Going Off the Rails with Tank and The Bangas: Interview
Photo Credit: Jason Charme, John Ryan-Lockman, Chris Monaghan, Christopher Baldwin, Dave Vann & Josh Timmermans / Noble Visions – Courtesy of Jam Cruise 18
Photo Credit: Yvonne Gougelet & John Ferreira
Tank and The Bangas are living their best lives. Fresh off a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, a trip to Cuba for a cultural exchange with other New Orleans artists, and three dates in Japan, the Big Easy’s “genre-fluid” band of merry funkateers is on a roll. Led by Tarionna “Tank” Ball, the ten-person ensemble has been on fire since winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert in 2017. Since then, they’ve been racking up appearances on major TV shows like The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and The Today Show, playing historic venues like The Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hal and appearing on Austin City Limits while building a devoted fanbase both here and across the big pond, where they toured Europe in 2019.
Formed in 2011 after meeting at an open mic in New Orleans, the impossible-to-cubbyhole band cooks up a scrumptious gumbo of funk, soul, jazz, rock, gospel, folk and spoken word… with brilliant results. Their electric, interactive performances are as much theater as anything else, demanding that the audience join in on the joyous mayhem or get flattened by the ensuing high-voltage surge. A Tank and The Bangas show invites grown-ass adults to let their inner children run free to pursue silliness, joy and wonder — things we grown-ass adults often forget to do. More than anything else, their music speaks to the heart and nourishes the soul.
Made up of Ball (lead singer/poet), Norman Spence (keys), Joshua Johnson (drums), Merrell Burkett (keys), Albert Allenback (alto saxophone/flute), Etienne Stoufflet (tenor saxophone), Jonathan Johnson (bass), Daniel Abel (guitar), Angelika Joseph (vocals), and Tia Henderson (vocals), the group formed in 2011 when core members Ball, Norman Spence and Joshua Johnson met at an open mic at a small club in New Orleans. At the time, Ball was a member of the award-winning Team SNO (Slam New Orleans) that had won National Poetry Slam Championships in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Ball’s natural gifts as a lyricist and performer, buoyed by the collective brilliance of The Bangas, has taken the band from New Orleans’ rich underground music scene to national and international notoriety, including NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, a turning point that catapulted them into the wider listening public’s consciences. It also raised their profile to a point where they could call on big-name producers like Jack Splash, Mark Batson, Zaytoven, Louie Lastic and Robert Glasper, who worked on 2019’s Green Balloon, a dazzling, introspective, personal journey through the stages of Ball’s life. The critically acclaimed album is the first full-length release since 2013’s Think Tank, a creative effort that fused jazz, hip hop, soul, rock and R&B into a weird and wonderful mix.
It’s that jubilant weirdness that makes Tank and The Bangas such a compelling live act. Ball is a riveting frontwoman whose facial expressions tell as much of a story as her lyrics. Not to mention she is perfectly at home singing in ranges veering from child-like squeaks to operatic arias, effortlessly responding to whatever the band throws out. With free rein to express their joy any way they want, this is a band that does not color within the lines and that must be experienced live to really appreciate what makes them so idiosyncratic. If you can keep up, that is.
The following interview aboard Jam Cruise 18 in January was much the same. Ball, Joshua Johnson, Allenback, and Spence rolled in like kids on a playground. They were a silly, loquacious, unruly delight and required letting go of anything resembling structure. My list of carefully organized questions went out the window, and I went wherever they wanted to take me. The following is a record of the mirth and mayhem that ensued.
MFN: Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart for being here today and talking to us. Congratulations on the Grammy nomination. I’d like to ask you about that. about NPR’s Tiny Desk (Concert) first. I watched the video documentary of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, and you all were just so cute in your reactions after finding out you’d won. So when that call for the Grammys came in, what was that like?
Albert: It was ridiculous. My girlfriend was scrolling through her phone. and she was like, “Oh there’s an article in Pitchfork about you guys, and like Billy Eilish, and like Lizzo and stuff.”
And I was like, “Oh, that was cool. Maybe it’s like, a women in music thing.” You know, because of Tank. I was like, “Oh, that’s awesome.”
