PURE SOUND DOESN’T FADE: URGE OVERKILL’S SATURATION AT 25
A CONVERSATION WITH URGE OVERKILL
Eddie “King” Roeser and Nathan Kaatrud, aka Nash Kato, haven’t been proceeding at a regular pace, Roeser admits, but he’s not confessing a lack of relevancy or a disregard for the business of making music. They’ve been playing odd gigs when the opportunity arises and planning the release of a new album, their first since 2011’s Rock & Roll Submarine and only the second in the last 23 years. He says they’re just being “less aggressive” about everything. Roeser doesn’t sound rock-weary so much as contemplative. Laid back seems to suit him. Nash and King have experienced success and creative devastation and messy breakups and reunions since forming Urge Overkill at Northwestern University in the mid-’80s.
During 1993 and 1994, the band (the lineup then consisting of Roeser, Nash, and drummer Blackie Onassis) seemed poised for ascendance to rock royalty. With the release of Saturation and prominent placement in Quentin Tarantino’s pop-culture flashpoint Pulp Fiction, Urge Overkill assumed the arena-rock throne only to find that most of the crowd had tossed on their flannels, lit a clove cigarette, and migrated to the dive bar next door. The Grunge rock subculture had become a zeitgeist, capturing young ears with distorted guitar and nihilistic conversations about self-doubt and psychological trauma. Where did velvet suit-jacketed, highball drinking, cigar chomping lounge lizards with raging, classic rock guitar riffs fit into the picture?
“We knew what was going on. We were aware of the musical climate…” Nash says, but stops short of finishing the thought. Roeser, however, picks up the torch. “We didn’t want to come off as a self-serious Alice in Chains – like come on, guys – are you really existing in a living hell? That image was in vogue, and we thought it was kind of painful for adults to be trafficking in it. Nirvana was as dark as it comes but they had a sense of humor, which was probably why we got along with them.”
In fact it was after touring with Nirvana on the U.S. leg of the Nevermind tour that Urge Overkill went into the studio to record the Stull EP. Released in 1992, the year prior to Saturation, the EP didn’t register on the charts – but a last minute inclusion on the record, the band’s cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” would become the band’s biggest international success. More on that in a minute.
Although lacking crossover airplay, Urge had garnered significant indie cred and a passionate following from their time on the Chicago-based Touch & Go records. Touch & Go had been the launching pad for underground legends Butthole Surfers and The Jesus Lizard. Stull would be the last albu Urge recorded for Touch & Go before they jumped into the big pool with Geffen to record Saturation. The move caused friction between the band and the existing fan base, but Nash doesn’t believe an album like Saturation could have happened on an indie label.
“Everything we did prior to Saturation was done for a bag of weed and a six pack. There was no rock ‘n’ roll fantasy. [With Touch & Go] we had 72 hours to experiment and realize a record. We never had this kind of freedom before. We just couldn’t have made Saturation over a weekend.”
Nash and King and the contemporaneous critics suggest Saturation represents a sonic departure from earlier Urge albums, but if you give it a hard listen, you’ll note there’s less distance than you might expect.
Proper Urge-ness had already been established. Driving guitar rooted in garage grime and power rock vocals. The difference between an album like 1991’s The Supersonic Storybook and Saturation can’t just be attributed to time and pressure-free experimentation. If anything, it amplified a pre-existing swagger that had been eclipsed by urgent guerrilla-like recording sessions. Nash corroborated this suggestion without much hesitation. “It really was the pinnacle of having fun and making records. It took a darker turn after Saturation, but what I remember most was the laughter.”
The “darker turn” was the post-Exit the Dragon (1995) feud that resulted in Roeser abandoning the project and Kato and Onassis carrying on the Urge brand. Then in 2004, Nash and Roeser reformed Urge Overkill without Onassis. This is neither here nor there as the conversation strays endlessly toward the positive past and immediate future of the band – not the VH1 Behind the Music middle.
Roeser jumped in, needing to clarify his point. He seemed concerned that someone might consider Saturation an accidental success. His voice lowered a register. “It didn’t come overnight. This was something we’d struggled with for every minute of studio time. Now we had weeks—not days.” Finally he added, “We couldn’t believe we were getting paid to do this.” Kato and Roeser both described making the album like reminiscing about a fleeting, gone-too-soon moment in time, but one that they’re comfortable leaving in the past.
I asked if their memory of the recording process still mirrors their feelings about the album in 2018. “It still sounds as fresh as the day we laid down,” Nash says. “We had the Butchers to thank for that. Pure sound doesn’t fade.”
By “the Butchers,” Nash Kato is referring to the prolific production team of Phil and Joe Nicolo, twin brothers who teamed with Chris Schwartz to launch Ruffhouse Records in 1989. Through a remarkable stretch in the 1990s, the Butcher Bros. launched or reinvigorated the careers of Cypress Hill, Lauryn Hill, the Fugees, Kris Kross, Schoolly D, DMX, and Wyclef Jean. Best known for their work in hip-hop, Phil and Joe brought some of these same sensibilities to Saturation. “Joe was constantly trying to work samples in the recording and we let him run wild,” Roeser said. “You can hear his influence most in ‘Dropout’.”
“Dropout” opens with synth and a drum machine before giving way to simple alternating chords and vocals by Blackie Onassis. It’s a producer’s song, fragile and carefully measured without the bombast found elsewhere on the album, like on the Doobie Brothers-inspired “Erica Kane.” “Kane” bleeds through the final measure of “Dropout” like a ruptured artery. “China Grove” played by AC/DC. Pay attention after the song cuts out and you’ll hear a clip from the original Hawaii Five-O on the outro (from the episode “Fools Die Twice” if you’re interested). “Nite and Grey” fades into the band’s banter played over a loop from the Mary Tyler Moore theme. It’s during this underappreciated second half of Saturation – its Side B, if you will – that you hear the greatest evidence of their experimentation and the Butchers’ influence.
