We were united by rock, “goes a standard pronouncement by Urge Overkill singer-guitarist Nash Kato, as cited by Rolling Stone. ” We had an insatiable urge to rock. Rock very hard.”Though this claim is delivered with the same nonchalance that defines nearly everything about the band, Urge Overkill’s desire to rock—in the manner of megastar bands of the past, not the shoegazing angstmongers of the 1990s—is essential to their appeal. Combining over-the-top glitz and lounge-lizard suavity, the band gathered a cult following with a string of indie releases before scoring with their major-label debut; a subsequent hit on the Pulp Fiction film soundtrack moved them even further into the limelight. However, Urge has yet to reach the kind of stardom their image might suggest.
Nash Kato is a stage name for Urge frontman Nathan Katruud, a Minneapolis-born minister’s son who grew up loving soul music. He traveled to the Chicago area to attend Northwestern University in the early 1980s, and there formed the first version of Urge with Ed Roeser, a bassist-guitarist who also hailed from Minnesota. They
Members includeNash Kato (born Nathan Katruud c. 1963 in Minneapolis, MN), vocals, guitars, keyboards;Blackie Onassis (born John Rowan), drums, vocals;Eddie “King” Roeser (born Litchfield, MN); various replacement drummers.
Band formed c. 1986, at Northwestern University, Illinois; released debut EP on Ruthless Records, 1987; released debut album Jesus Urge Superstar on Touch & Go Records, 1989; signed with Geffen Records and released Saturation, 1993; contributed song “Take a Walk” to No Alternative compilation, 1993; song “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” appeared on soundtrack to film Pulp Fiction, 1994.
Addresses: Fan Club—U.R.G.E. Secret Society Internationale, P.O. Box 354, Culpville, PA 19443. Record Company—Geffen Records, 9130 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90069.
took the band’s name from a line in a song by the extravagant 70s “P-Funk” band Parliament and played adrenalized riff-rock. The pair made a strong impression on future indie-rock mogul Steve Albini, who was then a journalism student, leader of the band Big Black, and owner of the Ruthless Records label. Albini lent them Big Black drummer Pat Byrne and Urge recorded its debut, the EP Strange, I…, for Ruthless.
Though the hard-edged punk sound of Big Black infiltrated the early Urge recordings, the band soon found its own sonic and stylistic niche. Signing on with the Chicago indie label Touch & Go, the band pursued a mix of ballsy guitar rock and funky grooves on such recordings as Jesus Urge Superstar and Americruiser. Melding the sartorial inclinations of the martini-swilling doyens of Las Vegas lounges and the cheesy glamour of the disco era, Kato and Roeser concocted a look that tweaked the solemnity of the T-shirted post-punk era. “We’ve been touted as these fashion horses, but we’re just blessed that we live in Chicago,” Kato told Spin, explaining that they would simply shop at thrift stores to find attire for photo shoots. “We invented a million-dollar look on a shoestring.”
With their matching outfits and homemade “UO” medallions, Urge represented the alternative to alternative. As such, they were largely a cult phenomenon; one of their earliest fans was John Rowan, a student at Loyola University. Rowan—who would later adopt the stage moniker Blackie Hollywood (later amended to Blackie Onassis) and join the band as its permanent drummer-described the rush of the early UO shows in Rolling Stone: “They were so visual. But it was extremely indecipherable. All the other bands in Chicago dismissed them as a cruel hoax.”
Kato agreed, calling the gigs “nuts” and adding that they invariably “ended up with all of our gear broken. We would be bleeding. I still don’t know what style of music we’re playing or what audience we appeal to. When we put on those suits, we get into this Urge mode, and it just works.” Blackie Onassis toured with the band repeatedly and finally joined as a permanent member, at which point the group really found its focus. With 1991’s Supersonic Storybook, Urge truly arrived, according to many critics and fans; yet, the group had yet to find its audience. “We were convinced that there was no demand for rock anymore,” Kato recalled in CMJ. “We were so close to hangin’ it up.”
Then came the explosion of alternative rock in the mainstream marketplace, spearheaded by the passionate neo-punk of Seattle’s multiplatinum group Nirvana. When Nirvana invited Urge to tour with them, the weary band found new inspiration. A similar stint with “grunge” champions Pearl Jam was also invigorating. The Stull EP was released in 1992 and includes a cover version of Neil Diamond’s shimmeringly romantic “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.” Roeser described that track to CMJas “something that we did completely spontaneously. It took like two hours. We were right at [producer] Kramer’s [studio] and we needed some songs.” Spin correspondent Johan Kugelberg praised the disc as “pretty close to flawless,” while reviewer Jim Greer separately deemed it “by several nautical miles the best record of the century.” The band told Kugelberg that after recording “Girl” they had a chance to meet Diamond himself. “We chatted for ten minutes,” Roeser reported, “and he gave us some good career advice.” The hitmaking warbler told them to “always remember to leave some room at the top for him.”
