Urge Overkill

by Carl Wiser

On "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon," touring with Nirvana, and the Chicago "Guyville" scene.

King Roeser (L) and Nash Kato (R) of Urge Overkill

Quentin Tarantino filled Pulp Fiction with great songs from the '60s: "Misirlou" by Dick Dale, "Son Of A Preacher Man" by Dusty Springfield, "You Never Can Tell" by Chuck Berry. But instead of using Neil Diamond's 1967 original version of "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" for the scene where Uma Thurman sings along to it before overdosing on heroin, he went with the Urge Overkill rendition from 1992. Tarantino discovered the song in a Dutch record store and knew it was right for the film. The Urge cover keeps the retro vibe but gives it a more dire, almost menacing feel, making it Pulp Fiction-friendly.

Nash Kato and King Roeser, who both write songs, sing lead, and play various instruments, formed Urge Overkill in 1984 at Northwestern University. Their 1987 debut album was recorded by Steve Albini (Pixies, Bush); their next one, in 1990, was produced by Butch Vig (Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins). In 1991, they got a gig opening for Nirvana just as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was breaking. They built a following in Chicago but thought the scene was a "sausage fest" (Kato's term), and labeled it "Guyville," a term Liz Phair appropriated for her 1993 landmark album, Exile In Guyville.

The band had a signature look, with velvet jackets and huge medallions emblazoned with their logo. The same critics that heaped praise on acts like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. had venom for Urge. The Trouser Press write-up from that time calls them "conceptual super-poseurs" and derides their "camp-hip-cred '70s crud-rock pretensions." Despite the critical headwinds, they were on the rise when they got their big break with Pulp Fiction, and it looked like their next album, Exit The Dragon (released on Geffen), would be huge. It wasn't. In 1997 they broke up and didn't return to action until 2004, when they started touring again. They didn't release another album until 2011, and now 11 years later, they're back with a cover of George Michael's "Freedom!", the first single from their album Oui, due February 11, 2022.

Here, Nash and King talk about the Guyville scene and explain why they recorded "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" in the first place. But we'll start by having each of them talk about a standout track from Oui.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Nash, can you please pick out a song on Oui that you feel very strongly about, and talk about that song?

Nash Kato: The one I feel most strongly about is "How Sweet The Light." I had sort of "wiped out," as we all did in our own ways. I literally saw the light one day. I took a stroll and said, "Oh, things aren't so bad. Maybe it's worth sticking around."

It encapsulates what I was going through and how I was feeling at the time.

Songfacts: You sing about how you "almost crossed over" on the song.

Nash: Yeah, things were that bad. I was living in LA and I could not scare up any game. The money dried up, and I've never harbored any suicidal tendencies, but it got to the point where I was like, "I don't want to do this," but it seemed like the most convenient way out of my dilemma.

I was thinking about things that are worth sticking around for in life, and I thought: pizza, beer, football - but none of them sang that well, so I thought, "My girlfriend's tits!" That's worth sticking around for.

It's sort of a life-affirmation tune. But it's from the heart. I was surviving that and I got a song out of it.

Songfacts: What was the timeframe?

Nash: This would have been mid-2000s. Somewhere in there. I really was at desperate ends at the time.

Songfacts: Was there something specific that pulled you out of that funk?

Nash: Yes. I don't want to name names, but a very close friend in Hollywood, a successful actor, he swooped in and saved my ass. I really was left for dead. He swung in with his checkbook and I was able to turn it around. I left LA, but it was an interesting experience. I survived and proceeded to continue with the band.

Songfacts: King, same question. What's a song on the album you feel very strongly about?

King Roeser: We were going to call this song "It's Killing Me," but we did some last-minute changes to bring the tune around, and now it's called "A Necessary Evil." It's less a specific tune and more of an ur.

Nash: And, by the way, my favorite track on the album.

King: It's a protagonist discussing what he might say to a person he's in a relationship with. When you think about classic relationship songs, I've always been a fan of tunes that are unclear. I like that the song doesn't have much of a subject and is more based in feeling. It has less of a central conceit and is more a feeling. I don't always realize how great something you have is until it's gone or is going to be taken away. 

