New documentary explores the rise — and mysterious fall — of Chicago’s Material Issue
“At the end of the day, they had really solid good music, and that music is going to live on.”
In the middle of Illinois’ rock music legacy falls the band Material Issue, whose 1991 power pop showstopper “International Pop Overthrow” came around a decade or so after the launch of predecessors like Cheap Trick and Shoes, and just before the gilded Smashing Pumpkins-Veruca Salt-Liz Phair-Urge Overkill empire that forecasted Chicago as a runner-up to Seattle in the ’90s rock pantheon.
But, like it’s said, timing is everything, and unfortunately, it wasn’t on the side of Material Issue, who once bequeathed gems like “Valerie Loves Me,” “Diane” and “Kim The Waitress” that took hold of MTV and radio. The storied trio’s promising future would be cut short by the untimely passing of charismatic frontman Jim Ellison, who died by suicide in 1996.
For years, the band — also featuring Mike Zelenko on drums and Ted Ansani on bass — has been nothing short of local legend, supported by posthumous releases, a more recent Material Reissue re-formation (and the inspiration behind a long-running music festival) and now the subject of a new documentary that aims to shed light on just what went wrong.
“Out of Time: The Material Issue Story” (Arvonia Films) is the feature debut of up-and-coming director Balin Schneider and “aims to tell the story of a band searching for its identity in the gritty world of rock and roll in the early 1990s.”
It features a lineup of introspective interviews including what’s supposedly the first-ever with Ellison’s family, as well as thoughts from Zelenko, Ansani, Metro owner Joe Shanahan, music critics Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, music producers Jeff Murphy and Mike Chapman, legendary engineer/producer Steve Albini and MTV host Matt Pinfield, among others.
“There is something really interesting with Material Issue — the title hints at this, too — how they were displaced in the sound of the time they were in, a sound I think would really catch on today,” says Schneider in an interview ahead of the film’s Chicago premiere Dec. 2 at Lincoln Hall. (It’s sold out, but future screenings are forthcoming.) “That was one of the first things that interested me — this exploration of why is this band that has three really solid albums and one great posthumous album, [so] why didn’t they become bigger?”
Much of “Out Of Time” hones in on the failed launch of the band’s third album, 1994’s “Freak City Soundtrack” (Mercury Records), that had the perfect recipe for success, including Mike Chapman at the boards (who had created hits for the likes of Blondie and The Knack), guest stars including Rick Nielsen and the backing of a major label.
Even though it had critical praise, it sold fewer than 50,000 copies and dealt a huge blow to the band. The film explores how the weak response to the album became a fulcrum point for Ellison, who was distraught over the fall from grace.
“There was a change, the sound of music that was being released had kind of morphed when we put out our third record, even though in hindsight we were traveling with the movement, being edgier and more aggressive in our recordings. The whole grunge thing was just happening, [and we were] going in an opposite direction of the trend,” says Ansani, who met Ellison while they both were enrolled in Columbia College Chicago in the ’80s; Zelenko came along after an ad was placed in Illinois Entertainer.
Zelenko takes it a step further, hypothesizing that a lack of label support, fumbled marketing around the newly emerging “alternative rock” genre and the wrong choice for the first single (“Kim the Waitress” should have been swapped out for “Goin’ Through Your Purse,” he says) were at play, too.
“I think the frustration that happened four months into ‘Freak City Soundtrack’ really got to all of us, but especially Jim,” he adds, as did some of the commentary slung at the band in a then cutthroat Chicago music scene that was fighting for its identity between starving art rock artist and eager acts looking for a major label deal. “A lot was directed at Jim on a personal level, which I think he shrugged off as it didn’t bother him, but I think it did,” says Zelenko.
It all reached a boiling point for Ellison at a time before our collective aptitude for talking about mental health. The more recent deaths of artists like Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington shined a light on mental health resources for musicians.
“These are all really great artists whose whole self-worth is about their art. There is a special archetype of an artist longing for something more,” says Schneider.
“I do think it’s good to talk about [mental health and suicide], and I’m happy the film addresses it in the way it does,” he says, adding that he was very conscious about not framing Ellison just by his tragic ending, but rather focusing on his life and life’s work.
In fact, the film (which was three years in the making) features some rare video footage Zelenko shot on the band’s first tour and in the studio with a video camera he borrowed from his father, along with what Schneider calls a “treasure hunt” of fan-submitted VHS recordings offering spotlights on late-night TV and MTV that show Ellison in all his glory.
“He was all about the band, the band was the most important thing in his life, I believe,” says Ansani, who theorizes Material Issue would have kept going to a certain degree if Ellison had lived, though noting the frontman was also starting to venture off into songwriting for other artists at the time of his passing.
Zelenko adds, “I really believe that if he would have gotten some help and he was still with us today, he’d be an extremely successful songwriter, whether it would have been with Material Issue or a solo artist or a songwriter. It was the thing he did best, he was absolutely naturally gifted at it. … And I think Material Issue would have succeeded and gotten through a tough time. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Today, the band has continued in his stead with local singer-guitarist Phil Angotti now in the lead. The reformed trio first got together in 2011 as “Material Reissue” to coincide with album anniversary reissues. After the showing of the film on Dec. 2, they will take the stage once again at Lincoln Hall..
For Schneider, he hopes those in attendance fall in love with the band’s music again — or perhaps for the first time.
“I want people to know how important Material Issue was to the music history of pop and the music history of Chicago and how great of a songwriter Jim was. And understanding it was a complex band in a complex time. But at the end of the day, they had really solid good music, and that music is going to live on.”