Illiterate Light

Illiterate Light will be headlining The Basement East in Nashville on Saturday. 

At one point in time, Virginia native rockers Illiterate Light toured on bicycle. Times have changed since then – although the band is still environmentally active -- and the band is currently on a U.S. headlining tour, which will make its way to the Basement East in Nashville on Saturday.

While Harrisonburg, Virginia, will always be home to the blues rock duo, Music City has become a second home. In fact, the band – which consists of Jeff Gorman (guitarist/bassist and lead singer) and Jake Cochran (drums and keyboards) – would travel from the commonwealth to perform in Nashville in order to get a sense of the music scene.

Last year, Illiterate Light released its debut album, a self-title LP. The band was also active on the festival scene, including a stop at Bonnaroo, which consisted of a high-energy performance.

Illiterate Light gave fans a taste of what a live show consists of, releasing a live performance of “Vampire Blues,” a Neil Young cover. According to Cochran, the band will be releasing more live performances in the near future.

Prior to Saturday’s headlining performance, The News was able to speak with Cochran. During the interview, Cochran spoke about the tour, the first album, how the band stays environmentally friendly on the road and what playing Nashville means to Illiterate Light.

I know you guys are on a tour right now, so how's it been going so far?

Man, it's been a really cool tour. Yeah, we left, it's probably about three, three and a half weeks that we've been on the road at this point. And this is kind of our first full U.S. headline tour, where we've been playing the East coast for four years. Everything from booking ourselves in basements and playing anywhere we could, to just starting to open for some bands we love; Rayland Baxter being one of the first ones, another Nashville guy.

This is the first time where our record is out and they feel like our shows, they feel like our crowds. And we're seeing people sing along and filling them up with excitement and energy and it's a really special experience for us right now.

You mentioned the early tour days, I want to ask about this is, when I was doing research for this I came across an article that said that you guys had actually toured by bicycle on the Atlantic coast. Talk to me a little bit about how that became a thing and I have to suspect that traveling may have become a little difficult at times, right?

Yeah, that was a big part of Jeff and I's life. And so basically we were part of a community in Harrisonburg, Virginia, or our hometown, and we were involved in a lot of community activism and environmental activism and we were part of an organic farming and urban farming, urban gardening movement in our little town. And really just those were our friends and that's what we enjoy spending our time doing. Within that community of people, a few other artists had the idea that if we were all writing and singing songs about, particularly about environmental activism, it made it feel a little cheesy to then jump in a van and drive up and down the coast and burn a bunch of fossil fuel to do that.

So that's kind of what kicked us into this idea of, what's a way that we can tour completely without using fossil fuels. And we heard about some people over on the West coast that, incidentally, we just got to meet some of them yesterday out in Oakland, but we heard about some people out on the West coast that were touring by bike, bringing trailers that they were like KT trailers or trailers built out of ladders and attached to the back of the bike where pile a bunch of gear on. And they were already doing it. And so we just tried our own burned that on the East coast. Mainly we were playing acoustic instruments at that time. It evolved over the years, but we would bring whatever we could fit and then borrow here from local bands that we would play with.

And yeah, we, we did that for probably about three or four years in a row, once a summer for about two to three weeks each summer. And yeah, it was really a life changing experience.  I mean, we had toured that way before we really toured in a van. So, getting into the world of logistics and of trying to run a crew of people and things organized and get to the gig and play our best show within the midst of insanity, it was insanity but it was also some of the most joyful moments of our lives and these moments that we'll look back on forever. I can't believe we did that.

You brought up environmental activism. Now that you guys are on tour now, subconsciously, how do you go about trying to be environmentally friendly while on tour?

I mean, that's very much on our minds. We're aware that we're touring in a van now and everywhere we go, there's a cost. All the electricity that we use to power what we're doing, there's a cost to that. At this point we're fully devoted to playing our music and touring in the traditional way, just because the mentors that we have, the bands, the people that we've looked up to getting out on the road and doing it by living on the road and playing in front of people, is how it was always done. And that's what we've really identified with. So right now we have had to tell ourselves we're living a certain, we're kind of paying our dues, paying our respects to the van life. And at the same, time we're dreaming of how to do it better.

