The legendary frontman of The Urge discusses his time on tour, the St. Louis music scene, and the rise of Steve’s Hot Dogs.
When I discovered The Urge in my younger years, it didn’t fully register with me that I was listening to a homegrown act that was crushing it on the international stage, and that’s a compliment. For all the groups that really grabbed me as a young musician in the late 90s–Incubus, Ben Folds Five, Rage, Bad Religion, and countless others–The Urge was heavy in the rotation for me, not because they were local but because they kicked ass. Now, as an adult who’s made the decision to plant roots and ride it out here, Steve Ewing’s story of continued success in St. Louis is important to me.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Steve Ewing’s early musical journey in St. Louis sounded a lot like my own, just ten years earlier. After all, Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and I attended the same high school where we first played with bands (decades apart, thank you), and we apparently both dropped out of SIUE. As for Steve, he grew up in a musical family with a father who played trumpet in the military (mine did theater there) and a mother who sang (same).
“Music was always in the house,” Steve says. “That was something my mom and I connected to pretty frequently…Being in the kitchen or being at home, there was always music on and we’d sing. It was something that was just there. You just did it.”
By the time he was old enough to really do something about his passion, Steve had discovered a wide variety of genres including reggae, hip hop, ska, and punk, and the rock band life was calling out to him. Where I was wrapping up my rockstar aspirations at the end of high school, Steve was just getting started. After bouncing around for only a short time on the local music scene, the stars aligned, and he joined The Urge.
I jokingly asked how pissed the other high school bands must have been, struggling to get going when along comes The Urge.
“It was actually a really good time,” Steve assured me. “There were some other bands like Sinister Dane, y’know, Fragile Porcelain Mice, Corporate Humour, and there were some other punk bands that were around at the same time, all coming out of, like, Webster Groves, North County, Clayton, there was a lot of, like, young, high school bands that were doing some cool stuff, playing at bars. It was actually a really good time.”
As it happened, I’d already been a fan of Fragile Porcelain Mice when I took frontman Scott Randall’s Local History class at Collinsville High School in about 2002.
Steve pushed hard with The Urge when the opportunity arose. The band started touring in the early 90s and spent most of a decade alternating between studio work and performing far and wide with heavy hitters like Korn and Incubus (all three were signed to Immortal Records). By 2000, The Urge was unquestionably mainstream with singles heard on MTV shows and on PlayStation Underground discs–yes, those were the measuring sticks at that moment. Just before 2002, the band parted ways for the first time. They’ve performed off and on around St. Louis ever since.
A firm believer in variety at this point, Steve started releasing solo work, covers, and collaborations (lots of which is on Spotify). He relocated for a time to the West Coast after the steady weather and big city experience spoke to him while touring. It wasn’t until he and his wife were expecting that he decided to return to St. Louis to raise a family.
Steve came back with an interest in doing something new and a vivid memory from his traveling days that gave him an idea.
“I’ll never forget,” Steve says. “Early on we were in New Orleans, and after a show I saw a street guy selling hot dogs and he was making a killing. I just thought, man, that’s pretty cool. That just stuck in my head. Later on down the line, when I was looking to get into another business with food, I thought of that guy. Then we started thinking about feeding people after the shows. We’d play a bunch of shows, come out, and there was no food. So I thought, man it’d be great if we could feed these people after we get done or after any bars let out around the area there’s just a mass flood of people and there wasn’t any street food.”
Unlike with music, Steve told me the inspiration to cook didn’t necessarily reach back all the way to childhood; he simply wanted to recreate the excitement you feel when a concert or a game lets out and someone has something delicious to eat ready to go when you hit the sidewalk, and Steve’s Hot Dogs was born. From that simple vision grew a 13-year endeavor (so far) with multiple operations around St. Louis. One of his new favorite things is when parents share that their grown kids grew up visiting his restaurants, though I’m sure he didn’t mind at all when St. Louis Magazine recently announced that Steve’s had won a 2023 Readers’ Choice Award for best French fries.
