Unprovoked and coincidentally, a few friends, musicians, and interested strangers asked me this week about my as yet-unpublished book about Chicago music in the 90s. Some suggested that I forego the traditional publishing model, instead incrementally releasing the book’s contents here. Though I probably won’t be doing that, I thought I’d share a quick, edited excerpt from a section on Urge Overkill…
Looking like rock stars long before they almost-were, the men of Urge bounced in and out of Chicago’s divier watering holes like a trio of time and genre-displaced rock warriors: Long, straight, center-parted, hair. Gold medallions. Polyester formalwear. Urge Overkill’s style was worlds removed from the crewcut-headed, cop coat-wearing, Chicago band look of the 1980s.
“I remember seeing Urge Overkill in the early Touch and Go period,” Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot said. “Nobody could figure out what they were up to, in terms of the outfits and everything, cause everybody was dressing down at that point…and then here are these guys with the white turtlenecks and the black Vegas suits and the medallions and the sunglasses.”
“It was that swinger playboy lifestyle, blown up for the indie rock kids to understand,” Metro booker Todd Kasten added. “If Dean Martin was on Sub Pop, it would’ve been Urge Overkill. The fantastic days of big gold medallions, velvet jackets, and martinis constantly.”
Urge had the look, and they had plenty of swagger, carrying themselves around town like an Alderman on the take. Their image and attitude helped make them an easy sell to the major labels, according to singer/guitarist Nash Kato. “We were a major label’s wet dream,” he said. “Their job is to take a band from zero to fifty. And we had already done that ourselves, D.I.Y. style. We came with an audience and a package and a look and a sound, and so they were chomping at the bit.Naturally we couldn’t resist, but enjoy the feeding frenzy.Geffen…seemed like the logical, obvious choice.”
The band left Touch and Go for the presumably more lucrative offerings of Geffen, a move decried by scene purists and Touch and Go loyalists. “We literally outgrew the parameters of the capabilities of the independent label we were on,” Kato said. “As good a job as they were doing, and we had a long history with them…it was purely economic; supply and demand. It didn’t seem like they could keep up with the demands.”
Urge Overkill’s Geffen debut, “Saturation,” hit record store shelves in the Summer of ’93, with arena-ready alterna-anthems like “Sister Havana” and the riff-tacular “Positive Bleeding.” Critics raved, Geffen Records spent lots of money to promote it, and the band got booked onto a handful of key tours.
“We didn’t know much about (Nirvana)at all,” said Kato. “All of a sudden, we were told they wanted us to open for them. We weren’t much of an opening act; that was one of the first opening slots that we ever agreed to do. And we did it sorta begrudgingly, nothing against the band. We had our whole act that could only work within our own stage. But I remember everyone telling us, ‘Oh my God, you should do this.’ Everyone else seemed to know that something was in the air, except us.”
Agreeing to the Nirvana tour quickly proved to be a smart move. “We did a couple of dates in the little f***ing clubs; they were in a little van in a trailer just like us,” Kato said. “And like, three-fourths of a year into it, all of a sudden we started to get bumped up. They’re upgraded to thousand cap clubs and s**t. They were–as we were–like, ‘What’s going on?’ You could feel something was going in the air, but what was it? They didn’t know. We didn’t know. And all of a sudden, this whole thing is just at a fever pitch. Out of control. You could just feel it.That, I’ll never forget. You’re in the eye of the storm. You don’t know what the storm is, but you know that you’re in the eye of it. You’re watching it whirl around you. I’ll always remember it as being great.”