“We told the Butchers we wanted to sound like the radio, but better,” Nash said. Again Roeser follows that up. They’re not so much finishing each other’s sentences as triggering memories. “They had the finger on the pulse of the hip-hop world. It was a way to get us in an environment that wasn’t Chicago, that was outside our comfort zone.”
On the album’s fifth track, “Woman 2 Woman,” Nash sings “Girl, what’s your sign? ‘Vagittarius’ / But that’s not mine, so tell me you don’t want me no more.” Urge loaded Saturation with clever twists of phrasing and light humour behind the hard rock riffs. If you don’t properly tune in you might miss the playfulness entirely. When I asked if they’d ever considered Saturation a postmodern album, rock music that calls attention to the artifice of the genre as a way to comment on the contemporary music climate, Nash initially seemed hesitant, but Roeser came around to the notion. “That’s probably fair. We did get some reaction because we wore our suits a certain way that suggests we couldn’t possibly have been in earnest. We didn’t think about it too much, though. It’s probably safe to say that we were taking the piss out of ourselves before anyone else could do it.”
When I mentioned that “Sister Havana” and “Positive Bleeding” had been on just about every mixtape I made during this time period, both Nash and Roeser latched onto “Positive Bleeding” as the song most representative of their creative impulses in 1993. “We did stuff like adding instruments and quick transitions, stuff we could only now take the time to do. We put more time into ‘Positive Bleeding’ than anything Urge ever did to make it feel right.” Nash corroborated. “It really encapsulated who we were – mentally and spiritually – as a band. We were on such a high and such a roll. Everything was so positive and going our way after years of struggling.”
I wasn’t entirely surprised they preferred a song other than the hook-laden “Sister Havana.” The thumping lead track on Saturation peaked at #6 on the U.S. Alternative charts and should be considered among the best rock cuts of the ‘90s, but it also eclipses all other Urge Overkill tracks in the public consciousness. All, that is, except one. And though that one doesn’t live on Saturation, I couldn’t resist getting the story about how their cover of a moldy Neil Diamond song wound up playing such a pivotal role in Pulp Fiction. After all, “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon” became their biggest hit in the aftermath of Saturation’s release even though it had been recorded and released the year before.
“A lot of our inspiration came from thrift stores,” Eddie says. “We would just go through boxes of vinyl and buy everything. Neil Diamond. Bacharach. Funky old stuff from the ‘60s. It was dirt cheap and entertaining.” It was Nash’s turn to add some color. “One day we had a copy of Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits – the stuff before he became ‘Neil the God of the 1970’s.’ The Bang Records stuff. And we were like, ‘This is a fucked up song. We should cover this.’”
It just so happened that going into the studio to record the Stull EP they were short a track. “We went in and did the record entirely from memory,” Eddie says. “It was really recorded in a hurry. We were never happy with it.”
“It is squishy with tempo fluxes and pitchy all over, but all our records had some of those qualities,” Nash says. “Everything that was so wrong for me became so brilliantly right. The qualities we didn’t like make perfect sense [in the context of the movie]. We didn’t realize it had such a haunting quality until Uma overdosed dancing to it. So kudos to QT.”
QT. Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker who populates the soundtracks to his films with vintage tracks in the same way he pulls from extant, marginalized film genres for inspiration. So how did a deep-cut cover from an Urge Overkill EP wind up on a soundtrack between Chuck Berry and The Statler Brothers?
“He found the Stull EP in a cutout bin in Amsterdam. For some poor sap it didn’t meet his rock standards. I’d love to thank that guy.” From there, Tarantino gave Uma Thurman the opportunity to choose the song. Nash says he gave her a handful of songs and they settled on Urge’s “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon.” “When we got the call our first reaction was ‘Are you sure you don’t want Neil Diamond?’”
As I concluded the 45-minute interview, Nash intervenes. “Oh,” he says, “people never ask us about the title.” I suddenly felt very guilty. Any self-respecting interviewer will tell you they want to ask the questions that the band wants to answer and that nobody ever asks. It hadn’t even occurred to me to ask about the origin for the name Saturation. If not for the enthusiasm with which he proffered it, I’d have considered it an indictment. “When we first told the Butchers we wanted to sound better than the radio, they turned us onto a recording technique that they loved. Basically you overload the reel to reel with signal. If you hit the tape hard enough on each track, they literally bleed together and saturate the tape.”
With that one statement, the entire interview came into focus. The band’s up and down career and the album’s 25-year longevity. They’d hit this album so hard that they’d not only eclipsed their earliest recordings but also left themselves with little room to grow in following it up. Though an excellent album, one that displays a self-assurance lacking in Saturation, the public met Exit the Dragon with indifference. It didn’t have a “Sister Havana” or a “Positive Bleeding” – the kind of polished, anthemic radio rock sound that fans now craved from Urge Overkill.
“You can’t get more full than total saturation,” Roeser says with what sounds like a little resignation, as if successful “total saturation” had been at once the best and worst thing that had ever happened to their band.
In this, the 25th year of Saturation, the album’s due for a little bit of rediscovery. Those of us who loved Urge Overkill in 1993 might not need a reminder. The album felt fresh, almost, dare I say, punk in the way it flaunted the popular aesthetics of the Grunge drudgery that had overtaken alternative rock and ultimately consumed popular culture. Saturation was an album out of time – at once behind and ahead of a rock revolution.