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Concert Preview & Interview: Illiterate Light

Grant Walters Grant Walters Concert Preview & Interview: Illiterate LightIlliterate Light - Photo courtesy Joey Wharton
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Following their recently-released debut album for Atlantic Records, the Virginia-based mutli-instrumentalists stop by The Basement tonight

“It’s really, really cool to be able to have this album out,” guitarist, bassist, and vocalist Jeff Gorman explains of Illiterate Light’s eponymous debut release that arrived in October. 

The Virginia-based duo, which also includes drummer and songwriting partner Jake Cochran, have woven a fascinating career path that led them from an organic farm they owned as Permaculturists, to signing a major label contract with Atlantic Records. Illiterate Light is a bold, passionate record that fuses together the many twists and turns of their professional and personal journey.

“It’s songs we’ve been crafting over the last three or four years,” Gorman affirms. “‘In The Ground’ is the very first song Jake and I wrote together as Illiterate Light, so that was 2015 when that kind of came into existence. And then ‘Without Walls’ and ‘Sometimes Love Takes So Long’ were songs we wrote in the studio in May, and so those are very, very new. So, that’s one of the coolest [things] about first albums – it’s often songs you’ve been sitting on for a while. It covers a lot of chapters of us.”

Tonight, Illiterate Light will stop in Columbus at The Basement as a midway point on their current headlining tour. Their visit to the Arch City is also on the precipice of a few new projects that Gorman is eager to push out in the near future.

“We’re starting to write songs for a new album now, and we’ve also got some planned for a new series that will debut two days after we’re in Columbus. [On February 5] we’re going to start releasing a lot of our live content because our live shows are what we’re so passionate about.”

Gorman and I spoke last week on the phone while the band was in New York City, when we dug into what forged his own decision to become a musician, and how he and Cochran’s touring and recording regimen parallels what they learned from agriculture.

Your band biography talks a lot about how you and Jake came together as musicians, but specifically for you – was there a defining moment that guided you toward the industry?

“I have a funny, non-conventional background. My uncle Steve was the drummer for the Black Crowes. I was born in 1989 ,and their first album came out in 1990. And, I remember just even as early as two and three years old just kind of, you know, little micro-memories of being on the side of the stage and having like earmuffs over my head, just watching these lights and the crowd and stuff. There was a show in particular in 1997, and The Crowes played at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania – it was on the Further [Festival] Tour, so it was with Ratdog and Bruce Hornsby, and some other kind of jam-my and rock bands. I remember going early, and my uncle Steve had these fast passes, which basically meant we could go on all the rollercoasters and just skip the line, pretty much. I love rollercoasters. 

So, I’m six years old. I’m hanging out with my cool uncle, and we’re just, like, flying and doing all these flips and everything. And then we go to the show and it’s just so fucking massively loud, and all these people – hippies in tie-dye – out in the crowd. I just had this moment where I was, like, ‘I’m sold. I’m in!’ Then we went backstage, and Chris Robinson was like, ‘Hey man! You want some candy?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ And he said, ‘I’m gonna get you some candy from this trailer that belongs to a guy named Ratdog.’ And in my six-year-old brain. I’m, like, ‘Ratdog! That’s so funny!’ And then he comes back with Blow Pops. So, I was, like, ‘Candy, rollercoasters, and loud music? I’m sold. Let’s do this!’”

Amazing. And then you began learning how to play instruments and writing a little bit later on, obviously.

“I started off as a drummer, just following in my Uncle Steve’s footsteps and loving hard, heavy rock. All of middle school was playing Smashing Pumpkins, and Led Zeppelin, and Nirvana, and just anything that I could just beat the drums to. Then I switched over and started playing guitar in high school. I had been playing with a few jam bands and everybody’s getting stoned and stuff, and playing forty-five minute Allman Brothers covers. And I was, like, ‘Guys, we’ve gotta write some of our own material.’ And they said, ‘No, man. We’re just gonna noodle around.’ So, I was, like, ‘Just give me this fucking guitar!’ I had a friend teach me a few chords, and then through the power of the internet, started learning tabs on tab websites. From there, I made a pretty quick transition over a couple of years to playing guitar and really writing. I started writing just right away – that was my initial goal. I loved drums and I loved all things rhythmic, but I wanted to be able to get these ideas out. 

