Urge Overkill was in overdrive in the mid-nineties. But just when they were about to hit serious music heights the Chicago band imploded. Now they’re back. So how did it happen, and what’s different the second time round? For WBEZ, Althea Legaspi has the story of their return.
“To have every rock cliché in the book befall the band, you know I mean it’s always money, ego, drugs, what have you, they’re all clichés. Really, it’s in the job description – you just don’t read that fine print when you sign up,” says Urge Overkill’s Nash Kato. What the band unwittingly signed up for in the early-‘90s was the crest of a Chicago music wave. In 1993 they released their major label debut, Saturation. That album, along with breakout albums by Liz Phair and Smashing Pumpkins, put Chicago on the burgeoning alternative rock map. Shortly beforehand, Urge Overkill was opening for Nirvana. Their tongue-in-cheek rock star pomp, penchant for wearing flamboyant suits, and medallions irked some people. “God knows when we picked up guitars the idea of us doing it as careers was a ridiculous dream and it was, we sort of made a joke of it,” explains Roeser. “That was our joke, that we were gonna make it big. It wasn’t really a realistic aim.”
But they took off. Their song, “Sister Havana,” made the radio waves, and their cover of the Neil Diamond song “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon” became a classic off the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. Legend has it Tarantino found it in a cut-out bin while in Amsterdam. Kato says it was a surprise because it’s a song from their first EP. “I think our reaction at the time, wasn’t it, ‘Are you sure that he wants our version? He must mean Neil’s version?’ [They said] ‘No, no. He’s quite sure he wants your, you know, $5 version.’”
With the added name recognition, their next album Exit the Dragon, should have been a hit. But by industry standards, the album bombed. “Saturation was sort of consciously and almost kind of tongue and cheek was a commercial sound, it was kind of slick and sunny,” says Roeser. “And by the time we were recording our next record we were not getting a long very well and that’s reflected in the grooves. And it’s a sort of disjointed dark record.”
Still, the guys say Geffen offered to put out one more record. But the group was suffering from ego and drug issues and by then the band’s relationship was beyond repair. “Towards the end we could not literally, literally we could not be in the same room,” explains Kato. “Dragon was recorded in two separate studios, under one roof, you know that’s how, that’s how ugly the divorce had gotten.”
Kato and Roeser parted ways. And the once close friends didn’t speak for 6 years. But in 2003, a friend urged them to reunite. With a new lineup that includes Bonn Quast and Hadji Hodgkiss, Urge Overkill played a handful of dates in 2004. But the band says they soon found their old chemistry. “Sometimes we experiment with putting different parts together and sometimes the most unlikely combinations end up being the most interesting songs,” adds Roeser. “Like Nash will have a part, I’ll have a part and we think they’re completely different songs, but we put them together and something else happens that’s more interesting than one person’s idea of the song would have been.”
They recorded more than 30 songs and toured. But 7 years passed, and they had yet to put out any new material. It once again took another friend to get Urge Overkill to finally release the album Rock & Roll Submarine. Roeser says what resulted is true to their origins. And ironically, Kato says it’s new members Quast and Hodgkiss who reminded them of their sound. “I can’t imagine having pulled this one off without their input on what is Urge and what’s not.”
It’s taken many many years and some positive outside forces, but they feel they’re the wiser for that. “We were out of our collective tree back then and I mean, it’s great we got a couple great records out of that experience, but I can’t imagine reentering that dragon so to speak,” adds Kato. “Certainly our focus is more clear and deliberate. But what hasn’t changed is that we always, from day one we always made music for ourselves, we made music that we wanted to hear that we didn’t feel was out there and the fact that anyone else thinks or digs it as much as you do is, you know, of course gravy. We’re still making music we want to hear and we’re very fortunate and never take it for granted that other people concur.”
And for all the time it took to literally get Urge Overkill back together, Roeser believes the worst is behind them. “That whole process of putting together our first recording after years off is your walking on egg shells, what do we sound like now, or can I still do this? But we really went through two or three records worth of doing that already and now we look back at this material that a lot of it is coming along really well,” explains Roeser. “I’d be pretty surprised if we didn’t put a record out really soon. This was the hard one and the really difficult work is over. We’re confident that we’re back in form and we haven’t changed too much and we like that.”
The record release show for Urge Overkill’s Rock and Roll Submarine is on Friday, May 20, at Bottom Lounge on Lake St.
SONGS FEATURED IN THE STORY:
“Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon”
“Rock & Roll Submarine”