of Lil Wayne? Drake? Florence + the Machine? How about The Rolling Stones?)
Armed with this information, I called Ben and asked if we could get together to discuss the band’s future. No need to make special plans, I told him. I just want to tag along on a regular day.
Today that means waking up at sunrise and driving a tractor deep into the forest to clear brush from the site where the band planned to shoot its first music video. I shake Ben’s hand to introduce myself; he points to the tractor and asks if I want to ride in the bucket. The baby-faced homeschooler who climbs in next to me is Jay Benfante, the percussionist.
A homeschooled rock star?
Jay laughs when I mention it. Actually, he tells me, six of the band’s seven members are the products of homeschooling, including Ben and his 18-year-old sister, Annah, who plays bells and sings backup vocals. A couple of longtime friends – Jay and his older brother, Andrew, who rocks that antique organ – grew up going to church with the Hardestys and were a natural fit. Throw in a couple of classically trained strings players recruited out of an area homeschooling cooperative, Teresa Totheroh and Amos Housworth, and you’ve got yourself … socially paralyzed rock stars?
“We’re not as awkward as you might think,” Jay says, answering the question I haven’t yet mustered the courage to ask. For what it’s worth, I believe him. He isn’t wearing a homemade sweater or ill-fitting thrift store trousers, and recorded interviews posted on the Internet reveal a group of young musicians with more-than-apt social skills.
One band member did attend public school, but it was nearly 30 years ago. Dan Hardesty, 46, strums a couple instruments and sings backup vocals. He’s also Ben and Annah’s father and an associate pastor.
Jaws dropped when Ben introduced his old man – “That’s my dad on banjo” – during a private performance at Universal Republic’s corporate headquarters in New York a few months back. The label’s chief operating officer, Avery Lipman, was in attendance. “He just kept saying, ‘That’s a first. That’s a first. That’s a first,’ ” Dan says. The record executives apparently liked what they heard. The band agreed in principle to a five-album record deal and was moving toward finalizing the agreement this spring. Plans for a nationwide tour are in the works come fall.
Nobody expected Bison to take off like this, not this fast.
The thought stuck Ben midway through a Nov. 23 headline performance at The NorVa in Norfolk. The band had been getting regular airplay for several weeks on a local alternative-rock station, WROX-FM (96.1), but this was the night before Thanksgiving.
It sold out.
Ben stepped back from the microphone at the climax of the band’s first single – Switzerland, the track that had been getting regular spins on 96X – and said he felt chills run through his veins as the audience, near 800 strong, sang out the chorus of the song he had written months earlier after spending one blistering cold night without shelter while backpacking through Europe.
“Oh, oh, Switzerland, you’ve taken way my breath now once again.”
Voices rose up from the orchestra and echoed through the music hall. Ben fought back tears. Flash back 13 months. Picture the band performing many of the same songs, only it’s an outdoor venue and the sun is shining. Now scan the audience. Pick out the dozen or so people gathered near the stage. Half of them are family or friends of the band. Children are romping on inflatable rides and waiting to have their faces painted. Others bob for apples.
It’s Great Bridge Presbyterian Church’s Fall Festival, and Bison is headlining.
“It’s incredible to think how far we’ve come in a year,” Ben says. “It’s been very fast, but not in an out-of-control kind of way. Everything that has happened has come at exactly the right time.”
The band accepted offers to play in living rooms, coffee shops, at open mics – anywhere a crowd would gather. A couple months after the church performance, the band played a house show near Old Dominion University that gained it fame with the college crowd. The shows got bigger, and soon pieces began falling into place.
Ross Froehlich, DJ of The Late Late Rock Show on 96X, got his hands on Bison’s mix tape in August and started playing Switzerland on the overnight shift. He set the band up with a show at the Jewish Mother in October and afterward persuaded the radio station’s program manager to add Switzerland to the regular daytime rotation – a first for the station.
Enter Jacob Marshall, a Norfolk native who a decade ago founded the now defunct indie rock band Mae. He agreed to meet with the Hardestys after hearing Bison play a live set last fall. A one-hour coffee meeting turned into a six-hour conversation turned into Marshall agreeing to help manage the band through the thorny business side of music.
Marshall hadn’t planned on becoming a manager, he said, but he believes Bison has something special. I asked him to elaborate.
He responded in a 2 a.m. email: ”I truly believe that Bison is meant to be a band that … shows people something about themselves that they might not have seen before. And hopefully, in that new way of seeing themselves, they get a vision for the unique power they have to make the world better.”
Lofty goals for six kids and a worship pastor.
Back at the ranch, sunlight cuts through pine trees, casting smudgy shadows across a swath of overgrown grass and thorn bushes. Ben navigates the tractor between wooden fence posts and begins mowing through knee-high brush.
A week later, a college film crew would descend on this secluded patch of forest with trailers full of cameras and lighting equipment. Set designers would spend two days transforming this spot into a mystical world that Ben and his father had dreamed up. Paid actors and dozens of extras – many of them fans – would hike wooded trails to be a part of it.
Ben wrote Switzerland after that night unexpectedly spent shivering under the stars in a Swiss resort town – “a night of discovery,” he called it. The song’s music video, set in the 1940s, tells the story of a war widow and her child and their own tale of discovery. The mother and son find healing after letting go of the familiar in exchange for something better.
There’s little familiar about this morning. A few hours pass before the work is finished and I climb back into the tractor bucket. My reporter’s notebook is lying there. I pick it up and flip though the pages – all blank. Three hours in the woods with the frontman of the region’s hottest musical act, and not a single word about music.
That would have been too predictable.