June 20, 1996 – James ‘Jim’ Ellison (Material Issue) was born on April 18, 1964 in Chicago, Illinois. As a teenager Jim was inspired by the likes of David Bowie, the Who, and Sweet to seriously take up guitar playing. Then while attending Chicago’s Columbia Art College he formed the powerpop band Material Issue in an effort to form a group that would merge the pop hooks of the Beatles, Cheap Trick and Big Star with a modern rock edge.
He soon got his wish, as he hooked up with fellow students Ted Ansani (bass, vocals) and Mike Zelenko (drums), forming Material Issue in 1986. With the group causing a local buzz from the get-go, Ellison also formed his own independent record label around this time, Big Block Records, which he ran out of his bedroom in Addison, Illinois.
A self-titled EP was issued via Ellison’s label in 1987, which only heightened the buzz further as he tirelessly promoted his band, booked tours, and secured a major-label deal in 1990 with Polygram.
By the dawn of the ’90s, Chicago possessed one of the country’s most fertile music scenes (perhaps second only to Seattle), as such alt rock artists as Urge Overkill, Liz Phair, and Smashing Pumpkins signed recording contracts with indie labels.
But Material Issue proved to be an exception, as they opted to go straight to a major label, signing on with Polygram. Ellison and co.’s 1991 debut, International Pop Overthrow, sold well over 300,000 copies, producing hit singles “Diane” and “Valerie Loves Me”, which peaked at No.3 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. This led many to believe that breakthrough success would soon be bestowed upon the trio.
1992 saw the follow-up to IPO with Destination Universe which included the searing power pop gem “What Girls Want” in addition to the richly emotional ballads “Next Big Thing” and “Everything”. Material Issue continued to tour heavily across the country in support of both albums. But the group appeared to get lost in the shuffle when Nirvana and their Seattle cohorts began hogging the spotlight soon after.
Such additional releases as 1992’s Destination Universe, plus 1994’s Freak City Soundtrack with the hit “Kim the Waitress and Goin’ Through Your Purse: Live in Chicago, very capable production in normal times, however failed to introduce the group to a wider audience, and Material Issue was dropped by Polygram soon after.
Ellison kept himself busy in the interim by working and playing with others, as he organized a supergroup of sorts, the Wild Bunch, which included such members as Pat Dinizio (the Smithereens), Gilby Clarke (Guns N’ Roses), Nash Kato (Urge Overkill), Chip Z’Nuff (Enuff Z’nuff), and Clem Burke (Blondie), among others. But besides a one-off show at Chicago’s Metro during the summer of 1995, the troupe never recorded together.
Around the same time, Ellison went into the studio with Liz Phair, helping out with production duties for the track “Rocket Boy,” which would eventually turn up on the motion picture soundtrack for Stealing Beauty.
With Material Issue having nearly completed their third studio album overall, things appeared to be looking up for Ellison and the group. But this proved not to be the case, when Ellison’s body was found in his garage on June 20, 1996, having died from carbon monoxide poisoning (a suicide note was found at the scene by police, as well). Understandably, Material Issue split up for good soon after, as their nearly completed album was issued posthumously a year later via Rykodisc, Telecommando Americano.