Interviewed and Photographed by Jade Trazo
Illiterate Light, a promising Virginia duo, took the stage at Park West in Chicago on January 19, 2019 to open up for singer-songwriter Rayland Baxter. This stop was part of Baxter’s “Hey Baby Hey Baby” tour! Established in the summer of 2015, Jeff and Jake of Illiterate Light came together in their early years of college. As time progressed, the two have remained close and have created some amazing music together! Their latest EP released in January, Sweet Beast, features 5 brand new tracks. After their set, we sat down with them and had a chat about their history, life on the road, and new music!
Have you played Chicago before?
Jeff: We have. We’ve actually done two shows here before. It was the first tour we did – we came through and played a really fun dive bar called Mo’s Tavern. And then we played a DIY showspace called Earphoria. That was a house show with three or four other bands! Sadly, our car was broken into in downtown Chicago that day.
GMC: Wait, where?
Jeff: Uh, near Lincoln Park
Jake: It was during the day too
Jeff: But yeah, that happened. We went downtown to, you know, have some fun. Broad daylight. Our guitar was stolen, a bunch of personal items and the whole window was smashed in. It was a little bit of a bummer. But anyways, we played Earphoria – that DIY show – and the other bands let us borrow their gear. So we still went on and did it – it was great, we are happy to be back in Chicago. But it had been like 3 years! It’s our first time back down here, at Park West.
GMC: Did you get to experience Chicago during the winter last time?
Jake: No, it was summer.
Jeff: It was August. So now, it’s very Chicago: snowy, windy. We’re trying out some deep dish pizza later on, though! You know, making the most of it.
Speaking of pizza, do you guys have any favorite food stops when on tour?
Jeff: We’re starting to get more acquainted with those sorts of things and starting to develop our palettes in more intricate ways. For a long time, it’s always just eat whatever’s in front of you. The cheapest thing- you know? It’s not necessary a super local thing, but we hit Whole Foods pretty often. You can get greens there… and sushi! Obviously if we are in Philly, we’re gonna get cheesesteaks, and in New York and Chicago we try to get some pizza. Boston– seafood. But there’s certain cities where we find those spots… you kind of go there once or twice, and you fall in love with it. Everywhere’s a little different. This is kind of our first time spending a lot of time in the Midwest. We haven’t quite figured out what the Midwestern cuisine is yet, but we’ve enjoyed eating their stuff thus far!
So I saw that your band name is a reference to a Wilco song. A great local band! What made you choose that lyric specifically, out of all the other ones you could’ve chosen.
Jeff: Well, Jeff Tweedy is so good. His lyrics are so punchy, and so beautiful, so there are a lot of options there. But, that came from a song called “Theologians” off of A Ghost is Born. They got their huge albums that people love, and there’s other ones that are really great and have kind of flown under the radar, just a little bit. So I got into that album and fell in love with it. It’s one of those records where every song is just really perfect and hits home for me. I liked the imagery of that song and I liked the idea of some sort of light or spirit, or positive energy – that is maybe beyond words in a certain sense. So when he said, “that illiterate light is with us every night”, it just kind of rocked me and sat with me for a year, and then we started a band, and that felt like a cool name for it. Kind of a way to pay homage to Wilco, but then also build off of that and do our own thing.
How long did it take for you guys to form Illiterate Light? Were you guys in previous projects beforehand?
Jake: Yeah, we met in college and were probably about 20 or so. We started a band in college and that was like, pretty serious… We put a lot of time and energy into it and really loved it, and at the same time we really got into farming. It was a big part of our lives at that time too, and so the college band was kind of split between waking up super early to do farm chores, and then trying to stay out late to do tours and gigs. The two lives kind of just pushed against each other a little too much, and so we ended up deciding to quit the farm to pursue music. And then that band eventually fell apart, the other guy wanted to move to Philly. He had his own music stuff that he was working on, he’s incredible. But it sort of came out of the blue for us and we weren’t really ready to take that band further, so we shut down. I was newly married, and my wife and I went and built tiny homes for a year in rural Virginia. We then decided that wasn’t the life for us, and moved back to Harrisonburg. Jeff was kind of playing the music the whole time solo, and playing in some other Harrisonburg bands.
