“This is our last rap album” declares Rami Sharkey—stage name Ballzack—as he taps on an Akai MIDI controller hooked into an iMac. Pulling from sample banks filled with everything from Beatles and Slayer cuts to files labelled “Metallica breath” and even a Kanye West kit, Ballzack and Odoms—street name, Adam Bourgeois—are putting the finishing touches on their next album, Ballzack and Odoms Present AceNErnie, in Odoms’ uptown home. The latest alter-alter-egos of the two rappers, Ace and Ernie are the conjured ghosts of junior high past, young punk hoodlums trapped in early male puberty and heavy metal fandom. It’s a far cry, visually, from these two grown men, both in their mid 30s now… unless you’re familiar with the phenomenon that is Ballzack and Odoms.
2002 was the breakout year for this two man music and comedy troupe. Their first album, Knucklehead Memoirs, dropped on New Orleans like an M-60 firecracker down a toilet and kind of blew everything up for a minute. Tales of early 20s angst and loneliness, set against a suburban Westbank backdrop, unfolded along gutter beats and minimal production. Buried among the hits on that album (remember “Monkey Hand Jobs,” “Wall Blvd.” and “The Pencil Crack Tournament?”) is “Punk Rock Beetlemilk,” a lobotomy of a song made from rough-cut distorted guitar and drum machine loops that foreshadows AceNErnie by a decade. In it, Ballzack cops to his stupid-bordering-on-Zen approach: “I can’t believe that I made this song/you can’t believe that I made this song. I went through a heavy metal phase in junior high/and I don’t think it ever really died.”
After Knucklehead Memoirs dropped, the hype was instant and meteoric by New Orleans standards and every radio station and media outlet in town (including Antigravity) was gripped. Team Ballzack packed venues like Twi-Ro-Pa (RIP) and the Howlin’ Wolf regularly. Paired with such disparate acts as Galactic, King Louie and the Buttons, Ballzack was really on everybody’s mind and playlist. 2005’s follow up, Chipmunk Dream Machine, fashioned Ballzack and Odoms into art school freshmen and took them out of the bedroom studio (though that’s where the music still originated) and into real studios for the first time. In 2008, when their third album, Yeah Indeed dropped, it was clear that Ballzack and Odoms were a long way removed from the carefree and blind approach to the production of their earlier works and had adopted studio-and-biz-savvy slickster personas.
Fast-forwarding back to 2013, Ballzack continues his rant as he bangs away on the Akai: “I’m so sick of making beats. Now the technology is so easy that it made it kind of boring. Logic practically thinks of the song for you. I’d just rather play an instrument. After this album, that’s it.” It’s moments like this, where the two work expertly around a minimal but impressive home studio setup (and complain about it) that it’s hard to tell if you’re being fooled or charmed, witnessing a spectacle or something truly special. But from the beginning, Ballzack has had an almost unfair knack for pulling hooks out of thin air, despite remedial experience with music instrumentation and theory. Odoms is an anomaly, too: a really good white boy rapper who’s spent most of his life crafting a delivery steeped in the thickest of Westbank drawls. And while Ballzack gets top billing, Odoms is the hip-hop disciple, the one who stockpiles notebooks full of lyrics and has an ear that can match Ballzack’s cadence—and humor—beat for beat. It’s Weird Al at its worst, Paul’s Boutique at its best; and it’s grabbed the attention of everyone from producer and arena-rock veteran J. Yuenger (who produced Yeah Indeed) and David Simon to budding music video director Mike Kennedy, who cut his directorial chops and broke in an arsenal of film equipment with videos like “Rainbow in Marrero,” which had 65,000 hits on YouTube at last check. The weekend before this interview, I checked in while Ballzack and Odoms made a video for “Backwards”—as in, “Put the record on and play that bitch backwards”—with Team Kennedy. Many thanks to them for letting me jump in between takes and shoot some stills for this piece.
Since AceNErnie is the first album from Ballzack and Odoms in over four years, there is a lot of ground to cover, from wandering around the more haunted regions of the Westbank to dissecting tracks from the current album such as “Metal Bounce,” a punched-up version of “Punk Rock Beetlemilk” that hypes things like Ouija boards, the undead and nuclear war in traditional bounce shout-out fashion. We also talk about hitting local fame hard, what the aftermath looks like and exactly how much it’s going to cost for Ballzack and Odoms to play your birthday party.
This album is like the fourth or fifth season of a television show. You’ve built a concept on a concept—Rami and Adam are Ballack and Odoms are Ace and Ernie—so, how would you get someone caught up to speed on where we are in this story arc.
Rami Sharkey: The first album was mainly just early 20s angst, lonely dude album. We were really all about hip-hop at that point, like a lot of samples and that sort of thing, but meanwhile we still had our influences, like the Cash Money stuff and New Orleans stuff.
