On a freezing-cold night in February, Harrisonburg band Illiterate Light played a set under a red light bulb in the kitchen of a house on First Street South, close to the graveyard. It was 1am and a dozen or so 20somethings leaned against walls and countertops, holding cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and passing around a bottle of Fireball whiskey to warm up, as Jake Cochran and Jeff Gorman played drums and guitar at full volume and sang a chorus in unison: “I want to be moral / I want to be moral / I want to be moral / I want to be moral.”
Heads bobbed up and down to the fuzz-drenched experimental indie rock that wasn’t quite loud enough to wake the dead, but raucous enough for tired neighbors to question the morality of the youth next door.
It’s exactly the scene Cochran and Gorman envisioned when writing songs. “We imagined where we would be playing and what venues, what people we’d be playing to and what would be interesting or funny to say in front of that crowd,” Cochran says. “We want to say things frankly and upfront.”
Many people would be happy to declare “I want to be moral,” Cochran says. And on the flip side, plenty of people would ask, “Who gives a shit about morals? Who cares about morality?” adds Gorman. So when a bunch of people are dancing around and drinking and scream-singing “I want to be moral,” “it’s a pretty fun thing,” Cochran says.
Like many Illiterate Light songs, “Be Moral” is both tongue-in-cheek and completely sincere. Gorman and Cochran aren’t saying they want to be moral, nor are they encouraging their listeners to follow some moral code, but…they’re not not saying that, either. Instead, says Gorman, the song explores how he’s not ready to throw morality out the window, but he acknowledges that his generation is tired of having the conversation.
That threshold between seemingly opposite things is what Illiterate Light likes to explore through song.
Cochran, 25, and Gorman, 26, are best friends. They’ve been writing and playing music together for years, first as a backing band for a vocalist while in college at James Madison University and later in a band called Money Cannot Be Eaten. After MCBE disbanded, Cochran took a break, while Gorman continued playing music and eventually started Illiterate Light as a side project. Once Cochran was ready to make music again, he joined Gorman and bass player Jake Golibart, and the group released the EP Langue in August 2015.
When Golibart left last fall, Cochran says the main concern was whether the band could produce a broad enough sonic spectrum with two musicians. It was challenging to rearrange the songs—they had to scrap some entirely—but, ultimately, the limitations pushed them to be more creative in their musicianship, their songwriting and their showmanship.
Cochran stands up to play the drums, to better facilitate the synergy between himself and Gorman. It’s unusual, and can be musically limiting, says Cochran, who has to balance on one foot in order to use the kick drum or cymbal, but it’s fun to watch.
Gorman covers the low end of the songs by playing a bass pedal and guitar while he sings. But that pedal is finicky, and Gorman spends most of the time between songs on the floor, tuning the pedal, so it’s usually up to Cochran to entertain the crowd. He’ll talk about his CASIO wristwatch, ask audience members about their favorite ice cream, what they’re into—it’s unscripted, off-beat and some of the best stage banter around.
Illiterate Light also tends to pair seemingly different songs together to point out bizarre incongruities of life.
“Chest I,” a song about Gorman and Cochran’s experiences of loss, is about losing fathers, grandfathers and, in many ways, the self. After playing “Chest I” they might launch into “Like a Peach,” a Langue tune about walking into a room intending to find your soulmate.
“One minute I’m grieving the [inevitable] loss of my dad to a degenerative disorder, but I’m still a horny 26-year-old,” says Gorman, eyes wide as he smiles and shrugs his shoulders.
“Like a Peach” begins with Gorman singing, “Come on friend, give me a high five / I really wanna slap your big hand / Pick me up, and we’ll go for a ride / Downtown, lookin’ / For our soulmates / Like a peach / Dropping from some tree.” A few verses later, Gorman’s imagining himself married to a woman he just met, even though he can’t remember her name.
But when Gorman and Cochran start alternating vocals, the song becomes a rather familiar internal monologue: “I recognize the absurdity / (You smell like soap and) / Of looking for real intimacy / (You just touched my leg) / Kids? How soon? / (There are two other girls dancing with us now) / Would you make a good mother?”
It’s funny and poignant because we’ve all been there. We’ve all been Gorman’s guy, looking for our peach, whether we admit it or not. But Illiterate Light is happy to admit it for us, to put it all out there so that we, too, can recognize the absurdity of it all.