Backstage at Nashville’s Basement East, members of New Orleans’ Tank and the Bangas interact like a lively, close-knit family as they grab a bite to eat before soundcheck. The seven musicians speak over one another, lob jokes and exude the same playful energy they’ll bring to the stage to entertain a capacity crowd in a few hours.
Witness the friendly debate that breaks out when they discuss the division of labor in the band. “I thought you told me you wrote once a day,” keyboard player Merrell Burkett teases frontwoman Tarriona “Tank” Ball.
“I never told you that!” she quickly replies.
“Man, that was my inspiration,” says Burkett, shaking his head with mock disappointment.
“We can all quit practicing – Tank doesn’t practice every day!” shouts sax and flute player Albert Allenback, as the room erupts in laughter.
Just over 18 months ago, Tank and the Bangas were one of many hard-working bands in a city with some deep musical history, touring smaller venues and steadily building some buzz. That changed in 2017, when they won NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest with their vibrant blend of R&B, funk, hip-hop, gospel and spoken word poetry – a victory that catapulted them into the national spotlight and onto considerably larger stages.
“We’d always been turning out little clubs and going hard no matter what,” says Ball, whose supporting players include core members Joshua Johnson, Norman Spence II, Burkett and Allenback, along with touring members Jonathan Johnson, Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph and Danny Abel. “It’s the same goal in mind, one or one million. We’re lighters – we gotta spark people.”
The group formed in 2011 around a backyard open mic in New Orleans, combining Ball’s championship-winning poetry pedigree – honed as a member of the competitive group of poets and activists in Team Slam New Orleans – with the improvisational chops of the other members, many of whom refined their talents playing music in church. They released their debut album Think Tank in 2013, followed by the 2014 live set The Big Bang Theory: Live at Gasa Gasa, the latter of which showcased Ball’s confidence as a performer and the band’s tightness as a unit, honed over rigorous rehearsal sessions at Ball’s aunt’s house.
“[It was] two rehearsals a week for as long as we could remember until we started traveling,” says Joshua Johnson, the group’s drummer and musical director.
“We did it at night a lot,” adds Allenback. “There was no other New Orleans band rehearsing like that.”
Seeing a Tank and the Bangas show is an exercise in positivity, bringing the spiritual uplift of their church background into a joyful secular context. “I kinda feel like we take church on the road,” Ball says. They can thrash as hard as a rock band, but swivel effortlessly to funk-based grooves or softer passages that evoke quiet storm R&B. Meanwhile, Ball prowls the stage, alternating between gospel-style belting and playful, surrealist rapping, augmented by the call-and-response singing of Anjelika Joseph. All of these elements converge in their breakthrough 2017 single “Quick,” a stuttering, rhythmically dense revenge narrative that highlights Ball’s distinctive voice as a singer and storyteller.
After their NPR victory, the band signed to Universal subsidiary Verve and began working on their major label debut. The first taste of that forthcoming project was “Smoke.Netflix.Chill.” (released this year on 4/20, naturally), which fused beatboxing and record scratching with one of the band’s most conventionally pop arrangements. Like many of their best songs (“Walmart” and “Boxes and Squares” chief among them), this one takes something ordinary and exposes the deeper waters hiding below.
“I find it so cool to talk about things that connect everybody and go past race or boy or girl or anything,” says Ball. “That’s when you find the beauty and the complexity in the simplest things.”
Ball’s enthusiastic, accessible vocal style has endeared the band to fans of all ages, to the point that it’s become a pretty common occurrence to see parents with kids in tow at their concerts.
“That part seems nice to me because kids, they love the music,” says Joshua Johnson. “They’re the ones [who are] gonna be turning the dial on what’s popular and what’s not, what you want to hear and what you constantly want in your ears.”
“That’s what you really pray for, just for me, is to be in the minds of the children first,” Ball agrees. “It sounds corny as fuck, but they really are the future.”
Tank and the Bangas’ live shows are also a reflection of their creative community of musicians and poets in New Orleans. While shaped in some ways by the jazz and bounce music closely associated with the city, they’ve added their own stylistic variations and an activism-through-music mentality to create something of their own.
“If you get a bunch of positive cool people together, then you really can shape the world,” says Ball. “And that’s what artists have always done… we shape the world.”