MUSIC MATERIAL ISSUE : Pop Rock Lives : The Chicago trio will back their new disc, "International Pop Overthrow," with a free April Fool's Day concert.


Who cares if your parents hated it, once upon a time rock 'n' roll sounded good. Singers could sing, players could play and neatness counted. No shrieking morons screaming who knows what. No re-creations of cat fights in the machine shop with a beat. No singers who look like extras from "The Night of the Living Dead." No warning stickers, just basic rock 'n' roll.

It used to be called doo-wop. When guitars were added, it became pop rock. Unless you have AM radio in your car, doo-wop is history, but pop rock lives. The Searchers, Shoes, Jellyfish, Santa Barbara's Tearaways, Ventura's Durango 95 and this week's subject, Material Issue.

The Chicago trio is driving around in a big bus, stopping frequently, doing a show, driving off into the sunset to do it all again in support of their major-label debut disc, "International Pop Overthrow." They'll be stopping over at UC Santa Barbara to do a high-noon show outside at Storke Plaza to entertain any remaining April-fool Gauchos and Gauchoettes who haven't gone home for spring break.

The band's album was produced by pop legend and singing Shoe, Jeff Murphy. Material Issue has a memorable video hit, "Valerie Loves Me," which is about a neighbor girl that singer Jim Ellison liked when he was 11. The whole album sounds like an album of singles--there are no bad cuts, plenty of happening harmonies and jangly guitar solos.

In a recent telephone interview from a pay phone in Arkansas, Ellison, with a fistful of quarters, discussed the life and times of Material Issue.

How's the album, the tour and all that?

It's going pretty good, I guess. The charts say we're doing OK, but the turnouts at the shows don't say that. We'll be in California in a couple of days--it'll be our second or third time out there since we signed with Polygram. We played with Shoes out there at a couple of places.

What happened to the real Valerie?

Nobody knows.

How did Material Issue get started?

We started four or five years ago. Ted (Ansani) and I were students at Columbia College in Chicago; I majored in music management and Ted majored in radio production. We found our drummer, Mike (Zelenko), through an ad in the Illinois Entertainer, a statewide rock magazine. The most important thing about Mike was the fact he had a van. We went right into the studio and recorded a six-song EP on our own label, Big Block. We decided we didn't want to waste all our time in clubs or in the garage. The next year, 1989, we recorded a seven-inch single, and WXRT in Chicago picked up on it and started playing it two or three times a day. This got us a lot of support and whenever we played live, the crowd grew. When we made our third record, our manager shopped it around and Polygram signed us. They released our current album just the way it was.

How 'bout those Shoes?

Actually, we recorded "International Pop Overthrow" at Shoes Studios, which is about 45 miles away in Zion. Those guys are legends in the Midwest. They make great records, but they're not a big road touring band. They're a studio band, very clean sound.

Who are your musical influences?

I used to listen to a lot of Beach Boys, a lot of Beatles--all kinds of stuff. There's been great rock 'n' roll for so long that it's hard to single out anyone.

Describe Material Issue music.

I guess psycho pop is what we do, but people categorize too much. Most people would enjoy our stuff.

What makes a good pop song?

Well, you've got to start out with some sort of guitar hook, then add some glossy harmonies--that's my department--and maybe a pinch of brown sugar.

What would be your dream gig and your nightmare gig?

Our dream gig would be to play with Paul McCartney or maybe Tom Petty. Our nightmare gig would be to play with Nelson.

What was your strangest gig?

We played a couple of years ago in Boston, and we were out in the parking lot loading up our stuff afterward when this massive fight broke out. The entire place emptied out and there was this big riot in the parking lot. It all started with two guys and one girl--that works every time.

What's the most misunderstood thing about Material Issue?

Since the war, you may have noticed that a lot of artwork is red, white and blue. Somehow, because of our name, people associate us with some sort of a military stance. We're not political at all.

If your band was a movie, what would it be?

It would have to be something like "Spinal Tap."


Material Issue, Monday at high noon at Storke Plaza on the campus of UC Santa Barbara. Even you can afford it--it's free.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World