And she was like, “Oh, it’s for a Grammy thing.”
I was like, “Oh, you, know, we’re Academy members.”
And she was like, “Oh my God! This is for like the Grammy, Grammys. This is for, like, best new artist.”
I was like, “What!!!???” And then I dropped her off at work and screamed alone in my car, and then I called my mom.
Josh: I woke up, and I saw a whole bunch of notifications and likes. I had one friend telling me congratulations with the strong arm, like with the little strong arm emoji. And I was like, “Man what happened?” I didn’t know what we did. I just thought maybe they saw a show or something.
And my phone died, because I don’t always charge my phone all the time at night. So it was at like one percent when I saw that, and then it died. So, about 15 minutes later, I figured out what he was talking about. I figured out he was telling me something about being nominated for the Grammys, which was really dope. I didn’t know what was going on. I had actually totally forgot is was going on. After that, I think that’s when I called my mom and my little brother and everything. It was just dope. It was just dope. It’s an honor
.MFN: Tank, I understand you were sleeping. So when you finally came to, what happened?
Tank: (Laughs) Definitely had to come to. It definitely hit later. The moment that it hit, I was riding a little moped in the city (New Orleans), and I had a little music playing in my ears, maybe a little Stevie Wonder. And I just started screaming, “I’M GRAMMY-NOMINATED, BITCH!!!” And then like little tears started coming down my eyes, and I was smiling. And I was like, “Oh, this is the hit. This is the personal hit.” You know it’s not somebody telling you. It’s not the social media telling you. It’s yourself telling you and New Orleans telling you. That’s when it hit when I was alone riding my moped.
Norman: Yeah it was a special moment for me. First I was asleep, and I thought somebody made a mistake. They texted me congrats on the Grammy nom. And I’m like, wait. We were under consideration, but we weren’t nominated yet. But apparently the nominations had dropped at one. When I looked it up, I screamed it over to my wife, “We’re Grammy-nominated! We’re Grammy-nominated!” It was special.
I don’t tell people this, but I shed a little tear later on. You know. I had a little private moment. I was like, “Man, this is crazy!” Because it’s been a journey. You know, we’ve been doing this for a long time. You know, it’s best new, but we’ve been working. And you know, we weren’t workin’ for this, but we’ve been workin’. It’s special. It’s special.
MFN: Yeah, you’ve been at this for a long time, since 2011. And Tank, you were with Poetry Slam for a long time, and you had a little thing of your own going on before this.
Tank: I had an album out before I met the band. It was called Random Me. And before that, I was part of a Poetry Slam team. And we won regional and national titles. We had a poetry album. I was definitely working, but I definitely never envisioned something like this happening or a true band of my own traveling the world. I never saw it like that. It’s pretty cool. It’s pretty amazing, as a matter of fact.
MFN: There really is no category for what you do. Trey Anastasio in judging for (NPR) Tiny Desk called you “psychedelic joy rap,” which is kinda …
[GALES OF LAUGHTER]
Josh: Psychedelic Joy Rap (repeats it slowly). That’s very, very, ah — special.
Albert: That’s pretty cool! This is the first time I’ve heard that.
MFN: You never heard that? To me, it’s soul music in the truest sense. I mean it goes right here (to the heart), right here. And It creates this big ball of emotion and joy.
MFN: But what do you all call it? I mean, there’s no Grammy category for you all.
Tank: That’s why we couldn’t get it (laughs).
Josh: They’re like, “What do we call them?” (laughs)
Tank: We call it Psychedelic Joy Rap! (cracks up).
Josh: Nah, I just call it inspirational. I used to say soul-based, punk/soul, rock, folk, blah, blah, blah. But, nah. It’s just inspirational. People be happy when they leave it. You can’t put it in one genre. I don’t know. I just say what it do. It inspires.
Albert: We like to say we’re genre-fluid.
[GUFFAWS ALL AROUND]
Josh: (to Albert) You like to say genre-fluid. He’s the only one that, like, loves that word. We’ll give it to him. He’s trademarking it. It’s on him.
