[Q&A] Urge Overkill's Nash and Eddie on grunge, medallions, irony, and making one's dark heroin album
One hears plenty of information about bands that make it to the big-time; somehow though, information becomes scarcer about what happens when they topple over the precipice about out of the public eye. In the early-to-mid-90s, the average rock music fan heard plenty about Illinois rock kings URGE OVERKILL, what with their speedy ascendancy from Big Black-acquainted noise rockers to major label Buzz Clip fodder. And then, after getting a left-field chart topping hit from a song in a movie, they released one more record in 1995 and then promptly fell off the face of the earth.
Well, sort of: post-implosion, guitarist/vocalist Eddie "King" Roeser tried out a number of solo avenues, including a two-piece line-up with drummer Jim Kimball named L.I.M.E. Guitarist/vocalist Nash Kato continued on with the Urge name for a year or so with erstwhile drummer Johnny "Blackie Onassis" Rowan (much to the consternation of Roeser, who threatened legal action at one point)-- that fizzled, although Kato did put out a solo record in 2000 that sounded like at least half of Urge. And yet, the mojo was missing: the fans knew it, Nash and Eddie knew it. They eventually buried the hatchet, and slowly began working on their don't-call-it-a-comeback, resulting in this year's bitchin' new long-player, Rock & Roll Submarine. So all's well that ends well, right?
We caught up with Nash and Eddie to go over the whole Urge Saga; you can read the feature from this week's Phoenix, and you can also check out the reunited group next Saturday, July 9th at TT The Bear's in Central Sq, Cambridge. But if all that isn't enough, here's the transcript of the lengthy convo I had with these two-- a great talk where Nash and Eddie were pretty forthcoming about the dark side of their flirtation with big-time rock and roll fame...
When you guys were working on Rock & Roll Submarine, were you going for a specifically rough sound?
Eddie: You know, I guess when we were on the Geffen label, it was our dream to one day be able to kind of really get down to business with production and do, you know, our Steely Dan/Aja stuff, and really trick out the production. And that really takes time and a budget, or home studio wizardry, and we’re not, you know, recording Urge Overkill in a bedroom or anything. So it was more a matter of necessity, and trying to—since we really did have a band that was really firing on all cylinders on our own, I think we could have tweaked out the production. But a song like “Effigy” we learned it about three days, and these days the danger is because you have so many options, but for us to do it this way just felt right. We didn’t plan it out that much but it just came out, and we were all about capturing the joy of a heavy rock song, it’s very straightforward. We stopped when things started to sound good and we had spent enough time compiling the songs that when we got something that sounded good, we just moved on to the next one. It wasn’t conscious, like “This is gonna be in your face” or anything like that. The next album may skew towards something with more flash or panache, but for us, that stuff can sometimes get in the way, especially when you have something essential to get across. I mean, it wasn’t like “we’re gonna melt everyone’s face”, that’s more what we came up with.
Were these songs that you’d been working on for a long time? I know that you had had a few attempts to follow up Exit The Dragon.
Eddie: It’s safe to say that some of them had been kicking around for a while until they got stuck, so they had been left unfinished. We were progressing toward writing the greatest rock song ever—and after that hadn’t happened for five years, we became to the boy who cried wolf! So we went back to stuff that we had recorded and were able to use some of that stuff. You always think that the next song you write is gonna blow the roof off, and that’s kind of a fantasy that we thought we were getting caught up in.
Was it a challenge, after Urge’s dissolution in the 90s, to figure out how to bring Urge back—and did you feel a lot of pressure on this record because of that?
Nash: Yeah—there’s always the pressure that comes with the C word—comeback. We weren’t really thinking along those lines, but the media took it that way, certainly. And technically, I suppose it is a comeback, but we knew that there’d be a danger to giving in to the pressures of a comeback as opposed to just approaching it as the next record.
Eddie: I think another thing is our sort-of self-imposed standards: we’ve always had this progression of these records that we think capture something cool, and we’re really proud of everything we’ve put out. And one of the reasons that we fizzled out was that the fear that in our mental and in the state of our friendship and songwriting partnership, we—that’s one of the reasons that we didn’t continue was that we didn’t want that to happen back in ’96.
Nash: Yeah, that’s true.
Eddie: We still, in a way, regret not just powering through. After doing this, I trust more that even if it’s a matter of time, we’re going to catch ourselves and not do something unworthy of the name. But to go through it even if you have to go to the hospital too many times to get it done—that was another concern back then!
After Exit The Dragon—to my ears, that record seemed like such a natural progression from Saturation, it was bigger, more experimental, etc—but music was changing really fast back then in ’95, ’96, and I’m curious if you felt that at the time?
