Urge Overkill Return on Their Own Terms with ‘Oui'(FEATURE)

Photo credit: Jerod Herzog

On February 11th, acclaimed alternative rockers Urge Overkill released Oui, their first studio album in more than a decade. But even co-frontmen Nash Kato and Eddie “King” Roeser, calling from their Chicago homes, are at a loss to explain why it’s taken them this long to put it out into the world. 

“We can’t possibly account for this missing decade between records,” Kato says, “but as most people know, the older you get, the shorter time becomes, so it doesn’t seem like ten years to us. We were just kicking this can down the road for a while. And then, lo and behold, it’s ten years later, but it seems like a year or two at best.” Even so, as Roeser admits, “I guess this record probably should have followed more closely on the heels of the last one.” 

This actually isn’t the first time that Urge Overkill have emerged out of a long hiatus: their last album, Rock & Roll Submarine (2011), came sixteen years after the one before, Exit the Dragon (1995). As Roeser explains that particular break, “We had each attempted to do solo work. I think we both thought, ‘Too many problems with Urge – it’ll be easy to strike up another band.’ But once you’ve played in a real band, it’s really just not as magical and fun [to work solo]. And when you’re older, too, you realize what you had – you have a keener understanding of how un-reproducible it is. You realize that was like a one in a million good thing that happened to you. After a while, you’re just sort of speechless. It’s like, ‘Why did we break up?’”

With Oui, Kato and Roeser have resurrected the band with a dozen tracks that are as hard-hitting and catchy as anything else they’ve done since they began playing together more than three decades ago. Longtime fans shouldn’t worry: on this new album, there is no radical revamping of the band’s signature heavy, psychedelic-infused sound. “We took a lot of time using some demos that we’ve had around for years,” Roeser says, “so this record is sort of an accumulation of ideas that have been tossed back and forth.”

Both Roeser and Kato seem determined to make this reunion count, though Kato concedes that they’re curious to find out what fans will think of it: “There’s always a great anticipation,” he says. “You’re dropping a new album into the world, and you have no idea what their reaction might be.”

One thing that may surprise listeners is the cover of “Freedom” (originally by Wham!) that serves as Oui’s lead single. Kato explains how they first stumbled across the song during an acoustic tour he and Roeser did a few years ago: “We were leaving Moscow – it was a bitch to get in, it was a bitch to get out. In our van, we had a driver, so it was just the three of us. He had some wacky Radio Free Europe station on. That song came on, and we just couldn’t believe how catchy it was. We didn’t know who it was, and we didn’t care.” Later, they found out it was Wham!, but by then, as Kato puts it, they’d already “put it through the Urge-izer.”

This was, Kato says, an already-familiar situation for Urge Overkill. “It’s the same reaction [we had] when we first heard “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”,” he says, referring to the Neil Diamond song they covered for the Pulp Fiction film soundtrack in 1994. “We don’t do that many covers, but when we do, it’s when both our ears perk up and like, ‘What the fuck is this, and how can we make it our own?’”

Roeser says that he and Kato have often enjoyed this kind of mutual musical understanding throughout their decades together – and that includes the amicable way they’ve divided up songwriting and singing duties, as well. “Nash and I have always had a partnership in the mold of a Lennon/McCartney type thing, if I should be so bold. That’s kind of what we were following,” he says. Kato agrees: “We never discussed who’s going to sing what. As it evolved and grew into our disparate creative stylings, it just had this, ‘This is your song – you sing it.’”

According to Kato, it felt like a natural partnership from the very beginning, when he and Roeser first met while they were both attending Northwestern University in a northern Chicago suburb. “I knew that I had found my muse when I bumped into [him] on the street, on campus,” he says. “I was talking to him and he had this trench coat on. After about five minutes, he pulled out this half empty can of PBR and takes a sip. I was like, ‘You found your guy.’ And I was right. Keep in mind, this was early ‘80s, and Northwestern was rampant with Reaganites. Everyone was in Izods and penny loafers. So when he produced that beer I was like, ‘Finally, someone I can talk with.’ I needed a partner in crime, and he was it.”

Roeser joined Kato in Urge Overkill, and they went on to become darlings of the 1990s alternative rock scene, particularly with their fourth album, Saturation (1994), which contained the ubiquitous hit “Sister Havana.” Roeser thinks this success came about because they’d made a deliberate effort to stand out from the pack in their hometown scene.

“I think that we were surrounded by people in Chicago who were kidding themselves that, ‘Okay, we can’t play and it doesn’t fuckin’ matter and you’re going to listen to this because we’re angry,’” Roeser says, “and we were interested in maybe some more ideas of artistry and humor, and bringing a bit of lightheartedness into the black and gray world of industrial Chicago punk music. We were lucky that we had something to react against, in that sense. We had a code to break.”

Now, as the band moves forward with Oui, Roeser is content as he looks back on what Urge Overkill has already accomplished: “We have a respectable career and records that we’re proud of,” he says. “It was always on our terms, and we did it with a sort of a laugh. And we were the band for other bands, and very consciously thought of ourselves as the band for smart people. To succeed on those terms, I’m still very proud that we did that.”

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