Published September 1995, The Aquarian Weekly


Urge Overkill

Taking it to the logical extreme

The first image that comes to mind when you hear the words, Urge Overkill, is that of three highball guzzling, cigar smoking, big tipping, extravagantly living, top hat wearing, velvet-jacketed, luridly dressed layabouts speeding down an endless, mid-western freeway in a '73 Cougar convertible . . . crushed velour interior, top down, glasses raised, 8-track cranked . . . on their way to meet the "Rat Pack" - Frank, Deano, Sammy, Peter and Joey - to film a remake of 1960's schmaltzy Oceans Eleven.

The second image is, and probably always will be, of Pulp Fiction's Uma Thurman swirling and swooning to the Urge's earnest, well-worn cover of Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" just before discovering a potent surprise in John Travolta's jacket pocket.

Appearing on 1992's 8-song Stull EP; the song was pretty much a one-take after-thought done at the urging of Noise New Jersey producer Kramer; who eerily predicted its hit-bound status moments after switching-off the tape recorder in his northern-New Jersey studio.

In spite of (or, perhaps, due to) the one-take feel and ragged, off-hand charm of the inspired remake, it became the Urge's biggest hit and the song that officially put their name up on the marquee in the loud, vibrant, five-foot high letters they had in mind when they poured their very first Bombay gin and tonics and plugged in their guitars 10 long years ago.

Named for Parliament's Professor of Funkentelechy, Urge Overkill burst loudly onto the scene with their 1986, Steve Albini-produced debut EP, Strange, I on Ruthless Records. At about the same time, bassist Ed "Kid" Roeser and guitarist Nate Kato (as they were calling themselves) and original Urge drummer Pat Byrne somehow stumbled upon the heady power of rock 'n' roll decadence, flashy pinkie rings and a well-made, slightly dry, martini.

As national musical tastes shifted from the star-studded excesses, circus-like entourages and unhealthy overindulgences of the '80s towards a more "flannel" mentality; the Urge - sporting loud, matching suits straight out of Shaft's Big Score, velvet smoking jackets, big medallions, platform shoes and highball glasses - took things in the extreme opposite direction.

Signing with Touch and Go Records, Urge released the Albani-produced Jesus Urge Superstar, in 1989. A freakish blend of ballsy riffs, ringing, '60s and '70s pop influences and a supremely confident "rock star" attitude. Songs such as "Head On," "God Flintstone" and "Your Friend Is Insane" set the stage for a much bigger sound from the band while helping to establish the legend of "the Urge."

Playing their image to the hilt, the band hooked up with producer Butch Vig for 1990's Americruiser, which boasted the classic Urge anthems "Faroutski" and "Ticket To L.A.," as well as Kato's vocal debut on "Out On The Airstrip."

As the Urge Overkill good-time machine steadily picked up momentum: drummer Byrne made way for the tastefully medallioned, tackily-dressed, appropriately star-crossed Blackie Onassis; "Kid" Roeser became "King"; the band opened national tours for Nirvana and Pearl Jam; Nate began going by his full Christian name National (hence, Nash); MTV started playing the "Faroutski" video; an oddly sincere, 7-inch version of Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman" recorded in 1987 began getting minor airplay; the "Ticket To L.A."/"(I'm On A) Drunk" 7-inch got relatively good reviews; the band began getting some press; and Albini was once again called in to man the boards, this time for 1991's The Supersonic Storybook.

In quick order: 1992s Stull; 1993s Saturation with its' hit singles "Sister Havana," "Positive Bleeding" and "Erica Kane"; and the huge, left-field success of Stull's "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" (from 1994's Pulp Fiction); gave Nash, Blackie and the King the sort of exposure they'd always envisioned for the band. The sight of a lavishly-dressed Urge Overkill leering at you from the cover of your favorite magazine or fanzine quickly became a familiar one.

With the release of their second Butcher Brothers produced, Geffen Records release, Exit The Dragon, Urge Overkill appear to be set for another successful run at the charts.

