Over 6,000 acts entered NPR’s 2017 Tiny Desk Contest, but when the 10 judges convened for a vote they landed on a unanimous winner: New Orleans’ own Tank and the Bangas. Led by the infectiously positive Tarriona “Tank” Ball, the genre-defying group blends clever spoken wordplay with laidback grooves and beautiful melodies to create a progressive sound that doesn’t even have a name yet (“neo-neo-soul” just doesn’t have a ring to it).
“Tank and the Bangas is like a psychedelic joy rap explosion,” said contest judge and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. “Like a female Sly Stone teleporting into 2017 and landing in New Orleans.”
“There is star power all over this,” noted judge and WFUV host Rita Houston. “From the flawless soulful vocals, to the ensemble camaraderie, to the playful presence of Tank, this one is going to bring a lot of joy to music fans everywhere.”
Needless to say, things have changed dramatically since the group’s triumphant victory. The spotlight is shining on them like never before, and new fans from New Orleans and beyond are lining to see their exuberant performances (they’ve also picked up thousands of new fans on social media and their NPR set is nearing a million views on YouTube). I caught up with Ball ahead of the band’s May 19 set at the Bayou Boogaloo, their last New Orleans date for some time.
Your Tiny Desk Contest submission was, obviously, very good. It wasn’t just the band or the music, the video itself was very creative. What went into putting that together?
Everybody has to have a desk in their video. So we went to [Joseph] Clark [High School] where I knew that my friend, Charlie V, had an amazing classroom that was bright and colorful because he’s an art teacher. I knew that he wouldn’t just have tiny desks; he would have really big desks because he has to put these really big paintings on them. I thought it would be perfect since everyone could touch the desk and be a part of it. We had such a nice classroom. I knew it would be great. Gus Bennett, Jr. shot it. At first we shot it on a big camera and it looked really nice, but then we scratched that and shot it on an iPhone so he was able to get close up and get the feel of all of it. It looked really good, and it was only two takes. Like Jelly says, ‘lunchtime!’ They had to go to a rehearsal for Big Freedia right after so the second take had to be right. We couldn’t do it again, we had to go.
How was the shoot for the real deal Tiny Desk Concert in Washington, DC?
DC was very cool. The moment we got there, it was pretty much on. There were guys waiting for us with our names on those little chalkboards. That’s something we’ve never experienced as a band, having people literally waiting to take us somewhere. We got there and sound checked. There were very few people in the room during sound check and I thought that was just how it was going to be. Then we came out there so they could introduce us, and there was a whole room full of people clapping for us. It felt like we were now part of the Tiny Desk engine, the machine. We got to get behind the memorable desk. We were the champions for this year, and it almost felt like a family event.
Was it difficult to choose the three songs you were going to perform?
No, not at all. My musical director, Joshua [Johnson], and I decided on it together. He gets a lot of the final say, and if it ever gets too close we’ll get everyone in on the final decision. I think we only had one problem. We chose ‘Boxes and Squares,’ which is one of our first songs, and we chose ‘Quick,’ of course, because it was the song that helped us win. Then for the last one it was between our song ‘Eggs Over Easy’ or ‘Roller Coasters,’ but I knew it had to be ‘Roller Coasters’ because it’s poetry and we needed to show all sides of Tank and the Bangas. I had to end it with that piece because I knew that it brings out the very emotions of who I am as an artist and as a person. I knew it was going to touch everyone around me, and that’s exactly what it did. I get emails everyday about it. It’s pretty exciting.
Does it feel like you’ve been thrust into the spotlight all of a sudden? Has that brought any challenges?
So far it’s been pretty great all around. Lots of people didn’t know about us, but a lot of people did. It just feels like this has helped us get to the next level in our career that we’ve been trying so hard to get to. We’ve traveled all over the world ourselves, and for years all over the country with this band, but it’s amazing now that the shows are actually sold out. The NPR tour is sold out. It’s just amazing. It’s what we’ve really been looking for, to get this music to people who’ve never heard it before. Think Tank is three years old but it’s gone to number one on iTunes in one of those categories. It’s new to someone else now and that’s amazing. I don’t really feel any horrible pressure except that it’s now time to give people an even bigger experience than before. That’s what it’s really all about, giving an experience to people.
Have there been any big “wow this is real” moments these past few weeks?