Eddie: Well, there were a lot of things that conspired against that record, but we felt it was an artistic reflection of where we really were in this kind of dark cavernous sense of expectations. We were built up by Geffen, they were the #1 fans of the band. And I know that they tell everyone that they’re gonna be huge, but everyone down there really believed in the band. And when Saturation didn’t come through and take over the world, people were kind of dumbfounded, and Dragon is our kind of exploration of that time. Things changed within the band, our personal life—I don’t really recall what was happening in music in the culture or anything, but even just at Geffen, you had Kurt Cobain and all, and we had someone in the band who was capable of doing the same thing—and that really hurt us too.
Do you listen back to Dragon and think “Wow, this is really dark?” Is it a dark record to you?
Eddie: For me, yeah—it can be very painful to listen to. We spent a good amount of time on it and the emotions are still there. And maybe that’s something that kept us from just remembering how un-fun it can be to be sort of a famous rock band and succeeding. And that doesn’t make everything that’s fucked up go away, it’s just a tragic realization. What it took to do that record, just the memory of that—I made a good-hearted attempt to leave the music industry afterward, but that didn’t work either!
Nash: Well, the crazy thing about recordings, they’re like finding an old snapshot in a box and it’s a time capsule of everything you were thinking and feeling, locked into those grooves for time immemorial. You know, I can put that record on some day and think “I guess I wasn’t so bummed out, this is a kind of a happy tune.” It was a dark record, but I don’t think we intended it that way. It confounded the fans, the new legion of fans that we’d made with Saturation, I suppose. But I’m glad it’s there—the flip side of that coin is that you can’t fake that sort of thing, you don’t sit down and say “We’re gonna make our dark brooding, uh, heroin record.” You can’t help it. And a lot of our earlier recordings, when we had nothing and nothing to lose, they also encapsulating a very dark, lean period.
Eddie: And Saturation was so sunny; we were just on top of the world, we had lucked into these great producers, things were sounding great, and it was this positive summertime celebration of rock. Not introspective. And then two years later, you get the exact opposite. I don’t blame anybody for being a bit taken aback. But then, we weren’t gonna try to do Saturation II. Maybe we should have made a better attempt, I guess. But we’d never done that, we’d never said “Ok, we’ve got to focus on a sound or no one’s gonna understand us.” We never knew where it was gonna go, it was this monster that led itself forward, and that’s just the way the chips fell. And yeah, I guess Dragon could be jarring to someone who wanted to put on a rock record and drive down a freeway in the summertime. For Exit The Dragon, you want to be driving at night!
When you came out with Saturation and singles like “Sister Havana”, a lot of people read it as being ironic. Of course, this was the early 90s, when people had trouble taking anything in a non-ironic manner—but I’m curious what your thoughts are on quote-unquote irony in 90s rock culture.
Eddie: I think what with grunge being taken at face value, the videos with people down in the fires of hell and all that, and that’s taken as serious feel my pain stuff. Like Chris Cornell, he’s obviously this some guy who looks good in biking shorts and has his shit together, but kids are thinking that this is serious. And I think what we did in terms of having some distance from our music, that seemed like a more normal thing a few years after Saturation. It became accepted as the norm, a few years later. And we were obviously not joking, but there certainly was a meta element to it that wasn’t what grunge was about.
I guess that’s from the fact that you guys wore suits, and had a fan club, and wore medallions. Nowadays, not that big a deal, but for some reason in 1992, these things were downright strange.
Eddie: That’s right. It’s weird to think that, at the time, that was strange, it’s really true. And maybe we were asking too much, at the time. We were out there saying, sort of not joking, “We are cool, this is what’s cool.” And a little while later, a band like Weezer would go up there and go “We’re not cool, we’re dorks just like you.” And everyone bought that. We wanted to say “We’re misfits.” I mean, I’m sure we’re far more dysfunctional than what’s his name, Cuomo? I mean, he’s like a little A student, but he’s like “Oh, I’m so—“
Nash: “I’m a miserable dork.”
Eddie: Yeah. “Don’t hurt my feelings.” It was a weird thing, they had a sort of irony too, but in kind of a less threatening way, or something like that.
That’s an interesting way to put it—I’m sure most people think that all irony is the same, but I would definitely say that with you guys, it was coming from a different place. With Urge, was that whole aesthetic intentional, did you guys meet up and figure it all out and plot it? Like when you would come out in suits that would spell out “U.R.G.E.”, stuff like that.
