One Last Issue
Surviving Material guys find closure with album
By Jae-Ha Kim, Pop Music Critic with the Chicago Sun-Times
Long before the Smashing Pumpkins became Chicago's most famous export, Material Issue was doing its part to put the Windy City on the musical map. Signed to Mercury Records in 1990, vocalist-guitarist-songwriter Jim Ellison, bassist Ted Ansani and drummer Mike Zelenko seemed destined for rock stardom.
Their 1991 major-label debut, "International Pop Overthrow," paid delightful homage to girls, cars and power pop chords. At least seven of the cuts on the album were strong enough to be hit singles. Radio loved "Diane" and "Valerie Loves Me" the most.
The band's forte, though, was playing live. Posturing on his reed-thin legs, Ellison would work the crowd as Ansani and Zelenko provided a powerhouse rhythm section. That Ellison wasn't the most gifted guitarist didn't matter because he had something better -- great pop songs.
They had less commercial success with critically acclaimed followup album "Destination Universe" (1992) and "Freak City Soundtrack" (1994). The band and its label became dissatisfied with one another, and Material Issue left to find a home with another record company.
In May, 1996, Ellison told the Sun-Times, "You're going to love our new songs. They sound great. I think they're some of the best things we've ever done."
On June 21, 1996, Ellison, 32, shocked his friends, family and the local rock community when he committed suicide.
The band's fourth and final album "Telecommando Americano," hits record stores Tuesday. It includes 11 new songs, as well as six cuts from the band's 1987 debut EP.
Sipping sodas, Ansani and Zelenko, both 29, spoke of why they decided to release the record, their memories of Ellison and their ideas for the future.
"Someone asked us if it felt weird doing press to promote the album," Zelenko said. "We always did press together, but Jim was the only talker. And that was rightly so. Material Issue was our band, but Jim wrote the songs, got the band going and was the leader. If there was anyone to be a spokesperson for the group, it was him."
Q. How difficult was it finishing this album without Jim?
Ansani: Hearing Jim's voice a couple of times, it would be weird because there was something about hearing how things used to be. We just took it for granted when we were recording this stuff that we would always be around. But it was important to us to finish the album because we knew that Jim would have wanted people to hear his songs. He wrote such great songs. We also wanted to put closure on Material Issue. We knew that once it was finished, we were going to release it, and that pretty much would be the end of the band. Zelenko: It's kind of hared knowing that the record is indeed coming out, and instead of being able to celebrate a 10-year career getting ready to tour in support of it, we know we can't. That's been the hardest part.
Q. What condition were the tracks in before you remixed them?
Zelenko: The intention of these recordings was to record demos to show labels who were interested in signing the band the new material, so we went in and did as much as we could in as short period of time. It was really our demo session that we recorded [from February, 1995, to March, 1996]. Ansani: We weren't in the studio the entire time. But after Jim died and Mike pretty much finalized the [Ryko] deal for us, we knew we were going to release it as an album. So from that point, it was only a matter of maybe two weeks of going back in, putting in some backing vocals, overdubbing some guitars and remixing it.
Q. When Jim committed suicide, I think everyone was shocked because it seemed like such an unlikely act for him.
Zelenko: Anyone who knew Jim would say that if there was a list of people who might potentially kill themselves, he would be the last person on the list. The experts say that most people who commit suicide donít want to succeed. I donít think he wanted to. The couple of weeks before he did it, all his friends were concerned because he was having a personal problem. But we all thought he was going to be OK. Jim was extremely emotional and passionate and at times would do things without thinking. He did plenty of things based on emotions that he would regret later. Itís really sad and frustrating. If he had just walked in front of a bus, tough luck. Everyone has to go sometime Ė this is the way you go. But that was not the case. He did it himself. I donít think he ever thought of himself as someone who would do this.
Q. Material Issue released three albums for Mercury, but the label appeared to have lost interest by the second. Did you ask to be released from your contract?
Zelenko: What happened was they wanted to put out the [fourth] record, and then there was this sort of loophole our attorney found that was to our advantage. That gave us some leverage. So we said to them that we were going out on tour with the Pretenders and this would be a great opportunity for them to push another single on the album and show that theyíre not going to let it fizzle out. And they were like, "OK." The agreement was that if we werenít satisfied with them by Jan. 1, 1995, the deal was off. They agreed to that Ďcause that gave them an out too. Ansani: It was a pretty mutual decision. They didnít know what to do with us, and we felt like we were getting lost there. They had signed us to be their band for alternative radio. At the time, we were very excited to be off of Mercury, and thatís when we went into the studio with these new songs. Jim was very into it and was like, "Weíre gonna rock!"
Q. Mike, when the Smashing Pumpkins were auditioning for new drummers to replace Jimmy Chamberlain, did you try out?
Zelenko: Yes, the Pumpkins asked me to audition. I didnít get it, but that was really nice of them to ask. We know them. [Pumpkins guitarist] James [Iha] and I both went to Loyola and [vocalist] Billy [Corgan] and Jim were friends. And even though theyíre one of the biggest bands in the world, I think they respect what Material Issue did. I have a flier at home from 1989 or whatever that features the Pumpkins, Urge Overkill and us. It was a good time to watch as we all got signed.
Q. Would either of you be interested in fronting your own band?
Zelenko: Not really. Tedís written some good songs, but Iím not a songwriter. The projects weíre doing now are pretty much things that we have taken on so we donít become stagnant. Ansani: Mike and I are more interested in being a rhythm section for hire right now. Weíre working together with Hummer now. We sometimes play with Slink Moss, and Mike has been playing drums with Specula for about three years. I also play bass with the Teenage Frames. Theyíre really on the ball, and Iím working with them as a session guy and doing some shows. But no, I donít want to form another band.
Q. What do you hope people remember most about Material Issue?
Zelenko: Jimís songs. They guy wrote hits. Ansani: Jim would write a song and say [imitates Ellisonís nasal voice], "This oneís the biggest hit." Then the next day, heís play another one he wrote and say the same thing. Iíd say, "Well, what about that one you showed us yesterday?" and heíd say, "That was cool, too. "Weíd joke about that all the time. But he was right. They were all great songs.