Tank: I think it’s dynamic.
MFN: It’s definitely is dynamic.
Josh: The only thing that I can say about it is that it gives a lot of people life. Like I’ve heard a lot of people say that it’s changed their life, that it saved their life, that it’s changed relationships. It’s done a lot of stuff that I didn’t think music or think about music doing. It’s healing for people in a sense. As far as a genre, I have no idea what to call it. I’m glad there are people still trying to figure it out. They go find something and label us just like that in the Grammys. Ya know what I’m sayin’ — like they did for Drake.
Tank: Of course there should’ve been “Best New Album” as well but, you know… (band cracks up) they didn’t understand it (more laughter).
MFN: Speaking of albums, Green Balloon – that’s your dream, Tank. Really, it’s all your dreams, but it’s your journey, Tank. It’s an album you have to listen to over and over. I mean, for the words alone. It tells this incredible story in words in music.
Tank: Is that what you did?
MFN: Yeah. Listening to it, I’m still like, “Damn! I missed this, or I missed that.” I mean, you’re a poet.
Josh: The words are evolving for me too. Like, I’ll hear something, and I’ll hear it and hear it. And then I’ll really listen to it, and then I’ll go, “Girl, you said it? You said that?”
Tank: People will sometimes say, “Oh, that’s what you meant?”
And I’m, “Oh, yeah. That’s what I meant.”
And they went, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” You know, it’s crazy.
MFN: With this album, you’re laying yourself totally bare.
Tank: Just for future references, I only took off a bra. Just for the people who want a little more later on, we will take off a nice sock. There’s a lot of unfolding in this band, and we’ve become different people every other week for sure. So, I’m excited and scared to see what the next album will hold.
MFN: I think fear is inspirational in a way. It’s motivating.
Tank: (Laughs) It’s a motivator. Yeah.
MFN: You’ve got a lot of kids as fans. I saw you at The Newport Jazz Festival, and I was watching little kids with their moms and dads in front of the stage dancing with you guys. You have this playful, joyful quality about you. But what is it that touches children the way you all touch them? It touches adults for sure, but it really gets the little kids.
Norman: I think it’s the genuine joy that God gives us that even allows us to make music that can touch somebody. To touch a heart, you’ve never really seen a human heart. But, man. It’s something that happens through, like, just being genuine and her being honest. It’s like it penetrates. And you’re gonna move. And you’re gonna smile. You might cry.
I’ve seen some grown men that I’m like, “That’s my G. That’s my dude.” He keeping it gansta, but at the end of the show, this man got tears in his eyes. I gotta wonder. I asked about that. I’m like, Dude, you know we were doing small shows in New Orleans at the time, and this dude, he’d been to a bunch of shows. But he was, you know, I don’t know. He was cryin’.
And then a chick at NPR, she was on the clock at work in tears. I’m like, shorty, you need to get your emotions under control. You know. But they feelin’ the same things that the kids feel.
Tank: I personally pray for it. I know it sounds corny, but the children really are the future. Right? And if we can inspire them and motivate them to get them good music the same way Peabo Bryson or Stevie Wonder or the Disney Channel or Sesame Street gave me, then they can go in a better direction because of that good music. You have to put it out there, because they’ve got such bad music that’s already influencing them. So you have to be positive. You have to be twice as joyous, twice as into it. Know what I’m sayin’? Twice as thoughtful
There’s even much more things that I want to say. Even though I’m adult as AF. You know, growing up. But you still want to be able to put out that little fire because you know, you all running toward the future and they’re running behind you.
Josh: I think they see something that they saw in themselves. A lot of times, what happens within the course of the show, they see one thing, maybe one small thing, that resonates with them that makes them feel like, “I’m just like this person.” You know what I mean? On a level.
Even with social media. See, everybody on social media on Instagram and Facebook trying to be more personable so you can they can relate to you more. I think that’s what they see when they hear the music. And they listen to her (Tank). They find something, that part of them. Whether they’re grown or whether they’re young, they find that part of them that still resonates with that thing that she’s saying. They’re like “Yeah, man. It’s real.”