Jake and I met in college, and we’re both multi-instrumentalists – he plays guitar as well, and drums. We’ve always been able to speak the other person’s language pretty fluently, and even sometimes we’ll be working on a part, and I’ll say ‘I can feel the rhythm like this…’ And if I can’t explain it, I can jump behind the kit and try to show him what I’m feeling, you know? Similarly with guitar, he’ll say, ‘You know, this chord progression just isn’t working. Can we not do a one-five-four thing here? Let’s try something else.’ And, we’re both playing keys, and I’m starting to write on keys a little more here and there. It is really helpful. And I suck at the drums, and I don’t think Jake would mind me saying that he sucks at guitar [laughs]. We’re not great! But it’s been really cool to…I don’t know, we’ll switch it up in practice.”

I was going to ask you about your playing a [foot] pedal bass while you’re also playing the guitar and singing during your shows. Admittedly, I had to do a bit of research because I don’t know much about it, but it was an article about the Moog Taurus that sort of came into vogue with progressive rock bands in the 1970s. How did that find its way into your repertoire?

“It’s funny because I always say I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, but I can play three instruments at the same time and it doesn’t phase me. Every now and then, my wife and I will want to talk about something serious, and she’ll say, ‘Do you want to go on a walk?’ And I’ll go, ‘No! I cannot walk and focus on a serious subject at the same time!’ [laughs] And she’ll go, ‘What?! But, how are you playing these shows where there’s 60 things going on all at once, and you’re just totally enjoying it?’ But, anyway, long story short – you’re exactly right, the Taurus…there’s that scene in the movie Big where Tom Hanks is jumping on the big keyboard. Basically, it’s just a single-octave keyboard that you play with your feet. Not many people do it because it is a little bit awkward, and it takes some coordination. And honestly, for the first year of playing the foot bass – which grew out of…we really wanted to be a duo, but we wanted to have a big, loud rock sound. And the bass is just so vital and important for that. 

So, I have a few ways of generating lower frequencies and getting the bass sound, but the Taurus is the main component of that. For the first year, it was a lot of practice, and there were a lot of shows where I had to kind of just keep looking at my feet and watch what I was doing. And then we picked up a bunch of bar gigs on the side where you’re playing four or five hours a night doing covers, and I’d have to play solos while playing the bass. That just kind of kicked me in the butt to where it was, like, within six months I’d been playing it so much, and I was, like, ‘Oh, cool! I don’t really even have to look at this thing anymore!’ I still glance down, but I can play a solo on top of a bass line and sing and make eye contact with somebody in the crowd. And now, I feel really comfortable. I’m still trying to keep expanding, you know – you’re always trying to find new sounds and stuff. I’m still trying to figure out what our next little trick up our sleeves is going to be for the live show.”

I’ve loved learning about this adjacent existence you and Jake have had as farmers. I’m assuming that work ethic might be the common ground there, but are there specific things you both learned from that experience that have applied directly to your lives as musicians?

“Yeah, that’s a great question. The biggie is really the work ethic piece. We work really hard at what we do, and if you’re a serious farmer…there are a lot of people out there working 12 and 14 hours a day when it’s the right season. Like you mentioned, I grew up in the suburbs, and didn’t grow up around food production or anything like that. So, it was very new to me when we were seniors and graduating from college – we were very interested in farming and agriculture. There’s a lot to learn there, but the biggie was playing a rock show until 1:00 a.m., and then waking up at 4:00 a.m. to go and sell at the farmer’s market – and then selling [there] all day, and then going and practicing music, and then harvesting. We spent three years just working so hard at both music and farming. If you want to grow food, you’ve really got to work your ass off. 

