The acoustic guitar that opens “Hand Crushes the Wheel” clips along at a steady pace, like tires clinking in metronome fashion over the reflectors embedded at the center of an asphalt road. Jim Cicero’s voice enters, weary but resilient: “I was barely breathing/ This hand crushes the wheel.” Over the next three minutes, that beleaguered resilience blossoms through a tasteful orchestral array: Strings and horns ricochet off one another, and sleigh bells and glockenspiel motion patiently ahead alongside marching drums. It climaxes like a victory parade, survival and arrival earned and duly celebrated. As Cicero relayed to us on his drive into Bloomington, Ind., for a Light Pollution show, “Hand Crushes the Wheel” was indeed his internal score for perseverance while driving congested Illinois roads to spend time with his new girlfriend.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You just released “Hand Crushes the Wheel” on a 12-inch record Monday night in Chicago. But how long has the song been around?
JIM CICERO: That song is actually about two years old, but as a band we haven’t been playing it too long. I wrote it and brought it to the band about a year ago. We worked on it together. It’s about driving.
Driving? What can you tell me about your life circumstances when you wrote this song?
I was going back and forth a lot between Chicago and DeKalb. There are some references to train rides also in there. It’s just that mindset of being tired and traveling a lot.
Why were you driving between those two cities?
Well, Heather [Rice], she plays viola and keyboards, the girl in our band. This was when she was just joining, when I started dating her. We were going back and forth a lot because she lived in Chicago at the time.
The image of a hand crushing the wheel: Did you look down as you were driving and just realize you were maybe squeezing a little too hard?
You should see me driving the tour van right now. I’m crushing the wheel with my hands.
Are you a nervous driver?
Ahh, not really. I don’t know. It’s just kind of when it’s late at night and being really tired and really frustrated. But, yeah, I’m an OK driver. I’m not the best.
How far is the drive from DeKalb to Chicago?
It’s about 65 miles. There’s just constant construction going on there. Since I first moved to DeKalb about five or six years ago, there’s been constant construction. It’s kind of annoying. Supposedly it will be done in 2009. It’s about a two-hour drive. It’s not too bad. It’s not as bad as touring. We’ve definitely got some seven-hour drives every once in a while.
What will the worst drive be for this tour?
I have a feeling New York to Pittsburgh will be pretty bad. Actually, tomorrow we’re playing in Illinois again, so we’re backtracking a little bit. We’re playing in Champaign, and then going to a festival in Cincinnati. That should be a good seven hours, probably.
Speaking of driving and touring, I imagine gas prices aren’t helping the stress of your traveling right now.
Actually, it just went down a couple of cents. [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s kind of miserable thinking about being in a band 10 years ago, how easy it would have been, at least as far as gas prices. It’s deterred some bands from touring, but we wanted to do it either way.
The arrangement of “Hand Crushes the Wheel” feels great, somehow, even though it was born of frustration. It crests really well. How did that come about?
Yeah, that song, I had very specific ideas for. A lot of the time, with most of our songs, it will be a collective effort on writing parts. But that song, I had most of the ideas already there. Like that breakdown where the strings come in and the horn follows up and it goes to the group shouting part. A lot of the times I’ll have the idea in my head as I’m writing, but that’s one of those exceptions where it was less of us working on it all together. … That song is a specific arrangement, and we hammered them out together, with people adding their own personal touch. But usually, I’ll just have the framework and we’ll all build our parts around it. With that song, it was more specific. We don’t have any specific method for working on a song. It’s just what works out the best in the end.
Light Pollution plays Nightlight Saturday, July 26, at 10 p.m. with Beloved Binge and Saint Peter Pocket Veto. Tickets are $5.