Material Issue overthrows the world of pop: 20 years later

April 21, 2011

By Althea Legaspi

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(Photo courtesy of Material Issue)
Material Issue will perform at the Abbey Pub on Saturday, April 23, as part of the International Pop Overthrow Festival.

On Saturday, members of Material Issue celebrate the 20th anniversary of their hit debut album, International Pop Overthrow. It was reissued this month, with nine bonus tracks, including cover songs of Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy,” which features guitars by Naked Raygun/Pegboy’s John Haggerty, a live rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” and Sweet’s “Blockbuster.” Material Issue’s Mike Zelenko and Ted Ansani share insight behind IPO and what brings them together to perform it live for the first time in more than a decade.

Material Issue drummer Mike Zelenko recalls his first encounter with singer Jim Elison: “Jim called me on July 4th, actually, and he’s like ‘what are you doing right now?’”  Ellison called after seeing a band wanted at that Zelenko placed in Illinois Entertainer.  Zelenko says Ellison continued “’well, if you want to make it big, you better get to Addison, Illinois, like right away!’  So, I’m (saying) ‘OK, Great,’ and I asked my dad if I could borrow his van.  He had a Chevy van.  And so I drive out to Addison. And Jim comes out, and I walk out of that van and he’s not even looking at me.  He’s looking at the van!  He’s going like, ‘This guy’s got a van, he’s a drummer, he’s got a van.’  It took me a year to realize, right away he’s thinking: ‘We’re going on the road.’ He starts showing me these tunes in his bedroom, and first thing I thought was, ‘God he’s an awful guitar player and he sings really loud and over the top, but these songs are really great!’

Ellison had already recruited bassist Ted Ansani.  Ansani says they met while attending Columbia College.  'He was so, not arrogant, just confident.' Ansani says. 'And that’s probably why he sang so loud, was he had this confidence all the time, he was like ‘I’ve got the plan.  All you have to do is show up and I’ll make it happen.’”

The band’s lineup was secured, and Material Issue were off and running. They played countless shows around town and on the road, sometimes to only a handful of folks. But Ansani says Ellison was ambitious and had a clear vision for where they were headed. “Jim thought every song was basically the next hit. So he was very excited about playing.  (He’d say) ‘Oh we’re going to do this one, and this next one’s our new single.’  And when we did get a little radio airplay, that’s when we started noticing that the crowds started really filling in at clubs.”  They had self-released an EP and 7-inch single, and with college radio and WXRT playing their songs, major labels began tuning in. Zelenko says they planned to also self-release their debut album, International Pop Overthrow, But then major label Mercury Records came knocking.  Says Zelenko, “the great thing about International Pop Overthrow is that most of that record, except for maybe two songs, was financed and recorded by us before we had a deal.”

In 1991, Mercury released International Pop Overthrow and Material Issue went from traveling in a van to a fancy tour bus, and from a homegrown story to press conferences and many radio interviews. This garnered a fast-growing fanbase. They also scored their first big hit with “Valerie Loves Me.” It went to number 3 on the Modern Rock Billboard chart in April 1991.  Zelenko recalls how the guitar hook developed.  “Two in the morning, three in the morning, we had it tracked, we had the drums right, we have the bass right, and Jim was trying to do his guitar overdubs, and he’s trying to do this guitar part.  And if you know the song, it’s (imitates guitar: “waah waah waah”) and I was like ‘well kinda like “John I’m only Dancing”’ by David Bowie. So when I said that, he did that, he did that (imitates guitar: “waah waah waah” again) And we’re like ‘Wow, that’s cool, let’s keep that.’ So we kinda stole from David Bowie on that one.

The song “Diane” also made the Billboard charts, and more than 300,000 copies of IPO were sold. The seminal power pop album got the deluxe treatment this month. It has been remastered and re-released with original and cover song bonus tracks.

