“He overdosed and was saved by an adrenalin shot”: How Urge Overkill went from being Steve Albini’s pet project to year-long parties and accidentally re-enacting that famous scene from Pulp Fiction

Urge Overkill and imagery from Pulp Fiction
(Image credit: Getty/Miramax)

In the summer of 1994, the three members of Urge Overkill were flown from their adopted home town of Chicago to Hollywood to watch a movie. Footing the bill was the upstart film company Miramax. Miramax’s largesse extended to hiring out a cinema for the sole use of the band’s three principals: guitarists/vocalists Nash Kato and Ed ‘The King’ Roeser and drummer Blackie Onassis

The film they had come to see was one on which Miramax had pinned all their hopes that year, as it was the eagerly anticipated second by wunderkind writer-director Quentin Tarantino. To soundtrack a key scene in his crime epic Pulp Fiction, Tarantino had chosen a track Urge Overkill had recorded two years earlier – a Neil Diamond cover, no less.

“This was months before Pulp Fiction got released. We had all seen Reservoir Dogs and were big fans, so we knew it was going to be a great ride,” Kato recalls of the screening. “The movie was so intense and engrossing, I think each of us completely forgot why we were there until the moment Uma Thurman went over to that Teac reel-to-reel tape machine, turned it on and out came [Urge Overkill’s] Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon.”

Before the year was out, Pulp Fiction had scorched itself indelibly into pop-culture folklore, and with it Urge Overkill’s insouciant, playful cover (originally recorded for their 1992 EP Stull) became a worldwide smash.

For the band it was a long, sometimes bumpy and often as not hand-to-mouth time in coming.

Rising up out of the still nascent Chicago punk scene in the mid-80s, the Urge, as they liked to be known, had made something of a name for themselves as much for the way they looked as for how they sounded.

Where their earliest records were loose, slapdash affairs, Kato, Roeser and, more latterly, Onassis adopted a singular uniform of matching suits and polo-neck jumpers, into which their ‘UO’ logo was finely stitched. They topped off this rakishness by swigging Martinis from elegant cocktail glasses.

“Back then there were a million punk rock bands all vying for the same brass ring,” explains Kato. “We needed a fast route to the front of the queue and were on a constant hunt for the next big gag. What a great one: this punk rock band that can’t really play, but they’ve got identical suits and come on shaking Martinis. It wasn’t a far cry from what we were doing off the clock, but we dressed it up for the cameras a bit and it worked. Very quickly people came to expect it of us.”

In 1991, the Urge got hand-picked to support Nirvana on their tour across the US and around Europe, just as Nevermind was blowing up. Soon after, they were also signed to Nirvana’s major label, Geffen, and being touted as the next ‘great white hopes’ of the alt.rock boom. The first album they recorded for Geffen, 1993’s Saturation, was their great leap forwards, so laced with arena-size choruses, wit and smarts that it came on like a Bond-movie Cheap Trick.

"We had made records for a six-pack and a bag of weed. All of a sudden we’d been handed half a million dollars..."

Nash Kato

Saturation seemed destined to blast off, but it never left the launch pad. That summer of 1994, they were meant to be prepping a follow-up, but Kato and Roeser were at loggerheads and Onassis in the grip of a ruinous heroin addiction. Tarantino’s intervention in their wayward career was as timely as it was unexpected, but ultimately it was not to be decisive. Like Pulp Fiction, the Urge didn’t do conventional happy endings.

“In terms of the internal band politic, Pulp Fiction was something we badly needed,” Roeser asserts. “But we wouldn’t have chosen for our most notable single a Neil Diamond cover with Liberace piano that was made for an obscure EP and kind of as an in-joke. The way it went was so appropriate and in tune with everything about the band, in that it wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Sure enough, within just a year, the Urge had burned through their good fortune and self-imploded. It was almost as if they had been following the clinching lyric to Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon: ‘Well, I’ve finally found what I’m a-looking for/But if they get their chance they’ll end it for sure/Surely would… Baby, I’ve done all I could.’

The Urge story began in 1985 on the campus of Northwestern University in the small city of Evanston, Illinois. Minnesota native Kato had arrived in town as an undergraduate art student. Back home he had attended the same high school as Prince, and grown up in thrall to the sounds of funk and R&B, pilfered from his elder brother’s extensive record collection. At university, he roomed with Lyle Prelar, guitarist in Minor Threat before he left Washington DC, and fell in with an older journalism major, the intense, the bespectacled Steve Albini, who was just then moulding his own confrontational punk band, Big Black. Through their combined influences, Kato found an outlet for his haphazard musicianship, and also a calling.

He put together a ragtag three-piece band to play at frat parties on and around campus, taking the name Urge Overkill from a lyric in the song Funkentelechy by his beloved George Clinton’s Parliament. This first version of the group proved to be short-lived since the bass player was on the point of graduating and Kato himself about to drop out of Northwestern. Fortuitously, Roeser, a fellow Minnesotan and a classic rock fan who had followed a girlfriend west, happened to go along to what was meant to be Urge’s last ever frat show. Afterwards, he got talking to their departing bassist, who gave him Kato’s number. Roeser called Kato and the band was revived.

