After some convincing from their manager and with a makeshift setup inside a classroom at Joseph S. Clark High School, Tank and the Bangas filmed a nearly acoustic, single-shot take of their song "Quick," burst into laughter and sent it to NPR without a second thought. One of more than 6,000 submissions from across the U.S. for the network's 2017 Tiny Desk concert series, the band was crowned the winner, making an unlikely introduction to a worldwide audience after several years of whirlwind tours and countless local gigs in their hometown of New Orleans.
"We submitted on the last day and it turned our world around," Tarriona "Tank" Ball says during a rehearsal break the day before a summer tour. "We were performing in the littlest club in New Orleans or Alabama. We'd always have people who were nice and kind to us, who were fans already — we're used to setting little clubs on fire in the country, having us a good ol' time, and packing out Chickie Wah Wah in New Orleans. We've been having these amazing people behind us, this unbelievable and undeniable influence. Tiny Desk gave us the platform that we wanted and truly needed."
The band joined NPR's Tiny Desk tour and performed on its concert web series and the radio program World Cafe, capturing a massive audience with its dynamic, exhilarating performance marrying R&B, funk, jazz and Ball's powerful poetry. The band — Ball and Albert Allenback, Merell Burkett, Norman Spence and drummer and musical director Joshua Johnson — also caught the attention of Verve Forecast Records, which released a live EP in April and will add a full-length studio LP later this year. After wrapping dates in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the band was named Entertainers of the Year at last week's 2018 Big Easy Awards.
"It's not like it used to be," Ball says. "It's everything we used to do, only on 100. ... It's really a wild year and it's just getting started. All of those years on tour performing for three or five people in the crowd has kind of prepared us for this moment, to be in front of 10,000, or even a million, who knows."
Ball grew up singing in the 9th Ward's Christian Union Baptist Church choir, but she fell in love with poetry at Sarah T. Reed High School, where she joined the school's slam team. ("I took pride in being a wallflower — key word 'flower,'" Ball told Gambit in 2016. "I was waiting for someone to bring that out of me.")
Her father, a former football player, gave her the nickname "Tank" — his rock. She joined Team Slam New Orleans, which won two National Poetry Slam Championships in 2012 and 2013, and a de facto band emerged from an open-mic performance. There, the Bangas were born.
With Tank and the Bangas, Ball melded storytelling and social criticism with her agile voice, inhabiting multiple personalities flexing through playful raps and dramatic gospel-like highs while the band converges around her with carefully choreographed ease.
The band released a studio LP, 2013's Think Tank, followed by the live album The Big Bang Theory: Live at Gasa Gasa in 2014. Both capture the band at opposite ends of its elastic spectrum, from the careful arrangements and details studding its in-studio efforts to the seemingly unpredictable theater of its live shows, where the band chases the rush of discovery with each note.
"Fifty percent is literally going off energy, and the other 50 is you have to learn, you have to know what you're doing. It's a lot of organized chaos," Ball says. "If we play a show 1,000 times, then we know where each other is going to go. We feel comfortable to bring it somewhere else. If we're about to get low right here, my girls know we're about to get low. ... It's completely new. If we practice enough, know each other enough, you'll be comfortable to go in another direction."
On the studio version of "Quick," Ball narrates a pseudo revenge fantasy, animated by synthesizer stabs before plunging into narcotic jazz, a typically mercurial arrangement that Tank and the Bangas turn into a colossal live performance.
"I know that we're crazy on stage," Ball says. "We make a lot of noise. We know we have some records we want to make. We know what we want our live show to be. We know how we want our album to be. They're actually very different things."
The band teased its forthcoming album with the single "Smoke.Netflix.Chill.," a slow jams-inspired study of consent with Ball contorting her voice in roller coaster raps. ("I wanted to see where that could go," Ball explained. "I've never written so many verses to one song. But it was so worth it to see the story in my head actually come to life.")
"These days we have much more fun in the studio than we ever did before," she says. "We had so much fun working on our stage show that we never really worked on ourselves in the studio too much. That was kind of new for us. The explorative moment of it was really fun. We still found how to really be ourselves in the studio as well, but we really calmed and organized that fire, instead of putting it everywhere we want.
"We found it to be a beautiful journey, one I was actually quite afraid of but one that I enjoy now."
The band was hesitant to sign with Verve, the venerable jazz label that houses its more unconventional Forecast imprint. Ball says the band was defiant — "We're never gonna sign to something like that. That's not all we do, and that's what they do."
"We got to know them, spend a lot of time with their crew — every time we played they'd send somebody there to get down with us, talk to us," she says. "We got to be family before we ever were in business or in partnership. That's what made that decision, what was to be really hard, quite clear. There was a couple of people trying to court us into going with them. Verve was a family. Their history was very rich, and they wanted to do something different. They wanted us because we're on the front lines of letting people know that they weren't just about one thing. That's exciting to be that band."
Ball says the album won't necessarily depart from the sounds the band has worked to invent over the years, but, as with all things Tank and the Bangas, people should expect the unexpected.
"We didn't raise up all this money to go to London, we didn't stay cooped up in a car or one-bedroom apartment or literally struggle together to be the same people that gave you Tank and the Bangas," Ball says. "We're proud of that, and we hope everybody can get down with it. If not, get on with it. We were always wondering why the only person, to me at least, that made it out there was Lil Wayne. That's the only person that the world knew that was really current.
"There isn't only one representation of New Orleans. Jazz isn't the only representation either. The underground, the underbelly, the poets, the people in the street, the people at Jazz Fest and Congo Square, that keep that going — it's these New Orleanians and it's the people who have always been a part of the community that make the music happen. There's no other place I'm from, and it shows in my music and everything I do, and we bring it everywhere we travel.
"It's different in that we have changed. It's more dancey, it has more grooves in it — oh, man, I really like it. I'm not gonna lie. I drive around New Orleans and just listen to it. I don't put on anyone else. It's music I've been dying to hear for years now."