Pete Murray - vocals/programming
Neil Godfrey - guitars/programming
Jerry Oliviera - guitars
Dan Ogden - bass
James "Fed" Carroll - drums
Progress, the title of Ultraspank's second Epic album, means many different things to the California quintet. "It reflects the way the band's going, the way we've gone person-ally, even the way music has just changed in the short time between the two albums," says guitarist Jerry Oliviera. "It's also a statement on where we're heading together as a society. The cover is a real photo, from a genetic engineering project, of a mouse with a human ear growing out of its back. It's supposed to be like, 'we're growing ears out of animals' backs…yeah, that's progress.'"
Society may be headed in some strange directions, but Ultraspank is clearly moving forward. Progress is as heavy and assaultive as 1998's self-titled debut, but with enhanced songwriting, a new drummer, more complex instrumentation, and a triumvirate of studio superstars (producer Peter Collins, engineer Toby Wright, and mixer extraordinaire Andy Wallace) behind the board. It's is a major step forward from a band that could have easily imploded the last time around.
"On the last major tour we did, with Sevendust, the drives were horrible," explains Oliviera. "We were driving ourselves, so we'd be driving all night and day, then pop up at the venue totally exhausted and have to give our all for a show, then get in the van and do it all over again. That wore on people's nerves, and people started getting at each other's throats, but we became a stronger band out of it."
Ultraspank's journey began in 1991, in Santa Barbara, where Dan Ogden joined Pete Murray and original drummer Tyler Clark in a speed metal act called Indica. They got as far as an appearance on MTV as 1992's Best College Rock Band, but by 1995, they had been reborn as Spank, concentrating more on grooves and less on all-out metal, while adding Neil Godfrey and Oliviera in the process. A copyright glitch required a name change to Ultraspank when the group signed with Epic in '96.
A solid year of touring-all in a van, driving themselves-backed up the band's first album, as Ultraspank hit the road on OzzFest '98 (with Ozzy, Tool, Limp Bizkit, and others), as well as on stints with Sevendust, Soulfly, Incubus, Korn, and Rob Zombie. By the end, the band was slightly fried, but proud of their accomplishments. "We definitely planted the seed last time," says Pete Murray. "We got around the coun-try five times, and we were always the opening act of three or four bands, but we definitely met some kids and had some great shows, which we see paying off now. We're also way more positive now and people feel it."
Things weren't so positive immediately after Ultraspank came off the road. "For a while, we were definitely worried: 'Oh, fuck, is this it?' continues Murray. "The biggest barrier we crossed was just putting that aside and saying, 'You know what? This is an amazing opportunity.' We just said fuck it, let's have fun, and do what we really want to do. I wanted to be able to look back and say there's nothing on this record I regret, there's nothing that I wanted to do that I didn't get to do. And no matter what happens, we have that."
Working on new material all through last year, the band had several specific goals for their second effort. "I wanted to go further out on the melodic tip," says Murray. "As a band, our groove is one of the things we pride ourselves on the most, but there's a lot more melody on this record. It's not happy melody, but it's still emotional music."
"When we wrote all these songs, it was a real heavy experience for us. We got a lot of emotion into the music, the lyrics, and the melodies, and just explored that further."
"We had a lot more time to experiment, whereas we didn't on the first one," adds Oliviera. "There's a song called 'Where' that starts off with an acoustic guitar, and we'd never used an acoustic before. Since we already used programming, we were definitely into going more heavily into that on some songs, using the technology to our advantage."
"I think there's sonic qualities in the programming that you can't get out of a standard bass-guitar-drums band," says Murray, who does the bulk of the programming in addition to singing. "We don't overuse it, but it fills little spots and adds some nice flavor, without becoming the driving force behind the band. It's just another instrument."
On the lyrical side, Pete Murray used his own music business experiences of the past two years to fuel what he calls a "personal empowerment" record.
"Not to sound like Tony Robbins," says the singer with a laugh, "But when I was writ-ing the lyrics, we were dealing with the fact that there's a business side to what we do that sometimes clouds the bottom line, which is the music."
"But we realized that we're in a very unique position. We get to make music, which is the greatest thing ever, and even though things didn't go as smoothly for us as for other bands that started at the same time, we're still doing this for a living. So the record's just sort of about getting knocked down and picking yourself back up and saying, 'This is what I wanna do. I made this choice, and I'm doing it.'"
As a result, Progress is an album filled with self-confidence and brimming with bold, aggressive, but accessible music. Murray's vocals run the gamut from melodic asides to gut-wrenching screams, while his samples weave in and out of the intricate web spun by the band's razor-sharp guitars and kinetic rhythm section. It's familiar and brand-new all at once, moving Ultraspank and heavy music itself into a whole new realm.
"We're not really trying to follow in anyone's footsteps," concludes Jerry Oliviera. "We really want to make our own mark. We want to have that different sound so that when you hear us on the radio, you're not gonna say, 'Oh, who's this? Sounds like…' We want you to turn it up and go, 'Wow, this must be Ultraspank.'"