Since they released their debut album in 2013, there’s been no stopping Tank and the Bangas. The New Orleans group has been gathering steam one mesmerizing tour stop at at time, gradually becoming one of the most buzzed-about bands in America. Last week they landed at Paste Studios for a four-song set of soul, funk, soul, jazz and poetry.
It’s hard to talk about Tank and the Bangas without zeroing in on Tarriona Ball, aka Tank. Coming from a poetry background that she cultivated in the Big Easy, the frontwoman has a magnetic stage presence, mastering the rapid-fire half-talking, half-rapping, always-on-the-verge-of-singing vocal style that might conjure Chance the Rapper. “I started out slamming,” she said of her somewhat circuitous path to music, which included an award-winning career as a spoken-word performer. ”[Adding music] came a little later, once I met my poetry group in New Orleans called Team SNO. Once we got together, we were like little league—put the poetry and the music together.”
Though Tank and the Bangas hail from New Orleans, their hodgepodge of sounds—derived in large part by the group’s drummer and musical director, Joshua Johnson—has more in common with the personality of the city than the styles associated with it. “Being from New Orleans, it’s just so natural to sing even if you can’t sing, add a beat to something even if you don’t play an instrument,” said Tank (a nickname her father gave her). “You can just pick up cans and go to town in New Orleans.”
Her facility with spoken word and song was evident from the get-go on opening number “Trading Wings.”
Mostly steeped in soul, the group draws on influences from around the country, which makes sense given the members’ eclectic backgrounds. Tank, Johnson, keyboardist Merell Burkett, and secondary vocalist Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph all hail from New Orleans. But bassist and synth player Norman Spence is originally from Baltimore, while flautist and saxophonist Albert Allenback was born in Turkey and raised in Alabama. It’s a beautiful blend, with hints of the second-line music, Marvin Gay-esque funk native to the Washington, D.C., area, and even some references to bounce music of the 1980s and ‘90s. The diverging influences were perhaps most evident in the group’s second song, “Boxes and Squares.”
Prompted by a request, the group performed an unplanned version of fan favorite “Rollercoaster”. Inspired by a theme park near Tank’s home, the song poses an almost existential question: Why do people love the feeling of being terrified? “Roller coasters are for people who have never been in love,” she sings. “They want to know how it feels to just fall.”
“No matter how hurt you were, no matter if if someone took your heart out and stomped on it, you are still willing, if someone new comes into your life, to give them a try, to love them fresh and brand new,” she said. “I think that says a lot about people who get off that roller coaster that was scary as hell and look at their friends and say, ‘Let’s get back in line. Let’s go one more time.’”
Musically, Tank and the Bangas’ tunes are as tight as they come. Somewhat counterintuitively, the group also thrives on serendipity. Their music has an authentic, almost improvised sound, which is a credit to their organic songwriting process. “Every time we’re in rehearsal, Merell starts with some type of beat, and instantly I have a song in my head,” Tank said. She then writes the ideas down, either on a piece of paper or in her phone. “The best ones come out of mostly nowhere. The best ones come out of sound checks.”
As a testament to their impulsivity, the group played an unexpected fourth song at Paste, ”$paceship.”
Tank and the Bangas are currently on tour, and just released a new single, ‘Quick.’ You can find their upcoming dates here.