Eddie: Well, it wasn’t on the level of Devo, or something like that, where it’s obviously constructed. But we were certainly playing around with that and thought that that was another medium to artistically utilize. But I dunno, it was kind of scarily getting close to blurring the line, we were actually driving around being these guys, where it was an outrageous joke before. And then people who knew us when got pissed off, people would be like “Oh, those are just the guys from the Rainbow and now they’re on MTV,” we got some shit for that, especially in our hometown.
Nash: It got away from us, certainly. To us it was a gag to pass the time and enjoy the ride, but the media, the music press, really grabbed the ball and ran with it. To the point where we were expected to be these martini-swigging playboys. It was fun, but once it became an occupation, that was diametrically opposed to the original aim. At every turn, we were expected to assume these characters, and by that point we were kind of over it.
Eddie: There are so many weird layers to this because Nash and I, we’re kind of, I like to think, fairly humble Midwestern guys. We didn’t feel like we had the right to go up there and say “Feel my pain, I’m an intense dude.” We’re all too happy to play the jester, but for some reason you can’t do that and have your music taken seriously. Everyone wants their music taken seriously, to a point, but not to the point where it’s a bunch of morose bullshit! I have to say, though, that I wouldn’t change anything for the world. I mean, we had a great time, the laughs were all around, during the whole time of Exit The Dragon, even. And we saw a lot of miserable rock bands around us—I mean, Nirvana sure weren’t having that much fun, you know what I’m saying? And isn’t this supposed to be your dream coming true?
Nash: Yeah—be careful what you wish for.
How did you guys hook up with the Butcher Bros.? They did such a great job on Saturation and Dragon, and it’s such an odd pairing that worked so well.
Eddie: I’ve gotta say that our A&R guy really did help with that; he’d had a lot of conversations with Nash about our music. Nash grew up with lots of soul music and lots of different types of non-rock music, and he thought that the Butcher Brothers were old timers that could get us in an environment that was a little bit less… white, you know? And that we were schooled enough to use some of those elements and not fuck it up. They were like a hip hop factory over there, but they knew every detail about every Beatles song ever recorded. We drove up there, we barely had a song that we wrote in the van, and it was a very straightforward tune that ended up on Saturation. It had no gimmicks or anything—it’s called “Heaven 90210”. And they had all the stuff that you’d want to make a simple song sound good, they had this Neve board, etc. And we drove up there, had a casual weekend, cut “Heaven 90210”, and it sounded great, and we thought “These were the guys.” I mean, the last thing they had done was some guys with their pants on backwards, but they were a generation older than us and were gonna know what we wanted.
Nash: When we listened to the playback on that tune, there wasn’t a word spoken. We just all knew it was gonna work, it was an odd pairing that just might work!
Nash, was it important for you to infuse Urge’s music with funk elements? It was definitely there before Saturation, especially with songs like “Bionic Revolution”, and it definitely made you guys stand out.
Nash: It was a pretty unconscious effort, that was my schooling. I cut my teeth on P-Funk, James Brown, all that, it was all I knew. I had to take a crash course on rock music, Rock 101! When I got into punk rock, that’s what hooked me in the first place, but I had to kind of work my way backwards through this new medium. Ed was well-versed in rock and I was well-versed in funk, and as we wrote, we met in the middle somewhere. I kind of learned as I went with rock, it was a hands-on thing.
Eddie: When Nash was 18, classic rock was a new medium and he didn’t really like it. But we’ve always tried to fit all these things together, and it’s tricky sometimes to fit in a funk influence, but we did it. I mean, where do you think the name of the band comes from?
When you talk about the punk influence, was that more the attitude than the sound? I ask because earlier you talked about having kind of a joking attitude.
Eddie: I think that that is where our punk sensibility shows, less than—I mean, let’s face it, punk music isn’t all that interesting, it’s all that other stuff about it.
Nash: It’s the attitude, the attitude.
How did you guys meet in the first place, how did Urge come about?
Nash: Ed and I met in college, we both came from Minnesota but we didn’t know each other then. We met in school in Evanston. My roommate at the time was Lyle Preslar, from Minor Threat, and that’s how I got hooked. I mean, I fought it, but I was 18, pissed-off, out-of-control, and it spoke to me. And all of the sudden, school took a back seat for me and that was all I wanted to do. My poor parents—it was there alma mater as well, they met there, and I didn’t know how I was going to explain to them that this is what I’d rather do with my life. And Ed came into my life a year later and he was in the same boat. I mean, he looked around, and it was a very conservative school at the time, young Reaganites in training, and it was our mutual sense of isolation and rage, if you will, that helped us find each other.
