Light Pollution: Nick Sherman, Matt Evert, Jed Robertson, and James Cicero
Light Pollution: Nick Sherman, Matt Evert, Jed Robertson, and James Cicero Credit: John Sturdy

Light Pollution moved to Chicago from DeKalb about two and a half years ago, but James Cicero, the electro-psychedelic indie-rock outfit’s front man and songwriter, says he barely feels like part of the city’s music scene. “That’s always been weird for our band,” he says. “We’ve played with some cool Chicago bands. We have kind of mutual friends that are in cool bands. But it doesn’t feel like we’re very tied into the scene. . . . We don’t have a practice space where it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, all these cool bands practice here.'”

There’s a simple explanation for this: Cicero hasn’t actually been in Chicago much. For most of 2009 he was holed up in an unheated, mold-covered warehouse “outside of outside of DeKalb,” working in near isolation on the band’s first album, Apparitions. And he estimates that Light Pollution have been out on the road for maybe three-quarters of the remaining year and a half that they’ve called Chicago home—for the past six months they’ve been touring pretty constantly, opening for similarly psych-tinged acts like Memoryhouse and Deerhunter.

Light Pollution is booked by the Chicago-based Windish Agency, a powerhouse that’s home to a vast number of top-tier hipster-approved acts—among them Best Coast, Washed Out, Lykke Li, Fever Ray, the XX, and much of the roster of D.C. label Carpark Records. Carpark, which helped break Dan Deacon, Beach House, Toro y Moi, and Animal Collective (the band’s Paw Tracks imprint is a collaboration with Carpark), will release Apparitions on June 8.

Six years ago Cicero, now 24, was a freshman at Northern Illinois University. He majored in philosophy, then English, and then dropped out. “I couldn’t stop writing songs in class and crap like that,” he says. At the time the nascent Light Pollution was a large indie-folk outfit with strings and horns—something along the lines of Neutral Milk Hotel or Broken Social Scene—but that didn’t last long. “It was really hard to get that many people together in the same room to work on stuff,” Cicero explains. “I was not into that music after only a year of doing it. I was really out of it. I was messing around with a lot of synths and doing kind of noise/ambient stuff on my own time. Then that became a big part of the band. Going from playing only acoustic guitar to like, playing, you know, electric guitar and looping synth stuff.”

By the time Light Pollution arrived in Chicago they were a four-piece, with only two remaining members from the original lineup: Cicero on synths, guitars, and vocals and Matt Evert on drums. Two friends from DeKalb had joined right around the time of the move: bassist Jed Robertson and multi-instrumentalist Nick Sherman, who contributes synth and guitar as well as loops and laptop-based processing. The sound that this new group developed, which fuses pop songwriting with atmospheric electronics, is what Cicero has captured on Apparitions.

That’s not to say there’s no folk-inflected indie pop on the album, or that none of its songs operates on a grand scale. Though the band recorded most of Apparitions as a four-piece—Cicero went it alone on a couple tracks—there are often enough extra instruments overdubbed (some of them played by guests) to create the impression of a large rock ensemble. “Oh, Ivory!” includes a mini orchestra of strings, piano, and glockenspiel in slow builds that just beg to be described as epic or sweeping. “Deyci, Right On” isn’t quite as big, but over the course of seven minutes its languid pileup of synthesizer drones unfolds into something like a blue-eyed soul ballad played in slow motion by computers.

At press time Light Pollution’s MySpace page listed the band’s influences as “very sudden, discrete periods of intense anxiety, mounting physiological arousal, fear, stomach problems, discomfort, and difficulties with spatial orientation.” As Cicero explains, that’s a list of symptoms associated with agoraphobia—and a close-to-the-bone joke about his obsessive and sometimes solitary work on Apparitions. He claims that during its creation he wrote and threw away more than enough material to fill up another whole album. Listening to some of the chilly, reverb-heavy songs that made the cut, you can easily envision a guy trapped in a freezing warehouse by a process he doesn’t quite understand.

“The feedback I’ve gotten from people is that it’s combining a lot of different elements of what’s going on with popular indie music right now,” Cicero says. “Like, there’s some kind of shoegazy aspects. It’s kind of like synthy, ambient, kind of chillwave stuff. There’s a little freak-folk quality.”

Most artists bridle when people attach buzzwords like that to their music—chillwave especially is the kind of Current Big Thing that the online indie-rock world likes to latch onto and then abandon, as if on a whim. But Cicero is confident and ambitious, with a better-developed pop instinct than most indie songwriters—and less of their self-conciousness about whether that instinct leads him in a direction other people might see as trendy.

Apparitions has “Pitchfork bait” written all over it, and Cicero is counting on them to bite. He and Evert have quit their jobs, and the other members are only employed part-time—Robertson works the door and helps out with production at the Viaduct Theater, and Sherman is a freelance sound engineer. They’re all prepared to make the band a full-time gig.

In the meantime, they plan to keep on promoting themselves the old-fashioned way: by touring hard. They’ll spend the summer on the road, doing separate runs supporting A Place to Bury Strangers and Neon Indian and headlining some dates of their own. Cicero just moved into a new place in Pilsen, but he’s not sure he’ll be around enough to get acquainted with the neighborhood before winter.