The urge to do it again


February 13, 2004


The tale was made for VH1's "Behind the Music" or "Bands Reunited." Two young men from Minnesota meet at Northwestern University and form an indie-rock band that's based on a cartoonish superstar mythology that almost comes true when, after several years of slugging it out in clubland and countless feuds with their doubters, they're hailed as Chicago's Next Great Contender in the alternative-rock championship.

They come close to winning the title bout with a critically hailed (though commercially disappointing) major-label debut and a Neil Diamond cover on the soundtrack for "Pulp Fiction." But they begin to believe their own hype, turn on each other and break up the band. Finally, a decade later, they realize they've never done anything on their own that's as good as what they did together, and they reunite.

Welcome to "The Urge Overkill Story."

The Urge that is performing two eagerly anticipated (by some) reunion shows at the Double Door on Saturday and Sunday isn't exactly the same group that signed off with "Exit the Dragon" in 1995. The band's founders, singers, songwriters and guitarists, Eddie "King" Roeser and Nash "National" Kato, haven't reunited with drummer Blackie Onasis (a k a John Rowan, who played on their best recordings), instead recruiting a new group of backing musicians: bassist Mike Hodgkiss, keyboardist Chris Frantisak and drummer Nate Arling.


*10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
*Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
*Tickets, $25 (Saturday sold out)
*(773) 489-3160

Gone, too, are the James Bond-meets-Hugh Hefner velvet outfits and medallions, along with much of the superstar shtick. But the set list will be familiar to fans, according to Roeser, who spoke with me shortly before the group headed out on an East Coast tour that culminates with its Chicago homecoming on Valentine's Day.

Q. The reunited Urge Overkill has already done a West Coast tour and you'll have played in New York before coming back to Chicago. Has it been fun so far?

A. Well, that's the whole idea. It wasn't fun before, but this was more fun than I had dared to hope. I didn't want to get my hopes up, and that's why even though I had been prepared to get back together and try it out for a while, no one really aggressively went after it. I didn't aggressively return phone calls and neither did Nash, so it took a couple of years to get it back off the ground.

The genesis was we thought of doing a New Year's Eve show, kind of a low-pressure thing, and maybe the only one. But the ideal room fell through -- we thought maybe we would do it at the Double Door and that didn't pan out -- and during that time, there were these offers coming in. It had to sort of be presented to us like, "Do you want to do this, yes or no?" And I was like, "Yeah, I guess so."

I had actually not played much music for the last six months, so I was getting in a state where I needed to do that. You have to be pretty aggressive and really want to pursue a solo career that people are maybe not that interested in. A small number of people are interested, but it's not really enough to make it easy to do. I did it for a while with Electric Airlines and the Kimball Roeser Effect, and then I was kind of not doing it for a while until this came up. It didn't seem to be too tough. I had always had a pretty nice rehearsal space, so that wasn't going to be a difficulty, and we got together and it sounded pretty good within a few days.

Q. Are you viewing this reunion as a temporary thing or as "Let's see what happens"?

A. "Let's see what happens." The more we do it, the more tenable it seems in terms of it being fulfilling and fun. The ability to get the excitement going -- I guess I knew it would be OK, but I wanted it to really seem like it was something that mattered, that there was some vitality there. And I really feel like there is now.

People are asking about new songs. We haven't had enough time to really develop like a battery of new songs, and that's not the main thing. But these songs aren't going to seem new to us after a year, so to keep this thing going, I've discussed it with Nash, and it's definitely in our interest to keep pursuing some new stuff. If there's going to be a lot of tension, or if things get iffy, it's going to be once that happens. But I think we both have enough ideas that you approach the best things first.

There's no label or anything like that, but people are like, "Are you going to make a record?" We're not going to rule it out; certainly that's the hope. I hope this thing goes well, because it's really a great feeling to go out and walk onstage and people are already decided that they like you. If you're a solo act, it's this really skeptical thing and it's a lot of work. We're not playing gigantic houses, but it's the right size and I feel really good.

Q. Do you have enough perspective at this point to say that you and Nash were always better together than on your own?

A. Oh, yeah. I was able to sort of realize that pretty much right away. It was more like because of certain ethical decisions I had made, I couldn't continue. At that stage [after "Exit the Dragon"], I didn't think we were headed toward making a good record. It was going to be a real, real struggle, and it was going to take a killer toll. It was tough to exist in that negative environment, and it wasn't going to turn around without a nice, long break. Even a year or two later, after I'd had a band together and written a bunch of songs, of course Urge was a more dynamic band, but if that had to include being Urge offstage, then I couldn't do that.

I sort of had to prove something to myself. I didn't know what Nash's deal was; I think he was just going to continue playing music. But at that point, I had to prove to myself that "I can do things my way, and I'm going to write an album and make a band sound exactly how I want." I was happy enough with that that if there was some kind of automatic, freakish demand for it, I'd have kept doing it. But there wasn't, and I was aware that that probably wouldn't happen. But I must say I did very little. After I proved to myself, "Well, I don't need those guys," my anxiety level went down and I didn't seek to prove a whole lot else. I didn't make a real aggressive effort to get back into the spotlight, and to get anywhere these days, you have to really want it.

