CHICAGO — Chicago in the 1990s was the center of the music world. Urge Overkill, Smashing Pumpkins, Ministry, Material Issue and Veruca Salt were just some of the bands to emerge.
But it was Liz Phair who shone the brightest, bursting on the scene and becoming the darling of the music industry — both of which she aptly described as “Guyville” with her critically acclaimed debut “Exile in Guyville.”
Since her 1993 debut, Phair has put out several other albums, a couple that sold more (but received less critical acclaim) than her first. She’s also acting, writing a book and continuing to play music — and will be working on new material soon.
Phair will be back in Chicago for shows at the Metro Saturday and Sunday nights and will be taking part in a Pitchfork “In Sight Out” talk Monday at the Chicago Athletic Club.
Sunday’s show promises to be special for Phair and fans. Material Issue, which like Phair started in Chicago and made it big nationally in the 1990s, will be on the bill. Phair was close friends and worked with Jim Ellison, former lead singer of Material Issue, who died by suicide in 1996 at the age of 31.
For Phair, who said she’ll be singing some of Ellison’s songs with Material Issue for the first time in decades, it promises to be an emotional tribute. Block Club Chicago contributor Bob Chiarito spoke to Phair about Ellison, the Chicago music scene of the 1990s, and what has and hasn’t changed in Guyville since she started.
BLOCK CLUB: It’s interesting, you did a show at the Empty Bottle in the summer, then you played at Riot Fest and now you’re at the Metro for two nights. What do the fans owe this to?
LIZ PHAIR: It made sense because the Empty Bottle was part of a tour I did. Matador did a whole re-issue of the “Girly Sound to Guyville” 25th Anniversary. It was this whole beautiful, big box set with like 7 LPs and interviews with everyone. It was a gorgeous, comprehensive retrospective of my early years. I did a supporting tour for that which was just me and a guitar player, Connor Sullivan, playing little rooms in intimate settings, resurrecting those old songs. The Riot Fest thing was just because. You know, I was talking to my booking agent and I said, ‘Riot Fest, they don’t know me, they don’t like me.’ He said, ‘That’s why you should do it.’ It ended up being a lot of fun.
BC: They had you on [stage] really early.
They did, they stuck me right in the direct sun, which was a challenge. But there was a lot of people. A lot of people came to see me and I was really moved. It was pretty home-towny.
BC: Do you get back to Chicago often?
Oh yeah. My son is a senior at the School of the Art Institute and my parents are still up on the North Shore. I’m in Chicago 4 or 5 times a year.
BC: Are working on any new material?
I am. As soon as we get off the road we’re doing demos with this band.
BC: Any idea of when you’ll release something new?
I don’t, because we have a lot of projects coming up. I have a book coming out from Random House next year and another project that I can’t speak about just yet that we are negotiating as we speak. I’d imagine that the record would come out next summer. That would make sense. What would make sense is for it to come out at the end of May or early June and then work that and then get ready for the book, but I’m not really in charge of how they market.
BC: What label are you currently on?
I’m not on a label.
BC: Are you looking for one?
Umm, yes. There have been labels that have reached out and I’m going to meet with them but first I want to establish the sound so that we are all clear and on the same page about what I’m going to be doing.
BC: “Exile in Guyville” was kind of a response to the male-dominated music industry. I’m not sure how much that’s changed. Have things changed at all?
I think so. From my point of view, I’ll tell you what’s changed. Here’s what I can definitively say: the young women that I speak with say it’s still a pretty sexist industry and there is plenty of evidence of that. Not just sexist in the sense of not letting women be a part of it, but it’s so much more male dominated. What I do know, the hopeful part is that there are a million more young women with guitars, writing and playing music than there were when I was coming up. It’s night and day. It’s a huge array of different genres and the young women do not even know that it wasn’t always like that. They are encountering the same stuff at the executive level that I was encountering but there were not so many artists. There are so many more female artists, they are everywhere.
BC: You did live in Wicker Park in the 1990s, right?
BC: Do you get back there at all?
I do go back there and it’s completely different. It’s gentrified to a great extent. There’s a lot of nationally known retail outlets whereas when we were there, it was predominately a Polish working class neighborhood. It’s changed dramatically. I don’t know what the music scene is like over there but certainly it’s very different and very gentrified. What’s cool about it is this Sunday night show with Material Issue is like going right back to where I kind of left off in a weird way.
BC: Will there be a special tribute to Jim Ellison on Sunday?
Yeah, there will be. The fact that we are playing together on a bill… When Jim took his life… we worked on several songs together and we were friends. We were part of the same scene. He was always incredibly good to me and an incredibly generous, successful artist at that time. In the neighborhood, he was sort of a loyalist. Like, there were some of us who craved national attention but Jim was the guy who never let you forget where you came from and took it upon himself to take under his wing a lot of younger artists. We recorded a couple songs together. We recorded a song called “Rocket Boy” for a movie called “Stealing Beauty” and we did a “Turning Japanese” cover. I have never, ever played any of those songs since he passed away. It’s too raw for me. I had a lot of emotion about it and a lot of guilt for not — I was like a young, pregnant, married wife when he passed a way. I had moved to Lincoln Park and I had a lot of mixed emotions about that scene, what had happened, how we had lost touch, and this Sunday night, playing with Material Issue who I probably haven’t seen since Jim’s funeral — being on the same bill back at the Metro where we all used to go and I used to watch them perform and watch Urge Overkill perform, and I’m going to play for the first time ever “Turning Japanese” with my band and their band. It will be the first time I’ve ever touched any of those songs and maybe I’ll jump in on their set. It feels like we are kind of doing it in Jim’s memory in a weird way.