This is a song we liked that had an unclear message and needed a couple more ideas put in that would add some dynamics to it without spelling it out. It's a bit of a commentary on songs like "Wild Horses" that have a saying that is kind of a colloquialism. People say, "It's a necessary evil." This is a situation where the necessary evil is how it's not great to think about things in a very specific way all the time. Leaving things open-ended is OK. Things may not be perfect, but that's a necessary evil. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Songfacts: Can you tell me the story behind "Sister Havana"?

Nash: It sounded like a hook: "sis-ter Ha-vana." Then the lyrics more or less wrote themselves. We didn't have any firm stance on America's relationship with Cuba, but it sang well and sounded like a hook. There was no political commitment.

King: In hindsight, you can see it as Urge's first foray into geopolitics. The protagonist, Urge, or the US, is trying to woo the woman, who could be Cuba. Like, "Come around to my way of thinking."

In our video we certainly had some suggestions of that as an overall topic. It was an exotic idea to run with, and we thought if we used it for the video idea, maybe we could get down to Cuba and have that excuse so we could go check out the country. It's noted for music and for being culturally different. We're from the cold streets of Chicago with not a lot of smiles going on, so it works on various levels. It's part of our fascination with other places, other countries, but the person in the song is using his wiles to impress somebody else.

Nash: In the '90s, labels were throwing money everywhere and we had this massive video budget, so we decided to fly down to Cuba and shoot this video, but we were advised to shoot it instead in Little Havana in Miami, which is what we did.

King: We had a hell of a time. Probably a better time than we would have had in Cuba with all the red tape.

But that's a great opening line: "Come around to my way of thinkin'." That was our statement when we came out with our big record. It was your invitation into Urge. We're going to take you on this trip, just come around to where we are. It worked on a lot of levels.

Nash: I recall, we were in Frankfurt opening for Nirvana on their Nevermind tour [November 12, 1991], and I had that riff and the line "Come around to my way of thinkin'." At the soundcheck, Nirvana - at least two of the three of them - played it with us. We only had that riff, but we played it for like 10 minutes, and that's really how it was born. They dug it and we did too.

King: We got to see them play a bunch, and we were like, "These guys write these songs that are so easy to play. Why can't we write something like that!" Something you could just stand there and play - you don't have to think that hard.

Nash: They were so inspirational as far as how easy they made it seem.

Songfacts: What era was this when you were touring with Nirvana?

King: This was in the fall of 1991. Before the record [Nevermind] came out, it was expected to sell maybe as much as Sonic Youth. That was the big hope. If you can believe it, they were going to put out "Come As You Are" first, but they came up with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" kind of late, and somebody came around to their senses.

We ended up in Frankfurt because we did the middle of the US before they were international. It was right when the record was coming out and nobody knew who they were. We could tell something was happening because jocks were coming to the shows.

Nash: There was an electricity in the air.

King: But somebody dropped out of their European tour. We were going about our business that winter and we got a call: Can we fly to Berlin tomorrow and open for Nirvana?

I remember showing up in Berlin at the last minute. We were late, and there were like 20 people at the show, it was the craziest thing. But then we went to other parts of Europe and we ended up having a hell of a time. We ended up in Rome the night they kicked Michael Jackson out of the #1 spot. 1 We all had a big meal, then we went out and Kurt nearly killed himself on one of those scooters they rented. I remember him saying, "That's the most fun I've ever had in my life."

But we got lucky because another band dropped out, and I think Nirvana wanted to continue the Urge party. When they asked us, we were like, "We'll drop everything." That turned into a memorable part of our career.

Songfacts: When they launched into "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 1991 before anyone had really heard it, what was the reaction?

Nash: Instant mosh pit. Every night.

King: When we went anywhere it had been heard, it was a mania. It was like The Beatles going into "I Want To Hold Your Hand." I've never seen anything like it.