Adam Bourgeois: We didn’t know how to make Cash Money-sounding stuff back then.
RS: It was very random and surreal. It was a catharsis. And then Chipmunk Dream Machine was the urge to start playing instruments again. I feel like that always comes back. Once you’ve made too many beats you’re like “I need a real instrument or a guitar or something.” And once again, that one was totally random, too. There’s no theme or anything. This is the first theme album we’ve made… Yeah Indeed was more like “let’s up the production value.” We were really happy to have J. involved and J. made it sound awesome. He was like a member, full-on. And also I really wanted to get that Mannie Fresh influence out.
AB: Every drum roll that you could possibly do.
RS: And just being stupid. Also taking things we liked that we knew went well at shows like “Wall Blvd.” that was rough on the other shit, but taking that same thing and just making more of that. Yeah Indeed is like a whole lot of “Wall Blvds.” that’s really polished, more thought out with a producer and great equipment involved.
Do you think you lost anything in that production? Part of the charm of the early stuff is how rough some of it sounded.
RS: It’s more edited. Before, we’d fuck something up and be like, man, fuck it. we’re not worried about that shit. And with Yeah Indeed, J. was super meticulous. He wanted everything to be right, everything to be perfect. So it is a little more on the grid… There’s not much that’s random in there. If it was, it got captured live and then placed very methodically.
So between Knucklehead Memoirs and Yeah Indeed, where does this production fall?
RS: This is like in between Chipmunk Dream Machine and Yeah Indeed. We’re now using computers to make the beats. We’re using better equipment of our own rather than all of the stand-alone little hardware that we had. Better mics, better equipment, that sort of thing. And also, there’s so much that we learned from J.—but we’re not quite as thorough as J. [laughs]
AB: We learned all the shortcuts from J. We learned how to do things faster and easier. RS: Even if it was a rap song, he’d be like “you’re off key.” And I didn’t even know what a key was back then. And J. would have to sit there and explain it to me, what a key was… [AceNErnie] is a little more fast and loose. We just didn’t give a fuck on a lot of it; we wanted it to be good but… we get bored with the songs really quickly. If we can’t get it done in one day, with a day for editing, then fuck that song.
AB: It ain’t meant to be.
RS: [Yeah Indeed] was mastered by professional mastering. This one may get mastered by J. maybe if we have time. Also, the album isn’t even done but the show’s coming up, because we’re doing everything on computers and we’re releasing it digitally… it’s just a different world. It’s like Dwayne Wayne, dawg. [laughs]
This is the only album with just the two of you on it. No collaborators or skits with other characters; no Donald Purvis, no Dolomatts, No Tim Chans.
RS: They got kids, man. It’s hard for people to get together when they got kids… Also, it started with us; it’s always been me and Adam… And living on the East Bank, it’s like a world away. It really is. Everything has to be organized with friends. Trying to hang out it’s like “We’re going to get a beer on this day” where it used to be “I just got off of work, dawg, where you at?” I miss that a lot. I miss that free-wheeling nature of friends… It’s like [The Adventures of] Milo and Otis. Remember that movie? They’re palling around—this dog and a cat—and at some point the dog gets a girlfriend and the cat is like [in a mopey voice] “What am I gonna do?” It’s kind of like that. We all got girlfriends; some people got kids; some people gotta work jobs… it’s hard to reach out to people… And me and Adam have such a chemistry that’s undeniable. I’ve never had that sort of chemistry with anybody, ever, period. Maybe my brother. But even then it’s not the same interests; my brother doesn’t have interest in making songs but I do and Adam does.
I was wondering if that was a conscious decision or not.
RS: We didn’t even think about it until you said it.
AB: We just wanted to keep making stuff.
What’s your first memory of each other?
RS: I was moving into the dorm at LSU and I came out and saw Birlie, who was his older brother and I knew him and he introduced me to Adam. And Adam was wearing soulja-camouflage fatigues and he had a little mustache and a soulja rag tied around his neck. And I was like “look at this ol’ white boy thug, this ol Westbank- ass dude.” But then we started hanging out and I noticed he was funny. And I let him hear my shit and he liked it.
AB: He played “Wall Blvd.” for me. I didn’t let him hear what I had because it was poo.
RS: I had that sampler, the [Roland] SP-808 and he said “I want you to produce my demo, dawg.”
AB: No no; you offered. You said “I’ll do it for you.”
RS: Yeah but I think I saw you get excited about it and I got worried because you looked really serious. I tried to throw him a curveball because I had to use zip disks for that sampler. I was like “If you can buy a zip disk then I’ll record your shit.” And he came later on that day with a bag of zip disks. And we made his demo.
I noticed you guys don’t really jump around as much live anymore as you used to. What’s going on there?
