I’m sure I’m not alone in my lament that rock & and roll is on life support, and rock stars are fewer and farther between than in the past. I’m going to bet, though, that you’ll feel like you’ve sucked a deep hit off an oxygen tank the moment you hear Greta Van Fleet. A few cynics have dismissed them as mere imitation. But a sincere listen to their debut LP Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, hearing the foursome talk about their love of what they do and their deep dive into blues, folk and rock influences, and one can’t help but see them as anyone other than who they are. With the amount of homogenization in music today, it’s not unthinkable but inevitable that incarnations would come full circle. Imitation? Or reincarnation (before the prior musical souls have passed)? That, philosophically, is where you find Greta Van Fleet.
Robert Plant was asked earlier this year if he was into any new bands, and he mentioned GVF. “I hate ‘em,” he said, facetiously. “They’re Led Zeppelin I.” Of Josh’s “huge voice,” Plant said, “Yeah, he borrowed it from someone I know. It’s OK, what are you going to do?” When he called to invite GVF to play his annual Oscars party, Elton John told the boys, “You’re the best f-ing rock band I’ve heard in 20 years!”
GVF began in Frankenmuth, Michigan, a quaint burg of nearly 5,000 located 30 miles north of Flint. Settled by German Lutherans in 1845, the town is nicknamed “Little Bavaria” and is known for farming and tourism, notably Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, “the World’s Largest Christmas Store,” drawing over three million tourists annually to its Bavarian-themed shops and restaurants. It’s here in this idyllic town where the three Kiszka brothers – Josh and Jake (twins) and younger brother Sam started rummaging through their father’s music collection. While their peers were likely listening to Kanye West, 50 Cent, Ludacris, Maroon 5, Gavin DeGraw, and Fall Out Boy, the pre-GVF boys were immersing themselves in Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, Robert Johnson, and B.B. King.
“Our parents listened to a lot of blues since our father is a harmonica player,” guitarist Jake reminisced. “It’s my belief that he put them there on purpose at a certain rate. It was all this really traditional music; then he’d bring in these other boxes of records that we’d never seen before that included the next chapter or era of music. [The blues] tell you about the past; it tells you about slavery, about oppression, about the struggle in life. You’re that young, and you can’t understand it yet. That’s what that form of art was portraying to us, a chapter in the history of man in a certain time period, encapsulated in those songs. And it was emotion, pure truth. You could hear people bleed, you know?”
Chicken Or Egg? Was this middle-schooler engrossing himself in traditional blues and trying to grasp the human condition in the art form because he’s an old soul? Or was the old soul music injecting meaning into his young one? “It’s interesting because people probably think that we listened to a lot of rock and roll all the time,” Jake added. “We mainly listened to John Denver, Frank Sinatra, Joanie Mitchell, and all those blues guys. It wasn’t until high school that we discovered the British Invasion and the early to mid-70s rock.”
Nature, Nurture, Or Both? Jake started playing around age three on a child’s plastic guitar. But as he grew out of it, his dad used a clever way to encourage his son: he told him if he learned how to play Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Wild Thing” he’d get him a better guitar. More challenges led to increasingly nicer guitars. “I was pretty early on obsessed with the instrument,” he said.
It was probably around middle school that Sam picked up the bass, and later that he added keys, Jake recalled. Josh had always been singing. “I think it was around my sophomore year – so Sam and Danny might have been 13 or 14, and we were 16 – and that’s kind of when we started going out to the garage. I was in jazz band playing guitar, and another friend who just joined the school district was on drums. I brought him back to the house, and we started playing after school quite a bit. And that’s when Josh started wandering out and singing with us. Then we stopped Sam on his routine walk home from school and said, ‘Hey? Want to play bass?’ So he’d come out and play bass. Then a bit later, when that friend couldn’t necessarily keep up, we brought in Danny, who was the only other musician in that school district. We looked at each other and decided there was something going on here.”
Their first show was at a festival in Frankenmuth. “That’s when we had to come up with a name for a band,” Jake said. Someone heard mention of the local octogenarian musician’s name, which is Gretna Van Fleet, they dropped the ‘n’ and went with it. (She finally saw the band this past May after using her name for five years.) “We quickly scraped together what we’d played in the garage and got an hour set. Then we’d repeat that set,” Jake recalled. “We had a lot of blues songs like “Smokestack Lightning,” “Rolling and Tumbling,” and “Spoonful;” we had some Cream in there; I think we played some Bob Dylan, “Heart Of Gold” by Neil Young,” remembers Jake.
Drummer Danny Wagner wasn’t their first, but he sure remembers the call to play his first show with his friends. “The original drummer hurt himself and had to cancel at the last minute. I was playing a golf tournament – cuz I’m an avid golfer – and I got a call from Sam saying, ‘Hey, we know you play drums, would you be able to fill in?” I got so excited. My dad drove me the two hours back, and I met them. It was called the American Spirit something or other. It was this biker club where they built a giant bonfire. It was my first show, and it was about four hours long. We were having such a great time playing together that they had to turn the generator off to get us to stop!”
Danny’s interest in music was self-driven, unlike the Kiszka brothers. “My mom played a little guitar, and that’s what got me wanting to play,” he explained. “We grew up around the radio and what we heard from our parents. They had a bunch of vinyl and cassettes – yes, cassettes – and CDs, and because of that, we were under the impression that was all that was out there. I wasn’t fully aware there was this whole new movement of music until I reached middle school and started realizing what my friends were listening to and that we were so far off from each other. That’s actually how I met the rest of the guys. They were the only ones who shared the same taste in music. We totally nerded out.
