It was the late 1980s and I was living in Los Angeles. From time to time, I worked on projects with the late Paul Rothchild, producer of The Doors, Janis Joplin, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and many others. He introduced me to the Urb Brothers, a duo who had won notoriety in Estonia during the Soviet era there and had defected to the United States.
The Urbs had an amazing story. Tarmo Urb once spent five years in and out of Soviet jails in an effort by the government to silence his voice. It was only when younger brother Thomas (who, during Tarmo's incarceration, had made his mark as an actor in the Soviet film industry) wrote a pleading letter to then President Gorbachev that Tarmo was finally released...only to face an assassination attempt by the KGB, an attempt that failed when the operation's chief officer became a fan of the Urb's music and message, allowing the brothers to defect by the skin of their teeth.
I visited with the Urbs on Venice Beach and actually pitched one of them to act in a movie I was then trying to get made at the time, “Cradle Will Rock.” I remember them as being really nice guys and sounding a bit like Simon and Garfunkel. But I was soon to move to New York City and—for whatever reason—Paul passed on producing the Urbs. Stuff and life happened and I’m sorry to say I forgot about the Urbs.
That is until the Sunday before Christmas. I was invited to a Ann Ruckert’s home to hear an “amazing” duo from Estonia produced by Geoff Gillette, an LA producer who has moved to New York City. At first I didn’t recognize the brothers or really get the name “Urb.” But as I listened to their story, a got a strange sense of deja vu. Finally, I blurted out “do I know you guys from LA?” “Yes, I think you do,” answered Thomas Urb, who had the same slow recognition.
Then, the pieces fell together. What are the odds we’d meet again after more than 21 years in a city on the other coast of the country? I can only say it happened. The brothers now have six albums and have recorded a lot of music since I first met them. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Tarmo Urb told me the story of meeting his “personal” KGB agent and being warned of his pending death. Here’s Tarmo on video with the story...
Here the Urbs sing “Nightingale,” a song they wrote after seeing a small nightingale in some tattered bushes near where they lived. Tarmo said I kept asking myself why is this little bird singing in such an ugly place—it has wings, it could fly anywhere. “Then it dawned on me, you could be a nightingale wherever you find yourself,” Tarmo said. “We musicians are what we are, wherever we find ourselves.”