“My memories of that band would be of Nash having the look of Dave Vanian of The Damned, and them performing very much in the style of X,” Roeser says now, his speaking voice low and slow, as opposed to Kato’s snare-shot rat-a-tat delivery.

“It was a conservative school, and this was the Reagan era, and this was pretty outrageous stuff, and I was pleasantly surprised to find another freak on campus. Plus, Nash was the funniest man I had ever met.”

“Ed was an odd bird, but so were we all,” says Kato. “That’s kind of what brought Urge together. We were kindred spirits. And it turned out he was even more pissed off than I was.”

Gigs off campus were hard to come by and intermittent, and the fledgling Urge grew used to rattling through their breakneck sets to disinterested audiences, near-as-dammit empty rooms or both. However, in Albini they had someone to spark off. Albini had begun taping Big Black sessions on a four-track machine set up in the bedroom of his college digs. Looking to develop his interest in sound recording, he found willing guinea pigs in the Urge.

In 1986, Albini produced Urge Overkill’s debut EP Strange, I, for local punk label Ruthless Records. Typical of so many future Albini productions, it was an altogether raw, splenetic and cacophonous affair. He repeated the job, and to much the same ends, on Urge’s brilliantly titled debut album of 1989, Jesus Urge Superstar. By then, both Big Black and Urge had been signed to trailblazing five-year-old Chicago indie label Touch & Go.

“Albini was the adult in the room,” says Roeser. “Our main function was comic relief. We just kind of rolled along with our idea of the band as a fun thing. At soul, Nash and I were musicians and interested in tune-craft and referencing things past, whereas Steve basically held the view that anything pre-1976 was shite, full stop. Although we did get a few concessions out of him, like Black Sabbath and ZZ Top.”

“I don’t think we even talked about the recording process with Albini,” Kato continues. “We were just happy to play the occasional party for beer change. We all learned from each other, very much through trial and error.” 

Nevertheless, the Urge did advance – and quickly. On their second album, they wanted to fashion a sound that retained a punk urgency, but with a more listener-friendly, classic rock dimension. Exit Albini, much to his annoyance, and enter the thirty-something Butch Vig, who had been working with their Touch & Go labelmates Killdozer out of his Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin. Vig gave the Urge an added burnish and coherence, and the resulting Americruiser album included a college hit in the stomping form of Ticket To LA.

Americruiser was made with Jack ‘Jaguar’ Watt, the latest in a succession of drummers. When Watt also bailed soon after the album was released, Kato and Roeser found themselves in a bind on the eve of their first national tour. Arriving for a crisis meeting in a local taco joint, they happened upon John Rowan, better known on the Chicago scene as Blackie Onassis, a jobbing drummer, who at the time had nothing better to do than hop aboard the Urge van and criss-cross the States for the next six weeks.

“Blackie was an interesting guy,” says Roeser. “He was a weirdo, and a sort of out-of-control figure, but he had his own style. He would be shirtless, black gloves on and his hair all sticking out, a real maniac. Nash and I were okay with his playing, it was just his personality that was too much.”

For punk rock in America, 1991 was a watershed year. At its outset, Urge teamed up with Albini again to make The Supersonic Storybook. Comprising nine pointed songs, including a cover of Hot Chocolate’s Emmaline, the album was recorded in a week-long burst after hours at a downtown Chicago studio where Albini was also working as a janitor.

“The owners gave him the keys from six in the evening to six the next morning,” says Kato. “We burned the midnight oil there, and that affected Albini’s standing with these people – they had thought we were going in the studio for just a couple of hours each night – and he took some heat for that. We had this great record, but it was the proverbial last straw.”

Following the release of the record, Urge hit the road with Nirvana. By the time they got back home, the success of Nevermind had thrown open the doors to the mainstream for just about every indie-label band touting three chords and the truth. 

Stull, Urge’s next record, was their last for Touch & Go. Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon, their Neil Diamond cover, ended up being the opening track only because Kato and Roeser hadn’t written enough songs of their own even for an EP.

“Blackie happened to hear the Diamond tune a couple of days before we left to go record,” explains Roeser. “I don’t think collectively we ever listened back to the source material. It’s such a simple song that we started messing around with it from memory. It was done on a lark, but it was eerie how close our version got to the original.”

After that, Geffen Records called. They teamed the band with production duo siblings Phil and Joe Nicolo, professionally known as The Butcher Brothers, who had worked with Cypress Hill and The Fugees, among others. Recorded at the brothers’ Philadelphia studio, Saturation, a near-perfect balance between punk spunk and pop-rock melody, was fired by such short, sharp, stinging tracks as Sister Havana and Positive Bleeding.

