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The Flow States of Illiterate Light

Photo: Martin Caparros

This past Saturday, February 9th, Harrisonburg, VA duo Illiterate Light opened for Rayland Baxter at a sold-out Charleston Pour House show. Before the show, I swung by the venue to link up with Illiterate Light, who will also join SUSTO’s Ever Since I Lost My Mind tour for a two-week run of dates in April. Their debut EP, Sweet Beast, was released in January, and features a big, full band sound that you wouldn’t expect to come from a two-piece. The live show forces you to accept that it’s just a two-piece making all that noise, and then you can start to think about how they’re able to pull it off.

A huge contributor to what Illiterate Light is able to accomplish as a duo is the fact that members Jeff Gorman and Jake Cochran have been friends for the past ten years. Throughout that entire time span, they’ve lived together, worked together, and played music together in various forms, and in the process have gotten to know each other quite well. They both attended James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA, which is where they lived when they started the band back in 2015.

“We became a duo somewhat out of necessity,” Jake says. “Coming from a small town where there wasn’t a clear third member that was ready to tour, and dedicate their work and their life to the music that we wanted to make.”

Jake explains that when they first started out, they wanted to do something different, rather than imitate any of the successful duos that came before them. They wanted to find a unique twist on the guitar and drum duo that hadn’t already been done a thousand times. It took them some time to figure that out, but after lots of touring, at-home recording, and practice, they found a setup that works for them. This is, of course, Jake standing up while playing drums and singing, and Jeff playing guitar with his hands, playing bass with a foot pedal, and singing as well. If that sounds like it would be fun to watch, then you’re starting to catch on.

Photo: Martin Caparros

“When we initially became a duo, we wanted to keep the low end and have the big sound,” Jeff recalls. “I walked into the used gear shop in Harrisonburg one day and found this… contraption. Looked like a big keyboard for your feet. I bought it on the spot and said, ‘I don’t know how this is gonna work its way into what we’re doing, but we’ll get there.’ I bought that, and probably three or four months later started integrating it into our show.”

“For me, standing up felt right, because a big part of the live show is the energy that we have between each other,” Jake explains. “The connection of all the different ways we’ve lived and worked together, and what our relationship has been like over the last ten years. Every show is us playing with that energy between each other and between the audience. It also let me move around a lot more, which helped because Jeff playing bass with his feet meant he had to be a lot more stationary.”

“It probably took about a year to get comfortable playing bass with my feet, playing guitar, taking solos, taking lead riffs, and then singing lead, and still trying to maintain a positive connection with the audience and Jake and not just have it be this uber technical thing,” Jeff says. “For a while, I had to break off, and my brain would think, ‘Alright, here’s the rhythm I’m tapping with my foot. And now I’m switching to guitar. And now I’m switching to my head.’ There’s still some nights where that happens, and if we’re working on something new I have to break it up like that. But on the better nights there isn’t really that division, cognitively, of what I’m focusing on. All the three things are happening: my foot, my hands, and my singing, are all just happening in this natural way.”

Jeff relates what he does to the psychological concept of flow states, which is more commonly referred to to as the concept of being “in the zone.” It’s like being hyperfocused, energetic, and comfortable at the same time. Jeff says that before he was really able to tap into those flow states, he had to become at least semi-proficient at all three of those things as separate actions. Once he became decent enough at playing guitar, at playing bass with his feet, and at singing, he was then able to combine them into one fluid motion.

Over the years, Jeff and Jake have developed this dynamic into something that they’re really excited about, and that certainly showed through in their performance at the Pour House. The duo were animated throughout the entire set, even coming out to serenade the audience at the foot of the stage on the intro to “Growin’ Down”, which is the closing track on Sweet Beast. As far as I could tell, that wasn’t something that they had planned to do, but rather it came out spontaneously and they just rolled with it. As per our interview, that little element of improvisation is also key for them.

“There are a few songs that have built-in sections that are kind of free-form,” Jeff explains. “I mean there’s a form and structure to it, but we know wherever we push it one night is where it’s supposed to go. Even when we’re playing something that has a really nailed down structure, we’ll still find those little ways to improvise within that.”

“That’s a really special part of music for us, to have a space to experiment in that way,” Jake adds. “It’s something that we’ve seen in other performances that we’ve loved, where one person will have a really emotional or special moment, and the band can elevate that or go there with them. Jeff and I will definitely try to be aware of that, and follow each other, and where one person goes the other supports.”

Photo: Martin Caparros

As many bands coming up in the DIY and house show circuit are familiar with, sometimes those moments of improvisation spawn out of something going wrong on stage. Part of the learning curve for a new band is figuring out how to transform those moments into something positive, as opposed to letting it ruin your night. Illiterate Light has been there. Since they’re a duo, it makes it obvious when things go wrong. Right from the start they had to embrace those moments and use them as an opportunity to give a more unique performance.

