New doc examines the enduring legacy of Material Issue and unforgettable frontman Jim Ellison
Material Issue from Chicago, Illinois, was a great band.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
They still are – in the memory of those of us lucky enough to have seen them live in the late ’80s to early ’90s, in the recorded legacy they left over an EP, four studio LPs and a live album, as well as in their more recent incarnation as Material Re-issue (original members Mike Zelenko and Ted Ansani plus fellow Chicago rocker Phil Angotti, who pays appropriate homage to the band’s iconic leader, Jim Ellison).
And now music fans have an additional way to appreciate and understand the importance of a band that inspired the International Pop Overthrow music festival (now in its 22nd year): Documentary filmmaker Balin Schneider debuted Out of Time: the Material Issue Story in Minneapolis last week, and will screen it in Chicago on December 2, followed by a performance by Material Re-issue.
“The film examines the tragic story of a rock band on the cusp of superstardom cut short by front man Jim Ellison’s suicide,” Schneider told Rock and Roll Globe in an interview. “The band was literally out of time – sandwiched between the post-punk era of the 1980s and the grunge movement of Seattle. Out of Time: The Material Issue Story tells the story of a band searching for its identity in the gritty world of rock and roll in the early 1990s.”
While Material Issue didn’t scale the heights of mass appeal that contemporaries like Smashing Pumpkins or even occasional collaborator Liz Phair did, and their songs didn’t have quite the depth or eclectic soul of Jeff Lescher and Green, there is no doubt that Jim Ellison’s gift to the world was being a masterful songwriter, the leader of a trio of phenomenal performers and a force of nature.
Foundational to that force and to the band’s enduring legacy was Jim’s self-image. In his loving yet honest obituary for Jim, The Lilacs founder Ken Kurson wrote, “Something I learned from Ellison is the magic of unfounded confidence. Ellison believed he was a star long before he actually was. Pretty soon, people started to accept his impression of himself and by the time he was a little bit of a star, he already knew how to act. This was a well-planned attitude, something he’d thought up and worked on.”
You can see and hear this in footage from Material Issue’s legendary live performances – from Jim’s good-natured snarl and crowd-stirring banter to his foot on the stage monitor and wielding of guitar as prop and propeller.
These are captured in this compelling retrospective video – but so, too, is the human side, as the bandmates pile into a car and cheer as their songs are requested on KROQ. In one clip, Jim describes loving every minute of a band on the run.
“We all really love rock ’n’ roll, and there’s a certain high you get playing rock ’n’ roll,” he said toward the end of the clip. “We work with a lot of bands that seem to complain – they’re crabbin’ about not gettin’ enough beer, not getting enough this, enough that… You know, we’ve been on the road for months, sleeping in a van, and we love it because we’re good friends. I’m happy hanging out with these guys and traveling across the country; it’s a ball. I love walkin’ down the streets of New York City with these two guys, just being cool, just kickin’ out. And you meet people and they’re like, ‘what are you doing here?’ And you’re like, ‘I’m playin’ at the club down the street.’ It’s an adventure.”
So what motivated a young filmmaker to spend three years making a documentary about a band that left the stage four years before he was born?
“The story to me was very interesting,” Schneider explains. “They just worked really hard and all the time to make it work, and then they did – and then it worked for everybody else after that.”
Schneider originally planned to make an eight-minute YouTube project, but soon was compelled to dig deeper and found himself tracing the band’s early footsteps.
“I feel like it’s very reflective of what they did back in the day,” he tells Rock & Roll Globe. “There’s three of us from Kansas driving in the middle of the night, filming interviews, sleeping on the floor or in the car. I feel like it was very punk in its own way.”
I first saw Material Issue – affectionately dubbed “the Ish” by its die-hard fans – in 1985 at some kind of art gallery in Chicago. There wasn’t a stage, and the room was bright as day – not exactly conducive to aspiring rock stars. But it was clear that Jim, Mike and Ted were onto something, and sure enough they released their first EP in 1987, followed by “Super Sonic Seven-Inch”.
Jim and the Ish were not only determined to be a success; they wanted other bands to make it, as well, and they supported the local music scene in various ways. Jim named The Lilacs and produced our first EP, The Lilacs Love You! It was a revelation to me when we’d recorded an excellent take of the song “Seems Like Years” – and then Jim got an idea for an extra effect, grabbed a guitar and recorded it on the spot.
Schneider had unprecedented access to Jim’s bandmates, as well as family, in creating Out of Time, so between that and the commentary from music legends like Rick Nielsen, Mike Chapman and Steve Albini, the documentary promises to be not just a retrospective but an introspection for Ish fans with unanswered questions.
Schneider adds, “There were a lot of bands like The Lilacs that Jim definitely loved. There was Lilacs stuff in Jim’s personal things, and just tons of fan letters, including fan letters from early on. To me it was amazing, this guy cares about the people who are around him – in a very interesting, sad way.”
It’s not surprising then, that Material Issue’s fans still care about Jim and the band. A bunch of us are flying to Chicago from around the country to be at Lincoln Hall on December 2nd for the screening of “Out of Time” and the Material Re-issue performance.
We’ll be sure to stay up late – and make it an adventure – for you, Jim.
I’d like to wake up with you early in the morning
Or stay up late just playin’ records on your phonograph.
I’d like to get to know your mother and your father
Maybe just once pretend to be somebody’s better half.
And I would like to tell the very first lie.
VIDEO: Material Issue “Very First Lie”