Eddie "King" Roeser spoke with the Aquarian Weekly recently about the new record and the current state of the Urge philosophy.

How do you and Nash connect musically? What gives the Urge Overkill songwriting team the chemistry it has?

"I don't know. I've been thinking about this more and more often lately and I think that our very different musical upbringings might have something to do with why Urge is so well weird.
Now, I don't think that this, necessarily, is a bad thing, but, I was definitely into AC/DC's Powerage album and your average, loud, classic rock when I was growing up. I was a kid, what did I know?

And Nash? Nash was not into hard rock played by white people when he was a kid. He grew up with an older brother who was totally into soul and funk. Hell, when they were kids, they were headin' out to buy, like, the new Parliament, Bootsy or Brothers Johnson single while I was still picking-up classic hard rock albums.

Nash was digging James Brown when he was twelve! God! I wish I'd known about that kind of music when I was twelve. Back when I first met Nash, he was just starting to get into rock, classic rock. But, it's gotta be that blending of our early influences and tastes."

Exit The Dragon sounds like a more cohesive piece of work as opposed to Saturation, which came across sort of like a collection of really good singles.

"That's what we thought when we made it. We didn't plan it that way, but, Saturation somehow ended up being this thing that was all, technically, fairly different sounding singles put together. We'd been waiting to do that sort of an album . . . a loud, polished-sounding collection; and with Geffen stepping into the mix, we finally had the time, as well as the resources, to make that kind of sound.

The whole thing about Saturation, and a lot of the great pop music I like, is that it's built on a certain amount of the same artifice we were into exploiting for the album. We didn't realize we were doing it until we were actually doing it - and then we just sort of kept going, taking it to the logical extreme."

Was there a pressure, real or imaginary, on the band after the huge success of Saturation and "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon?"

"When we went to record Exit The Dragon, we sort of said, 'Well, we've got this, this Saturation thing hanging over our heads.' It was like, 'God!, we've heard the album a million times, now we're in the studio, we have songs, we don't know what they're gonna become in the studio what are we gonna do?"'The new album wound up being sort of a statement, you know, it's us saying, 'This is what we like.'

Exit The Dragon could've sounded different. It could've easily become Saturation II. The difference is a matter of taste with the band as far as production and, uh finesse goes. Most of the tracks on the record came down to us deciding, 'Well, this is a first take, but everything else we've recorded, or could record, wouldn't sound as all the other takes just don't sound as real.' We went with lots of first takes.

With Exit, we went off in a slightly different direction. We've already got people coming up and asking us, 'Well gosh, Saturation was really great, why didn't you make the new album sound like that? Why didn't you just do it again?' Uh, sorry folks, we already did that and it's time for something else now."

Are you running into that a lot? People who just don't want you to grow beyond "Sister Havana?"

"There are quite a few people who're confused and that's fine. Some people need safety and certainty in their music - no surprises. There's also quite a few bands who seem to feel that their mission in music is to find a perfect sound and stay with it. That's such an '80s concept. It's what 'The Boss' (Bruce Springsteen) did, 'ya know. 'If I don't become more of THE BOSS and sell more records this time out - then I'm a failure.' It's what, I think, Michael Jackson thinks to himself, "If only I could be MORE Michael " You wind up limiting yourself. The thing is to not be what you just did."

How did Urge get the Mayor of Conshohocken, PA (The Butcher Brothers' studio is located in the small Philadelphia suburb) to help out on backing vocals for "Jaywalkin'."

"That was fun! (laughs) The town is a little village that's been swallowed up by Philadelphia and there's absolutely nothing to do there. We would go to the bar next door to the studio every night everybody thought we were just these complete freaks at first, although they did seem to warm up to us after awhile.

