Have you ever wondered if there was a real Peggy Sue? A real Lovely Rita, Meter Maid? An actual Girl From Ipanema? Well, there isn't. And now, joining this illustrious bevy of nonexistent beauties is Kim the Waitress, the heroine and namesake of Material Issue's current hit.
But that would probably be news to a local deejay, who alleged that the inspirational Kim was not only flesh and bone, but slinging hash at a Valley eatery. And, to sweeten the pot, this temptress-in-an-apron waited on the Chicago trio when it was last in town. "Well, it wasn't the Kim the Waitress," reveals the band's songwriter/guitarist, Jim Ellison. "It was some woman named Kim. I didn't even write it; that was done in 85 by Green Pajamas." That's just one of several disappointing revelations you'll uncover when you chat with Ellison. Equally shattering is that this accomplished, 27-year-old pop tunesmith, whose lyrics are crammed with Seventies reference points like Sweet songs and 8-track tapes, doesn't have an extensive record collection. In fact, his vinyl assemblage couldn't cover the hood of most domestic cars.
"I don't have any records," Ellison claims. "I've got, oh, two, three, four records lying around the house. I've got Sounds of the Dregs, Urge Overkill, Saturation, some old 45s and stuff. I was never a record collector. I really just listen to the radio a lot."
This is akin to finding out that Elvis Costello doesn't own a pair of red shoes. If you're a rabid pop enthusiast, you want to believe that Ellison shares your fervor, that when he isn't touring or recording, he's sitting around his house trying to cop Dwight Twilley licks.
Ellison bristles at the notion that he's some sort of pop nerd. "Everybody thinks I live in this house surrounded by Farfisa organs and this huge record collection. I've got CDs that people in the business send me but I never listened to."
He is also quick to beg off comparisons to other neo-Seventies revivalists like Lenny Kravitz, who tries to painstakingly recapture drum sounds from old Sly and the Family Stone records.
"The elements of the Seventies that we have aren't contrived," Ellison states emphatically. "People are always saying, 'You're a Seventies band.' We're not a Seventies band; we're kids that grew up in the Seventies. Now it's the Nineties, and we're old enough to make music. There're just things that seep in subconsciously as a person."
Ellison, bassist Ted Ansani and drummer Mike Zelenko formed Material Issue in 1987 in Chicago. Not long after, in neighboring Zion, Illinois, they hooked up with Jeff Murphy of the legendary power-pop group the Shoes. Murphy went on to produce Material Issue's first two albums. Yet despite Murphy's pop pedigree, the pairing sounds more like one of convenience than a meeting of like minds.
"Somebody wrote a review of a tape we had out and said we sounded like the Shoes," Ellison says. "We had heard that the Shoes were from around Chicago, so we got ahold of Jeff and played him this stuff. They had a recording studio, and we started recording there. To be perfectly honest with you, I'm still not an enormous fan of the Shoes. I think they're really a bit overrated. They don't really rock very hard."
One might say the same about some of the tracks Murphy produced with Material Issue. The second album, Destination Universe, sounds particularly light in the loafers and very much like, uh, the Shoes. The fact that the breakout hit from the album, "What Girls Want," was remixed by a New York engineer and sounded infinitely more powerful indicates the band knew it was time to escape Zion and shop around for a new producer.
He turned out to be one Mike Chapman, whose impeccable pop rsum includes Blondie, the Sweet, the Knack and Suzi Quatro. Freak City Soundtrack, the band's third album (no, it's not really a soundtrack), finally gives Material Issue the ammunition it has needed, if not for the international pop overthrow the first album promised, then at least for some serious pop reform.
Song after intriguing song rips past, and, 35 minutes later, you're ready to make the whole trip again. What a blessing if this new sensibility of shorter CDs, already demonstrated to great effect by Green Day's Dookie, were to catch on in a big way.
Ellison agrees that nowadays, with the additional playing time afforded on CDs, albums run way too long. "The record-company guy was pushing me to put 17 songs, and now, with CDs, they figure they can sell more if it's got more songs or some shit like that. But, hey, you know--especially if you're, like, a poppy, melodic band--you don't want to hear two hours of it."
This same attention to brevity filters into the songwriting. Freak City, like all great rock and pop, feels instinctive, as if Ellison didn't sweat over every line as though it was supposed to be art.
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"It's just stuff that pops into my head while I'm sitting around watching TV," he offers. "I think artists tend to pull one over on people, because everyone's thinking it's this brainstorm: This guy spent years trying to write this big hit song and he wrote the song in five minutes--the joke's on you. But critics go for this angle, this 'tortured artist effect' and this crap."
One angle critics also go for in a big way, at least where Material Issue is concerned, is the Spot the Stolen Passage challenge. In much the same way people derive enjoyment from identifying a Temptations sample on a rap recording, they love to hear songs like Material Issue's "When I Get This Way" as a pinch of "Up Around the Bend," a dash of "I'll Be You" and a bit of "Back in My Arms Again." Even if you view Ellison's songs merely as the sum of his influences, they still make for an impressive collage. Perhaps the reason Ellison doesn't want to spend time shedding light on his influences is because no one is picking out the right influences. When people make assertions that his quavering tenor sometimes sounds like that of Allan Clarke of the Hollies, or that "Kim" sounds a little like a Rush song, it bothers him. Really.
"I've heard that before [the Clarke comparison]," he says, sniffing. "It never entered my mind that it [When I Get This Way'] sounded like 'Up Around the Bend' or Rush or the Left Banke or any of these people. Half of these [bands] people say I make records like I've never even heard." How ironic, then, that the band decided to employ Kevin Shirley, the engineer of Rush's last album, and even met with the Canadian trio's producer, Peter Collins, described by Ellison as "this fat, old Englishman smoking cigars."
It doesn't, however, take someone with a doctorate in pop history to notice that the new album's token ballad, "I Could Use You," was America's "I Need You" in a past life. Clever lift? Respectful tip o' the hat? Ellison pleads innocent, both to harmless gag and outright theft. "Prior to everyone saying I knocked off this song, I hadn't really listened to that song before." Suit yourself.
Having established three times that it isn't just a one-hit-wonder band, Material Issue appears to be here for the long haul.
"You can have that one hit, be some fuckin' pretentious sellout guy, make a little money and then be gone. Or you can take it nice and easy, keep making records and be around for 15, 20 years and then be discovered as this legend. Sooner or later, something's gonna happen, and you're gonna be fuckin' huge. But you can't keep trying to be huge all the time. It doesn't work that way.