“The first impression I had of them was: ‘Are these guys for real, or is this the nineties version of The Monkees?’” Joe Nicolo says. “I quickly found out that, yes, that was what they were really like, and it was what made them unique. The making of that record was definitely in the altered state days, so everything is a little hazy, but it really was done from the gut and the heart, and not so much in terms of playing proficiency, if you know what I mean.”

“It was the ultimate ‘kids in a candy store’ scenario,” adds Kato. “We had made so many records for a six-pack and a bag of weed. All of a sudden we’d been handed half a million dollars and told: ‘Go make a record, kid.’ What I remember now was that we spent the whole time laughing. It was a joyous time, and without the drug issues or other things that eventually caught up with us.”

Upon hearing the finished record, their paymasters Geffen promised them the earth. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, a younger, more disciplined pop-rocking band also just signed to the label stole their thunder: while Saturation peaked on the Billboard Hot 200 at No.146, Weezer’s self-titled Blue Album grew wings on the back of such ingratiating hits as The Sweater Song and Buddy Holly.

“Weezer were well-rehearsed and more easily digestible for people who were possibly twelve to fourteen years old,” Roeser says stoically, “whereas we toured Saturation really without the skills or financial backing to put together something that was reflective of our record. We were a scrappy punk rock band that played too fast. That was our truth.”

“It’s a safe bet that not everyone who came to those shows got the experience of hearing that record,” Kato adds, chuckling.

Coming off the road, Kato began a relationship with Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and, in Roeser’s words, “went on a year-long party. They were basically jet-setting, as I tried to come up with songs for the next record”.

At the same time, Onassis’s ongoing flirtation with heroin had become something more serious and debilitating, and so when Urge returned to Philadelphia at the beginning of 1996, even aided by the tailwind from Pulp Fiction, they were running on empty. Remarkably, the album squeezed out of those sessions turned out to be their masterpiece. Underneath the studio gloss, it fused a dark, black soul to its hooks, and it beat with a despairing heart, too much for it to ever find a wider audience. The title they came up with for it, Exit The Dragon, was a giveaway to its looming background issues, and the album came and went without fanfare.

Not long after, Kato was at a party when what he thought was cocaine racked out on a tabletop turned out to be heroin. He overdosed, was rushed to hospital and given a life-saving adrenalin shot. He had inadvertently re-enacted the very scene from Pulp Fiction that his band had put their music to. For Urge Overkill as a band, it was the signal for the end credits to roll.

“Both Nash and I weren’t firing on all cylinders by then,” says Roeser. “And Blackie had a serious problem that the record company knew about. The president of the label had Nash and me sit down. He told us they would keep our contract and commit to doing two more records with the two of us. Nash and I looked at each other, and we each just said no. In hindsight, we probably could have worked things out. At the time, our differences were such that I didn’t think we could possibly produce something good without somebody ending up dead.”

After Urge, Roeser passed through a couple of flickering projects. One was L.I.M.E., alongside former Jesus Lizard man Jim Kimball; the other was Electric Airlines with his brother John. Kato laid low for four years, then re-emerged with a solid solo album, Debutante, that included six songs co-written with Onassis.

Then in 2004, and after the better part of a decade apart and having barely spoken to each other in the intervening period, Kato and Roeser re-formed Urge for a tour. Onassis wasn’t invited along to join the newly configured five-piece.

“I haven’t spoken to Blackie for maybe ten years,” Roeser said in 2018. “There was no relationship between Nash and me for years. I wish we could have been more mature and realised how common it was what we were going through.”

The reunion held together, and in 2011 Urge released a new album, Rock & Roll Submarine, on the band’s own label, picking up where Exit The Dragon left off. In 2022, they released Oui, with many of the songs written in the Rock & Roll Submarine sessions and featuring a cover version of Wham’s Freedom. Like stowaways from a now-vanished, golden but blemished era, Urge Overkill sailed on, bloodied but unbowed. 

“When we toured with Nirvana, Kurt in particular was more confused and confounded than anyone by their overnight success,” Kato reflects. “Every band aspires to have global exposure, but, you know, be careful what you wish for, because it really ate him alive.

“With us, we went from having a van to a proper tour bus, and we had never for a minute thought that any of that would ever happen for our band. So we just enjoyed the fuck out of the ride.”

Update: The death of Blackie Onassis was announced this week. Kato commented: "The music we made, it was the three of us. That will always live on. He was part of that journey, some of the most exciting chapters in the book of Urge. We’ll always have fond memories." 

Paul Rees

Paul Rees been a professional writer and journalist for more than 20 years. He was Editor-in-Chief of the music magazines Q and Kerrang! for a total of 13 years and during that period interviewed everyone from Sir Paul McCartney, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen to Noel Gallagher, Adele and Take That. His work has also been published in the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Evening Standard, the Sunday Express, Classic Rock, Outdoor Fitness, When Saturday Comes and a range of international periodicals.