Fifteen years ago, Sam Prekop started toying around with a modular synthesizer, a small panel of wires and knobs and electric outputs that resembles an old-fashioned switchboard more than a keyboard you can buy at Guitar Center. Up to that point, he’d been known primarily as the lead singer and guitarist of one of the most widely renowned indie-rock bands in Chicago history, the Sea and Cake, which makes breezy, cleanly mixed, noodly songs foregrounded by Prekop’s distinct voice, a panting whisper that sounds like someone excitedly telling you a secret. But with this 1950s-era instrument, he was producing something radically different, forgoing singing entirely for chunky noises and partial melodies glued into quirky, defiantly avant-garde music. And when he played it for other people, they hated it.

“They were horrified,” says the Pilsen resident, recalling the reaction to what would become 2010’s Old Punch Card. “But now people seem to like it quite a bit. And once you get past that it doesn’t sound like the Sea and Cake or whatever, my sensibility is still there.”

Though Old Punch Card caught listeners off-guard, Prekop’s steady exploration of the modular synthesizer eventually led to Comma, the unlikeliest great album to come out of Chicago so far this year. Dropping Friday, September 11, his fifth solo LP is an uncommonly approachable collection of experimental electronic music. As on Old Punch Card, Prekop doesn’t sing. Many of the tracks have beats, but the results don’t really sound like house or techno. And while Comma is soothing and unobtrusive, it’s not background music; the songs have verses and choruses, though they are hard to make out. In the gloom and chaos of 2020, it’s almost therapeutic.

All of Prekop’s work, even the wobbly clinkety-clank of Old Punch Card, has this tranquilizing effect, which doesn’t mean it will put you to sleep — it’s art that makes you momentarily tune out the anxieties and harshness of the modern world. And not “momentary” as in ephemeral, because the moments persist in memory. When I hear Prekop’s music, I can place it in certain locations at specific instances in time: raindrops on a car window in upstate New York, the purple-orange sky above Ukrainian Village rooftops, smoke-filled rooms with friends.

In mid-August I sat with Prekop, both of us masked up, in his backyard in Pilsen. Though he resides on a lively stretch of 18th Street, the back area is a zen-like retreat — surrounded by a wooden fence and filled with verdant overgrowth. Prekop had stopped interfering with his graying beard and hair, the latter spooling out of a green baseball hat, and he resembled a hippie ceramicist more than the clean-cut blonde guy I had seen in pictures. He’s soft-spoken and answers questions in long-winded fragments, almost like he’s pulling together strands of separate thoughts into an impressionistic response.

Creative breakthroughs like Comma happen for musicians all the time, but typically not at age 54. That Prekop experienced this one has a lot to do with his artistic process — he’s a consummate craftsman, favoring refinement over brashness. “In the beginning, I’m just trying to find ideas and interesting new directions,” he says of his approach to the modular synthesizer. “But then it’s months of paying super-close attention to every move and nuance. I’m not saying it’s agonizing — it’s pleasant work — but it does take me a long time to get to a point where it hangs like a whole record.”

There’s a tendency to romanticize the life of an artist, but Prekop is levelheaded and forthcoming about its challenges. When I ask him if he’s been a full-time musician and visual artist since the ’90s, he affirms the question but also says, “I mean, I’m broke.” He’s quick to dismiss any divine or natural predetermination to his career. “Everything’s a choice and a decision and that’s the art; you’re hoping to display what choices and things you decided to do along the way and what that adds up to,” he says. At the same time, he can’t imagine doing anything else. “I knew early on that I would be an artist — like at age five I said, ‘This is what I'm doing.’ ”

Though he’s usually thought of as a musician, Prekop has a fine-arts background — he earned a bachelor’s in painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where his father was once the dean — and his paintings and photography often grace the covers of his albums. All his artwork shares a unifying aesthetic: bright, spacious, and buoyant, with sharp resolution and vivid colors. His Instagram account (@1sampre) is one of the app’s low-key best follows; he uses a Leica M6, a handheld camera that’s no longer manufactured, and rich film stock to photograph streetscapes from unusual vantage points. (The picture for Comma of a bird perched on a streetlamp is from a trip to Japan.)

His Instagram showcases some of this material, objects and buildings and sidewalks and skylines captured at slants or up close: a green pole cutting up the middle of an otherwise beige industrial corridor; a parking lot with a roller coaster behind it in Australia; the enormous pit of a construction site in downtown Chicago; the name “JAMES” in white graffiti on a tan-pink door. In all of these images, the contrast thickens the colors and the perspective adds new dimensions to seemingly uninteresting landscapes.

