If 1991 has come to be known (mistakenly) as The Year Punk Broke, then surely 2004 will be looked back upon as the year that alternative rock struck back.
Long ago sidelined by the major labels in favor of flavor-of-the-month metal acts and disposable rap clones, excellent bands from the Golden Age of college radio have of late been reuniting with a fervor, and the vast majority are enjoying rave reviews, sold out shows and massive merchandise sales.
In the last six months alone, such trendsetting alternative artists as the Pixies, The Cure and Morrissey have all either released hotly anticipated new albums or returned to the worldwide touring circuit with a vengeance.
These acts (and their initial and most devoted fanbases) all came of age during a time in which the best and brightest alternative rock groups were allowed several years and several albums in which to grow and mature unlike the industrys current sign em and drop em mentality. Thats the primary reason their work still holds up to this day.
And thats the very same reason many people still rave about Urge Overkill.
The Chicago group, which initially began as a strangely compelling pastiche of noisy third-generation punk rock and late 70s power pop clichés, turned a huge groundswell of underground success (based largely on one of their earliest, Steve Albini-helmed records, Jesus Urge Superstar) into a major label deal with David Geffen. That deal, signed hot on the heels of Nirvanas massive success with overblown fuzz-pop, generated the groups most popular and perhaps most consistent full-length album, Saturation.
Fueled by the radio and MTV hits Sister Havana and Positive Bleeding, and nudged along by a canny marketing push that included a complete, tongue-in-cheek image makeover (the band preened to the hilt in custom-made Mod suits, gold medallions and seemed to never be seen in public without a highball), Saturation gave UO just that.
Not long thereafter, film director Quentin Tarantino tapped one of their early album tracks, a wry cover of Neil Diamonds cringe-inducing cheese classic Girl, Youll Be A Woman Soon, for the soundtrack to his magnum opus Pulp Fiction, and the almost-forgotten throwaway cut became a surprise hit.
However, the public is a fickle lot, and by the time the bands follow up LP Exit The Dragon was released, radio had already moved on. With no Sister Havana Pt. 2, the groups promotion budget was cut and they soon lapsed into obscurity, battling substance abuse problems and depressing indifference from their own label.
A failed partnership with Sony records resulted in some aborted album sessions, but by 1996, the band was no more.
Flash forward to the present. Founding members frontman/guitarist Nash Kato (real name Nathan Katruud), and bassist Eddie King Roeser, flummoxed by lackluster response to their above-average solo efforts, have reunited, and are touring again at last under the Urge Overkill name with a new lineup that includes The Cynics drummer and a former guitarist for The Gaza Strippers.
Initial reports of their incendiary live shows are gushing, with some critics saying the songwriting pair have never sounded better. Theyve sold out such high profile spots as L.A.s Viper Room, but are also hitting tiny clubs in smaller markets in an effort to rebuild the bands brand and image from the ground up after almost a decade in hibernation.
I spoke with Nash Kato by cell phone from an unknown hotel somewhere on the road. When I first rang him (at two oclock in the afternoon) he was beyond groggy, and asked for a half-hour reprieve so he could get some coffee in his system.
By 2:30 pm, he was sufficiently caffeinated, and we enjoyed a pleasantly buzzing conversation.
Connect Savannah: Hows the response been to the reunion so far?
Nash Kato: Its been a delight, I suppose. We didnt really know what to expect almost a decade later, but the crowds have been good, and weve sold out a bunch of the larger shows. Weve gotten a great response, actually.
CS: Was there a great deal of trepidation about forming the band again?
NK: Well, theres always that possibility, but I feel we waited till the time was right to get the act back on the road. We felt pretty confident, and thats why we didnt do it earlier. I guess good things come to those who wait, you know? (Laughs)
CS: Were fans always asking for this?