The biggest takeaway for me, outside of learning that you have to work hard, is that things take time, you know? And, we live in such an instant society – you know, things happen quickly and you’re looking for the quick hit. There are things you grow that you won’t harvest the fruit for…years. Many years. You could plant asparagus right now, but you’re not going to have good asparagus for, like, three years. It just takes a long time for these things to grow and settle, and you have to feed them and make sure the soil’s healthy. And, I think as far as the way we create art and music, we have a similar approach where we think that this is a long haul, and we want things to be organic. We’re not looking for overnight success or a one hit wonder sort of thing. It’s, ‘Let’s work with the natural rhythm of the earth on this one, and take things slow.’ We’re enjoying the fan base and community that’s growing around us right now. That’s the thing – it takes time for a tomato crop to yield, and it takes time for a band to mature and find their voice. 

And, I’m not just saying this to plug the label, but we’re fortunate to have a team around us who sees things the same way. Atlantic is very patient. Obviously, everyone gets excited when things start picking up, but they’re in it for the long haul. We kind of vet our team that way, you know – ‘Have you had to grind it out, and stick with people through thick and thin?’ And, everybody on our team has.”

Along with those things that translated well between your professional worlds, what was the greatest learning curve the two of you encountered when you started touring and recording?

“For sure. We started touring right away, and that’s been the biggest thing for us has just been jumping out and getting on the road, booking all our shows for three years. We had a few really…I mentioned my uncle earlier, and he’s just been a really huge mentor to us. We had a really awesome show in Nashville that opened up some doors for us a few years ago, and he sat us down and said, ‘You guys don’t need to live in Nashville, but you need to be here a ton and you need to be on tour constantly. You’ve got to tour your asses off and find your thing.’ We were touring in a Subaru for, like, three years, and he said, ‘Live in that thing!’ And Jake’s married, so it was really hard for us to learn what it was like on that side of things – what it’s like on the road, and what it’s like when we don’t have any money, and we’re driving to the next city and we blow a tire. And we’re, like, ‘Alright, I guess we’re just sleeping in the middle of nowhere tonight!’ [laughs] 

It’s that whole thing of learning how to tour, and stay healthy and stay positive in the midst of a lot of movement. That’s been a biggie for us, but it’s also been the biggest driver to push us forward. I’m a big proponent of bands when they’re first starting playing house shows all up and down the east coast. Play each night like you’re at Madison Square Garden, but figure out how to be friends and how to communicate. I think it was [R.E.M.’s] Peter Buck who said in an interview once, ‘I’m a decent guitarist, but I’m a really good band leader.’ And I’ve always really cherished that. I think it’s important. Yeah, the music is obviously central, but then there’s just this whole world behind-the-scenes of learning how to get along and communicate, and what the spirit of a group is. We’ve really tried to build in a solid foundation between Jake and I, and it’s, like, yeah – now we can add all these things on top of that foundation because he and I are really good with each other. We’re best friends.”

You’ve worked so diligently to build a following, but I know so many people are still discovering your music. What do you hope someone who buys a ticket to one of your shows will leave with after you’ve finished on stage that night?

“You know, a lot of nice…there can be this energetic sort of force field at a show between Jake and I. And then when the crowd really gets into it and feeds it, we’re all just kind of creating this experience and this show together. My favorite shows are the ones that just kind of finish, and an hour’s gone by and it feels like time just evaporates. I don’t know – I don’t even have the words for it. There’s just this sort of energy moving throughout the room, and your whole body can feel it. It’s just this experience you get lost in.

I love writing and creating songs, but I think honestly the essence of what we’re doing is just kind of this mysterious, mystical energy that happens when we really dial in. And that’s what I hope people experience at our shows – that they just sort of walk away and go, ‘Man! That was powerful in a way I can’t put into words.’”

Illiterate Light plays tonight (along with guests Camp Howard) at 8:00 p.m. at The Basement in the Arena District, 391 Neil Ave. General admission tickets are $14.00 (plus applicable taxes and fees), and are available via Ticketmaster. Learn more about the band and stream/purchase their debut album via their official website.

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