Balls to the Wall
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 Pop wearing 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.
The band's low profile in Phoenix is in large part because it doesn't promote itself -- which makes it all the more appealing. The members also claim to have no friends.
"We don't do dick to promote," says Soulos. "We're lucky we have anyone come to our shows."
"I don't know anybody except these guys here," adds Mackos, looking to the other band members. "They'll [club bookers] say, 'Why don't you bring your friends?' And I'll say, 'All my friends are in the band.'"
Sometimes more than friends. Mackos and Soulos instantly became a couple when they met in 1994. Two years ago, they broke up. The love hangover left Soulos more than a bit bummed. What's amazing is the band survived the inner split.
"When we broke up, things were very strange," explains Soulos. "We wanted to stay friends because we didn't want the band to break up. It was really bad for a while. I would just show at shows all drunk and play and leave. That was my drinking binge. I was this big around." She illustrates her waist size by making a small circle, pressing her forefinger to her thumb.
For the now-28-year-old singer, such heady bouts of self-destruction were nothing new. "When we broke up, I never ate," she says. "I had a Mohawk. I was a mess."
Her messiness manifested itself in other ways. Soon after her breakup with Mackos, a guy Soulos didn't know who played in another band punched her out one night. "The guy's microphone stand fell over and I picked it up for him while he was playing," she says. "I was just trying to help him. Next thing I know his girlfriend literally lunged on top of my back. She thought I was flirting with him. Then later, outside, the guy walks up and just fuckin' punches me in the face and completely floors me.
"Some skinhead guys happened to be out there and they saw all this," she continues. "They completely freaked out and beat the shit out of this guy. His collarbone was sticking out of his body. They [the skinheads] were actually really cool, but then the next day they turned around and were assholes to me. I think they just wanted to beat someone up."
Less than two months later, a car hit Soulos when its soused driver didn't see her as he backed up. After a long night passed out on booze, mixed with Valium that somebody poured down her throat, somebody took her to the hospital. "I got to play onstage with crutches," she says in mock sarcasm.
Out behind the duplex, in a cramped space built for personal storage, is Balls' rehearsal room. The band is talking about working on new songs, having grown tired of many of the ones it recorded for an upcoming album. Even now, things continue to go wrong, the band members say. They're sick of being stuck on bills with Limp Bizkit knockoffs. A much-anticipated show just went awry -- seems old hippie Door Robbie Krieger needed the night. There's no money -- and there never is -- for anything other than basic living expenses. But, hey, anything less wouldn't be rock 'n' roll.
Fittingly, an October rain gives the night a melancholia that mirrors the mood of the band.
The upside to all of this is the record, titled Gotta Have 'Em, which was recorded and produced by Pollen's Bob Hoag and Kevin Scanlon more than a year ago. It has yet to find a home on a label. For the time being, the band will stick with its DIY ethos and sell copies at shows.
In the studio, Balls sounds like the Rezillos with Johnny Ramone in a walk-on role -- a relentless wallop of major-chord guitars that gives the lovely illusion of musical harmony. Songs like "5:45" and "On the Road" use the sledgehammer concept to lure you in. Choruses are unashamedly singsongy, and take up residency in your head for days. The anthem-for-the-uncommon-Joe themes in the lyrics don't hurt. And kudos must go to any band that can cover AC/DC's shamelessly sexist "Whole Lotta Rosie" while keeping its gender-specific crux; when sung by a female, the tune has an, um, decidedly disarming tone.
"How can you be a rock 'n' roll band without an AC/DC tune?" asks Meyers.
Balls has the panache that can be mustered only by a young band that still believes in rock 'n' roll stars as saviors. "From the very beginning, we said we gotta kick ass when we play, we're gonna be tight as hell and we're not gonna fuck up," says Mackos, his voice rising to a level that threatens to alarm the neighbors. "We'll do everything we can to put on a kick-ass show. I hope to be a big rock 'n' roll star"
Rock-star status or no, Soulos says she'll be back in school by next spring. She describes herself as an aspiring author who dabbles in short-story writing. Being the best-kept rock 'n' roll secret in town can only contain promise for so long. Yet it's that desperation borne of diminishing hopes that makes Soulos, and Balls, seem so worthy. The shitty luck has to end sometime.
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