Urge Overkill has its own pop path

March 25, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Urge Overkill has always been a high-concept band.

Not only does the band have a sound -- a crunchy, tuneful approach that does for alternative rock what Cheap Trick did for power pop -- but it has a look, a logo, a design concept. Always has, in fact, from its first indie EP, "Strange, I . . . ," to its current major-label effort, "Saturation."

"That's what drew me to the band," admits drummer Blackie Onassis. "I joined in '89, and they had already been around for two or three years. But what drew me was that their packaging was so cool. They really took the time."

"All the packaging and the design is out of the mind of Nash," he adds, referring to front man Nash Kato. "He's the graphic genius behind the band. Everything, from the suits to the look of the records, came from him."

In fact, the Chicago-based trio was famous for its exaggerated mod outfits, replete with oversized medallions and matching wide-lapel suits. But beginning with the video for "Positive Bleeding," the band adopted a new aesthetic -- an all-white jumpsuit look that seems like something out of "The Jetsons."

"That's based upon Italian design from the '60s," says Onassis, over the phone from Asbury Park, N.J. "We're just so into '60s futurism. It's our thing, you know what I mean? When people say, 'Why don't you wear the suits anymore?' it's because that's not '60s futurism. We're on a different trip."

Urge Overkill's insistence on going its own way has led to some problems in the past, particularly with producers. "A lot of producers have such a dogmatic style," says Onassis. "They want things to sound one way -- their way -- because their name is going on the record. So they have this image to live up to, you know?

"And at the smaller-label level, you have more egomaniacs, because people are trying to make a name for themselves. But in the end, your music should be what you want it to sound like."

One producer the band had enormous trouble with was Steve Albini, a fellow Chicagoan whose credits include albums for Nirvana, P. J. Harvey and the Pixies. "He had done a record for us before. He basically took our songs and gave them his sound, and none of us were happy with it. That was 'Jesus Urge Superstar.'

"So when we came back to do 'Supersonic Storybook,' he tried to do it again, and we were like: 'No. We're going to keep the guitars clean, we're going to keep the vocals loud, and we're going to put some bass in the mix.' He got all ticked off. At the end, he took his name off the record."

Indeed, Albini has spoken ill of Urge Overkill ever since, most recently deriding the band in a lengthy letter to the Chicago Reader. But Onassis reports he and his band mates ended up having the last laugh. "We ended up producing it ourselves," he says. "Even though a lot of people think that's one of the best records he's ever done, we produced it."

For its major-label debut, "Saturation," the band decided to avoid alterna-rock producers altogether and opted to work with hip-hop specialists the Butcher Brothers.

"The Butcher, more than anyone else, wanted our ideas on tape," says Onassis. "He and his brother, Phil, were the most likable, amiable producers we'd ever worked with. They tried anything. They said no to nothing. If it stunk, it stunk, and it didn't make it. But at least they were willing to try.

"We're really into experimentation," he adds, "especially in the studio, and it was the first time we actually had some real time to spend in the studio. We could have spent a really long time recording, but I just don't think any of us wanted to do that. When you're used to making albums in a week, to be given three or four weeks seems like plenty of time."

One of the things the band learned from working with the Butcher Brothers was the importance of playing a few notes and making them count. "My biggest problem in playing derives from the fact that I don't have enough confidence in simplicity," says Onassis. "If I hear a groove, I'll think, 'Oh, gee, I need to add some sort of fancy fill here, because we're losing people in the back row.' That's so untrue.

"If you have confidence, you can play the simplest thing, as long as you have synchronicity with the other guys in the group. I always compare a good band to a good basketball team. If you watch basketball, they get into a groove, they start to flow. Each guy is doing what he's supposed to do -- they're not overstepping their bounds, they're not understepping."

Likewise, Urge Overkill tries neither to overstep nor understep. Unlike other alterna-rockers, the Urge has no interest in following current trends or in conforming to collegiate notions of cool. And even though many of the songs on "Saturation" are catchy enough to snare mainstream listeners, the band refuses to make its content simple or obvious enough to reach the lowest common denominator of the mass audience.

"I don't think it's so bad to confuse people," says Onassis. "It keeps things interesting. Besides, we feel that there's this blatant hole in rock 'n' roll right now. Yeah, there are bands that get on the radio, bands that write good songs and rock, but where's the band that captivates and confuses, confounds and questions? Where's that band?

"Maybe that's our role."

Urge Overkill

When: Saturday, March 26, 8 p.m.

Where: The Concert Hall at Camden Yards (formerly Hammerjacks)

Tickets: $11.50

Call: (410) 659-7625 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets

Get the Urge

To hear excerpts from Urge Overkill's current album, "Saturation," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6197 after you hear the greeting.

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