By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
"It's like a comedy, really," says Urge vocalist Steve Ewing, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, where he's lived for a year-and-a-half. "It has nothing to do with the song. It's definitely a visual thing, like an infomercial you'd be watching at 3 o'clock in the morning and some guy is going, 'It doesn't stick!'"
"It's pretty damn good -- I love it," adds guitarist Jerry Jost in a later interview that finds him seated next to bassist Karl Grable in a conference room at the RFT offices. "I'm glad we did it. We've always had just performance videos, and they're cool, but there's something kind of phony about standing there acting like you're playing. We wanted to do something where we were in the video but doing something other than just playing our instruments.
"We're a little more goofy than rock stars you see in videos standing in an alleyway or something," says Grable. "That's just not our style."
Just what the Urge's style might be these days is becoming increasingly hard to tell -- not that there's anything wrong with that. The new album is rich with textures that draw on such varied musical genres as funk, ska, metal and punk -- not just over the course of the album but within the span of individual songs. The 11 tracks on Too Much Stereo are a little like the local weather -- if you don't like what's happening now, stick around for a few minutes and things will change.
"One thing we wanted to get away from big-time was the ska label," Jost says, noting that the popular notion of that being the Urge's primary direction had limited them creatively. "On the record before this one (1998's Master of Styles), we had all these different ideas of things we wanted to do, but we were too worried about still sounding like us. On this record, we just said, 'Screw it.' We just went for it and just wrote what we liked instead of trying to fit into, you know the 'Urge sound' or whatever. We just did it."
"I think it's good for bands to be like that, to move in different directions," Ewing says. "I think of David Bowie in particular. In a lot of his songs, he has a technique that he uses where he shifts gears someplace in the song. You know it's coming -- you don't know exactly what it is, but you know it's coming. That's exciting. Just when you think a song is going to taper off, it shifts gears. It's a good thing to be able to do that."
Part of the credit for the band's ability to assert itself and move forward creatively goes to producer Cliff Magness, who had previously worked with acts completely out of the Urge's orbit, such as Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Al Jarreau and Hanson.
"He's more a songwriting guy than he is an engineer," says Jost. "Our last producer was basically a really good engineer. He had a lot of ideas, but musically he didn't offer as much. It was nice with Cliff, because we know how to make a record sound good, because we've done it before. But it was cool to have someone who could make suggestions about the songs beyond just the production of it."
"The guy we had last time is a good friend of ours," Grable says, "but he was such a stickler. We'd do things probably 15 times, to the point where I was questioning myself whether I could actually play my instrument. This time we went right ahead and blew it out. Our drummer was done in a day-and-a-half. I was done in a few hours."
"We were more prepared going into the studio, though," says Jost. "We spent a year-and-a half just writing and getting songs together, so by the time we actually recorded, we were really ready to go."
Much of that time was spent with the band in two separate cities -- Ewing in LA and Grable, Jost, trombonist Matt Kwiatkowski, drummer John Pessoni and saxophonist Bill Reiter here in St. Louis -- yet that doesn't seem to have affected the group's creative process much. "It hasn't changed things at all," Ewing claims, noting that his move to LA was undertaken "to shift my life in a different direction.
"When we're not touring or making a record, we're not together that much anyway," he says. "Everyone has their own thing going on. Besides, we made the record out here, so while we were working on it, they spent most of their time here."
"It's not that big of a deal," Grable agrees. "All it really means is that when he's in St. Louis, he has to hang out at his mom's house (laughs)."
In some ways, Ewing's move has actually spurred the band on to new creative heights. Because Ewing is the chief lyricist, his new home has given him a variety of new topics to write about. On Too Much Stereo, a prime example can be found in "Welcome to Gunville," a topical track about violence and its saturation coverage by the LA media.
"I guess living in St. Louis, you see the news and it's pretty mellow," Ewing says. "Out here, every day there's a shootout or a helicopter chase. Every day! And then, with kids and guns, and schools out here -- you're starting to hear more and more of kids threatening teachers and violence in schools. I was just so overwhelmed by it -- it was like, 'Oh my God.' So I put it down on paper and just kind of ran with it lyrically and idea-wise. I don't know where the 'trigger-happy or trigger-sad' phrase came from -- it just kinda popped out of me -- but that's where I got the idea, just from sitting down and watching television, watching the news.
"Of course, that stuff doesn't just happen here; it happens in small rural communities, too, but it's just that they glorify it here on the news. They didn't start doing that whole helicopter thing until O.J., and now it's like every fucking day."
Another significant shift for the band is mostly invisible to fans but could act as a make-or-break factor for their career. In the time between Master of Styles and Too Much Stereo, the Urge's record label, Immortal, switched affiliations from the Sony-connected Epic label to Virgin, which is distributed by Universal.
That means a new and, until recently, unfamiliar set of people will be working to promote and publicize the band, a potentially disastrous situation if not handled right by all concerned parties.
So far, the band members report, so good.
"Actually, it's been an incredibly positive thing," Ewing says. Working with a new machine can be trying, I guess, because you're learning who's who at the label, etc., but everyone is totally working together on this project, and we're one of the only rock projects that Virgin is working on right now, so all eyes and efforts are really on Urge. It's really nice. I feel like we're getting the attention we deserve at the label."
"I'm really impressed with the people at Immortal Records, because they've showed us nothing but faith from day one," Jost adds. "They came to us and said, 'Stay with us and everything is going to be cool,' and it is."
St. Louis fans who've followed the group since their early days back in the late '80s can breathe a sigh of relief. Despite the band's mocking new video, the Urge's integrity is something that is still not up for sale.
The Urge performs a four-night stand at Mississippi Nights, July 20-23.