One would think that most of the video submissions that NPR gets for its Tiny Desk Concert series contest are relatively stripped-down, acoustic performances. After all, the Tiny Desk series, which features mini concerts by artists from Tom Jones to T-Pain performed at the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen, are intimate by definition. Perhaps that's why Tank & The Bangas' submission, a bouncing super-ball of fun, hip-hop, and pure energy called "Quick," won this year's contest out of 6,000 submissions.
The contest, which began in December of 2014, solicits performances by largely unknown bands all over the country, with a panel of judges that includes Boilen, Phish's Trey Anastasio, and R&B singer Anthony Hamilton selecting the winner. Tank's video submission included the group playing the song in a classroom and using school-related props, including textbooks, markers, and a dry erase board to add some novelty to an already-quirky song. The setting was a nice garnish, to be sure, but there's little doubt that the band could've performed this tour-de-force against a brick wall and still won.
While vocalists Tarriona "Tank" Ball and Anjelika "Jelly" Joseph bounce raps, soulful shouts, and some knowing looks off of one another, occasionally finishing each other's sentences, the band knocks out a skeletal, throbbing pulse that mixes old-school soul with the skittering beats of electronic music — all in service of a severely twisted tale of a night out, or maybe a few nights out, gone wrong.
The judges' comments suggest choosing the Bangas submission wasn't much of a contest. "I immediately loved this," Anastasio said. "Tank is a force of nature, just full of joy, and her band is killing in the background."
"What won me over about the band's performance of 'Quick' were the interactions among lead singer Tarriona 'Tank' Ball and her bandmates, and the way they seemed to surprise one another," Boilen added. "It all felt so organic and on-the-spot."
"It was all pretty natural," Ball says. "As the boys are sitting there playing, I'm thinking 'What's the next phrase, what's the next thing I can do to keep the music and my expression popping at the same time?' We fed off each other."
What's interesting is that Ball had another song, a slower, more intimate ballad, in mind for the Bangas' entry, and the band talked her out of it. "I thought the other song was pretty and soft and that it would go over well, but then our drummer said, 'I think we should do 'Quick,'" Ball says. "I wasn't sure at first because it's a pretty tricky song, but he said, 'We can do it.' And I'm happy that he suggested it at the last minute like that."
As Boilen pointed out, one of the song's true calling cards is the way that Ball and Joseph careen off one another vocally, like an extended conversation between two friends. Which, it turns out, is exactly what the basis for the performance is. "She's been one of my longest-serving background singers, and I just give her the words and the key and she just makes it her own," Ball says. "The relationship that we have onstage is just like the one we have in practice. Just the two of us talking about these boys. So being onstage together is kind of a look at how we are offstage."
Perhaps one of the reasons that Ball seems so comfortable in front of the camera is that before she was the lead singer for the Bangas, she spent a lot of time performing live poetry and doing spoken-word shows. "It has almost everything to do with how I am onstage with the band," she says. "I've been doing it most of my life, and it taught me to truly speak from my heart and leave everything out there on the stage. And this is just a different version of that. It definitely sharpens your performance, because it comes down to getting onstage and being essentially naked. It prepares you to grow up in front of an audience."
The resulting performance is one that Ball says was meant to be from both the band and NPR's perspective. "It says to me they were looking for something that we found," she says. "All of the people at NPR, it felt like we all came together and found this music and found each other. It's just this big moment for all of us, obviously."
And now, as the featured act on NPR Music's Tiny Desk tour, Ball says she and the band are anxious to show off everything they can do. "It's pretty freakin' exciting, because we like to put on a really exciting show and we change up our arrangements every night," she says. "It's really hot. I think that we really take people on a journey. It's going to be such a great tour. I can't believe we're going to all these places we've never been before. We've never been to Oregon. We've never been to Charleston! We've never been to Texas, man!"