When I listen to Urge Overkill, this is what I hear: A caustic landscape of scarred but somehow noble guitar sounds; harsh, raspy vocals; and a deeply sardonic view of rock 'n' roll. When they croon Nell Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," I hear murder in the mix. When, on "Bionic Revolution," they wail "Free the children!" over a dated funkified beat, I hear a scathing refutation of 60s pieties. And on the epic slurs of raging rock on songs like "Vacation in Tokyo," "(Now That's) the Barclords," or "Goodbye to Guyville," I hear the baleful offspring of the worn, decayed creators of "Midnight Rambler," "Gimme Shelter," and Sticky Fingers. Look at their look: a snicker of an homage to Rat Pacl sartorial splendor, glamorous and cruel. Urge Overkill, I think, are the Reservoir Dogs of rock: a snazzily dressed bunch of pop-culture sadists.
Or are they?
The band--a guitarist who calls himself Nash (formerly National) Kato, a bassist named Eddie "King" Roeser, and an unrelievedly brutal drummer named Blackie O. (formerly Blackie Onassis)--bridle at such talk. They see themselves as an old-fashioned rock 'n' roll band aiming for stardom the old-fashioned way. They've made all the. right moves, and believe in success. They talk in an almost sincere commercial patois: "This is the hardest-rockin' Urge album ever!" avers Roeser. Beatle-like, they often wear matching suits--or other variety of attractive and handsome Urge wear (see photo). And they're passionate about getting out of the indie-underground rock treadmill, where a twisted kind of hipness is all. "Most 'hip' bands can't listen to us," says Blackie, who drums like he's pouring gasoline over a hostage. "I can't listen to them either. So many of the 'hip' bands are unlistenable. I admire bands that have songs. Where we live now, in Humboldt Park, I'm sorry, but you don't hear guys in pajamas playing Marshalls."
"You hear the music of the people!" chimes in Nash Kato.
Urge exude a taut cool as they wind up the final mixing for their fourth album and major-label debut. Saturation is due out at the end of June. The title, which may change, refers to a lot of things. Kato: "You've heard of tape saturation. It's when you overload the tape and everything blends into all the other sounds." Blackie: "Or media saturation. We were driving one day and 'Satisfaction' came on. It was like the ten-millionth time you'd heard it. It was total saturation."
The album is fully intended as Urge's national breakout. What they've done, so far in their career, is slowly extricate themselves from the harsh constraints of the Chicago scene that spawned them. Mentored early on by Big Black founder, producer-engineer extraordinaire, and underground theorist Steve Albini, the group in its first albums laid out nervous, doctrinaire expositions of the rough Chicago sound. But with 1991's Supersonic Storybook, which was coproduced with Albini, the band found an original texture. Molten guitar lines and corrosive vocals drip onto a spacious foundation of thumping bass and Blackie's thundering drums. On songs like "What Is Artane?," "The Candidate," and particularly the momentous "Vacation in Tokyo," they sought and found a balance between their uncompromising local heritage and the measured, faded grandeur of a faraway rock 'n' roll past.
In the wake of Geffen's success with Sonic Youth and Nirvana, the company courted Urge and in time duly won their hand. (The dowry: complete creative control. "We can produce our own records and make our own videos if we want to," says Kato.). For production help, the band considered Butch Vig, Nevermind auteur and old Urge hand; Albini; and even the purer pop mind of Jim Rondinelli, consultant to Matthew Sweet's studio masterpiece Girlfriend and producer of Eleventh Dream Day's new El Moodio. Who would win this coveted project?
Relations with Albini broke down early on, though it's unclear whether this happened before or after he trashed the group in a New City interview last year.
Urge now respond by cheerfully spreading a variety of possibly invented scurrilous rumors about the producer. The best ones: (a) that he dubbed off an Enuff Z'Nuff tape and left copies of it in club bathrooms with the legend, "New Urge demo"; and (b) that he faxed them a two-page plea to produce the record. (Or did the fax go to Nirvana? When you're spreading rumors, it's hard to keep your stories straight.) For the record: "Steve really helped the band once upon a time," says Roeser. "We blow him kisses," agrees Kato.
Ultimately the band bade the underground good-bye and grabbed Joe and Phil Nicolo, creators of a sledgehammer-hard pop-rap fusion on albums like Cypress Hill; the Goats' Tricks of the Shade; and Kris Kross's triple platinum Totally Krossed Out. They aren't providing previews of the result yet, so it's too early to tell whether this unholy alliance with the twin brothers' "contraband sound," as the band calls it, will be the production coup of the year or an unsatisfactory mess. First the band has to finish the record, decide on a first single and film a video, and set a summer tour. They've done few American shows over the last two years; they're pretty sure they're turning down a Lollapalooza III slot, a laudable decision. "My attitude," says Roeser, "is why should we make people who want to see us sit through all those other bands?" Assuming the songs and production come out OK on Saturation, the band will remain at the mercy of the marketplace. Will America listen? The folks at Geffen, who seem to know about these things, think so, sure, but will anyone else I heed the criminal howls of these rockin' Reservoir Dogs? How does the band feel? "I believe," says Blackie O. solemnly, "that we are the good guys. But we have to be bad to fuck up the bad guys."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Gullick.