It's not unprecedented for drummers to be the spokesmen for their bands. There's Metallica's Lars Ulrich, the Eagles' Don Henley, Genesis' Phil Collins. . . .
But that's three out of 50,000 or so rock bands. So it is surprising to find that the keeper of Urge Overkill's beat does more talking than his two bandmates.
Perhaps this is because Blackie Onassis (whose real name is John Rowan, and who has shortened things down to Blackie O on the band's new album) talks faster than singer-guitarists Nash Kato and Eddie (King) Roeser, who both puff languidly on cigarettes and seem almost preternaturally laid-back during a recent interview at their record company's mid-town Manhattan offices.
Or perhaps it's because Roeser spends a good deal of his time making bemused eye contact with Kato, who despite being the most physically imposing member--he's well over six feet tall and bone-thin, with hair long and straight and silky enough to make Kate Moss jealous--says only about 10 words during the interview.
In any case, there's apparently very little jockeying for position in this trio. In keeping with the neo-'70s duds that Nash and Roeser wear, and with the classic rock and pop influences that permeate Urge Overkill's songs, these guys favor a communal approach to making music. They're, like, a democracy, man.
"I would have to say that what makes Urge unique is that there is a real interplay between all of us," Roeser explains in his slow, deliberate, subtly wry fashion. "Our records have resulted from a pretty selfless give-and-take. I think the press likes to focus in on this myth that there's one guy who makes the band what it is. But great bands usually never work that way. I model it more on the Beatles. Who sang this one, who wrote that one? Who cares, you know?"
Predictably, Onassis approves of this theory. "Every band I was in before this one basically had one guy writing everything, and none were as successful. If I made a suggestion, I was told, 'You're the drummer, and I'm the genius.' "
"We're definitely anti-genius," Roeser says, smiling. "Unless you're Bob Dylan, that attitude generally fails. Collaborative efforts fly more over the long haul."
Urge Overkill's approach certainly seems to be flying these days. The group's 1993 Geffen Records debut, "Saturation," firmly established the Chicago group as a favorite of critics and the college-rock crowd.
Then Urge gained widespread attention when its darkly passionate version of the Neil Diamond chestnut "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon," from the band's 1992 EP "Stull," was featured memorably in last year's hit film "Pulp Fiction"--in the scene in which Uma Thurman's character has an unfortunate run-in with some high-powered heroin.
With this week's release of its second major-label album, "Exit the Dragon," Urge may be poised for even greater success ( see review, Page 64 )--although, as Onassis points out, the new record isn't the shiny, splashy affair its predecessor seemed to be on the surface.
"With 'Saturation,' I think the production kind of came before the songs," the drummer says. "People made such a big deal out of the way it sounded and the album cover art and the fact that it was this . . . Warhol-esque grand pop spectacle. There was a lot of emotional substance there, and some really sad songs, but that got overshadowed. This time we wanted to emphasize the sadder, bluesier, more romantic elements that have always been there in our music."
Not that Urge has ever been an excessively sober bunch. When Northwestern University undergrads Kato and Roeser formed the band's nucleus almost 10 years ago, they would show up for gigs sporting such flamboyant accessories as top hats and clown pants.
"We were trying to shock people," Roeser says with a shrug. "I mean, for all the supposed 'punk rock' that was going on in Chicago, the bands all dressed like cops. They all had the crew cuts, the black T-shirts, the boots, and they all looked the same. I thought, 'This is punk? This is think-for-yourself? We're gonna really bum some people out and, like, wear flippers onstage.' "
With original drummer Pat Byrne (whom Onassis replaced in 1989), Urge released its first EP, "Strange, I . . . ," on the independent label Ruthless Records in 1986. Rising producer Steve Albini--now famous for his work with Nirvana and PJ Harvey, among others--manned the boards. Urge switched labels shortly after that, moving to another indie called Touch & Go, but did two more albums with Albini. The group also enlisted Butch Vig, another fledgling modern rock fave (Nirvana, Soul Asylum), for 1990's "Americruiser."
After landing a deal with Geffen in 1992, Urge decided to record "Saturation" with a less alternative-centric production team: the Butcher Brothers, who were chosen based on their work with rap act Cypress Hill and stayed on for "Exit the Dragon," despite the band's desire for a lighter touch in the studio.
"The Butcher Brothers are jacks-of-all-trades," Blackie Onassis says. "They're not hung up on a specific sound, the way a lot of producers are. 'Saturation' sounded extra-produced because we wanted it to sound that way. But we knew that they could give us almost a live-demo quality if that's what we were going for. I mean, they've done everything from hard rock to hip-hop to Top 40. They're not stuck in one mode."
Onassis praises the much-ballyhooed Chicago scene that spawned Urge, for similar reasons of diversity: "There's a lot of attention being paid to Chicago suddenly. But you still can't put a label on the Chicago sound. I mean, think of the bands that have come out of there in the past few years. Veruca Salt's music is like a polar opposite to what Smashing Pumpkins are doing."
Adds Roeser: "Chicago is a big city with a lot of things to do and places to play--without being New York or L.A., where you can be under a microscope during your first show. You're not that isolated in Chicago, but you're isolated enough. So you can sort of labor in obscurity a little more."
Robert Smith, head of marketing at Geffen Records, is confident that Urge's days of laboring in obscurity are over.
"Urge Overkill has been around a lot longer than most people realize," Smith notes, "and I think these guys have an acute awareness of the musical culture around them. They have a wealth of talent as songwriters that isn't dependent on any one trend, and I think they've been ahead of the times for years. And now pop music is finally catching up with them."
But the members of Urge aren't taking any of their recent accomplishments or future prospects for granted. Roeser remembers a time not too long ago when the band's team spirit extended, by necessity, to living together--that is, when they had a place to live.
"In 1989, we were driving across the country with five bucks and nowhere to sleep," he recalls. "We sacrificed everything for music because we believed what we were doing was worthwhile. It wasn't a job, it was our way of life.
"Maybe that was sick, and I appreciate being able to have a life outside music now. But I think all the bands that have grown to elevate music to something special have gone through a period where they had to just dive into what they were doing because they had nothing else. I wouldn't go back and change the way we did it. Not for anything."