Nash Kato says it’s one of those truisms that turn out to be true. “A band’s no different than a marriage,” he says. “Look at marriage today. All my married friends last a year or two.”
Kato’s band, Urge Overkill, lasted nearly 12. Longer if you believe them when they say they never broke up.
Founded in 1985 by Kato and Ed “King” Roeser, Urge had its heyday in the early 90s, when it was part of a trio of up-and-comers–with Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair–that inspired Billboard to call Chicago “the new capital of the cutting edge.” The band had a song in Pulp Fiction and its major-label debut, Saturation, produced the minor MTV hit “Sister Havana.”
The band stopped playing out in 1997, shortly after Roeser left, citing creative differences with Kato. (He was replaced, very briefly, by guitarist Nils St. Cyr.) “We didn’t come out with an announcement,” Roeser says now. “No one knew what happened. We didn’t know what happened. I wouldn’t say we disbanded. We debanded for a while.”
Last month in San Diego and Los Angeles Kato and Roeser, who met at Northwestern University in the early 80s, played their first live shows together as Urge Overkill since Roeser quit. Roeser says he made the first move. “It was kind of up to me,” he says. “I was the one who left.” The reunion tour continued on the east coast this past week and brings them home to the Double Door for a pair of Valentine’s weekend shows.
The members of Urge have a reputation for avoiding the press, and our interview happened only after three postponements over three weeks. At one point Matt Suhar, the band’s booking agent, said the band felt they didn’t really have anything to say. When Roeser and Kato finally show up at the Matchbox, at Milwaukee and Ogden, he’s with them and immediately asks if the Reader will be picking up the tab. [We bought the first round. –Eds.]
Longtime Urge drummer Blackie Onassis, who joined the band on its 1991 breakthrough The Supersonic Storybook, is conspicuously, but not surprisingly, absent. Kato and Roeser won’t talk directly about his well-publicized drug problems, but tell stories of a bandmate who became so unreliable that he missed a $500,000 video shoot, failed to get to scheduled cities for concerts, and announced his passport had been revoked just days before the band was scheduled to travel to England to appear on Top of the Pops. “If someone’s priorities are such that they cannot physically get themselves to where they need to be–whatever the shape they’re in–they’ve got a huge problem,” Roeser says. “And that had happened on more occasions than I care to remember.”
Neither Roeser nor Kato tried to contact Onassis, who lives in Los Angeles, for the reunion. Though he and Kato live “a few miles apart, it took us a while to decide to be in the same room at the same time,” says Roeser. “Don’t ask me why, but that’s how things were. Imagine getting three people like that together.
“I don’t have [Onassis’s] phone number. He has mine. Put it that way. He can call me if he wants to. I’ve had the same number for ten years.” (No one else I could locate had Onassis’s number either, and an LA listing for John Rowan, his real name, was unpublished.)
After Urge, Roeser formed Electric Airlines with his brother John, and then the Kimball Roeser Effect with latter-day Jesus Lizard drummer Jim Kimball. Kato had a brief solo career. None of these projects did very well commercially, and in hindsight Roeser and Kato chalk up Urge’s success to the checks and balances that come with long-term collaboration. “It is quality control,” Roeser says. “You kind of have to have it. Have you listened to Mick Jagger’s She’s the Boss lately? I don’t know about you, but I haven’t.”
For years, Roeser says, friends and fans would pester him about getting the band back together. “I haven’t gone out on the town for a show ever since the thing kind of fell apart without having somebody come up to me and want to know what’s up with Urge,” he says.
On the reunion tour, Kato and Roeser are backed by a couple of those friends: Mike Hodgkiss (Gaza Strippers) on bass and Chris Frantisak (Light FM, Bon Mots) on keyboards. Nate Arling (Last Vegas) is playing drums, thanks to a recommendation by Hodgkiss.
Roeser and Kato are working on new songs, which they’ll gradually introduce live. Some of them might be included on a new album. “We haven’t recorded anything yet,” Roeser says. “I would hope to be able to speak confidently of where we are with the record and what it will sound like in six or seven months. I don’t know if it will be recorded at that point. We’re not going to record a record just because we want to record a record.” They don’t have a label yet, but Kato hints that they’re thinking of signing with an indie. “Major labels are really not quite what they used to be,” he says. “They’re getting their asses whupped by the Internet.”
Kato’s not sure how his band will fit in with the current music scene, and he doesn’t much care. “That is definitely not a concern,” he says. “All you have to do is turn on MTV and Q101 and you have your answer. It’s really sad.” There is one new band they’d like to get in touch with, though. “That would be a bill: Outkast and Urge,” says Roeser. “We’re definitely looking to hook up with those guys.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mizbliss.