Albert: I think a big part of it is a demonstration of self-love and lack of self-consciousness that we can get into. Because we can go to some, like, extremes, some extraordinary places. And it’s a sense of freedom that kids still have that adults have had beaten out of them just by life.
Kids have it, like, undoubtedly. I’ll rephrase it. There are fewer adults that have it than kids. It funnels toward the top, and you have to maintain that as a kid. It’s almost like it’s taken from us at birth. As soon as we start, the clock starts running on innocence and joy and cynicism. Cynicism grows; genuineness goes down. And something we can do is demonstrate that in the show.
Norman: I agree. Tank, since I met her, she’s always had that. She’s still to this day, she’s like a kid to me cuz there so much freedom that you don’t see in adults.
Josh: I thought you was gonna say because she ain’t got no taller (everybody busts up).
Norman: (Laughs) You can factor that into what I’m sayin’. But no, real. It made me free. It freed me. Cuz, you know, I come from the East Coast, and you gotta be cool, and you keep it a certain way. But no, you in New Orleans and that whole scene, like everybody is super passionate. Whether all the technicalities of the music inside of that, I found the passion is the most important part. It’s the most important part.
Because look, you could play a million notes and nobody feel nothin’. You could play two notes, one note, and lean in on that sucker, and everybody feel it. I’ve only really seen that there. She embodies that super, super heavy.
MFN: You guys are as much visual as you are sonic. I was talking to a young man who’d seen you, Tank, at Poetry Slam, and he said you’ve got this face thing going on. Well, you (Albert) have this face thing going on, too, that just cracks me up.
Tank: He stole it.
MFN: And you guys (Josh and Norman) are the straight men to…
Josh: Oh. Well. You’ve never seen my face.
Norman: Wait. Wait. Wait. Do it again. Do it again. What’d you say? We are what?
MFN: Straight men, I mean……
Norman: Cuz some people are gender fluid. (Everybody loses it)
Josh: I told you, it’s really his, It’s really just his (pointing to Albert).
Norman: Albert’s not gay (jokes).
Albert: It’s appropriate. Just very appropriate.
[GLEEFUL CHAOS ENSUES]
MFN: (Struggling to keep it between the ditches) Oh, boy. You know. You’ve got this front line which is theatrical, man. You guys are so visual. I heard a woman watching you, who’d never seen you before, say, “I feel like I’m watching theater.” To me, it’s more like opera. This is as if Missy Elliot, Henry Rollins and Nirvana got together and wrote an opera.
Tank: And Kendrick Lamar playing in it, too.
MFN: And Kendrick Lamar. Yeah. Absolutely. So, you’ve got this front line, and you guys (Josh and Norman) are the backline holding it down. Not that you’re not raging and expressive. But there’s you (Tank) and you (Albert) and the girls, who are just so much fun to watch. How much of that is actually choreographed, or do you guys just go?
Tank: We just go. A lot of it, you know, at a certain point, of course, we all about to swag surf right here, or we about to go up and down right here. A lot of it is just the feels, what’s going on on stage. You want to have fun with each other, and you want everybody else out there to have fun too. That’s what it’s all about.
Albert: If you don’t have fun with each other, it’s over. You know? And sometimes you don’t have any choice.
Tank: Sometimes you’re not having fun with the crowd, and you have to have fun with each other.
Albert: Oh, man. Sometimes, you don’t have any other choice, man. And we’ll just look at each other and just do stuff that’s just goofy.
MFN: I counted 11 people on stage. There’s a DJ…
Albert: And this is a hard number and will never change, okay (dripping with sarcasm).
Norman: Oh, it will!
Josh: It just keep going. It grows, and it changes.
Tank: Definitely want a trumpet. You already know it.
Albert: I want dancers!
Norman: Trumpet! Trombone!
MFN: Oh, man. Obviously the chemistry is magical on stage. Just magical. How are you as a family off stage?
Tank: It’s pretty good. Really good.
Norman: I’m saying this honestly. I wanna be sarcastic, but it’s hard to. We genuinely like each other. We don’t like everything about each other, but we’ve grown as brothers and sisters. It’s my family.
