Urge Overkill,
The TVD Interview

Formed 36 years ago in Chicago, Urge Overkill was an edgy garage outfit that aligned with a number of notable producers from Steve Albini and Butch Vig to Kramer and the Butcher Brothers. Running adjacent to the grunge boom—opening for Nirvana’s Nevermind tour and then Pearl Jam’s Vs. tour—they found their own moment with a delicious cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” buoyed by prime placement in Quentin Tarantino’s enduring 1994 Pulp Fiction.

Nash Kato and Eddie “King” Roeser led the band (with a succession of drummers so numerous it gave Spinal Tap a run for its money) but split at the heights of their popularity only to reunite in the new century. Their strong 2011 comeback Rock & Roll Submarine has led to their new one, Oui, out this week on Omnivore Records with its own smart cover, “Freedom” by Wham! We spoke to Nash and King over a frozen party line recently.

Why did it take ten years to make your new album?

King: You know, that’s a good question and an obvious question. We are benefitting from it not coming out in the last three years. The genesis of this record really is, since our reformation as a band that kind of self-destructed in the mid ’90s—at our peak I may add; it was a very conscious self-destruction—we cautiously got together for a show for our friends and co-conspirators

This Urge reformation thing happened in stages. We really had a falling out where time healed all wounds. We couldn’t go anywhere in Chicago without people quizzing us why on Earth we had stopped being a band. And enough time had gone by where we ourselves forgot why on earth we stopped being a band.

At the risk of piling on, why did you?

King: Whatever salient concerns of the moment really, to be brutally honest, were life or death concerns. There were drug issues. And two thirds of us felt that continuing meant most likely somebody was going to die. And people were dying at a rapid rate around us. We felt like the magic had turned into bad juju for the band, and expectations were raised beyond what we had gotten into the band. The process of making music together became something that was out of our control. We didn’t really foresee what was going to happen. Our slice of territory musically became grunge, which became this in-demand thing. It wasn’t really what we signed up for.

I mean, with hindsight being 20/20, I think Nash and I could have worked things out, and been happily employed at a major label through the late ’90s into the early 2000s, but such was not to be. And I think largely we escaped putting out what both of us agree would have been either a terrible record or a record that didn’t have our hearts in it. If we were going to do a record at that point, it really would have been a strictly commercial enterprise. And that’s not what we were in it for.

You know frankly, looking back at it now, the reason Kurt Cobain is dead is that everybody wanted the cow to produce more milk. The guy tried to kill himself. What more message do you need to put out there that it’s time to stop. This tremendous machinery was, like, “You guys have to strike while the iron’s hot.” It was, I think, irresponsible of his management to not see that clearly the warning lights were on. And I think we wisely decided to hang up our cleats, as it were.

Another thing we realized pretty quickly is that when you’re at the height of your career, you’re like, “Well, this game can’t be that tough. We all thought we’d be able to have these illustrious solo careers easily. But
the magic of a rock band is not so easily cooked up.

So that was something that took us an initial five years after we broke up the band, to realize: Yeah, it’s not that easy to find people that you’re really simpatico with, unless you’re really going to be really strictly a solo project—and that is kind of boring. But you have to go through that, you really have to experience that to really know what you missed; to have a gang of compadres.

I think with [drummer] Blackie [Onassis] being out of picture—he really was a third wheel. We had done a couple of records, Nash and myself, as the principals and we thought we had found our forever drummer, and that turned out not to be the case. But maybe that’s a whole other book and chapter.

But going back to your question of what took forever, is really we did work for quite a while on this first comeback record, if you want to call it that, Rock & Roll Submarine, and we ended up having a lot more stuff laying around than we thought and a lot more material that we thought not worth pursuing.

But since that record came out and we did some touring, we went back and we re-listened, and took up a lot. I’d say about half of the ideas on the latest record are from similar sessions that produced Rock & Roll Submarine, which also had taken years to compile. So I guess a thorough cleaning out of the vaults is what got us going on this.

And when you don’t really have a label, and you don’t have anybody breathing down your neck, we tend to get to be pretty perfectionist about these things. And it was just kind of a matter of tinkering with the songs. I think we finally got the platter to sound like a document that sort of makes sense, as disparate and eclectic as the Urge sound is, it did take a while to coax it into what would make sense as a release. And if that takes 10 years, it takes 10 years, you know. I wish it didn’t, but at least I think the timing seems to be treating us well. and we’re getting some good attention, and I frankly couldn’t ask for more.

I guess the faithful are thrilled that this is coming out. And I think it took us a while to rekindle our desire to hear these songs as well. When you’re in your bubble as a band, it’s not like we’re handing out CDs and saying, “What do you think about this?” You kind of have to decide all of this on your own. And it took a while for us to figure out how to present this to the world. And so I guess that process is complete. So I guess that’s the answer to your question one, sorry about that.