“I’d like to say that I fell in love with the drums,” Danny continued. “They were not my first instrument; I learned guitar first, played French horn in band, learned piano from my sister, I learned keyboard and organ from Sam, and bass and ukelele and trumpet and sax, and then my parents got this drum kit. It was so different than any other instrument. I fell in love with the ability to make so much noise and to have so much precision but to release so much energy. I was an athlete, so it was almost taking music to that level.”
They started reaching out to a few labels in early 2017, including pop/rock visionary Jason Flom at Lava Records. Flom responded immediately and snatched up the band. “He had so much confidence in us it was scary,” said Danny. “Sam and I were still finishing up high school. I was doing homework and invited to sign a record deal. But we didn’t tell anyone until we were graduating. It was kind of a secret between us because it was a big deal. We didn’t want a bunch of rumors going around. Yes, we come from a very small town. Things can spread around town in less than a day. We publicized it eventually. People have always been huge supporters back home, which is great.”
They signed to Lava/Republic in March 2017, and a month later released their debut studio EP, Black Smoke Rising. Their debut single, “Highway Tune,” topped the Billboard US Mainstream Rock and Active Rock charts in September 2017 for four weeks in a row. A second EP **From the Fires (containing the four songs from Black Smoke Rising plus four new songs), was released on November 10, 2017. In the U.S., From the Fires topped Billboard’s Hard Rock Albums chart and rocketed Greta Van Fleet to global success, charting throughout Europe and reaching #4 in New Zealand.
Being young makes touring easier for sure. It takes stamina to travel and perform night after night, so being 18-21 years old is an ideal age. Touring also gives a band the opportunity to hone their craft. “I think the most important part of this band’s evolution is the fact that it does evolve,” Danny mused. “In all music, it’s important for it to evolve over time, and for it to happen naturally. A lot of it has to do with our maturity, developing as musicians. I’d say a lot of it comes from our childhood and the blues, soul, and rudimentary genres we brought with us, and we channel our youthful energy into it. We’re very tired after every show; there’s no question. We just love to put ourselves out there and to work hard. And when you’re really loving it, it doesn’t seem like work.”
Elaborating further on their live shows, Jake adds, “We take a very loose approach in the sense that we have somewhat of a standard set, but there are many sections within that to expand and jam and improvise. Because if something becomes stagnant, it becomes boring and dies, you know? And as much as there is a set, we throw in different songs, and we try to change the set each night not only for our experience but for the audience as well. There are a lot of people who come to [multiple] shows, and it’s different every single night. That’s another very special element of our live show and how it has evolved – it’s everybody sharing that experience together in a room unified for music, being there for that purpose, but hearing something that will never be repeated because each show is very much different and will probably never be repeated.”
When they first started playing in bars and clubs, the crowd was older (because the guys were underage). “I thought it was great because then a lot of them introduced the music to their kids,” said Danny. “We’ve always seen [people] ages 8 to 80 at all of our shows. It’s incredible. There’s usually an abundance of different types of people, and it’s awesome because then there isn’t a specific target market and no one’s feeling left out.”
Chances are you’ve heard some of their first releases, seen one of their many live YouTube clips, caught one of their late-night TV appearances, saw them at this year’s Lollapalooza, or are already on the GVF bandwagon. Chances are you’ve already got your ticket for one of their three sold-out shows at The Aragon in December. And chances are you might have been anxiously awaiting their Lava/Republic debut full-length Anthem Of The Peaceful Army which, after leaving fans and critics waiting and wondering as far as a release date, finally has one – October 19.
The new LP is an impressive 10-song opus reminiscent of early Grand Funk, Rush and Led Zeppelin albums. The first single “When The Curtain Falls” is the perfect example of the band’s powerhouse strengths: Jake’s groovy blues licks, Danny’s deep-pocket drumming buoyed by Sam’s bass rhythms, all cherry-topped with Josh’s soaring vocals. Like many ‘70s rock bands, GVF’s lyrics are part poetry, part fantasy, with messages of peace and hope inserted amongst sexy swagger and sweet love ballads. The already-released video is playfully inspired by the ‘70s, in which the band – dressed in cloaks, vests and harem pants – performs the song in a desert setting, day-moon hanging in the background.
As if the stars weren’t already aligning in the shape of GVF, how many musicians barely out of high school get asked to play Elton John’s coveted Oscar party? Early last year, while in the midst of recording their new LP, the guys were told they might want to be up by 10 a.m. the next day for an important phone call. Explains Danny, “We were up at 9:30-10 in the morning and sure enough, I got a call on my phone from the U.K. It was Elton! First, he had a bunch of compliments, which was crazy. We were shaking on the phone. But then he invited us to play his Oscar party. He said, ‘I still play music and if you’d like I’d love to play a song with you guys or even two…’ And at that point, we weren’t even retaining information because we were just so excited. It all happened so quickly, and it was one of the most life-changing experiences. He learned one of our songs during soundcheck, and he did one of our songs. We played ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,’ and he played one of ours, ‘You’re The One’ off the new album!”
Elaborating further, Danny says, “When [Elton} walked in the room, and we were on the stage rehearsing…It was very stressful until he came up on the stage, that presence that he has, and he gave us all hugs and was like, ‘How you doing, boys?’ He said, ‘It could be great or not, and I like both! It’s going to go one way or another. This is the one time out of the year that you’re not working. You’re supposed to be having fun. I don’t want you to worry about if you screw up!’ And it all sort of melted away at that point. It became very comfortable and became a very genuine experience with a legend. Very romantic, really.”
A romantic start to a young band’s career. And it’s only the beginning. Greta Van Fleet appears December 12, 14 and 15 at Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.
– Penelope Biver
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