You have to ring the doorbell for a long time at Jim Ellison’s new house, a cozy but unprepossessing affair in east Lakeview, before the sound penetrates the blasting sound of a rushing guitar solo–deedle deedle deedle deedle dweeeeeeee! Inside, Ellison proudly shows off a sparkly new Gibson (an SG Les Paul Custom, to be exact), the product of an endorsement deal for his band, Material Issue. A previous deal with another guitar maker didn’t work out: Ted Ansani’s bass kept breaking, and the company wouldn’t give the band the time of day. Then Material Issue met a guy from Gibson. “Ah’ve seen you guys seven times,” says Ellison, gleefully imitating the rep. “Ah thank ah can work something out.”
The guitars, the house–these are just some of the spoils of a years-long campaign that has now brought Ellison semistardom. His band is a just-this-side-of-lethal power-pop trio: Ellison’s hook-filled songs, Ansani’s articulate bass lines, and Mike Zelenko’s unflappable drumming. Ellison’s lyrical world is an assertively innocent one where girls are girls, boys are confused, and rock rules. He’s grown a bit from his early songs, every other one of which seemed to be titled “Valerie” or “Diane”; his distinctive, slightly melodramatic song settings just keep getting better, reaching an unquestioned high with last year’s “What Girls Want” and its deathless chorus: “I want a man with lips just like Mick Jagger / Rod Stewart’s hair, and Keith Richards’ stagger.”
Ellison, now 27, was a suburban kid who spent some time as a north-side scenester in the late 80s, booking bands at Batteries Not Included. After forming Material Issue in 1987, Ellison made some crucial decisions: he moved back to his parents’ house in Addison; finished school at Columbia College; and concentrated on making reords. The results were the immortal single “Super Sonic Seven Inch,” which included “Renee Remains the Same,” whose methodical harmonies, stately guitar changes, and wistful lyricism were either a one-shot fluke or a sign that Ellison was onto something. An EP containing the explosive “She’s Going Through My Head,” a follow-up album, and the group’s blistering live shows made it seem like the latter might be the case.
Somewhat overlooked in the recent hoopla over Chicago has been the fact that, besides Ministry, Material Issue was the first local rock band in a long time to score a major label deal and make good on it. Mercury decided that it liked the band’s self-funded album–produced by Shoes leader Jeff Murphy in Zion–and put it out unchanged. What was essentially a collection of demos has sold nearly 300,000 copies in the years since, and still does 600 to 800 units a week, Ellison says. The band’s second album, Destination Universe, also produced by Murphy, sold comparatively less, but it’s above 100,000 at this point and still selling.
For the upcoming third album, Ellison went with an outside producer. He talked to several big names before settling on Mike Chapman, who’s had massive worldwide hits both as a songwriter (with partner Nicky Chinn he wrote everything from most of the Sweet’s singles to Exile’s “Kiss You All Over”) and as a producer (Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” the Knack, Tina Turner). Ellison says he charmed Chapman by dissing his recent work (“I don’t want to put out a record that sounds like the Baby Animals”); Ellison, Chapman told friends approvingly, “was an egotistical asshole.” But Chapman earned the band’s respect, too, by flying to talk to them on a day’s notice and ultimately volunteering to do the record for no money up front: “He said if it wasn’t a hit, he didn’t deserve any money,” Ellison says.
Ellison liked working with Chapman. “We had the pop production down; what we needed to so with this record was add the hardness of the band live,” he says. “We wanted to get that classic sound, doubled drums and everything. He’d just say, ‘I’ll show you.’ He knew it all.” Based on one hearing of the as-yet-untitled record, not due out until February, Hitsville would say Chapman has impressively brought the rather retro rockers into the 90s, with a harder and more full-bodied sound. Of the new songs, the standouts are “Going Through Your Purse” (as in “the things I learned while…”), typically irresistible Ellison pop; a strange ballad flavored with sitar called “Kim the Waitress”; an over-the-top rerecording of the band’s early “She’s Going Through My Head”; and a softer song, “I Could Use You,” which sounds a lot like the old America chestnut “I Need You.” (“I love America,” says Ellison. “And Bread.”)
Until the band tours in February, Ellison has to just wait around, though he hints the group might show up on someone else’s bill some evening just for fun. In the meantime, he’s going to enjoy the spoils. “Some people might think you’re a rock asshole because you have a house,” he reflects. “But no one’s going to take care of you once you stop selling records. You still have to live. Ten years from now, if nothing else, I’ll have a house.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.