Have you guys considered yourself a duo since before the Submarine album?

King: Yeah, I’d have to say it’s a partnership.

Nash: We had a few good lineups when we reconvened. We did a lot of touring. We had a pretty solid live act. Our old drummer appears on this album, on outtakes or things that got shelved for a while. But a great drummer. So yeah, there’s a lot of bleed between several lineups.

King: Yeah, we certainly worked closely enough with our live partners that felt that, in the genesis of some of this sea of songs, definitely felt like they were brewed up by a rock band. It’s just that some of those guys are no longer with us. We’re grateful for the contributions, but that’s the way things go.

Are you planning to go out and play live, and if you do, who will be in the band then?

King: Well, our latest stagemates are a wonderful pair of brothers from Rockford, IL, home of Cheap Trick, and really long time pals, Nate and Adam Arling—the Arling boys. And anyone who has seen us after Rock & Roll Submarine, those were the guys who played with us at Wrigley Field. Foo Fighters had a big blowout there with us and Cheap Trick [in August, 2015]. Those were the guys who were on stage with us. And yeah, we’ve had a pretty solid lineup once we figure out what’s going to happen. Once this record is received, we’ll see what’s out there. That’s the plan.

You guys still hold the mantle for Chicago rock. Is that still a thing?

King: We would like to think of that. And if you don’t know, it definitely is true that our relationship with Material Issue was very pivotal in the early years. Jim [Ellison] was a very enthusiastic promoter of bands besides his own, and was a dear friend.

Nash: We started our bands at the same time, so they were very much part of our peer group at the time.

Would you characterize it as a distinctive sound?

King: I think things have really atomized in such a way that you can hear every imaginable thing in Chicago. Even in our day, you had the Flying Luttenbachers, Tortoise, anything under the sun. You couldn’t say there was a Chicago sound; maybe a brethren. But it was never one of those love-in type scenes. Everyone had a perhaps very suspicious view of others. Except, I gotta say, Material Issue felt like teammates. I can’t think of a lot of other bands where we can say, oh those are our tourmates. We have had cordial relationships with everybody from the punks—it was Steve Albini who got us started on this road, as most bands have had some kind of falling out with Steve, but he did hone his studio engineering chops. We were somewhat of a lab experiment in his career.

As you were for Butch Vig, too, I would imagine.

King: That’s very true. And I would hasten to say that we’ve definitely learned as much from Butch Vig as much as he took up tips form Urge—always ready to, even if we only had five days to make a record, he was never someone to say no, you can’t do that. He did help us pursue some of our more bizarre ideas. I’ll always be thankful for that.

And he’s a Wisconsin guy, too, He’s from Spooner, Wisconsin—so he has a similar hail-from-the-backwoods as Nash and myself.

Nash: And he was $35 an hour. I don’t know why I remember that, but it was $35.

You’re getting some attention for this cover of Wham’s “Freedom” on the new album. How did that come about?

King: Well, we wouldn’t have put it first if it didn’t demand a place. We have a backstory. It’s not really something we cooked up as a statement. It’s more something we heard in the back of a cab, and we weren’t familiar with where it originated. We just kind of remembered hearing the song years ago and tracked it down.

I guess the genesis of it was we finally got together to record some new material and it was the first thing we did that came together. There’s a tale that Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” was written and recorded in 15 minutes, and this was the case with “Freedom.” It came very easily in one day. And it seemed to deserve a place of honor on the record.

Nash: And it’s always easier to break the ice in any new studio. You gotta start somewhere and it’s always a good icebreaker if you have a cover. I think [at Kramer’s studio] Noise New Jersey, we would start up with “Girl” because it was three chords. And that kind of settles you in and then you’re in a better place to pursue the original material.

King: The last thing we’re thinking when we’re recording that song is, “OK, this is the big one.” It was sort of like—after we had all these songs laying around, we’re like, “Hey this is damn catchy.”

Nash: That’s what led us to that tune. We’re not particularly fans of that genre of music—the early to mid ’80s pop music. But its catchiness was just undeniable. Why is it so goddamn catchy?

You guys seem to find a way to find these old songs and make them your own. What made you record the Neil Diamond song in the first place? Was it one you knew growing up?

King: It was an overall dearth of material. We needed material.

Nash: It was desperation. We were recording with Kramer of Bongwater. He had this glorious mansion in New Jersey, and they had this old-time reverb plate. Everything was going to digital, very fake sounding. He had moved into a place owned by Stevie Wonder. It was his home studio, and we had never been big reverb fans before, he was like, “Listen to this.”

