Material Issue was one of us. They were three men who looked barely old enough to drive, let alone take their van and self-recorded albums across the country. They didn’t have managers or producers in the beginning, doing everything themselves. This was grass-roots music, and the music, too was ours. Material Issue had grown up with us. They weren’t ashamed of their Cheap Trick records. Rather, they legitimized that same 80s guitar sound into unforgettable riffs that decorated three-chord 90s songs.
They were one of us, forming in college like so many failed bands. It was at Columbia Arts College of Chicago that singer/songwriter/guitarist Jim Ellison met bassist Ted Ansani. The two realized they had influences in common and began to play together. Ellison’s professor, Blake Levinson, still remembers this time: “When Jim had told me he was in a band, I didn’t think much about it because it wasn’t unusual for college kids to be in bands. I started to pay a little more attention when he said he was having problems re-negotiating a recording contract. And then, near the end of the semester, he invited me to attend one of his shows at a club on Belmont. Though I had attended similarly crowded and loud venues with other bands through the years, this one was very different for one reason–Material Issue was great, ‘professional big time’ great.” By the time of that concert, Material Issue had, of course, found a drummer in Mike Zelenko. He was chosen after responding to an ad in the newspaper, and, while he claims they only chose him because he owned a van, he became an inextricable part of the band’s sound.
The ordinariness of their lives, coupled with the genius of their music and live performances, made Material Issue gather a following quickly. Even before they were signed to a record label, they had fans comparing them to early U2, bragging to Chicago Tribune reporters about having seen over 100 shows, and circulating fan newsletters. Zelenko remembers a trio of three friends who followed them from show to show for several weeks one summer. Clearly, fans weren’t the only ones to think this was a band that got it.
Liz Phair, a Chicago contemporary, recalls, “Material Issue was a kick-ass Chicago band. We all looked up to them. Their songs were infectious and often deeply heartfelt. The chorus: ‘I want love, I want drugs, I want sex and affection; I want everybody in the room to look in my direction,’ from ‘What Girls Want’ is one of the most honest and encapsulating summaries of the twenty-something female mind that I have ever heard, and all the more shocking to have been written by a man.”
Musician magazine, for the first (and apparently only) time, sent out a cassette of Material Issue’s conversations and music with one month’s issue. In 1991, Musician’s associate publisher, Paul Sackman, told the Chicago Tribune that he “felt the band represented the majority of my struggling readers in the trade, guys who are in their 30s and wondering how much longer they can survive in an unsigned band. I thought their story and music were inspiring,” Phair echoes these sentiments, adding, “The band’s appeal was more than just what they aspired to be as a pop trio, it was also where they came from that made them special. To know their roots was to grow in appreciation of their talent.”
Zelenko remembers the determined energy of these times, saying that the band played their first show only one week after he joined. They were all in agreement that the best way to improve while building a name for themselves was to play as many shows as they could. Zelenko remembers that first show, performed at the Exit in Chicago, saying they were probably “pretty terrible” but remembering it going pretty well. There was one snag, though: only Ellison was of legal drinking age, so Ansani and Zelenko had to wait in the car until showtime and leave immediately after the show was finished.
Fortunately, the band improved and perfected their sound during the endless shows they played over the next few years. All three members shared confidence in the band’s abilities. Asked if there were ever a moment when he doubted that Material Issue would be famous and influential, Zelenko instantly replies, “No, never. The only thing that I had reservations about was that Jim couldn’t play very well. I mean, in the beginning, his guitar playing was adequate enough to write the songs that were in his head. For a long time, he would hear something and he would actually ask Ted how to play it. He would hum it out and Ted would sort of show him how to play it.” Those growing pains were small, however, when compared to the growth itself, both of the band’s skills and notoriety. Ansani remembers Ellison’s songwriting skills maturing quickly: “As we got older, we weren’t trying to make music for 16 year olds anymore, we were trying to make music that sounded like what we were listening to. Trying to be aggressive, and trying to be fresh, and still allowing ourselves to mature. That last record kind of pointed to that. There’s a couple ballads that were more mature and then there were songs that were much more aggressive.”