Eddie: The one element that brought us together was that Nash had a band and I saw them play their last show, and that was opening with Big Black. And that was an early proto-Urge Overkill with Big Black, and this was back when the school would throw these bashes with free beer, and that wasn’t enough to get the student body to understand Big Black. By the time that show was over, there were only a few people left, and I thought “Finally, I found some people that I can at least have a discussion with.” And I wasn’t gonna play with Steve [laughs] but Nash was a little more my speed.
I’m curious how you guys morphed your sound from the primitive noise of your early records to the panoply of influences of Supersonic Storybook.
Eddie: I think that the noise rock thing came from being just plain bad at playing, and you can get away with that. At the time, that was the going musical style, and it just wasn’t really going to fill any kind of artistic—I mean, the Stooges had already done their records, we had to find a pastiche of our own. I mean, Steve had a sound, and we were aware that we were not going to be able to find a sound so I guess we decided that we were gonna have a look because our sound was going to be all over the place! But the actual cacophony of our first EP, there is a logic to it. There’s some Gang Of Four stuff in there, there are all these elements, it’s just that you can’t hear it that well. We sort of never stumbled on that signature sound, and that has kept it interesting for us but it’s been a problem for us too.
Nash: That whole Chicago industrial sound was peaking in the 80s, and with the circle we fell into, people found a hard time pounding our square peg into a round hole.
Eddie: At the same time, the Touch and Go world worked for us, there was humor there, some very poorly adjusted people, and we fit. Corey [Rusk, T&G founder] got a kick out of us, and so did Steve. They knew that we weren’t gonna retain some kind of punk rock stance, and I think that was refreshing to them too. But Steve’s thing was “Why would you ever leave Touch and Go?” We wanted to try and sell some more records, and Steve would say to us “Well, you guys will never sell records, that’s delusional.”
Nash: Our first single for Corey, we hand him a Jimmy Webb cover—that should have been a red flag!
But you guys kind of do have a signature sound—when I listen to Rock & Roll Submarine, it sounds like Urge Overkill. It might have taken a while to figure it out, but that sound does exist, right?
Eddie: We had a lot of ideas that didn’t make this one, and part of why they didn’t is that we wanted to get something that would stick together as an Urge Overkill record. Thinking about it, though, I mean, people say “It sounds like you guys” and in hindsight it makes sense, and for us that’s a success. We weren’t interested in reinventing our sound, we just wanted to find it again. It’s pretty dangerous business, trying to come back, and for so many of them, it would maybe have been better if they didn’t. So we were careful, I guess.
During the period when Urge wasn’t doing stuff, you were still doing stuff: Eddie, you had a few projects, like L.I.M.E. with Jim Kimball, and Nash, you did a solo record and all. At the time, were you thinking that you’d do Urge again, or had you resigned yourself to Urge being over?
Eddie: At that time, I was pretty sure that there wasn’t gonna be any more Urge. I didn’t want to have a soap opera, I just wanted to play music without insane drama every day. And that’s not always possible, I had to learn the hard way. And I was like “Shit, man, I was in a great band, it’s probably not going to happen twice, what can I do?” And then it took a number of years—it’s weird, at one point it was categorically impossible to play with this other person, and then that changed.
Nash: I think it was just “Game over”. We had to get away from it, go our own directions. We needed a break, not just from the band but from the music business and everything that goes with it. Who knows what would have happened if we’d just manned up and toughed through it, it could have been disastrous, one of us could not be here talking to you. We found out at the right time, and probably for the right reasons. In general, I don’t really forecast the future too far, so I never really thought about it. I got some pressure from fans over the years, “When are you guys gonna get the band back together”, so the demand was still there, and I never ruled it out. I tried, I did a solo project, but it was bittersweet. It was great to be playing but it wasn’t the same. We have this ying yang thing, when we play guitars together it sounds like Urge and we can’t do it by ourselves.
Eddie: I was pretty bummed in later years for the final chapter of Urge to end with such a whimper. That was always gonna bug me. It had no finality and it was so—that’s no way to go out.
I think it’s great that with this new record, you have put a new stamp on that legacy—and while so many bands reform, play the old stuff, or nowadays bands are forced to play the old album all in a row, that sort of thing. It’s awesome that you guys have this great new record, it’s more powerful than just reuniting without it.
Eddie: We got those offers too, “Play Saturation in it’s entirely” and we’re like “Why would we want to do that?”
Nash: I don’t think either of us would want to hop on the reunion circuit. Every band these days, it’s like you open the papers and it’s like “Oh look honey, Nazareth is in town.” If we had done that whole thing, it wouldn’t have been satisfying.
Eddie: The best thing about the way it is now is that it isn’t a grind. And we’re just ready to play.