King: The big, original plate reverb burned in the ground. And through the haze—he had industrial pot smoking capabilities—through the bong haze, we finished, like, four songs and we were “That’s all we have.”

I remember it well. These guys bought [Diamond’s] Velvet Gloves and Spit I think, it’s a Bang Recording that on the strength of the cover art. and this song was just so memorable, Someone started strumming it after we recorded the four songs that we had written for this thing, and that was enough to light up Kramer, who hates everything, By this point he’s absolutely bored of everything, but this fucking Diamond thing, this is your deal? And we were like, what the fuck are you talking about?

Yeah, he was like, ‘This is your hit!’ And we were: “Hit? We don’t have a hit. We’re a garage band from Chicago.”

So he hops up on the piano—and somebody brought a toy piano. That was the first thing that got us excited. And we did put some time into it—but not enough time to make it in tune, obviously. The rhythm is extremely janky.

Nash: Very squishy. There is something very scary and wrong about it. We hated it. It sounded like a demo. But in the context of the film it made perfect sense. But everything that was inherently wrong with it—it was very squishy; tempo-wise, tuning-wise. But in the context of that film, the context in which Tarantino used it, all of a sudden everything that was wrong with it was so right.

King: Right. Had we planned our career by the book, you want your own song to represent you. Especially internationally, it was crazy, some of the trouble we got into because of this song. We were asked to go all over the world, but we didn’t have to play; we just had to lip synch on TV shows. And that was an absolute psychological disaster for the band. I don’t know if we ever recovered from that.

Nash: It was first class all the way. The crowd was all teenage girls. We did not not see that one coming at all.

Did that lead to the crisis in the band?

King: It certainly didn’t help, I’ll say that.

Nash: That said, it certainly didn’t hurt. You turn back the clock and some of our best times were in these far flung locations. To this day, I don’t know if I’d be a big fan of paella, but once you’ve had the best, you’ve had the best.

And you’ve gotten a big European audience out of this too, right?

Nash: That’s one of the things that would not have been possible. We’ve done some festival trips and things like that that I think are directly related to this song. It’s more of a fixture in international top 40 than in the States. So yeah, it was kind of a fortunate accident of being in the right place.

We were flown out to screen the movie, and I remember thinking this is a mind blowing movie, but nobody had the idea that it was going to be some kind of international sensation. It wasn’t obvious it was going to be like a Reservoir Dogs type of thing. Which we were all for. But I don’t know if somebody knew, or if that was the plan for Pulp Fiction, but we were able to screen the movie before anyone saw it. I think those memories are all mixed up with our time in the spotlight. And it’s kind of a blur from there.

After its success, were you sought after by filmmakers or Tarantino himself to contribute, or collaborate?

King: When they show it on cable they cut some of it out, but we did do the star spangled banner on Kingpin. And there’s an original cut of the movie where there’s us doing the New Orleans blues version to kick off this international bowling tournament. That’s the one thing I can think of that came directly from that. And I believe we got to party with Bill Murray because of that.

Were the songs on the new album built from things you had around?

Nash: We always come in with working scripts supposedly, but we’ve always left that margin of chance and fortuity. We’ll get to our studio, drop our shit, get some sounds, and let the unfinished portion of any particular script conclude itself.

King: Right. We’re pretty confident after being in the game since the mid-’80s that something interesting is going to happen. It’s more crucial what you’re going to censor. Nash and myself, we’ve got some pretty good ideas—this is how the drum beat goes or whatever. Once Nash or myself has a basic A or B part, then that unexpected C part, or the part that really makes it Urge, will often be the result of the other person saying this makes no sense but do this here, and just sort of do that. In that way, the dynamic duo does bring that unexpected part that really shouldn’t make sense, and nobody would have suggested it, but once you’ve heard it a couple of times, it works. I guess that stuff happens in the studio pretty much.

Did you produce this one yourself?

King: Yeah, we did. We usually find competent engineers. But any production ideas in terms of what direction we want to go, even going back to the days of the Butcher Brothers, I think Urge would always safely consider itself a self-produced band. We never had a force behind us in a way that The Beatles did, maybe, or somebody understanding music theory, or someone saying, oh, put this Bach part in. We’ve always been the ones who have had those ideas—perhaps to our detriment. But I think in the production realm, the Butcher Brothers definitely bought an environment that was very fun and full of humor that we definitely thrived in for the recording and saturation. It was just a magical time.

I would say that producing, yes, they produced the environment in which that record was able to flower. The subsequent, I guess you could say, was a downer. They tried to help us with Exit the Dragon but it was a pretty dark period. I have to say I’m pretty happy with that production as well.

