Though power pop (a.k.a. “the skinny-tie era”) was the rage in New York and Los Angeles for only a brief time at the start of the ’80s, that style of melodic rock has survived in the Midwest for two decades thanks to practitioners such as Cheap Trick, the Raspberries, Shoes and the Romantics.
The band next poised to pop till they drop is Chicago’s Material Issue, whose major-label debut has just been released by Mercury.
Material Issue will celebrate the release of “International Pop Overthrow” with a concert at 10 p.m. tomorrow at the Cubby Bear, 1059 W. Addison. For tickets, $6, call (312) 327-1662.
“I feel like we’re on a mission,” singer-guitarist-songwriter Jim Ellison says. “Pop music is no longer trendy or cool, but it’s what we love, so we want to throw it in people’s faces.”
The LP’s title track, in which Ellison affects an English accent and the band powers ahead like the Buzzcocks, reveals the essence of Material Issue. Though the songs may sound tuneful and harmonious, the sentiments are often bitter and sarcastic.
This is a band that hasn’t forgotten the attitude of punk rock, but plays too well to sacrifice its music to the raw atmosphere of graffiti-covered punk dungeons. When Ellison sings “All these other boys/they’re just making noise/ they don’t know rock ‘n’ roll/they just need someone to have their picture taken with,” he sounds like he’s indicting almost every form of rock, from heavy metal to power ballads.
What inspired “International Pop Overthrow,” however, were the various art rock bands with whom Material Issue has been billed during the last four years of touring.
“We take our music seriously and work hard at it, so it really gets to us when we see some band banging on pots and pans and acting weird and artsy,” Ellison says. “It’s only natural to want to be in a band, and if I wasn’t musically inclined, I’d probably do the same thing.”
Ironically, one of Material Issue’s earliest supporters was Chicago’s reigning avant-gardener Steve Albini, whose Big Black sold tens of thousands of records that sound like they were left in the sun too long.
When Albini reviewed Material Issue’s self-titled, self-distributed 1986 EP in Matter magazine, he favorably compared them to Shoes, from Zion. “That was the first time we’d heard of Shoes,” bassist Ted Ansani says.
Ellison went out and bought a Shoes album and became an instant fan. When he heard that Jeff Murphy of Shoes had a recording studio in Zion and was available to produce, he booked about two weeks of studio time and Material Issue set out to make a demo.
Mercury A & R man Bob Skoros heard the tape and flipped. When he saw the band perform, he offered a deal, but the band didn’t sign right away.
“It was too quick,” Ellison says. “We wanted to see if any other record companies were interested.”
It turns out several major labels also loved the tape, and a bidding skirmish occurred. Eventually, the band members did sign with Skoros and Mercury, but they received a much better deal than if they had jumped at the first offer.
Material Issue was ready to go back and re-record its material, but Mercury said not to bother: the demo was good enough to be the album. “We made that record so fast and so cheap that it probably cost more to print the cassette covers than we spent recording the whole album,” Ellison says.
He credits Murphy for running the sessions so smoothly. “It was great to be produced by the person who not only owns the studio, but built it,” Ellison says. “Whenever there was any kind of equipment problem, Jeff had it fixed before you could even get a Coke.”
If its beginnings are any indication, Material Issue is a band that likes to get things done quickly. Ellison met bassist Ted Ansani at Columbia College, where they both went to school. They placed an ad looking for a drummer and met Mike Zelenko.
“Jim called me on the Fourth of July (in 1985) and asked if I could come over and audition that day,” Zelenko says. “We were having a family barbecue so I tried to put it off for a day or two, but Jim made it clear it had to be that day.
“After a couple songs, Jim looked at Ted and, right in front of me, said, `Well, is he in?’ We had a first rehearsal the next day, and the day after that we had our first gig.”
Ellison adds that the years of writing, rehearsals and touring were necessary before the band could make “International Pop Overthrow.”
“Our intention was to make an album where every song sounded like a hit single to us,” he says. Indeed, with the LP’s proliferation of titles containing girls’ names (“Valerie Loves Me,” “Diane” and “Renee Remains the Same” are the first three cuts), Material Issue wears its pop heritage proudly.
While the music world goes gaga over house, rap, synth-rock, Sonic Youth and all those hippie dance bands from Manchester, England, Material Issue stands by its unhip and outdated form of choice.
“It’s all about songs,” Ellison says. “A good song will always transcend the flavor-of-the-month club.”