“I am most interested in making photos out of nothing,” Prekop says. “I'm not opposed to photos of great-looking stuff, but for me, those would tend to be much less interesting. That's why I like alleys: They sort of look the same everywhere. It’s like a blank canvas for the camera.”

Initially, Prekop was skeptical of Instagram, recalling that when he was encouraged to try social media his response was, “I hate all this shit.” But once he realized that the photos he posted didn’t have to be taken with his phone, and when he noticed major photographers like Stephen Shore using the platform, he reconsidered. All of the photos on Prekop’s photography-focused Instagram account (he recently started another one, @prekopcomma, to highlight his synth-based works in progress) are available for purchase as physical prints, which he says, “ends up being quite a bit of money, actually.” And some people even recognize him as a photographer first, unaware that he’s a musician.

Prekop admits to having done “zero” painting in the past decade, but he also calls his photography “really fast paintings.” His brush-based work is more abstract and geometric, but it’s not severe. Anyone who knows Prekop’s music has likely seen these artworks on the covers of his early solo releases, most memorably on his self-titled debut, released in 1999, where a boxy skyline appears in candy-colored pastels.

Sam Prekop is a gorgeous and integral snapshot of the local independent-music scene at the time of its creation. Prekop sketched out the songs with fellow Sea and Cake guitarist Archer Prewitt, then booked bassist Joshua Abrams, drummer Chad Taylor, and producer Jim O’Rourke to fill out the ensemble. They banged out the basic tracks in a couple of days at the now-shuttered Solid Sound Studios in Hoffman Estates, and afterwards, Prekop and O’Rourke overdubbed strings, horns, vocals, and effects over the course of a month at the latter’s apartment in Logan Square.

Despite the patchwork and occasionally DIY nature of the recording, Sam Prekop sounds remarkably uniform and polished. Like many major-label releases of the ’70s, Sam Prekop employs expert jazz players (Abrams, Taylor, and cornetist Rob Mazurek) to keep things deceptively ordered. The result is almost like avant-bossa nova, or an offbeat singer-songwriter album perfect for sunny afternoons or daytime commutes on the train. Its gentleness and subtlety seem slight at first, but their appeal only grows with time.

Part of what makes Comma so remarkable is how it’s in some ways an abstraction of Prekop’s earlier efforts. In mood and texture, the new album has a lot in common with Sam Prekop, even if the instruments and format of the material couldn’t be more different: it possesses a similar bright, circular energy. Prekop shies away from saying he’s necessarily influenced by any one thing, but he did admit to listening to a lot of Japanese ambient music while making Comma, and he mentioned one recording in particular, Hiroshi Yoshimura’s 1986 album Green, which was recently issued by the Seattle label Light in the Attic. As Philip Sherburne writes in his review of Green for Pitchfork, Yoshimura titled his album not for the color, but for the sound of the word itself, and thereby “developed an evocative synesthetic world to accompany his mental images of that sound.”

In that sense, the connection between Comma and Green, and its relationship to Prekop’s work, makes a certain kind of sense. At one point, Prekop told me, “Subconsciously, when I'm really deep into it, if a piece is working for me, it will conjure a visual quality. Like, I feel like I could touch it in a way. When a piece is almost done, it's so sensitized that if I move one thing just a little bit somewhere else, it changes everything. And I feel like good photos or painting work in a similar way. I'm not thinking about recreating a photo with music or anything like that remotely. But intuitively, I think when I am getting close to where I think it's good, it sort of gives off those kinds of qualities.”

On Comma, Prekop still relied on the modular synthesizer, but he also integrated newer electronic instruments, including a Roland SH-101, a favorite synth among music producers of the ’90s. “I was wary of any sort of pop sensibilities coming into my last albums,” he says. “I let that guard down on this one.” But he was adamant about not singing on Comma. “Vocals take over everything. If I sang, that would be all most people would hear.”

When I ask Prekop if he can pinpoint why he avoids grand statements and prefers these smaller moments, he pauses and thinks for a bit. “I think it stems from having a certain bizarre faith in my intuition,” he says. “I don’t know if I ever was tempted to think of some grand idea or statement and then fulfill that. I knew early on that a) I would not be good at it, because it’s not my sensibility, and b) I just figured out that I would be wasting my time.

“So I’m lucky that I knew pretty early on to follow my gut. And I think that can be hard for a lot of people starting out if you don’t know what you should do with your life. But if you’re able to see past difficulty and remain hardcore focused on the work, that can lead to amazing stuff. I just don’t think a lot of people realize that it’s much harder than it might seem, even when it’s intuition-based work.”

Prekop doesn’t spend time critiquing a project after he finishes it, preferring to move on to the next thing. When asked if he’s satisfied with the results on Comma, he says, “Maybe. I’d have to listen to it.”