Tank and the Bangas: New Orleans charmers, NPR darlings, forces of nature

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Tank and the Bangas (Photo by Gus Bennett)
Tank and the Bangas (Photo by Gus Bennett)

“Hold on,” says Tarriona Ball, aka Tank, across a somewhat sketchy cell phone connection from, well, she’s not really sure.

She and her band Tank and the Bangas are on the road for their first big national tour on the heels of winning this year’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert contest, a national search for unsigned musical talent, prized topped by a showcase appearance on the public radio outlet’s video podcast in which artists perform at, yes, a desk in the network’s D.C. office. They’ll be in Los Angeles this weekend, headlining a free show at the Levitt Pavilion in MacArthur Park on a bill with their fellow New Orleans-outfit-on-the-rise Sweet Crude. [See our today’s post on Sweet Crude, who also play tonight at the Hotel Café.]

A minute later, she’s back.

“Sorry,” she says. “My first time at Jack in the Box. I have to look at the menu.”

And her choice?

“Gonna get the nuggets,” she says. “Everything else looks wild.”

That last little nugget might surprise anyone who has seen Tank and the Bangas. Wild is not something you’d think she’d shy from, given her ever-changing hairdos and attire to some rather zany touches in concert performances to the vast spectrum of music from which the band draws, often taking sudden shifts not just within shows, but within songs.

The groups’ full Tiny Desk Concert performance goes from the hip-hop-jazz poetry flow of “Boxes and Squares” to the at-times frenetic “Quick” in which Tank takes on different voices and whole different characters for different lines to tell a rather serious tale of date rape and revenge, then concluding with “Rollercoaster,” her childhood experiencing conquering fears at the now-shuttered Jazzland amusement park around the corner from her childhood home as a metaphor for her embrace of life’s offerings. At the end, not only are she and co-singer Jelly Jones in tears, but so are some in the NPR office audience. (In the introduction, Tank notes that there’s still a sign on the Jazzland gate saying, “Will reopen after storm.”)

||| Watch: The winning Tiny Desk Concert video

And then there was the band’s appearance in early May at their hometown’s much-acclaimed Jazz and Heritage Festival, the band’s new national profile recognized with prime placement on one of the two big stages, drawing a sizable crowd of both veteran fans and the newly curious. Tank and the Bangas rose to the occasion and more.

It wasn’t just the music, a mind-bending mix of soul-jazz, hard funk, hip-hop poetry, R&B, rock and more — all expected from those in the know. Ditto for the forceful personae of Tank and associates, bubbly one minute, steely the next, then frenetic or furious, all moving with the topography of the song. But wait! There was more! There were dancers. Each in a different bright-color, skin-tight body suit, doing modern expressive dance, some of it involving big plastic balls. Even in a city known for vibrant pageantry and parades, this stood out. It was … well, maybe you had to be there.

Buzz Bands LA: No one had seen anything quite like that at JazzFest before. Most seemed to love it, but there was definitely some head-scratching.

Tank: That was really cool. I don’t know. Everybody in New Orleans is very excited for JazzFest. But a lot [of acts] just get in and play their sets. I wanted people to remember that JazzFest is a freakin’ big deal! Especially for us locals. I wanted Tank and the Bangas to be a huge contributor to the sense of, “How can me make this really special?” That’s one of the first times we had dancers. And if there were going to be dancers, they had to be an extension of us. It was interesting. It was very … experiential.

You’re not “New Orleans music” the way people often think of it, whether it’s the traditional jazz or brass bands or Meters-style funk.

Or Li’l Wayne.

Right. But you were clearly shaped by New Orleans.

I would say the main contribution of New Orleans to our music is the fact that no matter what, you have to entertain people. Late night or early morning there will be someone standing in the French Quarter like a statue [the “living statue” folks with tip jars] or people playing music in the street. But there’s a musical love we all share. It didn’t really come from New Orleans. Everyone was sheltered in the group — stayed at home, at church. A lot of my time at home was watching the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon. Watching Julia Roberts.

Julia Roberts?

Yeah! “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” My early days.

So it comes from everywhere?

Oh yeah. Never want to say that New Orleans had nothing for you. But I had to leave New Orleans. Left after the [2005] flood.

You moved to Indianapolis after the flood right?

Yeah. I was able to be in school there. In New Orleans, you can be afraid to be yourself sometimes. Everything was quite uniform. I was able to go somewhere else and be free and then come back and truly be myself in New Orleans.

How did the band come together?

We had an open mic night in New Orleans. We were all at different places in our lives, but we met at this open mic night. It was a supportive community. And our first big gig was JazzFest! It was 2012. Couldn’t believe they gave us a chance so early in our career. That’s when we really started putting more heart, more structure to our art. We wanted to not only feel lucky that we got the opportunity, we also wanted to feel deserving. We just got it by chance. We were surprised. We wanted to feel we deserved the opportunity.

||| Watch: The video for “Quick” (mature content)

And the opportunity now from NPR?

I mean, I didn’t feel we weren’t deserving. Just incredibly charmed. Couldn’t believe it. Never know if someone is going to find you in New Orleans. Thank goodness for the internet! There are people who never would have been connected. Was a true shock. I’ll never forget how I found out, was just walking around the neighborhood. We were all around the phone together.

I still feel pretty regular, just … more now. They put you on festivals next to Noname and Jill Scott! I don’t know!

There’s a real playfulness to your performances. You can get frisky and fun, even in the most serious songs. The song “Quick,” the video you submitted as your Tiny Desk entry video is pretty silly, in a very good way, you all at a teacher’s desk in a classroom, you thumbing through an art instruction book as you sing. Then the full Tiny Desk performance gets more serious, but you’re still pretty lively and fun. And then there’s the new video for the song, which is a mini-film telling the story in a much more serious way, the woman victimized and then getting her revenge.

Its kind of crazy. We have so many different versions of the song. The Tiny Desk is my favorite, the one submitted. It was so organic! Only two takes of it. So much fun. Love that version. The one for the video is so intense, really a story. Could pick any part of it and put it in a movie and it would fly. They literally read the lyrics and made the video from it. I grew up around all types of women, a neighborhood with a lot women with stories and struggles and triumphs. If you think, “Only gonna talk about running around, fun,” well that’s not all going around. If you’re offended by stories, you’re offended by life. A lot of people go quick, others don’t.

So … how are the nuggets?

The nuggets are really good! Just took my first bite.

||| Watch: Their celebratory Tiny Desk Concert performance March 10 at NPR headquarters