Songfacts: King, you talked about the cold, unsmiling confines of Chicago, which got me thinking about the Urge song "Goodbye To Guyville." Can you talk about the Guyville concept?

King: In our minds, life was a never-ending cocktail party where we would shake up a huge martini at precisely 5 p.m. every night and then go across the street to The Rainbow. But there were sobering times when we'd walk into The Rainbow and there's 20 guys in there, no women! It's like, "What kind of town is this?" There were no women in the bands, no women to talk to.

It was because of this industrial aesthetic. Like rock and roll was some kind of power tool you could wield and get your manly feelings out. That wasn't the rock we were listening to. That was never our idea of music. It was music as the domain of men, and that song was our ode to say, "We're done with this. We don't think this is how it should be."

Nash: It was a total sausage fest. It seemed like a constant frat party. All the women on the scene were imported - they didn't come from Chicago. There were no women, and we were over the whole Guyville thing.

King: I think the Touch And Go2 aesthetic was a repellent to the better half of our species, and rightly so. We wanted to write an anthem against that.

Nash: Everything we did as a young band, we were always trying to appeal to the opposite sex, but all we got at our shows were guys. It was frustrating. When we finally had a way out, we said, "Goodbye to Guyville. Thanks for the memories."

King: The tune is based on a Sam Cooke, Otis Redding-style love song. It's kind of a pleading song in the vein of a tearjerker. That's what we wanted to be, more like Otis Redding where the song is going to break everybody's heart, not just people who want to build a garage behind their house.

Urge released "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" on their 1992 EP, Stull, which also has "Goodbye To Guyville" on the tracklist.
Songfacts: If you're trying to appeal to a female audience, a great way to do it is to cover a Neil Diamond song.

Nash: That song put us on the map.

King: Eventually it worked. Many of those close to us thought we'd lost our minds.

Nash: We had no idea this was all going to happen.

King: That was kind of an afterthought. We drove out to New Jersey to record with the Bongwater guy, Kramer. We had four songs that we wrote and then we did "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" because we were out of songs.

Nash: I'll never forget, Kramer, a great producer, when we laid it down, he said, "This is your hit."

King: We said, "You're crazy. We don't have hits, we're on Touch And Go." He saw something we didn't. Sure enough, the record did well and the song hit a nerve because it was in the movie. We lucked out. I don't think the song would be part of history without it being associated with the movie. But I think it made the movie because of the odd, haunting quality we gave it.

It got a second life. That record was part of our past. We got a call that the guy who did Reservoir Dogs was doing another movie. We got to screen the movie, and they had to convince us to put it in there because we were interested in our own songs. But if you notice the soundtrack, there's nobody else from our generation.

Nash: When we got the call that they wanted to use the song we just assumed they wanted the Neil Diamond original, but they wanted our version. We couldn't believe it.

We loved Reservoir Dogs. We watched it when we were recording Saturation [1993 album]. We went to the movie house in Philly.

Songfacts: Please explain the Oui track "Totem Pole."

King: Nash, please explain "Totem Pole" to me.

Nash: Years of touring these cities and towns on a nightly basis, it's not every port, but you would have a girl that you would look up. And after years of touring, those girls would just sort of disappear. Where you remember them living they no longer live. One day they're not there anymore and you don't have a number, you don't know where they went or what became of them.

The image of the totem pole is a reminder of some sort of milestone or landmark that you could remember where they live. We were always trying to meet by the totem pole.

January 19, 2022

More at urgeoverkill.com

Photos: Jerod Herzog

Footnotes:

  • 1] King's timeline is a little off. Urge Overkill opened for Nirvana in Rome on November 19, 1991. Nevermind booted Michael Jackson's Dangerous album from #1 on January 11, 1992. Nirvana played Saturday Night Live that night. (back)
  • 2] Touch and Go Records was the Chicago indie label Urge was signed to until they got a major-label deal with Geffen in 1992. Their other acts included Butthole Surfers, Big Black, and The Jesus Lizard. (back)

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Comments: 1

  • C.foxx from IowaI’ll be at a totem pole somewhere.
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