NK: Yeah. Thats pretty much all we heard. I know The King got it as well. People would come up to you on the street, and its nice when they say theyre fans and that they still listen to your records or whatever. But then, the inevitable question that would always follow that would be, so, are you guys getting back together or what? Maybe thats the reason we finally did! (Laughs) After so long of trying to explain to people, well no, but maybe. I dont know... After all this time, it was just like, fuck it. Lets just do it, you know?
CS: How hard was it to step back in?
NK: Well, its been eight years. But, its like an old pair of shoes. Strangely, it seems more... what is the word? Alive. Were much more consistent. We have actually been sounding better as a band than we did when we were out touring this material the first time. Before, it was always hit or miss. I cant really explain it.
CS: It must be a freeing experience.
NK: Yeah. It is. Like you said, were not out peddling any product. Theres no lawyers or management or labels. All the stuff that separates you further and further from just going out and playing to your fans. This is like way back when we started. Just us, the fans and the music.
CS: I was surprised to see you guys playing a small club like The Jinx.
NK: Yeah, totally! Obviously the bigger markets like L.A., New York and Chicago have been tremendous for us, but this is our alma mater. All the old punk rock shitholes... Not that your place down there is a punk rock shithole! (Laughs) But thats definitely where we started.
CS: The proverbial punk rock shithole.
NK: Yeah, exactly. (Laughs) The proverbial punk rock dive. And especially down South. We never even played that much in that part of the country, so well rock the house. Whatevers waiting for us.
CS: Do the songs still seem fresh, or do they start to feel like someone elses?
NK: (Laughs) They can, but were better players now, and were a little wiser. Weve updated the songs a bit, and its funny you mentioned it, because we joke about that all the time. I told some crowd the other night we were the best UO tribute band out there, and thats probably true. What will change all that is when we really get to work on this new Urge record in the fall. That would be our main incentive. We dont want to join that painful corndog circuit of reunion bands. I mean, theyve exhumed every dead band out there. Even Nazareth is coming to town! We dont wanna fall into that.
CS: Like Two Dog Night?
NK: Yeah. Two Dog Night, featuring the original keyboard player.
CS: So youre both going to comb through unreleased solo material to find the basis of the next Urge record?
NK: Yeah. Weve been so busy touring that we havent had the opportunity to sit down and, like you said, put it through the Urge-izer. We like to refer to our collaborative process as correcting each others work. Im dying to hear what The Kings been putting down and rockin out to up in his castle, you know?
CS: You need the checks and balances.
NK: Yeah, yeah. This Yin needs its Yang.
CS: Is the image of the band the same?
NK: Yeah, well, we we still naturally want our band to look as good as we can. Thats a tradition weve always upheld. But as far as matching suits and swigging martinis before every show, I mean, I think weve kind of played that down a bit.
CS: Nobodys gonna mistake you for the Ramones or Soul Asylum, though.
NK: Right. (Laughs)
CS: What have the crowds been like?
NK: Weve been doing the math and there are a lot of kids at these gigs who were like five or six years old when we started the band! We didnt know if all of our fans would be married with children, but in a way its like we never left.
CS: Will the show be representative of the bands whole career?
NK: Yeah. We try to take something off of every record and spread it out. Obviously Saturation is the one most people know and seem to like the most, so theres a good deal of stuff from Saturation each night. Some stuff from Exit The Dragon. We do have some hardcore UO fans who know the first record pretty well. So, we try to grab a little from everything. Thats another luxury we have now. Were able to choose from a pretty vast and illustrious catalog, so we can just take the cream off the top, and it makes for a better show.
CS: Whats the most obscure choice youve pulled from the catacombs so far?
CS: Or should that remain a surprise?
NK: Yeah! Let keep that a surprise! (Laughs) Im sure we need to sell some tickets in Savannah. That will be our bait on the hook.
Urge Overkill plays The Jinx next Wednesday, July 21st, with opening acts Hot Young priest and The Last Vegas. You must be at least 18 to get in. Doors open at 9 pm, and tickets are $12.