We’re going to be opening up for Alabama Shakes soon. That’s going to be a crazy moment. I just cannot believe that we are opening for Alabama Shakes. That’s so huge to me. Selling out shows has been pretty awesome. Anderson .Paak, who is someone we are hugely influenced by and who we love, tweeted about our Tiny Desk performance. It feels like this is the beginning. I feel brave and bold enough now to reach out to artists I’ve always wanted to work with and say, ‘Hi, I’m Tank from Tank and the Bangas, NPR’s latest Tiny Desk winner, and I would love to work you,’ and they actually email me back! [laughs]
I was out on Frenchmen Street just a few days after y’all won and there was a line around the block for your show at Blue Nile. Does it feel like even New Orleans is showing you more love now?
Most definitely. I would never say that I wasn’t loved or appreciated by New Orleans because I always have been, especially in the community that I came from, the spoken word community. There’s always so much love and support there—but these days, most definitely. You reach people that didn’t know about you before. Some of them are even surprised that you’re living in their city, or they want to be connected to the winning, which is great because we love to win for New Orleans. The fanbase has definitely grown in New Orleans, even though we’ve always received a lot of love here.
I can feel the shift though. The last three shows in New Orleans have been sold out. To have that happen in New Orleans—when there’s so much talent around the corner, across the street, down the block—is crazy. It feels like the Roots or the Missy Elliott crew, something like that. It’s this wild, crazy, creative group that we haven’t seen in a while. I feel like it’s time for New Orleans to have something like that, on a major platform, representing the type of people that we have here. There are so many underground scenes and movements going on that nobody knows about. We’re not just brass music. We’re not just jazz. We’re not just Mardi Gras. We have so much that people don’t know about. The moment anyone brings up New Orleans, they go straight to Bourbon, but that’s not all we are. It’s definitely not what I am.
How important is improvisation in your shows? Both for you and for the band?
I like improv. I like it more on certain stages though. If I’m on a festival stage, since we’re on contract for a certain amount of time and I want to get everything in, I’ll go with a little less than usual. I don’t want to cut off any songs because I’ve been talking too much or something [laughs]. But then there’s those magical moments on stage where you’ll literally make up another part to your song in front of everybody. We have plenty of different sets, but there’s no two Tank and the Bangas shows that are exactly the same. Something is always going to be different. We like to surprise our audience and we like to surprise ourselves.
Your music is usually bursting with positivity, even when it deals with challenging themes. Is positivity important to you for its own sake?
Oh yeah, man. You just wanna make people feel good. You wanna feel good. If you’re not feeling good then you’re doing a job. Nobody wants that. We don’t want our work to feel like work. And sometimes it can. Once you start getting with the big dogs and truly getting paid, you’re expected to deliver at a certain point. But when you’re naturally gifted at so many things, you can get pretty lax about it. You’re like, ‘I can do this, its fine.’ But you gotta keep your eye on the prize and remember what you’re doing this for. It’s not just for you, but to give people an experience every single time. It’s to encourage people and to help them get through this day-to-day life shit. That’s why it’s important to be positive. What is it going to be if it’s not positive? Negative? That’s not cool.
It’s been a little while since Think Tank came out. What’s next from y’all in the studio?
We just finished doing an official recording for ‘Quick,’ and we’re going to follow it up with another song after that. It’s funny, we’ve been fighting about the title of the song since I wrote it. It’s either going to be ‘Spaceships’ or ‘Movies’ or ‘I Like Money’ or ‘Make It Rain.’ Maybe ‘Don’t Make It Rain’ or ‘Foolishly Spending.’ I don’t know what the hell I’m going to call this song, but it’s going to come after ‘Quick.’ It’s very cute and bouncy and fun. It makes me feel good. Everyone I’ve played it for has really liked it. We’re also wrapping up a video for ‘Quick,’ and it’s going to be dope. We can’t wait to premiere it.
Is there another full-length album coming? When can we expect it?
I guess in the next year or so. We’re really trying to work hard on it and balance everything. I’m not going to say it isn’t demanding, because it is. I have very much less free time than I did before, so I need to use my time wisely. I still want to put on a great live show, and my problem is that I spent so much time thinking about the live show, but I need to spend just as much time thinking about the studio album. That’s what I have to do now. I always focused on it, but now it’s time to focus way more on it. I don’t want to hear anyone else’s new album; I want to hear our new album. There’s going to be a lot of awesome songs. I wrote some of them when I spent time in London, just going to playgrounds and spending time by myself. I can’t wait for people to hear what we sound like now. Some people who were on that last album aren’t even in the group anymore. It’s a new wave for us, and I want all the people who are in the group now to have an album that they played on.