Ansani says one never-before-released song, “The Girl With the Saddest Eyes” was hard to recall initially: “Jim had about six or seven songs that were ‘The Girl with the…’ ‘The Girl With the Biggest Feet,’ ‘The Girl With the Biggest Nose,’ ‘The Girl With the Longest Hair,’ ‘The Girl With the Prettiest Smile” and ‘The Girl With the Nicest Eyes,’ or whatever.  And so it sounded very much like a ‘Jim’ song, and once we heard it, we realized ‘oh yeah, yeah, yeah, OK.’”

The band released three more studio albums before splitting up with their label, Mercury. Material Issue, who spent a decade on the road on an upward trajectory, now had a year of somewhat idle time. Zelenko says it was a sea change for everyone, but particularly for Ellison.  Zelenko says, “I don’t know.  I mean, I have my thoughts on it, and you know that was a big adjustment for us, and I think it was a big adjustment for Jim. And, being the writer and being the sort of focal point, I think he took it really personally.”  And with Ellison being the backbone of the band with a decade-long focus centered on Material Issue, Ansani says Ellison may have felt a little lost.  “When we didn’t have the label anymore, I don’t think Jim really knew what to do next. He was writing songs, but he was going in a couple different directions.  He was playing with a couple different guys once in a while. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do.

And then in 1996, at the age of 32, Ellison committed suicide. Ansani says the idle time was detrimental.  “And we were still doing shows once in a while – we were doing maybe one or two a month – but it wasn’t like we were as busy as we had been.  It wasn’t really healthy for him because he wasn’t sure what to focus on at that time. The tragic and unexpected loss of Ellison, and their time with Material Issue, significantly shaped Ansani and Zelenko. They were teens when they formed, and grew into adulthood together. Both Ansani and Zelenko actively play and perform separately in various projects; though it’s not their full-time careers. Recently they began rehearsing IPO songs to honor their 20th anniversary with a performance. It’s the first time they’ve played the music together in fifteen years.  Zelenko says revisiting the past has been poignant: “As years go by I can – you know – you deal with it in different ways.  But it’s hard to move on without a bitter taste in your mouth and you go like ‘well, Jimmy man, why couldn’t you have hung on?’  You know whenever a situation like suicide – I’ve never had to deal with it before, this is the only time ever in my life I’ve had to deal with it – it’s really, when it comes from that perspective it’s tough ‘cause you’re just like, well was there something more I could’ve done to help him.”

But after two decades passing and now with the IPO reissue, Ansani says it’s a good time to celebrate the music. He says “for me personally, I’m at a point where it’s not all about remorse anymore.  I’m not sad anymore, you know. And I think with this reissue and getting together, it’s time to kinda move on and celebrate – not celebrate in a crazy party way or anything like that, but it’s time for us to let people who didn’t have the opportunity, let them hear what we were able to accomplish and there’s no reason that we should you know be afraid to.”

The surviving members of Material Issue will celebrate the 20th anniversary of their debut album. They’ll perform International Pop Overthrow in its entirety with longtime friend Phil Angotti at International Pop Overthrow festival on Saturday at Abbey Pub. Though named after their debut album, the traveling power pop festival is not associated with the band.

Full disclosure – Universal Music Company tapped Althea Legaspi to write the liner notes for the re-issue of International Pop Overthrow.

Songs featured: Artist, “song,” album

Material Issue, “Chance of a Lifetime,” International Pop Overthrow: 20th Anniversary Edition
Material Issue, “There Was a Few,” International Pop Overthrow: 20th Anniversary Edition
Material Issue, “This Far Before,” International Pop Overthrow: 20th Anniversary Edition
Material Issue, “Renee Remains the Same,” International Pop Overthrow: 20th Anniversary Edition
Material Issue, “Valerie Loves Me,” International Pop Overthrow: 20th Anniversary Edition
David Bowie, “John, I’m Only Dancing,” Changesonebowie
Material Issue, “Diane,” International Pop Overthrow: 20th Anniversary Edition
Material Issue, “Trouble,” International Pop Overthrow: 20th Anniversary Edition
Material Issue, “Very First Lie,” International Pop Overthrow: 20th Anniversary Edition
Material Issue, “A Very Good Idea,” International Pop Overthrow: 20th Anniversary Edition
Material Issue, “Crazy,” International Pop Overthrow: 20th Anniversary Edition