Monday, 28 September 2020

Material Issue: Jim Ellison Claims To Know What Girls Want. Who Better To Help Me Build The Perfect Human Being?

Originally published in American Music Press (1992)
Interview by Devorah Ostrov

Material Issue - "What Girls Want" CD single
(Mercury Records - 1992)
Right now, my favorite teenage-girl magazine is running its annual "Sassiest Girl in America" contest. To win, one simply has to construct the perfect human being.

"Think of more than four but less than fifteen folks — living or dead — who you admire the heck out of," state the rules. "Now create a totally ideal being employing different attributes from said individuals."

And who better to help me with this Frankensteinian project than Material Issue vocalist Jim Ellison. After all, he already has a head start with the hit song "What Girls Want":

I want a man with lips just like Mick Jagger
Rod Stewart's hair, and Keith Richards' stagger...

I wasted no time in getting Jim — who had just returned home to Chicago after a two-month US tour in support of the group's latest album Destination Universe — on the phone.

Material Issue (Mercury Records publicity photo)
AMP: So, who do we pick for a sense of humor?

JIM: Rodney Dangerfield.

AMP: Good. What about singing voice?

JIM: Robin Gibb.

AMP: The Bee Gees? Interesting. Okay, how about intelligence?

JIM: Gene Simmons.

AMP: Really? Is he smart?

JIM: Highly.

AMP: Eyebrows?

JIM: I've always thought that Paul McCartney has good eyebrows.

AMP: That's a great choice! Whose ambition do we admire?

JIM: That's a toughie. No one has ever struck me as being ambitious.

AMP: What about yourself?

JIM: Yeah... I guess...

Jim's unassuming reply was sweet, but it wasn't going to win me Sassy's contest. It seemed like a good time to switch gears and ask a few proper interview questions.

Material Issue
(Mercury Records publicity photo)
AMP: Did you guys suspect that "What Girls Want" would be a big hit when you recorded it?

JIM: Well... we think all the songs on the album are hits [suddenly he's all ambitious], but we liked "What Girls Want" the best. We had two top-five hits last year with "Valerie Loves Me," and "Diane" [both from the International Pop Overthrow LP), so we'd pretty much established ourselves as far as modern rock goes. Now "What Girls Want" is getting played on AOR, which we never thought would happen. But the record is #38, and it's still climbing!

AMP: Are you personally a big fan of pop music?

JIM: I'm a fan of everything. I listen to music from the '50s to now. I'm always listening to old music for reference points, but I listen to new music too, because a lot of it's great.

AMP: What current bands do you like?

Back cover pic from the "Valerie Loves Me" 12-inch EP
Photo: Michael Lavine
JIM: The Cave Dogs were our opening band on this tour, and I thought they were excellent. I like Cracker quite a bit; they did some shows with us. There's some local Chicago bands that I like a lot.

AMP: Historically, the Midwest has always had a reputation as a breeding ground for great pop bands — Cheap Trick, Shoes, the Replacements...

JIM: Historically it has, but it's been a while since Cheap Trick. Unfortunately, we don't have much more than Material Issue in the pop vein currently.

AMP: Why do you think that is?

JIM: A lot of musicians get frustrated with the format, seeing as there's so many bands that have played that kind of music. But our music still has a modern edge to it, even though it's straight-ahead pop. I think a lot of bands get too sucked up in the retro aspect of pop music.

AMP: But there's so much you can do with pop!

JIM: Yeah, but I don't think too many people know how to do it. If they did, we'd have a lot more successful pop bands.

* Postscript — I did not win the "Sassiest Girl in America" contest.
* RIP — Jim Ellison committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in June 1996. 

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