It takes two: Duo creates full band sound in Illiterate Light

Illiterate Light was on an enviable trajectory heading into this decade.

The duo of Jeff Gorman and Jake Cochran released its debut album in 2019 on Atlantic Records, and the song “Better Than I Used To” received extensive radio play on Adult Album Alternative stations. It was booked at such festivals as Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Newport Folk that year, and NPR picked it as a group to watch in 2020.

Two months later, nobody was watching anybody when COVID-19 shut down live performances everywhere.

“It takes a lot to get momentum, and we really had that momentum in 2019 and in 2020 for the first two months when we were touring,” Gorman said during a telephone interview. “To lose that with COVID really was devastating in the moment. Man, I feel like I’ve given everything to this for the last five years, and just as the plane was about to lift off the ground, it was like we ran out of gas or something. It was painful.”

But it ultimately was freeing. Gorman and Cochran rethought their approach to recording music, no longer letting the question of “How are we going to play this live?” influence their choices in the studio. They also parted ways with Atlantic and started releasing music on their own, which allowed them to be more prolific than a major label’s release schedule would accommodate.

That more expansive sound can be heard on the band’s 2023 album “Sunburned,” and Illiterate Light also has released two EPs in the last year. Gorman said last week he was mixing the band’s next full-length album, which will be out before the end of the year.

The newer EP, “Slow Down Time,” will be prominently featured when the band, which started in Virginia, performs Friday at Penguin City Brewing Company in Youngstown. Local band Sedona opens the 8 p.m. show.

Illiterate Light has the same configuration as The White Stripes and The Black Keys, but its sound draws comparisons to early My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses, and Gorman’s influences date back further to artists such as Neil Young and John Prine.

Gorman plays guitar and sings while providing bass parts with a synthesizer played with his foot. Cochran uses a standup drum kit, and frequently ventures from out behind it while still keeping the beat.

“We really didn’t create Illiterate Light to be a duo,” Gorman said. “There were plenty of moments when we were touring around Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic, ‘Hey, let’s figure out how to add more people to this.’ But at the same time, there’s just an energy between me and Jake that is just great, and we might mess it up bringing somebody else into it.”

There are no backing tracks, no prerecorded parts in an Illiterate Light show. That ethos guided the making of the first album. Writing and recording “Sunburned” during the pandemic changed that philosophy. Gorman said he wondered at the beginning of the sessions if they would be able to tour in support of the album or if they would already be working on a third album by the time touring resumed.

“There’s a chance we’re going to put out a record we never play live,” he said. “If that’s the case, what kind of record do we want to make? There was freedom within that. I love being able to play on different instruments and write on keys and things like that, so I just decided we’re going to take off the rock duo thing and make it, whatever you and I create, that’s what Illiterate Light is.

“Every now and then you have a realization that’s so simple. I’m sure anybody from the outside always felt that way – anything you guys make is Illiterate Light. But for whatever reason, from the inside it felt like Illiterate Light is a rock duo that plays everything live.”

If “Sunburned” expands IL’s sound, “Slow Down Time” takes a more minimalist approach, and those songs were conceived with the idea of creating more variety in the live show as the band tours as a headliner and plays a longer set.

“Our show is still really high energy. We really like to entertain people and rock out, but we wanted to balance that and have a few songs where we could pull it back and keep things a little more chill.”

Originally, Illiterate Light was going to do a half-dozen dates with Spirit of the Bear, which got its start in Youngstown, as its opening act. That’s how Penguin City got on the tour schedule. When Spirit had to cancel its touring plans due to the health issues of singer/guitar player James Harker, Illiterate Light decided to keep the date.

“We really love being able to see new cities, and we’ve never been to Youngstown before,” Gorman said. “We hit up Penguin City, ‘I don’t know if we have a draw and can sell tickets on our own, but if you want to have us, we’d like to still do it.’ It seems like there’s something cool going on there.”

And Illiterate Light does know at least one Youngstown band. The duo played an event for listeners of The Summit public radio station at The Kent Stage in 2019 with Youngstown’s The Super Babes.

“I remember that show well,” Gorman said. “They killed it that night.”

If you go …

WHO: Illiterate Light and Sedona.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday.

WHERE: Penguin City Brewing Company, 460 E. Federal St., Youngstown.

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $12 and available in advance through Eventbrite or at the door on Friday.

Have an interesting story? Contact Andy Gray by email at agray@tribtoday.com. Follow us on X, formerly Twitter, @TribToday.


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