What did you guys study in college, and what made you decide to switch to music?
Jeff: I’ll start by pointing out that Jake, you stole my beer! I studied History at James Madison University and Jake studied Health Science. It’s funny because they’re not necessarily related to playing in a rock band, you certainly don’t need a degree for doing this sort of thing. But at the same time, studying something like history, if you look at the big picture, it’s a bunch of stories. And so, there is a connection there, with songwriting and the story of humanity. I really liked history because I like learning stories, and I like learning about movements that happened, and about how people lived in certain times. I think that has translated into the things that we write about a little bit. We always wanted to play music. Right when we finished school, we started our other band. It then took us a few years before we came to this. College wasn’t one of the most formative things for our band. Post-college has been more formative.
Did you pick up music while you were in college, or did you do it already?
Jeff: We both kind of grew up playing in different ways. In college, it got more serious. I’ve been playing guitar since I was 13 or 14 years old. I actually started as a drummer, so we both have a very rhythmic approach to what we do.
GMC: (To Jake) Did you start off as a drummer too?
Jake: I did. I play some other stuff as well, but drums are the home.
Jeff: We had a neighbor, a young, primarily Spanish-speaking kid on our block. He was learning English, and he came up to us once. We were talking about music, drums, guitars, and stuff. He played in his church’s band… he played bass. He was probably like 8, and he was like “I touch bass” — “tocar” is the Spanish verb. I know enough high school Spanish to know that!
Jake: He said something like, “do you touch drums?” I think it sounds way cooler!! Like what do you do?, “I touch drums.”
So, obviously you guys just released a new EP, how long has that been in the works?
Jeff: It’s been in the works for… coming up on a year now! There is an album to follow it. But yeah, the EP kind of came out of Richmond and Nashville, two cities that are connected to us. We recorded them in both of those cities– the five songs. It’s been in the works for about a year, and we’ve done an album as well. That will be coming out later this year. The EP is kind of an appetizer for the full meal.
Jake: Some of the songs were recorded as recent as maybe two months ago. And maybe some songs a year ago. Jeff and I really focus on the studios we love working with and the engineers we love working with… we make that a priority, and then we see what we can do with it afterwards.
Did you guys find it hard narrowing down the songs for the EP?
Jeff: A little bit
Jake: The timelines have been kind of crazy, but it wasn’t too hard to separate them. They all kind of have different vibes to it.
Jeff: They have different spirits or something, they’re kind of different bodies of work. But I feel they’re both very cohesive. The album feels… every song, every sequence.. I feel that that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And the EP is like, a taste of Illiterate Light finding their sound. Experimenting in fun ways.
So I heard from your friend, that you guys have had some other EPs that you decided to take down. How would you think you’ve evolved from those to this release?
Jake: When we first started this band, we were more of a psych-rock trio. But the soundscape was a lot more… psychedelic. We kind of evolved into a duo. It kind of took us a while to find our songwriting style and how to record. We’ve been doing a lot of self-recording, which is super fun and sounds really unique, but it didn’t get across what we did live. We’ve primarily been a live band, kind of living as much as we can tour-minded. How can we tour as much, etcetera. The other stuff is really cool and we’re really looking forward to share that again at some point. What we’re releasing now, we really love and we wanted to say THIS is Illiterate Light.
It’s very important to you that things translate live. I read that you were a two piece, but I didn’t know if you guys were going to come with a backing band or anything. It was very impressive hearing you live, it was very full. Nothing sounded like it was missing. How long did it take you to finally master that?