RS: Just lazy. [laughs] Also, jumping around don’t feel right. I feel like when I jumped around I’ve always made a conscious decision to jump around and it was never like “I just really feel like jumping around.” So then I just stopped doing it because I felt like I was faking jumping around.
AB: And I would jump when you jumped.
RS: But the songs weren’t really that jumpable. Some of them were, like the Yeah Indeed stuff and the Odoms [solo] stuff.
AB: “Walking Through a Drive Thru” wasn’t jump around-able.
RS: Not really jumpable.
How much do you like to perform live?
The energy is kind of the same in a speed metal song and a bounce song
RS: I hate it.
AB: I love it.
RS: No, I hate it up until the point when we’re actually on stage.
AB: All the pre-shit, the preparation, the setup—
RS: Yeah, all the pre-shit! Dealing with the anxiety, the clubs… Pre-show anxiety sucks; I hate it. But then actually getting on stage, it’s like a whole other world… but I don’t want to talk to anybody. I don’t want anybody to come up and ask a question: “Hey, so-and-so’s at the door…” I don’t want to deal with anything at all. I just want to be quiet. But then I make myself take a drink or something to take the edge off—
AB: And then we start clowning—
RS: And then we start pointing out girls in the audience that start showing up… But you know, don’t get me wrong, once we’re actually performing it’s fun. But nothing beats that first time when you get your first big gig in town. Like One Eyed Jack’s or House of Blues… because I remember that feeling impossible; to get a show felt impossible and then we just kind of climbed the ranks, you know, like Twi- Ro-Pa and Howlin’ Wolf, and Mermaid Lounge—which I miss. I wish that place was still around, man. And then we found One Eyed Jack’s and it was a winning formula for us. So we were like, “Why even play anywhere else in New Orleans?” And we’re always too lazy to tour.
Yeah, what’s up with that?
RS: We just didn’t want to do it. You have to admit we were never that ambitious about it. Our ambition only took us as far as Lafayette, once. But the weird thing is we have fans that are spread out. We get emails from motherfuckers in London… But those kind of stopped for a while. I feel like people gave up. And then you get dudes on Facebook being like “I made a movie. Is it okay if I use your shit in my movie?”
RS: I won’t even respond. I don’t care; I don’t want to deal with it.
AB: “Can you come play my birthday party?”
Did you guys get asked to play a birthday party?
RS: Oh yeah. People would ask us to play their birthday parties.
But you never did it.
RS: Fuck no! Because we would name some exorbitant price like ten grand and they’d be like “well that’s a little out of my league..” [laughs] Because we don’t want to do that shit! In New Orleans people don’t pay for shit. Everything is on the barter system here.
I call it the favor-based economy.
RS: It’s true. And the thing is, if you get caught up in that too much, that’s as far as anything will get. If everything is just based on favors, then everybody’s always perpetually broke… but yet, got a favor. Like maybe that dude will invite me to his crawfish boil and I’ll eat then.
What about Tremé? Did you see a boost from being on that?
RS: Yeah, iTunes sales went up a little bit. Not a lot. But getting that affirmation was nice. We ran into David Simon once, before we even got on the show. I saw him at that little gas station that’s right next to Delachaise, before they even started filming the show. I was like “Hey man, I loved The Wire,” you know, like a fan. And he was totally like motherfucker, I’m busy… He had that look. And I said something like, “Yeah my friend Davis said…” I name-dropped Davis Rogan and he was like “You know Davis?” And I said “Yeah, we’re in a band.” He said, “What’s the name of your band?” I said Ballzack and then he and his kid started singing “Rainbow in Marrero” in the store. And they started doing it with the hands [over the head, side to side]. And then he was like “What’s the other one?” And his kid was like “Keeping up with the Jetsons” and then they both started singing that! And they ended up using some stuff. They used “Making Groceries” and “Wine Candy…” That renewed interest, but it’s never been the kind of thing that sustains our lives… We just make songs; that’s all we like to do.
So you are content to plateau at the New Orleans level?
AB: We’re not going to kill ourselves trying to push it somewhere.
RS: Also, the dynamic of it is different now. It’s not like “I sent my demo out to all the labels.” You can’t do that anymore… Now, making an album ain’t shit, dawg. Seriously! It’s like you can’t impress anybody by making an album anymore. They’re like “My little cousin made an album on his iPhone.” Nobody gives a shit. You have to have a YouTube hit. The video has to drive the song; the viral video has to drive your success. And those other videos we did helped out a lot. Seriously, every week, a couple people: “Ballzack, right? Rainbow in Marrero, dawg!” They’ll just do that shit to me and Adam; and that’s cool! But even that is almost too creepy. Even that is almost too much. I don’t know if I would be able to handle being recognized on a really wide level. I have anxiety issues! [laughs]
Let’s talk about the new album and specifically the song “Metal Bounce.” I think that song is going to make some of the bounce purists upset.
