Growin’ Down

Harrisonburg’s Illiterate Light proves that less is more.

Jake Cochran and Jeff Gorman

Photo by Joey Wharton 

From its first chiming guitar riff, Illiterate Light’s “Nuthin’s Fair” announces itself as one of those perfect pop nuggets that books space in a listener’s brain and refuses to move out. Propelled by a memorable, deceptively simple guitar riff and a rough-hewn vocal melody, the song is definitely in the realm of indie-rock—you can hear a little Fleet Foxes, some My Morning Jacket—but something sounds nicely timeless.

“The limitations of our set-up give us a certain edge,” says Jake Cochran, the drummer and one half of Illiterate Light. The Harrisonburg duo is taking its high-energy two-man live show and hummable tunes beyond regional acclaim. “I think people can feel it.”

Produced at Montrose Studios in Richmond with engineer Adrian Olsen and The Head and The Heart’s Charlie Glenn, Illiterate Light’s striking, as-yet-untitled new album, slated for release in 2019, is filled with such gems. And it’s already getting notice. National Public Radio named the Light’s anthemic “Better Than I Used To,” which was released as an advance single, as one of its “Ten Hot Summer Songs” for 2018.

Once again, the tune has a refreshingly retro quality—starting pensively and unfolding into a dashboard-drumming ’70s AM radio jam that open sunroofs were made for. “I grew up with classic rock; that’s what I listened to,” says guitarist/vocalist Jeff Gorman. “It seems like I’m coming into modern stuff kind of late.”

Gorman and Cochran have been making music together since they met in college. Graduating in 2012 from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, they performed in a psychedelic band, Money Cannot Be Eaten.Cochran left the area to work on a farm—both have worked in organic farming—but when he returned in 2015, the duo added bassist Jake Golibart and began calling themselvesIlliterate Light. The name came from a lyric by the band Wilco. “Wilco was a big connecting point for us,” Cochran says. “Even on the new album, wehave a shout out to them. It’s pretty cool to just come right out and state your influences sometimes. Let the world know.”

In its first year, Illiterate Light released a four-song EP of fuzzed-out rock called Langue. They’ve since released two more EPs and plugged into the Harrisonburg art scene, discovering a vibrant house show circuit. “Grungy punk, sweaty basements … the valley is interesting for that. And we’d jump over to Staunton quite often and play some holes in the wall there.”

Eventually bassist Golibart had to step aside. “Jake and I were interested in making music full time, and he was still in college so he couldn’t tour with us. From there,” Gorman says, “we just figured out how to be a duo.”

For the live show, Gorman started manipulating bass synthesizer pedals with his feet as he plays and sings, often harmonizing with Cochran, who plays the drums—vigorously—standing up. Forced to throw out much of the older material, the duo began crafting more cohesive original songs based on their new set-up.

They also heeded the advice of an early industry contact, who advised them to go out on the road as much as possible. With that, Illiterate Light began to win over crowds in places like Baltimore, Richmond (where one blogger has awarded them “honorary local band” status), and music mecca Nashville. “Illiterate Light wasted no time diving into what would become a fever pitched set, as onlookers screamed ‘[freaking] awesome,’” reported the Now It’s Nashville blog.

“We made it a goal to be in Nashville as often as possible,” Gorman says. “And it’s become a really big market for us. Our attorneys are out there, and we’ve had some labels there check us out. We started out playing dive bars, and we’ve worked our way to more high-profile venues.”

The band has Music City connections, like Gorman’s uncle Steve. “He was the drummer for The Black Crowes for 25 years,” Gorman says. “He’s been like a mentor to us. He told us that we needed to be in Nashville as much as possible, that we could do well here.”

Another important Nashville contact was Vance Powell, a Grammy-winning producer and engineer who has worked with Jack White, Arctic Monkeys, and Kings of Leon. He mixed the new record, which gets a lot of sound out of two guys. “It’s usually just drums, bass, guitar, and two voices,” Gorman says. “Just like our live show.”

As they market themselves to national record labels, Illiterate Light keeps the focus on something Gorman’s wise Uncle Steve said. “So much has changed about the music now—how people digest it, how they buy it—but the foundation is still the same. You have to entertain and put on a good show. You can’t fake a live performance.”

This article originally appeared in our December 2018 issue.

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