Tank: And you spend more time with these people, and you’re around your family too long, you honestly sometimes feel a little weird. If you’re around your family, let’s say, for the week of Christmas week, or when you’re around them, like, a long time, and they’re constantly asking, “How was the show? What’s the show? What’s going on? What’s next? What’s the tour schedule?”
You be like, “Okaaaaay!” But when you’re around these people, there’s no questions. Because they know. They don’t have to ask me what’s goin’ on, cuz they know. There’s no need for the questions. It’s not taking away from (family). I love them, but this is band family for sure.
Josh: This reminds me of an interview I saw with Boyz II Men when they had just got back together and started doing music again. This interviewer, they were talking about how it felt like to be around these cats. They were like, “We’ve been around each other like 20-some, almost 30 years now. We’re family. They were like godparents to our kids,” and stuff like that.
He’s like, “When we first started, we didn’t like each other. We weren’t really cool, and we were just doin’ this for what it was.”
And he’s like, “As time went on, we grew to be a family and became a family.”
That’s what I feel like. We’ve known each other a very, very long time, and we’ve gotten to be a family.
MFN: The band got together in 2011. I read somewhere that jerk chicken was involved?
Norman: Okay. So me Tank and Josh were at an open mic. Actually the open mic was called The Liberation Lounge. We met there. It sold jerk chicken sandwiches. “Samiches”, actually, they called them. Just to be clear. That was on the menu. With an “M.” It grew from there.
There was a group formed called the Liberated Soul Collective. They were people who were coming to the open mic and just kinda picked up, made a group. That group eventually fell apart. Tank was a part of that group. So it was Tank and The Black Star Bangas.
Tank: The group actually consisted of The Liberated Soul Collective, which was myself, Nates Wild, Elliot Love, and some other New Orleans artists, and we would do each other’s backgrounds. So, at one point, I was pretty much just left with The Black Star Bangas.
We did our first Jazz Fest. Called it Tarronia “Tank” Ball and The Black Star Bangas. And I was just like, “Dang. That just sounds so long. Lemme just shorten it to Tank and The Bangas. I never even liked the name. But then it grew on me within the last, like, ten years.
MFN: New Orleans has this really rich underground scene. Did you all consider yourselves part of that underground scene back then?
Norman: Water Seed was one of the hottest bands back then. I was a big Water Seed fan back then. That’s what I was lookin’ up. I appreciated their sound. For what we had going on, it was so amateur sounding to me. And what they had was kinda polished. For what they had going on, I was impressed.
Tank: I see it as an underground scene now as we’ve literally come out of it. And when I say underground, I say that because the front of everything really is jazz. It’s now actually Bounce music, you know. It’s brass. Those are the things that people hear overseas. You gotta do some jazz or be in some brass, you know what I’m sayin’? You think of New Orleans, you think of Mayfields or Marsalis or Batiste or Second Line. You think of things like that.
And when I’m part of this poetry world that’s SUPER important to us, and the music world as, ya know, other instruments, and other people just coming and playing all this music, and you’re not known. You’re cultivating something and you don’t even realize it. When we decided to become the Liberator Soul Collective, we were cultivating something.
And that’s why I feel like we definitely hold a flag in coming from that underground world of these hip-hoppers, and this soul music, and these poets, these freestylers. That’s why I consider it something of an emerge. Cuz it’s still going on. We’re not there right now, but it’s still going on. Somebody is cultivating something else based on what others even before us was doin’. With spots like Dreams and Tru Brew and, yeah. There’s always been these little spots. But people didn’t know about them unless they was there.
Josh: I feel like it was definitely underground, especially when you see all those big names that you know that would never come. They just come in the spots just to chill. Just to try and find the vibe, try and see what’s really poppin’. You catch all of that stuff happening all the time in New Orleans. Like artists just coming and listening in the background trying to find out what it is that people listening to and stuff like that.
So when we used to get those kind of people coming into the shows and stuff like that listening to Tank and everything like that. Like Norah Jones just coming in and listening to her one day just out of the blue, you gotta feel that it’s some underground thing that they were discovering for themselves for the first time.
