Virginia duo Illiterate Light has quickly become a Savannah favorite.
Last Stopover, they played at Service Brewing, then returned a few months later to play Service’s anniversary party. This year, they’re coming to town on the heels of their first album, a self-titled EP that draws on the sound of bands like My Morning Jacket and Fleet Foxes to create a sound that’s all their own.
Before they were musicians, Jeff Gorman and Jake Cochran were organic farmers, and that creative partnership translated nicely to making music together.
Gorman serves as the guitarist, vocalist and bassist of the band, while Cochran plays a stand-up drum set, and you’d never know from listening that it’s just two guys on stage. We talked with Gorman about sounding like your heroes, the tour life, and the under-appreciated Swiss chard.
You have a lot of dates booked. What’s it like getting into the touring mindset?
It’s pretty much the foundation of Illiterate Light. Really, right when we started the band, because we were a duo, it was pretty easy to mobilize and book house shows and DIY venues ourselves. I have friends that are in killer punk bands in New York, and there’s four people in the band and to be able to go out and get everybody to take off work for a weekend and lose money on a weekend, it’s just really hard. For us, pretty much right away, Jake and I just said we’re going to fully give ourselves to touring. For four or five years, it’s been the life for us.
We were in a Subaru Forester for about three years, and we saved up and bought a Sprinter, so we’re able to stand up, we’re able to have a little bit more of an enjoyable existence. Being in the Subaru Forester was never fun. Man, we got stuck in this snowstorm outside Asheville one time and had to pull over in a Walmart parking lot. We haven’t had as many dangerous encounters lately, but the touring is now nationwide and we’re throwing Canadian dates in a good bit now. We’re still staying healthy and trying to take each day as it comes.
I’m fascinated that you and Jake used to be organic farmers, so I have to ask: what was your crop?
We farmed for about two or three years; we were doing more small-scale organic farming. We grew a ton of stuff. In 2013, we had a really awesome onion harvest, so that was our cash crop. Outside of that, we were growing all different types of kale—dinosaur kale, red Russian. There’s a green that I love that isn’t super popular but it’s gaining some momentum right now: Swiss chard. It’s got such a beautiful stalk, it comes in all these different colors and these massive leaves. It’s a great alternative to spinach.
So we grew everything, and we’re seeing this more as we get out there, but the fact that Jake and I have been able to collaborate and work creatively in other environments outside of music has really strengthened the way we approach our band. We’ve had to literally grow the food that we’re eating to stay alive together. So it’s created a unique bond and relationship between us.
You have a very distinct sound. What did it take you to get there? Has your sound evolved, or have you always had it this way?
That’s a great question. Jake and I were in another band prior to Illiterate Light, and we’re both multi-instrumentalists. [In Illiterate Light] I’m playing guitar and singing as the primary vocalist and Jake is on drums, but in another life we were splitting those roles—I was playing drums on certain songs and he was playing guitar. The band was really awesome for us, but we were mixing a lot of things together. When he jumps on guitar, it’s radically different from the way I approach the instrument.
With Illiterate Light, we decided to hone in on our skills a little more and play to our strengths. Jake’s a significantly better drummer than I am, and I tend to be the primary writer and lyricist and vocalist, so we decided to nix the swapping of instruments and just focus on one.
It just took a few years to figure out what the sweet spot is. I still think we’re just getting there with this first album. But for a while, the way I was making my bass notes, I was taking three minutes to tune this thing in between songs, and it really killed the momentum of the show, so Jake would stand up and do a stand-up comedy bit. Then we’d play the song and I’d have to retune.
It took a while to figure out, what are we trying to say? What are we trying to sound like? How can we find our flow? Honestly, after touring for three years straight and writing our asses off, I think we’re starting to find something.
My friend the other day said, “Illiterate Light is like My Morning Jacket, but with just two guys. It’s this big epic rock ‘n’ roll sound, and if you close your eyes you think there’s four or five people onstage, but then you look up and it’s just two maniacs drawing from this different energy source.” I think that’s where we’re at. My voice lends itself to a lot of Jim James’ vocal timbre, and I’m a huge fan of theirs, so it’s never weird for me when people are like, “Oh, you remind me of this band.” I’m like, if I like that band, that’s fuckin’ rad. I don’t have any ego in it.
I know so many bands who [people ask] “Hey, describe your sound—what are some other bands you sound like?” And they have a hard time doing that, like they’re almost ashamed to follow in another band’s footsteps. Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Band of Horses, Neil Young, Fleet Foxes, these are my heroes. That’s the starting place for what I want to sound like, and then from there we branch out and do our own thing. But to hear that we remind people of those bands is a real honor, because I love that music.
At this point, people are like, “What’s your genre?” And we’re like, rock. And they’re like, “What kind of rock?” We don’t even care what you want to call it, we’re just going to show up and it’s going to be loud and fun. I don’t care if you call us bedroom indie pop or wannabe My Morning Jacket ripoffs—we’re just doing our thing.
What can people expect from your set?
I think they’ll get a little dose of partial nudity from my bandmate Jake. It’s kind of integral to rock ‘n’ roll! We’ve been writing some new stuff, which has been cool. Obviously we’ve been pushing the album we just put out, but we also just got some new song ideas floating around that we’re starting to work through, so it’ll definitely be a nice mix-up from the show we did last year.
It’ll be cool because last year when we were there, we had maybe three songs off the new EP. And now we’re coming back with our first full record and a brand new live series. We’ve videoed these entire shows and we’re just selecting one song from each show to put out, but they show the way our favorite shows tend to go. I think we’re trying to show our new friends and fans what an Illiterate Light show looks like and how you should act, which sounds kind of funny, but we want to say to people, “Hey, it’s cool to crowd surf and mosh and not violently kill each other, but move around and have a good time and get sweaty.” Even though we’re not a punk band, it feels like a punk rock show.
I think putting out these new live videos will continue to show people what our shows are like. In the midst of that, we’re finding ways to tone it back and bring people together and have those intimate moments where it gets really soft and everybody’s drawn in, and then we explode it from there. So a little bit of everything, I suppose.