As great and timeless as the albums are, the live performance was the best way to experience the band and the smug charisma of Ellison’s stage presence. For all his ego, it was impossible not to be charmed. With his adolescent bowl-cut and skintight jeans, Ellison’s visual presence matched everything else about him. There was as much boyish innocence in his charisma as there was cocksure sex appeal. Levinson remembers Ellison as soft-spoken and sincere, yet confident enough to stay after class and attempt to argue his way into better grades. He never lost that politeness. In 2006, a woman named Lisa commented on an online Chicago Tribune article about Ellison: “Jim Ellison knocked over my motorcycle while parking in front of Phyllis’ Musical Inn. I was not the biggest fan at the time. He proceeded to give me the most heartfelt apology I have ever received from a stranger, and I just fell in love with the guy and proceeded to buy anything he recorded.” Phair too recalls how the band’s good nature and charm helped launch them: “Material Issue had loads of style and weren’t afraid to use it. In the no-nonsense Mid-West, that was basically asking for trouble. But their good attitude, lanky charismatic frontman and self-consciously retro riffs endeared them to the city and to the nation.”
For all his sincerity and charisma, however, Jim Ellison was not known for being easy to work with. Ansani remembers this difficulty as Ellison’s desire for control: “Well, in some senses, he was the most dynamic force, yet he also could be the most destructive force. And it sometimes seemed that he would take the band three steps ahead but then he was taking us two steps backward because he was fighting battles he shouldn’t have been fighting. He wanted so much control. He didn’t always work so well with everybody, and because of that we would be burning bridges that we were standing on.”
Asked to elaborate, Ansani remembers a standard course of events: “Specifically, at video shoots, we’d be in LA ready to shoot a video, and all of a sudden he’d decide he wanted to be the director of the video, and in doing so he would alienate the director the record company had hired. And in turn the record company’s video department got aggravated that they couldn’t do their work. And the same thing happened with the art department. After that happened a few times, people didn’t want to work with him because they didn’t want to deal with his ego.”
Ansani, reflecting on Ellison’s control issues, suspects that Ellison may have eventually been bothered by being on the outs with much of the music community: “I think in a sense, in hindsight, that kind of bothered him, he might have realized that, he wanted to be in control kind of hurt us. And, after, uh, what happened, I sometimes think that might have taken a toll on him.”
The “what happened” in Ansani’s words is a glaring euphemism. In 1996, the band had recorded their third album, “Telecommando Americano,” but had been dropped by Mercury Records and was currently unsigned, a situation that seemed to liberate Ellison rather than trouble him. Though some cite the career struggles and many cite a recent romantic disappointment, no one really knows what made Ellison take his own life on June 20, 1996.
While the premature loss of other musical legends such as Kurt Cobain, Elliott Smith, and Ian Curtis was never really mitigated by each one’s troubled mental history, at least the friends, fans, and family of those men knew what demons existed for each. There were no indicators of Ellison’s mental state, even in the last few songs he wrote. Ellison, like any songwriter, had lyrics that could be decontextualized as warning signs. There is definitely a sadness to moments on “Telecommando Americano,” released after Jim’s death. “Carousel, I thought you knew me well, I guess you couldn’t tell I’d fallen down again,” is striking in hindsight, but Ellison’s friends and bandmates maintain such moments are more coincidental than prescient.
After the shock of Ellison’s death, there was profound grief among those who knew him. For his Material Issue bandmates, however, there was still final music to be made. With the news only a few days old, they had to go to the studio to finish mixing “Telecommando Americano.” Asked about the difficulty of finishing without Ellison, Ansani says the hardest part was “just hearing his voice and knowing those were the last ideas that he had recorded. It wasn’t polished the way we would have liked to release it but that’s the way it was recorded. There were scratched vocal tracks and scratched guitar tracks, but it’s all we had and we had to do patchwork around it. Mike and I just wanted to finish it up and put it out there for the fans. It was emotionally hard. The mixing wasn’t hard.”