Q. It doesn't seem that Nash had the same drive to do it alone, either.

A. No. I really get a great deal of pleasure out of working with other musicians -- I get a thrill out of that, the production that goes into making bands stage-worthy -- and he didn't really enjoy that, so I think consequently the people we played with didn't really feel that they were involved in something that was real. He knew it wasn't that great, but what was he going to do? I think it was becoming more and more difficult over the last couple of years for him; after nothing much happened with that one [solo] record ["Debutante"], I think he became fairly discouraged after that.

Q. You alluded to this earlier, but do you think you guys got a little bit too wrapped up in "being" Urge Overkill?

A. I think certain people did. I really wish that I could have been able to leave some of that emotional stuff behind; I think the band would have maybe been able to survive. But I had certain core beliefs and I thought these guys weren't behaving in a righteous way. I mean, I know bands, and there's almost no successful band where people are as great guys as the fans think they are. Some ugly s--- goes on. Rock 'n' roll attracts the most egotistical, unreasonable types of people, and you need at least one ass---- in a band to get anything done. I'm not willing or able to play that role, and I felt like I was promoting something toward the end that I just didn't feel was right.

I'd been doing it long enough where I felt I needed a break. Toward the end of it, I was depressed. It was a lot better after I got out of that environment. Had I really felt we were destined to make any more great music any time soon, I think I would have sucked it up and gone ahead with it. But we were never the most consistent live band, and we were never the easiest band to understand and get behind.

Q. How do you think the music holds up? I maintain that your Geffen debut, "Saturation," was one of the best albums of the '90s.

A. I think it sounds pretty good. Some people who get it and are predisposed to liking it, our records maybe have a little more depth and a few more interesting things going on than the average underground band of the era. I remain very proud of what we did, and I get a lot of good response. Obviously, people who don't like the band aren't going to walk up to me, but enough people go out of their way to approach me, and I'm really glad that people think I'm approachable. Over the years, I have to say that that has contributed a great deal to my willingness to get together again and pursue it again.

I think Urge had this identification as being this dark, chaotic, no-fun type of thing, and that's not what anybody who liked the band thought of it. That was my problem. If I can get over that, then I don't have a great need for everybody to know about that or understand it.

I guess in the end, we got the job done but we weren't destined for success. I think we got a great life experience that a lot of people in other bands would kill for. And I think toward the end we were lucky to have bands around us become huge. That helped us get a record deal in the first place -- that Nirvana had proven that that kind of music could be big. But you can't spend your time looking at the next guy, or the guy playing after you, and saying, "Why aren't we them? Why aren't we that big?" If you really thought about it, there were a lot of reasons why Urge wasn't that big.

The other guys had a tough time getting over that, especially when we saw that "Exit the Dragon" wasn't gonna go anywhere, and we were unable to focus. We weren't really together enough or cynical enough to say, "We all hate each other, but let's pretend everything is great and make another good-time record like 'Saturation.' " But I thought we had a great run. Maybe Nash kind of had to lose it all to realize, "Hey, this is pretty cool." It's too bad it had to go that far.

Q. What about Urge's best-known drummer, Blackie Onasis? The one thing a lot of fans have said about this reunion is that it doesn't seem quite like Urge without him.

A. Well, Nash and I discussed it seriously, and what became a major stumbling block is that those two had attempted to work together for a while after I left the association with them, and some things went down where I think it was going to really have to be a situation where I was going to have to force Nash to give Blackie a chance. I don't have the time and I don't know what's going on with Blackie enough to be able to do that. At the time when we were discussing doing a New Year's Eve show, it would have required him picking up roots and moving back here. And I don't know how much drumming he's been doing.

We decided that it was more important for us to be tight and good and dependable and maybe risk not having Blackie as part of the personality of the band, but having a more consistent sound. I felt that this thing had a better chance of being a positive experience sooner and being a more sure bet doing it this way. We had a decision to make; it's a compromise, and we even feel like musically we can't find anybody to do what needs to happen with some of these songs. But it's good enough in other ways, and the relationship with me and Nash is tenuous enough -- there's enough boiling under there -- that for the good of this project having a longer livelihood, we have to do it this way. We made a conscious compromise, but we didn't think for a second that it was illegitimate: Urge was a fully formed, functioning band when Blackie joined up. We had our mythology ready to go and we had already made a couple of albums and built our name.

Q. So what can fans expect at the Double Door?

A. We end up playing quite a bit off "Saturation," just because a lot of it still seems to be stage-worthy. Plus, the more obvious songs from "The Supersonic Storybook" -- we're doing "Ticket to L.A." and both sides of the "What's This Generation Coming To?" single. I guess the album we're playing the most songs from is "Saturation," but we're playing songs from everything, except the very first EP.