I’m definitely going to get emotional. There’s no question that at some point in that set I’m going to have a bit of emotion about it. It’s long overdue. It’s one of those things that when someone passes away and it’s hard and everyone has feelings about it, especially with a suicide, it’s mixed emotion. There’s questions, there’s guilt, there’s a sense something innocent dying and not just his life, but a whole time in our lives. I get really touchy about it. Jim’s music needs to be heard more. We have to do it because there’s no one else to tell that story and his music is too good. They were the best of us in a lot of ways.
BC: They are only playing with you on Sunday night?
Yeah. I have Speedy Ortiz opening for the rest of the tour but because they sold out the Saturday show so fast, they added another night and they weren’t available. Material Issue had reached out to me and said if I ever wanted to do anything with them to let them know. I was scared to say yes to that because I didn’t know how I was going to feel about that. I’d love to see as much of the old neighborhood there as possible.
BC: Your book is called “Horror Stories” and it’s a memoir? And you have a two-book deal. What’s the second book going to be about?
Yes. [The second book] is “Fairy Tales.” These are both tongue-in-cheek titles. I was sort of playing off how horror is such a big genre now. I was kind of teasing, it’s almost like my songs. You know how my early songs are like fragments of intimate moments between couples?
I’m doing the same thing, although maybe it’s not romantically based. Some are, but instead of the Hollywood horror genre these are the little things that just happen to you that maybe don’t even have to do with your life. For example, one of the stories is about being in the Indiana Dunes when my son was young and my friends’ kids were young. We were way up high on the dunes. It was a beautiful morning and we were at least 200 feet about the shore. We were having a beautiful, blue sky day and the kids were frolicking and then down on the beach we saw a man beat his son. It was so visceral to watch this happen, to see a small child fly off his feet from being struck by his father. We were way too far away to do anything about it, we didn’t know the people and it was over as quickly as it started but it sat in my soul. So, when I do these short stories I’m almost exorcising ghosts in a way. I’m bringing up things that I haven’t settled. I also have a whole story about Jim in it.
I’m talking about how these things may or may not have to do with you. Like if you pass a car accident and it impacts you. It may not go anywhere, you may not have anyone to tell but it stays with you. So, my horror stories are really about the smaller moments and I expand them, kind of like the way I write my songs. The darkness is always levitated by beautiful moments. So, in my mind this is a collection of yin-yang. The Horror Stories are the darkness with the big, bright center and the Fairy Tales are like the big experiences in my career that were like glory days, huge shows and celebrity sightings, but there’s this darkness inside it that’ kind of rotten. So, they are companion books or mirrors of each other.
BC: You’ve also acted in a movie. Is all this stuff in your mind related to each other?
A thousand percent. I live and breathe content. It’s for the people I work with to figure out the presentation and the timing and how we are going to sell it, but I feel like my storytelling in any medium is pretty consistent. Like, if you know my music you’ll recognize my prose instantly. It’s the same thing for me. It’s all from the same place, it has the same style. It’s just scale.
BC: Were you friends with Steve Albini back in the 1990s?
[Laughs] No, he was a detractor of mine but I had been a fan of his from way early on. Before I had a music career, I used to go see Big Black shows. It was one of those things that I would do to try to look tougher than the suburban girl that I was. I actually interviewed him for a documentary I did on ATO Records in 2008 called “Guyville Redux” and it was really funny. He’s certainly aged well. He’s handsome, he’s like a renaissance man now and we had a good, fun conversation. I really have a huge amount of admiration for him.
BC: Yeah, he’s definitely an interesting guy. I brought it up because I interviewed him in the past and he talked about how everyone in the Chicago music scene of the 1990s really was supportive of each other. And of course Chicago for a time was the center of the music universe.
BC: And it unfortunately didn’t last forever. But did you feel the support that he described to me?
I knew that it was going on but I was an outsider. I felt it from Urge, I felt it from Material Issue and from the people around the Rainbo Club but there was also a lot of blowback when my record blew up because I hadn’t been in the scene as long, I hadn’t really paid my dues in their minds. So, I got some heat for that.
BC: And maybe because you were a woman as well?
I don’t know. Maybe it was the suburban thing where some were like, ‘Oh, rich girl is getting all the attention.’ I don’t know what it was, I think it was a lot of different things but I think there was a sense that people felt that they were waiting for their turn longer. That was a little upsetting as well as how they took the sexual songs on my records and amplified it, which I didn’t have anything to do with. Lots of bands were talking about sex, but they picked mine up and turned it into like a Playboy centerfold thing. That was actually traumatic for me, I got a little anorexic during that period because I felt really exposed and didn’t know what was going on. I wanted to impress the neighborhood and then I got picked up by this national media thing and I got a little lost in there.
This is why Sunday’s show is so important to me. When Jim died, every single person in that scene showed up to his funeral. It was heartbreaking because he couldn’t see it, he couldn’t see how supported and admired and all the things he had done for everybody came back to him at that funeral. We were all there, everybody showed up. It was like a state funeral. And some part of the scene died after that. I’m not kidding. It’s like a Jenga block got pulled out out and part of that scene died with Jim. Everybody sort of splintered off after that.