Steve shifted to a life of restaurant business during the week including press interviews, catering, and day-to-day management followed by weekends of more musical performances than I would have thought possible. As if that left some kind of emptiness in his schedule, he’s also an accomplished bodybuilder who can be seen casually deadlifting the weight of a motorcycle on Instagram.
While the pandemic hit all restaurants hard, Steve’s story stood apart. After deciding to end the restaurant experiment completely in early 2020, patrons rallied and brought in record business, convincing Steve to stick around. Shortly thereafter, COVID shut down his dining area. Unsatisfied to sit and wait, his team turned their attention to helping out.
“There was a big time need for community involvement during the pandemic,” Steve explains. “All the kids were out of school. Some of them needed food. Some of them needed safe places to hang out. So all of us restaurants that were still open, I think all of us felt we had a duty to help out in the neighborhood.”
With protective measures in place, this alliance of restaurants and volunteers accepted donations that they used to make and deliver meals where they were needed.
Over time, Steve has transcended local music hero status and become an important part of the St. Louis community. Not only does Steve’s Hot Dogs host a variety of musical and comedy events, but the restaurant also regularly participates in “collabs” with other local eateries to raise awareness for all of the area’s great dining options. Steve says this positive energy extends behind the scenes as well, as different restaurant owners and management work together to solve problems in areas like technology and marketing. Like great musical acts, he tells me, St. Louis loves good food, so it’s better to work as a unit than try to step on each other.
For all of St. Louis’ appreciation for Steve, he appreciates the city right back. He still speaks nostalgically about performing his way up through the house parties and VFW halls of his youth, up to the 21+ venues and bars. We discussed the iconic Blueberry Hill where I once flaked on a dinner with my out-of-town cousins and they ended up getting to hang out with Bill Murray. Steve credited Mississippi Nights in part with helping The Urge connect with major acts and the management behind them on their way up. We talked about the importance of Riverport and the great outdoor festivals we’ve all attended over the years (not for one moment did either of us acknowledge it might be called anything but “Riverport”), and now Steve is also excited about St. Louis Music Park where The Urge will perform with Stabbing Westward and Jimmie’s Chicken Shack in August.
When it comes to getting the word out over the years, Steve says we’ve been lucky to have our modern rock radio station which he says helped create a lot of old school Urge fans.
“We had a major station that was playing all this new music,” Steve says. “We had [105.7] The Point, which was huge for St. Louis.”
The Urge has played The Point’s annual festival, Pointfest, numerous times over the years, and indeed, it seems like rock listeners of all types in the area came up grateful to have it. I recounted winning a call-in contest on my way home from college one night in about 2004 to get tickets to see Three Days Grace at The Pageant, and my boss at work asked me unprompted the following night what I planned to do with my other ticket. In an age where modern rock has taken a hit nationally, that’s how prevalent The Point is (anywhere it can be heard) to this day.
Steve sounds glad that his recognition helps bring in business at the restaurants today because he’s just as happy to feed fans. He’s excited about new musical acts that continue to emerge on the local scene as well as his friends who continue to perform in the area (among them: Tree One Four, Murder City Players, and Nite Owl).
“We have a lot of talent here,” Steve says. “You just go out some Friday night. Most likely the bar you’re going to has somebody playing. There’s always some musicians playing, and generally they’re all pretty good. We produce a lot of world-class musicians here that go on to do big things.”
For a kid who grew up singing in the kitchen, the present day must feel very satisfying for Steve who’s now managing several kitchens and a concert calendar absolutely loaded with shows. He says Steve’s Hot Dogs is in growth mode and has an eye on potential expansion into the Central West End as well as St. Louis County and St. Charles County. He tells me The Urge is actively working on a new single and thinks it’s “close.”
My ears and my stomach are ready.
Todd Mitchell is a US Midwest-based comedy writer and game developer with bylines at Weekly Humorist, Fanbyte, Slackjaw, End of the Bench Sports, and more. He’s the author of Inside Video Game Creation, the founder of CodeWritePlay, and host of the GameDev Breakdown podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mechatodzilla.