[With Steve], it was pretty much, we would pitch ideas, Steve doesn’t take credit as a producer on anything, but usually we’d come up with an idea that was most likely to annoy him and insist on putting that down. Like “Please make this sound like Steve Miller,” you know. He would say, “You guys are assholes.”

Nash: And he hated vocals for some reason. We always wanted louder vocals and he’d always have them buried in the mix. So every time he’d take a piss or turned his back, we’d literally go over and goose the vocal fader.

King: That’s why we went to Butch, because on the KIlldozer records, you can hear the fucking vocalist. It was like, fuck this, we’ll go to Madison. And I’m glad we did.

This one was recorded in rural Minnesota?

Nash: Yeah, it’s semi-rural. St. Joseph, it’s a little town right outside of St. Cloud. Very tiny. One main strip. And there was this studio there that the legendary Bobby Vee built; his sons run the show there. I don’t know, I think the King found it. I don’t know where we found it.

King: It’s about 25 minutes from where I grew up and my high school buddy still lives there. We headed back there and did some kicking things around at his farmhouse over the years.We went up there and these guys were Bobby Vee’s children—there were two brothers actively involved and they had an engineer. They found an old bank building that was two stories but was basically a square, tall structure, not unlike where Steve records now. It’s basically a huge box that they say mimics the size and shape of Abbey Road, the original Beatles studios.

Nash: With a control room upstairs and the huge room looking down.

King: So it’s a two story building where the floor is taken out. So it’s tall like a basketball gym. it’s an impressive place.

Nash: And the [isolation] booth was the original safe, a turn of the century vault with the original doors and everything. That was the iso booth. You go into the safe to record vocals!

King: I guess Brian Setzer had moved to Minneapolis, he had done a whole lot of sessions there. And it was available and it was somewhere where we could go and we knew we would be a million miles from anything. And it was deepest winter, you know.

Nash: I think we got a deal because it was over the Christmas holiday.

King: But we were free to go back there when we wanted to or when we needed to, and really spend as much time as we needed. They had all the tricks you need basically if you know what you’re doing. If you’ve got a room and a space and the knowhow. It’s good to be somewhere different from where you’re normally living, I think.

You guys seem to have found a way to work well together after all these years.

Nash: I know it’s like a cliche, but a band is very much like a marriage, we’ve been at it for 30-some years together, so, like any married couple that somehow survived 30-some years and kept going, after a while you don’t even have to communicate.

King: Right. I think the key element there is time. Being a fan of each other’s work, but also some time. And a good natured competition is what you’ll find in any songwriting duo.

Nash: I don’t know where it’s been written that if you’re actually in a band, you can’t be fans of that band. We were always Urge fans. And between the King and I, nothing was going to get the UO stamp of approval unless it sounded to us like Urge, one of our favorite bands.

King: We definitely are going to point to it if it doesn’t work. I think some of my favorite things have been ruthlessly shot down. That’s just how it works. You gotta be ready for another one. It’s gotta pass a totally arbitrary test.

Nash: We’ve been proud keepers of what passes for Urge Overkill and what doesn’t. We’ve always tried to maintain that level of excellence.

Has vinyl always been part of the Urge experience?

Nash: We’ve always been old school. Everything we ever recorded was meant to be pressed in plastic or vinyl. Even today when it all changed, analog to pro tools, then all of a sudden you were CDs and digital downloads. To this day, particularly this last record, call us sentimental old fluffs, but always when we launch any new venture in the studio, in our minds we’ve always been making a big 12-inch piece of plastic that has an A side and a B side. We all were weaned on that. There’s a magic to it.

We love that vinyl has enjoyed this renaissance in the last 10-15 years, but we never set out to make a CD or a digital download or anything like that. It’s always been an album. A 12-inch. You sit, you listen, you flip the jacket back and forth searching for more clues as to who this band is and what they’re about. It’s a total other listening experience. That’s always how we’ve approached every project: we’re making an album.

King: With the latest one, you don’t get to actually hear your work on vinyl until it’s done and it’s mastered. When we got the test pressings I was amazed at how much better the whole document made sense.

There’s a finalizing process when everything bleeds into everything else. And hearing the result in vinyl is what I was amazed to hear. When I heard the test pressing of this record, it made a lot more sense, and sounded less like a computer than I expected. I know there’s a difficulty getting enough vinyl pressed but I think with this record, it is going to be out relatively on time. And I would say if you can possibly get your hands on the vinyl, it would be the most authentic version of this recording that you can have.

But certainly all of our formative experiences were of the era. CDs came out after we had done our first records. It was a new, foreign thing when all of a sudden we had our music reduced to being on these compact discs and I quite frankly never got used to it. That’s one of the pluses of being the age that we are.

Urge Overkill’s Oui arrives in stores on February 11 via Omnivore Recordings.

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PHOTO: MIKE WHITE

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