“There definitely can be moments, and we tend to thrive in those situations more than anything. It’s kind of like, ‘This is the new reality, and where do you take that?'”, Jake explains. “Sometimes that comes out of technical errors, where one of us just misses a part and forgets something. Rather than get pissed about it, we kind of enjoy that and figure out what to do with it.”

“There’s no hiding behind anything,” Jeff adds. “When I break a string, we just keep rollin’, you know?”

“Even like, if we get into a song and a setting happens to be wrong somewhere, or something is not sounding right, Jeff can’t rely on the bassist for a couple measures while he fixes his guitar,” Jake continues. “We just barrel through, and it becomes a Rage Against The Machine song instead of a Radiohead song.”

“Just playing in all these different sorts of environments, things have always gone wrong for us. It’s kind of funny when things don’t go wrong in a show,” Jeff says.

Jake and Jeff spent a few minutes telling stories of times that things went wrong at their gigs, and how they dealt with it. One time at a gig in Raleigh a few years back, Jeff got shocked by the microphone every time he went to sing, so they played the show without mics and just shouted the lyrics. On this recent tour with Rayland Baxter, there was a night when Jake knocked away his snare mic and wasn’t able to stop and fix it, so he held it in place with one hand and continued to play drums with the other. In this way, it almost becomes a spectacle when something goes wrong for Illiterate Light.

“We really love the feeling, of when something goes wrong, it’s a great way that the crowd feels tension,” Jake says, “And then we can either figure out a way to release that tension, and have everybody in the crowd and the band come together and be like, ‘Oh! This is happening. How are we gonna get out of it?’. I really love those moments. It makes everything feel a little bit more connected.”

Photo: Martin Caparros

With the live connection being such a crucial part of Illiterate Light’s foundation as a band, they wanted to find a way to integrate that into their recorded sound. After a few years of home recording and experimentation, they finally met some people who were able to help them capture that energy in a studio setting, which is what you’ll hear on Sweet Beast. Those people were Adrian Olsen of Montrose Recording in Richmond, and Vance Powell at Sputnik Sound in Nashville. During the recording sessions for Sweet Beast, Illiterate Light also recorded material for their full-length debut album, which they say will be out later this year.

“We have a full-length album as well. It’s ready to go, and we’ve just been figuring out how to release that, talking to a few different record labels,” Jake reveals. “We’re sort of in that world right now, where we know it will be released sometime this year but there’s some contractual stuff to figure out before all that is confirmed.”

There’s a lot to look forward to in 2019 for Illiterate Light. In addition to releasing a full-length album and touring with our friends in SUSTO, they’ll also hit the road for a few weeks in May with none other than Shakey Graves. Luckily for us, that tour with Shakey Graves will bring Illiterate Light back to Charleston once again, this time at the Charleston Music Hall on Wednesday, May 8th. Tickets on sale here this Friday, February 15th at 10am.

Listen to Sweet Beast below. Catch Illiterate Light on the road with SUSTO on the dates listed below the stream, and with Shakey Graves on the dates below that.

Illiterate Light with SUSTO tour dates:

4/10 – St. Louis, MO – Blueberry Hill
4/11 – Louisville, KY – Zanzabar
4/12 – Nashville, TN – The Basement East
4/14 – Pittsburgh, PA – Club Cafe
4/15 – New York, NY – The Bowery Ballroom
4/17 – Boston, MA – Great Scott
4/19 – Philadelphia, PA – MilkBoy
4/20 – Washington, D.C. – Rock And Roll Hotel

Illiterate Light with Shakey Graves tour dates:

5/1 – New Orleans, LA – Joy Theater⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
5/2 – Oxford, MS – The Lyric Oxford⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
5/3 – Pensacola, FL – Vinyl Music Hall⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
5/4 – St Petersburg, FL- Jannus Live⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
5/7 – Chattanooga, TN – The Signal⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
5/8 – Charleston, SC – Charleston Music Hall
5/9 – Athens, GA – Georgia Theatre⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
5/10 – Charlotte, NC – The Fillmore Charlotte⠀⠀⠀⠀
5/11 – Raleigh, NC – Ritz Raleigh
5/13 – Cleveland, NY – House of Blues Cleveland
5/14 – Ithaca, NY – The State Theater
5/15 – Clifton Park, NY – Upstate Concert Hall ⠀
5/16 – New Haven, CT – College Street Music Hall ⠀
5/17 – Northampton, MA – Academy of Music Theatre