We were in there getting loose one night towards the end of recording the album and there was this grey-haired, burly, 50-ish looking guy drunk as shit! Anyway, this guy was sloshed - everyone was doing shots. It's really a crazy, middle-of-nowhere type place people party there. Anyway, we all got to talking with this guy who introduced himself to us as the mayor and slurred a thanks to the Butcher Brothers (Phil and Joe Nicolo) for moving their studio into his town.
We invited him up to the studio for a tour. While we were there, we asked this guy if he wanted to take a crack at some backing vocals. We were, luckily enough, videotaping the whole thing because this guy was just fuckin' blasted out of his mind! He sang on the track and just as he finished, he collapsed! He just fell over backwards on his ass! (laughs) We had to haul him out of there and drag him home."

It's impossible to picture the three of you as anything but musicians. Ed Roeser as an accountant? Nash Kato as a pharmacist? Have any of you ever held-down straight jobs?

"(laughing) Well, things never really went beyond the service industry for the members of Urge Overkill, as is the case for most musicians or would-be musicians. A few years ago Nash was brewin' up some mean coffee, I did one-hour photos and Blackie was serving-up some of Chicago's finest deep-dish - it didn't get much beyond that. Whatever it took, at the time, to keep the band on the road and alive back in the days when we were playing this shit and, like, nobody cared."

Did the three of you somehow know that you were destined to become stars when you started Urge Overkill?

"It was all, actually, kind of a little tweak a cynical joke. We started acting like stars because we were absolutely positive that we never would be, (laughs) nor did we want to be, stars That whole attitude has sort of carried-over into what we do in the sense that we now just sort of run with it. We always knew that we wanted to go out there and be sort of extreme, but subtle at the same time."

What sort of reaction did Urge Overkill get from audiences when you started out?

"We did it for pure fun and entertainment - assuming that maybe five people would get what we were trying to do. And that's about how many did get it.

We were into wearing velvet suits back then. We were dressing lounge, but playing this horrendous proto-grunge, way noisier than anything you could ever imagine! The songs were just good excuses to crank it up and go. I'm not sure what we were thinking! (laughs) It was fun, 'tho, and nobody else was doing it. Maybe it was a pathological thing."

The story is that the band was ready to call it quits a few years ago.

"We actually were! It got to the point where we didn't really see a future for what we were doing. Our music was never really designed so you could make a living off of it and I guess we started to feel that, 'This (music) is what we want to do and it's supposed to be fun; but, for us to try to sustain it we have to continually stay out on the road.' It got to the point that, for us to be Urge Overkill and have a life simply became incompatible.

It was around the time of The Supersonic Storybook album (1990-1991) and we definitely thought that we had taken it as far as we could go."

What convinced you to continue?

"For whatever reason, all of a sudden, there were other bands like us and people actually listening to them! Maybe it was Nirvana, probably. Whatever, it happened. We saw the whole music industry as a hopeless joke and now, maybe, there was some hope. A ray of light. We thought, 'Well, maybe we should keep going.'

I think it was especially important that Sonic Youth, for instance, went off to Geffen Records and made a record that sounded you knew that it was them and that they had produced it themselves. It was clear that they were doing what they wanted to do and the record was actually getting into the stores.

Up until that point, we didn't trust that any major label would let us do what we wanted to do. And, certainly, none of the bands we liked were on a major label, except for Hüsker Dü and look at what happened to them. I can't even begin to tell you how paranoid we were!"

How do you feel about the state of things today?

"Things are starting to sound the same again, but that's nothing new in pop music. Different genres will find their own center in terms of what sells in the '90s and that's what everyone, in turn, will do. Unfortunately, that's what most people want from their music. It's the same thing they want from their movies. Something familiar something safe. I was under the illusion, once, that things were going to be different, somehow, 'ya know.

I grew up listening to records that had a sort of poetic sense to them. It's not really something you can talk about or pin down, it's just there and it works. We've always tried to live with, and up to, that mythology. That might sound really lame. (laughs) But, it's true. If you grow up listening to great music, it shapes your ideas about making music. Exit The Dragon is our pale attempt at making a great record."

-- AL MUZER