Despite Material Issue’s all too brief reign in the pop kingdom, their legacy is large. For some, that legacy unfortunately focuses on Ellison’s suicide rather than the upbeat music that preceded it. Asked how he feels about Ellison being inevitably grouped with other musicians who died young, Zelenko asserts that a tragic death is not a point of communion: “I don’t know how to explain it other than they just happened to do that stuff for a living and they were talented artists, but there’s a lot of talented artists that don’t die and grow old.” In 1996, a few short months after Ellison’s death, Zelenko, in a Chicago Tribune interview, explained Ellison’s true legacy: “If any good comes out of this, maybe people who shrugged off his artistic ability as just silly girl songs will realize that he was going way deeper than that. He made observations about people’s everyday lives that were pretty keen.”
Liz Phair also remembers Ellison far more for his cheerful demeanor: “Jim Ellison was a leader in life as well as in his band. Whenever I saw him out, he always had the most up-beat attitude and was a very supportive friend. His unflappable spirit was what I admired most about him and it was hard not to have a good time when he was around. That may seem ironic, given the tragic circumstances if his death, but anyone who knew Jim personally knew what it was to be touched by the light of his star and I will always think of him as a strong and inspiring presence.”
Fans still remember concerts vividly, clearly touched by the performance. Mike Meyer, a Portland-based journalist remembers a unique Material Issue show he attended: “In ’94, I think, they played a free morning show at the China Club in Chicago, with the Indians and Matthew Sweet. It was a silly radio station promotion by WKQX — the show started at something like 3 a.m. By the time Material Issue played, it was dawn, and everyone was beat. But Ellison didn’t notice any of this. He was full-on. Two of my friends were literally sleeping. Yet when Material Issue finished their set, Ellison shouted at maximum volume: ‘Thank you! And good morning!’”
Material Issue was also a band’s band, leaving their mark on many musicians. The way the band mixed retro sounds with a more punk-inspired three-chord structure expanded possibilities for all musicians wanting to straddle genres and generations into music that was familiar but new. No wonder their presence has lingered as a muse for other artists. Their most obvious legacy is perhaps in contributing the name to the International Pop Overthrow Festival, organized by David Nash, who has fond memories of seeing Material Issue open for another Illinois band, Shoes. “I think it was in April of 90, or earlier, maybe earlier in the year. They played a club called Bogart’s at Long Beach. I didn’t know who they were. I remember them coming on stage, and seeing these three guys come on stage, and they had this punk attitude. But I did really feel like they had a lot of potential, maybe because of Jim and the charisma that he exuded onstage. When I first decided to name the festival International Pop Overthrow, it was in large part in tribute to Jim and to Material Issue, and I wasn’t sure how the members of the band would take it. I got an email from Mike and he was flattered by it,” Nash says, adding that Ansani and Zelenko have both played the festival with other bands.
Ansani and Zelenko continue to be musically active in the Chicago area. In fact, they are currently playing together again, supporting singer/songwriter Darren Robbins. Musicians farther removed also continue to make music inspired by Material Issue. The Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba told Mike Meyer that Material Issue helped inspire the band’s latest release, “Agony and Irony.” The Tragically Hip wrote a song, “Escape Is At Hand For The Travellin’ Man” about Ellison.
In perhaps the most concise tribute to the band, Hole once performed “Valerie Loves Me” during a Chicago performance. After the final chord faded, Courtney Love, legs stretched wide below her low-slung guitar, cigarette aimed at the sky like an offering, screamed “Give it up for that boy!”
Clearly, like the rest of us, she was still more than a little bit smitten.
Article by Erin Lyndal Martin, Some Photos by Paul Natkin. Special thanks to Ted Ansani, Blake Levinson, Liz Phair, Mike Meyer, Dave Nash and Mike Zelenko for their time.