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Phone ringing. Jesus, I've come to hate phone ringing. After three rings, I pick up, and the raspy, almost timid-sounding voice of Balls shouter Tricie Soulos comes from the other end.
"If I gave you a copy of our record, would you listen to it?"
What a joy it is to learn that Phoenix's best-kept rock 'n' roll secret hasn't flown south as I once suspected.
Live, Balls is a mess of ham-fisted visual irony. Soulos is loose-limbed and exudes a saucy verve that, on a good night, bottlenecks into real authority. She's a brothel Madonna, with blunt dark hair, tattoo-etched flesh and supple frame. Then there's the voice. With a brashy, Bon Scott-with-mammaries tonality, it's hands down the best female rock 'n' roll voice this state has heard in years.
People have lazily compared Soulos to Gwen Stefani, a comparison the band finds laughable. "It's just 'cause she's a girl," says guitarist Jerry Meyers. Still, it's no stretch to see Soulos as pinup fodder for legions of teen boys.
In 1998, Balls won the Vans Warped Tour's provincial Battle of the Bands, beating out native blue bloods like Fred Green. At the finals in Long Beach, they were runners-up to a band that, by most accounts, was undeserving at best. But at least the Warped Tour shed light on the band's potential demographic. The experience was "actually really funny," explains Soulos. "All these little boys, little, like 9 and 10, kept asking for my autograph. They were with their moms!"
Recent gigs have seen the men in the band -- guitarist Meyers, bassist Stephan Mackos and drummer Buck Ellis -- outfitted in cabana-boy getups and Soulos resplendent in a slut-goddess Jessica Rabbit dress and big red platforms. They've worn low-rent 1960s James Bond suits. A Tucson seamstress has been tapped to put together Elvis-as-Superman outfits.
"I'm gonna be fat Elvis," chimes Ellis.
Small superballs are thrown from the stage during shows, and, much to the chagrin of the ensuing acts on the bill, often get heaved back toward the stage.
"When we do shows, people always think we're from New York or L.A.," says Soulos. "It's so bizarre. People come up to us after shows and ask for our autographs. They want us to sign balls that we threw out from the stage."
Balls is too skilled a band to piss away all this on idleness. Yet its five-year existence has been awash with inertia. That, and shitty luck.
The two-bedroom red brick duplex that's home to Mackos and Soulos sits in the kind of Phoenix neighborhood where the only evidence of life at night are school-skipping kids and scraggly haired tweakers walking to and from the local Circle K.
As if to affect some moody dream sequence, the living room is candle-lit. Turns out the power is out in half the duplex. A poster image of Darth Vader hangs in a silver-toned frame that's dotted with little blue stars. Two couches on a concrete floor.
Sitting around, chomping tacos and downing beer, are the band members, all of whom have done time with other Valley groups long since forgotten. Mackos' spiky bleached locks, chiseled features and muscular frame give him the look of a punk-rock wrestler with a female fan base. Meyers is either a staunch bong-hit enthusiast or simply one of those people genetically blessed with a Buddhalike mien. Drummer Ellis -- whose mother actually appears in Monterey Popwearing a furry green jacket! -- could be the prematurely balding guy manning the counter at any skate shop.
The band's name conjures up muscle-festooned mooks shouting songs long on jock-o references -- something like nu-metal milksops Papa Roach. In fact, Balls gets its frisson by loving pop with every ounce of its working-class heart.
"I was shootin' pool and I messed up," explains the surly-voiced Mackos of the band's moniker. "I went, 'Balls!' And then I went, 'That's it, we're Balls!'"
Life in rock 'n' roll requires much preadolescent muckraking, and over the tacos and beer the members waste no time revealing each other's shortcomings. Underlying all the good-natured bullshit is a definite sense of frustration, and with good reason. It's no fun being a criminally ignored band.
"We've never gotten any attention," explains Soulos. "When I see other bands get so much attention when we've worked so hard, I just go, 'Well, I have to do this for fun because there is no other reason to do this.'"
Color rushes into Soulos' pallid face when she's talking about the group's struggles. "We still need someone to do all the grunt work, that would help," she says. "We need a manager."
Two years ago, the group's manager, Jim Lobuglio, committed suicide. No one in the band saw it coming. No one understands why. "It was too weird," says Ellis, shaking his head. "We got a call one day and he was dead."
Band managers and such things are necessary, of course, when the bulk of your time is devoted to keeping the landlord/tenant relationship healthy. Put another way, nobody in Balls gave up his day job. Meyers' parents retired and turned the family jewelry store over to him. Mackos is an ASU grad who now works as an architect. Ellis toils graveyard shifts in a post office, and Soulos works at California Pizza Kitchen.