MFN: You all, with your music and your words, Tank, you have captured a moment in time where positivity is so important right now. You all express the human experience. It’s almost a kind of activism in that kind of positivity. Do y’all consider yourselves activists in a way?
Tank: When I think about the word activist, I think about the word active and being active in whatever you believe in. We don’t have to stand outside with picket signs all the time. We are the picket sign. The music is the picket sign. The message is it, and we’re going to do it no matter who we’re in front of.
Last night, we did at least two or three songs about what’s going on in the world right now. A song that I wrote with Mickey Hart. A song that we wrote just together just about what’s going on in the world.
Albert: I like when we’re like, in the middle of the country, and maybe it’s like a more red state or something, and we do like stuff about like, Donald Trump.
Tank: Yeah. They get quiet.
Albert: Oh my God. I love it. Oh my God, it’s so awesome. Cuz people are like, “Oh. Yeah, yeah. I think I can dig this.”
And they’re like, “Wait a second! What’d you say? What’d you say?”
And then you’ll see them come back. And then it’s just awesome. Cuz I think it’s good to share ideas that people might be resistant to, and like give them to people. And you know people can process them. Give them a chance to process. You know?
MFN: So y’all, what’s next. Are you writing new music?
Everybody (answering at once): Yeah. Always writing new music. Always trying to write new music.
MFN: That’s got to be a trip, that process, with all of you involved.
Tank: It’s always fun to write. It’s actually aggravating, like later on, to edit and like mix and to master.
Albert: Finishing songs is a whole different work than making songs. Like finishing is different.
Tank: I want to put out a little album called The Unfinished Songs, My Unfinished Songs, and just leave them exactly as they are.
Norman: You know how many songs I got that you don’t even remember?
Tank: Yeah. I know. You told me.
Norman: It’s too many. There’s just so much unfinished music that I can’t wait to see the finished product of. Even if it’s just sitting on a shelf somewhere, it needs to be done. Because it’s been undone and conceptual for almost a decade.
Albert: Everybody has it. There’s not time to finish everything. You have to prioritize everything, “Alright. This is gonna be finished.” Ya know. And sometimes it just being like, “Well. This is finished.” You have to ship it off.
Josh: You have to know when it is.
Norman: I have the hardest time with that.
Albert: Oh, it’s tough. It’s a part of you, man.
MFN: One more question, cuz I have to know. Where did you find this (Albert) guy?
Norman: Church. I walked into church one Wednesday night after rehearsal. I walked into, man, this church that I been playing with – this black church in the east. They got this little skinny white guy sitting up there with a saxophone. And I’m going “Man, where they get…? What they want…?” I’m like. “Alright. He here. So, boom!”
He said they put up signs all around (his) school that if you play the kazoo, trombone, whatever, come to our church and play. So, he came. And we already had a sax player.
He was excellent on the sax. I was like, “Alright. Cool.” But then he was trying to pull off a J. Cole power trip, and we needed a flute player. I’m talking about desperate.
Our percussionist at the time said her cousin played the flute. She brought this dude in, and he didn’t know how to play that thing. All I needed him to know was the B scale.
I said, “Gimme the B scale, bro. Gimme the B scale. The scale! No? Alright, bro. We tried.” And I mean, we tried. And I really tried. So, no.
Then Al pop up. He like, “Yeah. I play flute.”
I said, “Now come to rehearsal.”
He came to rehearsal, did the show, and then asked our manager after, “Take me with you!”
[PEELS OF LAUGHTER]
Albert: That’s real. That’s real. That is so real. That is so, so real. I could tell them about the situation. Cuz I saw what was going on with Tank interfacing with the audience with the music going on being her. And I was like, “This is it. I got to. Like, this is it.”
MFN: Thank you all. This was a blast.
Tank and The Bangas are back on tour starting this month, including several dates opening for fellow New Orleanians The Revivalists. Click here for upcoming dates, and do yourselves a favor catch them if you can. Your inner child will thank you for it.
For more information on Tank and The Bangas, click on the links below.