Urge signed with the major label Geffen—after an acrimonious separation from Albini and Touch & Go— and began recording Saturation with The Butcher Brothers, a production team best known for their work on chart-topping recordings by such hip-hop acts as Kriss Kross and Cypress Hill. “We’d already worked with [alternative scions] Butch Vig and Steve Albini,” Kato told Billboard. “So we decided to just look at [Billboard] and see who had the most singles on the charts.” The album, according to Musician, turned out to be “an almost absurdly terrific, dross-free disc with toothsome, witty pop songcraft wedded to atom-smashing guitar work.” Rolling Stone described the band’s big-label bow as “an invitation to another world, a world where melody and melodrama get their due.” Reviewer Greg Kot added, “In the past, style has set them apart. On Saturation, it’s the songs.” Even Mark Deming of the Detroit Metro Times, who found the record flawed, claimed “If they ever cut a whole album as good as side one of Saturation, they’ll rule the world.”
The album sold well, thanks in large part to the single “Sister Havana,” a video which saw substantial rotation on MTV. In Billboard, Onassis described the clip as “a total Quinn-Martin production,” referring to the gritty 1970s TV cop shows the video used as inspiration. “Positive Bleeding” also got a royal visual treatment, highlighting the Urge’s medallion-and-cocktails demimondeas well as its megastar aspirations. MioVukovic, the Geffen executive who signed the band, expressed his approval of Urge’s attention to presentation. “It’s refreshing to work with an artist that doesn’t say ’All I want to do is play, ’” Vukovictold Billboard. “I was always fascinated by artists where you get a sense of who they are from their look, the packaging of their records—it makes them larger than life.” The group’s new corporate backing even earned them the dubious honor of a fanzine devoted to ridiculing them, The Stalker. They also earned endorsements from Chrissie Hynde, the influential founder of new-wave heroes The Pretenders, as well as celebrated singer-songwriter and fellow Chicagoan Liz Phair.
Although Saturationwas a hit, Urge reached a new level of success when noted filmmaker Quentin Tarantino picked up a copy of Stull and chose Urge’s cover of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” for the soundtrack of his genre-defying smash feature Pulp Fiction. Appearing in the film as the music to which star Uma Thurman does a sensuous dance, the song became a sensation; it helped make the Pulp soundtrack album go beyond platinum. “When I was watching it at the screening, I was so involved with the movie, I forgot why I was there,” Kato claimed in Spin, adding that when Thurman’s character turned on a tape machine, he didn’t know what to expect. “I’d completely forgotten we had anything todo with it. And then: ’Girl…’ I’d never really heard itlikethat.” He went on to assert that “QT [Tarantino] and UO are definitely on the same gravitation wavelength.”
The band’s 1995 follow-up to Saturation, the Butcher produced Exit the Dragon, was less painstakingly recorded. The producer-brothers, Kato recalled in CMJ, “were really adamant that we not always go for the perfect take. We were really going for what they call the ‘Urge charm.’ We didn’t understand it until ‘Girl’ became a hit with all its flaws, and then we thought, perhaps that’s what they were talking about.” With more vocals by the rough-voiced Roeser and a plethora of mid-tempo material, the album had less immediate commercial appeal than its predecessor; the band also experienced a number of difficulties on the road and ultimately had to cut their tour short. Nevertheless, the band carried on as it always had, celebrating the sheer exhilaration of the rock life and carrying on—as Onassis described it to Musician— “kinda like a punk version of amainstream band.” In Billboard, he elaborated: “When we started, everything around was such a denial of the senses. It was an incredibly asexual time; people were more concerned with deconstructing rock than playing it. We wanted to have fun, buck the trend, and play rock ’n’ roll than was stylish.”
Strange, I…, Ruthless, 1987.
Jesus Urge Superstar, Touch & Go, 1989.
Americruiser, Touch & Go, 1990.
Supersonic Storybook, Touch & Go, 1991.
Stull (includes “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”), Touch & Go, 1992.
Saturation (includes “Sister Havana” and “Positive Bleeding”), Geffen, 1993.
“Take a Walk,” No Alternative, Arista, 1993.
“Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” Pulp Fiction soundtrack, 1994.
Exit the Dragon, Geffen, 1995.
Billboard, June 26, 1993.
CMJ (College Music Journal), September 1995.
Metro Times (Detroit), September 1, 1993.
Musician, August 1993.
Rolling Stone, August 19, 1993; September 2, 1993.
Spin, July 1992; August 1995.