From the ground up: While enjoying major-label success, Illiterate Light stays connected to its roots

Image: Joey Wharton Image: Joey Wharton

Nearly a decade ago, a traveling troupe of musicians was midway through its set at the now-demolished Random Row Books in Charlottesville when the power went out. While darkness settled over the crowd, the band continued its performance undeterred, with no noticeable change in sound. That’s because the group’s set-up was running on a bike-powered generator: With one member pedaling a bicycle on a generator stand, a small PA system kept functioning. From the darkness sprang Charlottesville’s next big thing: Illiterate Light.

That night at Random Row, JMU alums Jeff Gorman and Jake Cochran were playing in Money Cannot Be Eaten, one of a handful of socially oriented bands cycling around the state together under the heading of Petrol-Free Jubilee.

In 2015, Gorman and Cochran set off on a new project, the rock band Illiterate Light (the name is taken from a line in the Wilco song “Theologians”). Since then, the pair has toured widely, developed a devoted following, and signed a deal with a major label. But they still find themselves recalling those foundational days.

Petrol-Free Jubilee “really pushed Jeff and I to think like, alright, there’s definitely big-picture solutions that we [don’t] know how to contribute to yet,”  says Cochran. “But diving in with a bunch of friends and biking around Virginia to talk about environmentalism and sing songs was something we could get into.”

The band’s experience with the jubilee, along with other volunteerism, directly informed the ethos of Illiterate Light, establishing community building and social consciousness as guiding tenets for its musical output.

In their early days, during junior and senior year, Cochran was on the medical track at JMU and worked as an EMT.

“So much of the pain that I was seeing in the ambulance and the runs we were going on were people with food-based illness,” he says. “We were going to the same neighborhoods picking up the same people. It was all food-related and it was addiction-related and it weighed heavily on my spirit to know that there was this bigger problem.”

In response, Cochran and Gorman helped out at a local nonprofit, Our Community Place. The center operated as a soup kitchen and offered resources for those who were formerly incarcerated, or facing homelessness or addiction. There, the duo connected with area farmers, which inspired them to do an organic agricultural internship. After graduation, they continued to grow produce and sold it at the farmers’ market and co-op. They’d often bring hoards of potatoes, onions, and tomatoes door to door, offering them to nearby restaurants.

“It was really a big part of integrating so deeply into the community here,” Gorman says. “We [were] playing music at night and then living this totally different lifestyle during the day.”

The main venue they played was the Blue Nile, an Ethiopian restaurant whose basement served as a club. Opened by the Arefaine family, who immigrated to the United States in the wake of the Ethiopian civil war, the Blue Nile was a counter-cultural hub.

“The Nile was the only place that really was permissive to outsider music—alternative, punk, metal, hip-hop—being played live in their facility,” says former bar manager Paul Somers. “That really changed the music scene in Harrisonburg.”

Somers took over in 2014 and reopened as The Golden Pony the following spring. Gorman and Cochran helped Somers book and promote shows—and even created a Harrisonburg guidebook for touring bands rolling through town.

“It showcases where their hearts are when it comes to live music, you know, it’s not just about them,” Somers says. “It’s about the whole scene and the larger scheme of bands that they see and know and believe in, and think that other people should appreciate.”

The duo took it a step further by booking The Golden Pony as Illiterate Light’s home base and doing several shows a year at the venue. After extensive touring across the United States, the band had a reputation for its high-energy performances and unusual setup, so it wasn’t uncommon for these shows to sell out.

“It’s always cool to put on a show with them because we know it’s going to be this huge, utterly cathartic rock and roll,” says Somers. “Every- one’s just moving and dancing and surging with the music.”

 

Jeff Gorman and Jake Cochran push positivity through raucous tunes and a holistic approach to their lives as musicians, supporting big-picture solutions through volunteerism, environmentalism, and mentoring. Image: Joey Wharton

Magical musical universe

Gorman sings lead vocals and plays guitar and a “foot bass.”

“There’s some tap dancing that’s going on; I’m actually hitting a big keyboard with my feet as we play and then I run that through its own bass,” he says. “It’s its own little universe that I’ve created.”

Meanwhile, Cochran plays a stand-up drum kit, taking a normal drum kit and raising it up higher. He stands on his left leg and plays the kick drum with his right foot.

“It started out as a very visual change. Jeff and I, as two people, really want to be able to interact. The way I decided to do that was to bring the drum kit up front and one time I just tried kicking the stool out and standing up,” Cochran says. “It was a fun way to trade energy and we set up right on the edge of the stage so it’s in your face—and drums are very rarely that forward.”

After establishing a signature live sound, the duo had to figure out how to harness that same energy in the studio. Richmond artist Charlie Glenn (The Trillions, Palm Palm) connected them with Adrian Olsen, producer and owner of Montrose Recording in Richmond, and they set to work on Illiterate Light’s first full-length LP.

“The main critique I had heard coming into recording Illiterate Light was that they sounded massive live, but the recordings they had done up to that point didn’t represent the sound they had developed live,” Olsen recalls. “So my approach was to have them play live in the studio and go for as much of a maximalist approach as possible—lots of room mics and amps…Jeff usually gets a pretty epic pedalboard going with I’d say upwards of 40 pedals at his feet if I had to guess.”

The duo’s work with Glenn and Olsen caught the attention of another stalwart on the Richmond scene—Tyler Williams. While Williams might be best known as the drummer for The Head and the Heart, he’s also worked with Lucy Dacus and was seeking another local project to champion, so he  checked out one of the duo’s shows at the Richmond venue The Camel.

“I immediately was taken by the energy on stage when I walked into The Camel,” says Williams. “It just felt like there was like an electricity in the room…that’s the first sign when you know that something is happening with a music artist. You feel it in the room. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever felt to magic.”

As the band propelled forward, Williams took off with them in a management capacity. It wasn’t long before major labels came knocking, and Illiterate Light signed to Atlantic, releasing its self-titled label debut last year.

Illiterate Light’s self-titled debut was released in October 2019 by Atlantic Records, further propelling the Harrisonburg duo from house band at The Golden Pony into the national spotlight. Image: Joey Wharton

Shining their light

In 2020, the band launched an ongoing series that captures live performances from past shows called “In the Moment: Illiterate Light Live.” One of the series’ most featured venues is The Golden Pony. This nod to Harrisonburg isn’t the only way Gorman and Cochran continue to acknowledge the community that made them.

Professor Joseph “Ojo” Taylor remembers Gorman as a student in the music industry program at JMU.

“My songwriting class is where we get our hands dirty, you know, get under the hood and really analyze a lot of songs,” Taylor explains. “[Gorman] stood out to me initially because he just had a depth and an interest and passion for this that a lot of students don’t have right away.”

Gorman and Cochran keep in touch with Taylor, guesting during class workshops, sharing what they’re working on, giving students an insight into life as a nationally touring band. Before COVID-19, the duo would often invite students to shows or offer mentorship over a cup of coffee.

“The way that they create community and support their community is the thread that binds their whole vision together,” says Williams. “You know, we are on a major [record] label, but we still use the same video- graphers from Harrisonburg that have always made their videos…Virginia makes them who they are and they want to give back.”

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