And we love getting in conversations about this. For me, when it comes to environmental activism, I've gone through a lot of different stages of how I interpret that and work with that. And at this point I'm not, I don't know, speaking to a purest mindset, it's really been hard for me in the past and I've gotten bitter at myself and at others for, yeah, not be able to be perfect in how I'm living and what resources I'm using. Something that I'm excited about right now is finding ways that environmental activism can be fun and be engaging and something that people want to be a part of, as opposed to kind of like isolating and just making sure that I'm individually doing the right thing. Which, there's also beauty there as well. It's just not my journey right now, I guess.

The, the cool thing that we got to do yesterday in San Francisco is we met up with a company called Rock the Bike and they're in Oakland, California. For 13 years, they've been building bicycle power generators and running events all around San Francisco and in parts of California, where entire agencies are set up. Anything as small as just one speaker with one bicycle powering to the speaker, to having 20 bicycles powering a small festival stage with a full band, a drum set, sub wars, and completely off the grid. There's no batteries. It's power being created by the people that want to hear the music. And that's what's so inspiring to Jeff and I right now, is connecting with these communities that have this mission to spread the joy of environmental activism. And the fact that when you put some effort forward and become part of an experience like that, you become a part of a community.

And that's honestly, that's really what I'm after in life in a lot of ways right now, is bringing people together and finding ways for people to feel like a community, as opposed to isolate and separate. And so that's our immediate dream, is how do we as a literate light start to incorporate these generators in what we're doing, and how do we bring that to the festivals that we're going to be playing in 2020 and 2021. And yeah, that's what we're currently working on. But we also just love hearing what anybody else is doing. We're learners, we're listeners and we're willing to try anything.

You mentioned festivals and I was lucky enough to see you guys last year at Bonnaroo. Your performance just blew me away. I got to ask you about your unique stage presence. Obviously, you have standing drums. So I got to ask about, why'd you go the route of standing versus sitting?

Yeah, totally. It's a thing that I've started to get asked more and more and that's made me think about it more and more. In some ways, I just did it. I wasn't totally sure why. It felt right and I didn't ask questions. I think maybe the basic answer is that at one point, when Jeff and I were trying to figure out how to become a duo, sort of energetic play between the two of us, we knew it was going to be really important. We have a long history of friendship and playing in other bands, of working together, running a farm together, organizing these bike tours. We have so much time where our lives have been tied together, that yeah, we wanted some way to be duo and to really show his in my emotional and energetic push and pull.

The first couple of times we played as a duo, I was sitting and I was in the back just like a normal drummer would be. And it was just really hard for us to connect on stage because he would have to turn around and see me or I was up in one place. And so one time, I just tried standing up and I didn't really look back after that. Just kind of the experience of drumming is so body focused for me and it's so visual that immediately, it just made sense bringing that up. And getting to just be right there with the crowd and engage with people. And then balance with Jeff right there beside me, where he's a little bit more of a rock, he's a little bit more... He's playing bass with his seat, so he also has to stay in one place. If there's any music happening, it's him in one place. And that frees me up to be a drummer but also to jump around stage and try to make people laugh and smile. And, yeah. That's a big part of what I love about live performance. So it's cool to be able to do it.

If I’m not mistaken, not too much longer after that Bonnaroo performance, you guys released your debut album. Where did you guys record that, was it out here in Nashville?

So we're actually based out of Virginia, Harrisonburg, Virginia. But I did just moved to Nashville in August. So now I'm a Nashville native. So, this album came together, really over a few years. Some of the songs are from even when Jeff and I were in college in 2012. Most of them were written between 2015, and then a few months before the album came out, we added three songs right at the end. So there's really a four to five year span of when the songs were written and how they came together. The majority of the album was recorded in Richmond, Virginia with two of our friends, Adrian Olson and Charlie Glenn. And they co-produced and engineered the album. And then, the album was finished and mixed in Nashville with a producer engineer named Vance Powell. And and then he mixed the whole thing as well.

