A regular bike is placed and secured in a roll up rack, or bike stand, and acts as a stationary bike. As the rider moves the pedals, the back wheel spins alongs a small generator wheel. As the wheel spins, it generates a direct energy current into a utility box. Inside that box, the energy is transferred into alternating current. It’s simple and to the point: one stand, one utility box and a cable that runs between them. That clean, green energy is used to directly power musicians’ equipment for a live show.
“As long as your bike is on the stand, you’re making power,” said Jeff Gorman, songwriter, guitarist, vocalist and bassist for the touring indie-rock duo Illiterate Light.
In 2010, Gorman and drummer Jake Cochran met at James Madison University with little knowledge of environmentalism. But after running into a group of people in Harrisburg, Virginia, who showed them “what life could be like in a different way,” they became interested in living outside of the typical structures of how people use energy and power. At that point, the group was focused on using bikes to get around instead of cars, and the musicians at the helm were also writing protest tunes highlighting oil consumption.
“It was a very radical idea for us,” Gorman said. “But that was the first time [Cochran] and I saw somebody really practicing what they preached. As 20-year-olds trying to find a path, that really meant a lot. There was a real tangibility … in trying to distance [ourselves] from a highly consumptive empire.”
As musicians, the two bonded with the group over music and shared interest in living “differently,” which led to a three-week tour for three summers in a row with a rotating cast of 10 to 30 people. But the catch was that the tour, called the Petrol-free Jubilee, would be done solely on bicycles. Departing from Harrisburg, the group would play around seven or 10 shows in coffee shops, small clubs, farmers markets and busking on the street around Virginia, while also hitting up locations as far as Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
By converting kitty litter boxes into crate-like bins, the crew would transport equipment such as amps, instruments and a bike generator on trailers attached to their bikes.
“We’d be coordinating with people in each city and say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to travel with everything we need. We need you to bring the sound system, and we’re going to provide the electricity for it,” Gorman said.
After graduating from college, Gorman and Cochran formed Illiterate Light in 2015. Since then, they’ve been trying to find ways to bring back a bike tour. This August, the duo is making it happen in a slow, gradual process.
Partnering with the bicycle service company Rock The Bike, they were able to get their hands on a more finely tuned bike generator. They said the one they used years before was handmade by a friend and worked great, but had errors with the sound quality—introducing a screeching sound while the music played.
With the generator they have now, one bike—with three people pedaling—can generate enough power equal to that of one speaker. The duo has been doing their fair share of homework on how much energy is typically used to operate a full-length live performance. There are a lot of varying factors, such as sound systems, fog machines, mixing boards and stage lighting. Gorman said it’s difficult to quantify exactly how much energy a single show pulls, but that it is likely around 3,000 watts, which would support two to four speakers, two subs, a front-of-the house mixer and the band’s amps.
In general, the bikes can generate 50-70 watts individually. So in order to power an entire show, there would need to be an estimated total of 20-30 bikes operating. That’s a lot for a small club show to have, but it’s not impossible. Two years ago, Coldplay decided not to tour until they could do so in a more sustainable way. Last year, they made that possible by putting on an entire performance with 60 people peddling on static bikes onstage, as well as harnessing the partial kinetic energy of fans as they bounced around on the main floor.
As of now, Illiterate Light does not have the means to power an entire show by bike but are finding ways to incorporate it. For their upcoming U.S. tour starting in August, the band plans on playing a short acoustic set powered by two-to-four bike generators, as well as bringing in solar energy to provide assistance. They are learning the ropes as they go and plan to fine-tune the project as it evolves.
“We bought two 100-watt solar panels. So we put them out during the day to harvest sunlight, and they then charge up a 800-watt generator,” Gorman said. “We see that to be part of the ethos of this whole project. It’s a renewable, sustainable form of energy as far as we’re concerned.”
The project is based on learning as you go because energy varies from show to show, and certain amps or equipment might not work smoothly with the bike generators. For example, the band learned that solid-state amps, rather than tubes, sound the most pristine.
Finding ways to perform in a more sustainable way is a large part of the mission, but the band also sees this as an opportunity to get their fans more involved in their live shows and more connected with their minds, bodies and souls.
Some of Cochran’s favorite shows he’s attended are those where he was a participant and the artist created an environment where “the connection is more than just the audience watching.” Flaming Lips exemplifies this, he said, as musicians always invite fans who are dressed in costumes on stage during their performances.
“It immediately softens the divide between the audience and the performers,” Cochran said. “We like shows where we can get down in the audience and be playful and break that barrier. We are setting up a system where that is baked into it. We’re bringing our energy, they’re bringing theirs, and it creates a really unique moment.”
By slowly introducing this idea to their shows, the duo hopes it will spark interest and conversation among other touring artists. Sustainable and renewable energy is a huge, confusing conversation to have, Cochran says, and it’s difficult to successfully go completely green. Cochran noted “green” shows shouldn’t just be Illiterate Light’s hallmark. The band is hoping other musicians will come to them with questions on how to take on similar projects themselves.
“The future of touring and what it means to be an artist in the U.S. is changing, and we want it to change,” Gorman said. “The change that’s going to come is ideas flowing from other people. It’s really going to be a collective effort. There’s not going to be some new system that is birthed that will solve the environmental crisis out of the blue. It’s going to be this whole push and pull process.”
Keep an eye out for Illiterate Light’s upcoming tour dates here, as well as an announcement for their third album slated to be released later this year.
For more stories on solar and energy, be sure to check out Luckbox’s upcoming May issue on all things energy. Subscribe for free at getluckbox.com.
Kendall Polidori is The Rockhound, Luckbox’s resident rock music critic. Follow her reviews on Instagram @rockhound_luckbox and Twitter @rockhoundlb.