Destination Power Pop

New doc examines the enduring legacy of Material Issue and unforgettable frontman Jim Ellison

Jim Ellison (Image: Courtesy of John Packel)

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.

Material Reissue featuring rhythm section of Material Issue, Grant Park Chicago, June 29, 2011. (Photo Chris Bentley)

“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. 

Poster art for the Chicago premiere of Out of Time: The Material Issue Story (Image: Material Issue)

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? 

Out of Time: The Material Issue Story film poster (Image: Valerie Loves Me, LLC/Arvonia LLC)

“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.” 

Material Issue Six-Song EP (Image: Discogs)

 

Material Issue The Super Sonic Seven-Inch (Image: Discogs)

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. 

The Lilacs’ The Lilacs Love You! EP (Image: The Lilacs)

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. 

Jim Ellison with the original Lilacs at Shoes Studio in Zion, Illinois, Spring 1991 (Image: Courtesy of John Packel)

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”

 

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John Packel

John Packel is a fintech entrepreneur who has also played drums for various bands, including The Lilacs, Circles, Driving Kim Crazy and The Bloomingfields.

3 thoughts on “Destination Power Pop

  • November 30, 2021 at 10:56 am
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    I was at that 1985 show at the “art gallery.” The name of the venue was The Igloo. The author mentions “t was clear that Jim, Mike and Ted were onto something,” but I don’t believe Mike and Ted were in the band just yet, though they would join weeks later and as is beautifully depicted here, form a pop juggernaut. Someone who definitely was at that Igloo show was the great great poetess Lorri Jackson, who hung out at Igloo a lot. I corresponded with her (by mail!) quite a bit. We saw the world very differently, but man could she write. Lorri died from an overdose right around my 22nd birthday — had to be in October 1990, just as The Lilacs were really starting to cook.

    Reply
    • December 1, 2021 at 4:38 pm
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      Thanks for the correction and added history! I tagged the Ish account and Zelenko on Twitter to see whether we can get a definitive answer on the lineup for those early shows.

      Reply
  • December 1, 2021 at 8:18 pm
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    An Excellent article about one of my all time favorite bands. A lot of interesting facts I had not known, and some terrific retrospective thoughts from the author.

    I first “discovered” Material Issue quite by accident one evening in I believe 1989 or 1990,when they played at a rock music club in Chicago called The Metro. I was there with friends, not to see any particular band, as there were several on the bill that evening . The performers playing before them basically served as background music for me. Then they took the stage. By the end of the first song on their playlist, they had the entire place captivated. I was drawn into their stage presence and a style of sound that was utterly unique, and so darn catchy. I remember thinking at the time, that this band had what it takes to be huge. And if they didn’t make it, would be a crying shame.

    Fast forward a year or two and i’m driving around Chicago listening to the city’s best (and only) Alternative Rock Music Station called WXRT. This was the only place to hear new (and old) music that wasn’t of the Top 40 genre. The music played on that station at that time played a major role in shaping my musical taste that still exists in me. But I digress..

    It was around late 1991 and a song comes on that just blew me away. Unfortunately., I had cought it in the beginning, but after the name of the song and the band would have been mentioned. Wasn’t mentioned afterwards either, as they segwayed into the next track of another artist. But, I knew that sound, I just couldn’t place it. For the next week I listened to that station every chance I got, in the hopes of finding out who that band was, and more importantly so I could buy the album (cassette tape,actually for car listening)

    Finally, going into my second week of “investigation” they played the song and noted the band. Now I knew the name of the song, Valerie Loves Me, and the band name Material Issue. I still wasn’t certain it was the same band I had seen about two years earlier, so called a friend that was with me that night for confirmation. I was thrilled that my prediction had come true and that I could buy the music to play anytime i wanted. International Pop Overthrow was my daily go to album from beginning to end along with Nirvana’s Nevermind which was released around the same time ( another story for another time) .

    Pop Overthrow became a bit of my internal theme music that represented a great time of my youthful life . I was fortunate enough a few years later to see them play again in a venue worthy of their presence at a Chicago area concert venue called The Rosemont Horizon, again by chance because I was now living in Florida at that time and was in Chicago to visit family and friends. One of my buddies that was with me years earlier at The Metro had an un-anticipated extra ticket that he generously offered to me. Was a great show and a great night.

    I remember clearly being very saddened to hear of Jim Ellison’s passing just a couple of years later, but thankfully his and the bands legacy survive and I can’t wait until I’m able to watch this film, which sounds amazing.
    Thank You, Mr. Packel for an outstanding read and for conjuring up some great memories of some great times in my life..

    Reply

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