I know a couple of weeks ago, you guys put out a live video for “Vampire Blues,” a Neil Young cover. And I'm curious because that's one of my favorite Neil Young songs. How long have you guys been performing that and what do you love about the song?

Oh, we certainly love that song. I mean, Neil Young is a big inspiration to both Jeff and I. Particularly Jeff, even in his guitar playing style and just his work ethic and everything. Jeff's a definite student of Neil Young and Neil Young's music was one of the first that Jeff and I found in common when we met each other. And so, it really started all the way back in 2010 when we met. But probably when we started playing that song first, some version of it was on one of those tours. The song itself, my interpretation of it is that that Neil Young is talking about oil and sucking blood from the earth and 20 barrels full. And so there was something really exciting to us about biking around and getting to sing this weird blues song about stripping the land of oil. And so that's kind of where it started.

And then at some point, when Jeff and I we're doing this duo set up, and we tried it one night and just sort of let the solo section go in a way that gave Jeff and I a lot of freedom. And it's really become a staple of our set in that way because it's a time in our set where both Jeff and I get to put down our vocal roles. We can really just focus on the moment, focus on bringing whatever craziness, whatever we're feeling right then in to action. And we've talked for awhile about either doing a studio recording of that song or yeah, how to translate it and we ended up just realizing that the live aspect of it, the risks that we're taking, the craziness of the whole thing, is what makes that song so exciting. And we filmed it and captured it at our hometown venue in Harrisonburg with just friends and fans that have been there for us for years through different bands, people who have known us for 10 years and watching us and just going crazy.

And so that was a really cool kind of like coming together experience for us where we've wanted a video that really showed our live thing in a way that we felt like it was well captured. And this is really the first time that we feel like we've gotten that and we can kind of translate that to video into the world. And so that's also kicking off a series where we're going to, once a month, release more of our original songs, maybe some more covers, but one song a month live, us playing in these different small clubs that we're hitting as we're touring around the country right now. And so that's a really exciting project for us.

I just have one last question for you. Obviously, you guys will be playing Nashville here on the Feb. 29. I ask artists this all the time, but is there something special about playing Nashville?

Nashville's super special to us. It felt like the first city that took us seriously outside of our hometown. It's definitely the first music industry city where anybody's ears perked up and then they said, "What in the world are these guys doing?" And we really cut our teeth in Nashville. We drove from Virginia once a month for about two years to play in Nashville, to just establish ourselves, to learn. Sort of our idea was we're from such a small town, we're going to go to the place where music is really happening, people are taking risks and trying stuff, and we want to be involved in that.

But we didn't want to give up our hometown, the connections that we had to our place. And so, yeah, coming to Nashville was like a rite of passage for us. To come and get our asses kicked by other band that played that night and then drive home and say, "All right, it's time to really start practicing and take this a little more seriously." And yeah, playing The 5 Spot, playing The original Basement. So those were some of the places that we just met our first community of people in Nashville. And so yeah, playing headlining show at The Basement East is something that we've dreamed about for two to three years now and get into it, and brings a great friend of ours, Shane T he's opening, he's another Nashville guy and just I think, one of the most exciting voices right now that I'm hearing in Indie rock and what he's writing about and the way he sings.

But the idea that it's, I guess, do we still get nervous playing in Nashville? Honestly, no. I think we're really excited and we feel really welcomed for the weird thing that we do. And yeah, that's a special thing for me to say. If I really screw something up, I'll laugh it off. And it's not going to hurt that bad, but I've screwed up enough times that I kind of enjoy those moments a little bit more than when everything goes to plan, so.

Tickets for Saturday's show are still available, starting at $12. Those wanting to buy tickets can do so here. 

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