Jeff: It took a while. It took about a year, and it’s still something that’s still happening. The key component to what we’re doing, it kind of from the fact that I’m actually playing bass with my feet. I’m kind of tap dancing while we’re playing, and it’s going through its own amplifier and everything. That allows us to have the guitar and the bass totally separate, but still present. Once we discovered that was a possibility, to get comfortable with the process took like 6 – 8 months. You have two limbs doing different things. One is tapping, and one is the other playing. And you know, if you sing on top of that and try to play a solo or whatever, it’s a lot of things. And now I think we’re pretty comfortable with that. But even now, at our practice sessions we’re adding other elements in. I think our goal is to keep it as live as possible because that allows us to make changes on the spot. Certain nights if we want to extend a song, if we wanna cut something out — if you’re playing to tracks that are pre-recorded, you’re locked into that. The live element allows us to have this live improvisational piece. We’re also experimenting with synthesizers and stuff like that. Weird little things we can throw in there to kind of mix it up a bit.
How did you go about the recording process then, did you try to record it in the same way that you perform – to allow for it to translate better?
Jake: I think there’s something special about how Jeff and I play live. I think that forces us to write in a way that means the choices we make in writing are based on that live thing. So a couple times we would try to go in and record like a normal band, we would lay out the drums, and throw some bass over it – it didn’t have the same feel to it. The song was still there, it sounded cool, but it didn’t sound right. So yeah, we really had some cool folks in Richmond,VA that saw us play live and basically told us straight up that “Your live show isn’t your recordings. You gotta find a way to record to reflect that energy that you have.” And they challenged us and connected us with a really cool studio in Richmond called Montrose, a guy named Adrian Olsen runs that, and that was a cool moment for us to grow and have someone that we really trusted. An engineer saw us play a cool little club in Nashville, and had us come out and do some recordings with him. A guy named Vance Powell. He has a background working with very raw and live energy, and kind of pushed us in that way. What’s really cool is that a big part of our process, for Jeff and I, is that we work so closely together on everything. We have a really important trust relationship between us. Establishing a relationship like that is scary at first, but when we find the right people, we’re willing to do it.
So what inspired the title track, and what created the environment for this EP?
Jeff: Sweet Beast is the most recent song that was recorded, we recorded that about two months ago. The song came about really rapidly. We went to do some demos with a friend, having a writing session. We were jamming on this thing, and it all of a sudden clicked. The recording is under 3 minutes, it’s very primal if you will. It was kind of like “here’s the first thing that popped out” and it all kind of came together. The idea is kind of working with… In one sense the verse lyrically is a little more constricted energy. I kind of feel like the verse is how your ego tends to operate, or your small self. And the chorus is more about getting in touch with the side of you that’s really wild and free and not necessarily crazy and careless, but is like unafraid. Or like.. You’re true self or higher self. The song kind of swings back and forth between these two sides of you. Making up the sweet beast. For us, it’s kind of been like, let the sweet beast be able to roar, and get in touch with that fearless side of yourself. We felt like that it was kind of where we’re at as humans, and where our band is at. I feel like that kind of encapsulated what the rest of the EP was about. It turned out that the last song we recorded was THE ONE. I like to think that when we hit the solo section, it’s almost like the tension throughout the rest of the song is ripped.
So beyond this tour, you have a few festival dates at Savannah Stopover, Shakey Knees, and SXSW. Is there anything else we can expect this year?
Jeff: Those are the ones that are confirmed. I wish I can say more… I’ve been advised to not mention our other stuff because it’s all kind of unfolding. But I can say, there is a lot more coming this year, a lot that we’re really excited about. We definitely want to be back in Chicago as soon as possible. It’s kind of funny because on Spotify we get all our stats on where our music is being streamed. Chicago is the #1 city where our music is streamed.
GMC: Well, we’re sure looking forward to having you back!
Jeff: So there’s more festivals coming, there’s more support tours coming, and most likely a headlining tour towards the end of this year. Thanks for making this possible!
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