RS: Man, fuck them. Straight up. Bounce purist equals ain’t from here. [everyone laughs]
Parody or homage?
RS: Total homage. Really it’s just exploring the notion that the energy is kind of the same in a speed metal song and a bounce song… And we do whatever we want to do. We’re from here.
AB: There’s no rules.
RS: Yeah, there’s no rules to any of this shit… if purists ruled the world then nothing would ever evolve. And I could be like that to a degree. I like old, raggedy-ass delta blues [but] I don’t like Stevie Ray Vaughn or Eric Clapton, none of that shit. But it’s not because they’re not poor black dudes. It’s because it feels like more science than soul.
A lot of bounce rappers are kind of religious, though, and y’all made that song straight up Satanic. One way to put it: would you play “Bounce Metal” for Jubilee?
RS: I don’t know…
AB: Would you play a song that says “Suck my dick for a Starter?” This is nothing compared to some of the bounce songs.
RS: And our shit is obviously a joke. It’s not reflecting any real lifestyle.
What about Grunch Road, which you mention in a few songs. Where is that?
RS: Growing up on the Westbank, there was this place that everybody used to refer to, Grunch Road. They’d be like, “don’t go down Grunch Road.”
AB: That’s where all the devil worshippers are.
RS: Yeah, exactly. Or the grunches live there. It’s off Woodland Highway somewhere down there.
AB: They got pictures of grunches online. You can go on Google and search it. And you can’t even fuckin’ see them; it’s like a big, blurry thing. All you see is a dot and it’s like “this was the grunch.”
Like a Westbank werewolf or something?
RS: Like a hobbit or some shit, I don’t know… and the thing was if you went down this road that went around a levee—I remember me and my friend went at night; it was pitch black. And then you get to the end of the road and there’s a fence and it was trampled on. And on the other side of the fence you go down a rock road and there’s an old, Southern- style house that was haunted—as far as they said. We didn’t go beyond the fence. We got to the fence and were like fuck this.
AB: It’s probably where a bunch of dudes went to smoke weed and have sex.
What does the song “Jerk Off Room” refer to?
AB: Ace and Ernie got a secret clubhouse—
RS: Ace and Ernie, not us!
AB: But they got a clubhouse where they got a secret room on top of it.
RS: It’s a porno room, really. Wall to wall porno mags, a thing of Kleenex and one chair. And then ceiling: porno mags; floor: porno mags. You’re in the porno epicenter, the nexus. You’re just surrounded; you can’t even see where the walls bend. Just titties everywhere.
Me and Adam have such a chemistry that’s undeniable. I’ve never had that sort of chemistry with anybody, ever, period
RS: Or they need to get the truth out of them, drag them to the jerk off room. People are going to think we’re gay as fuck! [laughs]
If Ace and Ernie met Beavis and Butthead outside of a 7-11, what would happen? Would they be friends or would they fight each other?
RS: I think they would shun Beavis and Butthead; they’d be like that’s those fucking weird, dumb dudes.
AB: And they would walk off and just talk shit about them to themselves for the next four years.
RS: Ace and Ernie are actually thoughtful. They have presence of mind. They’re not just like heh-heh-heh all day. They have those tendencies but they’re actually smarter. They’re making their own shit, making their own movies and tape recordings. Doing shit like that; they’re just smarter… the whole thing, really, is an homage to my junior high years. And that’s what we were. We watched Evil Dead every day. It was all about watching Evil Dead and Army of Darkness. And then reading comic books all day and trading comic books in school, listening to Pantera, Slayer, old Metallica, Exodus and shit. Horror movies, black lights and black light posters… and this album is an homage to all of that.
You guys are in your mid 30s, so what is it about now that connects you to your junior high self ?
RS: I guess I always wanted to be in a speed metal band, like a thrash metal band. And we pretty much exhausted talking about regular-ass Westbank rap shit. We would make songs and be like “Ugh. Erase it.” We weren’t interested at all. But then we had the concept of saying like “what if we just were back to our nerdy, junior-high selves? What if Ballzack and Odoms were rapping about Slayer shit? What would that sound like?”
AB: Rami and Adam, not even Ballzack and Odoms.
RS: Right. What if those dudes were combined with us now? But the idea was to get that out of our system. Because we love the Misfits, right? So how do we take that and put it into what we’re doing? We really wanted to make it like if it were New Orleans rap with Slayer lyrics or Misfits lyrics. And I just felt like that was something I needed to put to bed from my youth. That dude needed to be addressed.
Ballzack and Odoms Present AceNErnie debuts at One Eyed Jack’s on Saturday, June 8th with Shadow of the Capricorn opening. The album will be available for download at snowballstand.com