GRETA VAN FLEET
THE FUTURE OF ROCK’N’ROLL? DETROIT CERTAINLY THINKS SO
Greta Van Fleet are sat around a picnic bench, passing a bottle of champagne around. A freak heatwave has settled on top of downtown Detroit, Michigan, and two of the four band members have taken their shirts off.
Guitarist Jake Kiszka is talking Kerrang! through the chaotic scenes that unfolded after the group’s show in the city two nights earlier, when a small and unexpected convoy of cars tailed their tour bus all the way back to their hotel on the edge of town, the courtyard of which they currently occupy.
“There were people coming out of their cars and surrounding the bus,” he explains coolly, before describing their escape – orchestrated by the band’s management – like a military operation. “There was a crowd of people out here and they were screaming and stuff – and it was like, ‘Go, go, go.’”
This sort of thing, it seems, is becoming pretty normal for Greta Van Fleet. In an afternoon spent in their company, we witness passing motorists screaming from their cars as the four young men line up to have their photo taken outside a vintage vinyl record store, while later on a small voice belonging to a nervous-looking gentleman appears over the hotel’s fence to ask if the lads will sign his baseball (they will).
It’s the sort of excitement you’d expect to follow ageing rockstars around, yet two members of Greta Van Fleet wouldn’t even get served in a bar in this state. More stupefying still is that these young men are yet to release a full-length record, their back catalogue currently made up of two EPS, totaling six original songs and two covers (of soul and folk singers Sam Cooke and Richard John Thompson). Yet something about the band’s modern retelling of rock’n’roll and blues is striking chords in the Midwest and beyond, and those responsible believe they have the antidote for mainstream apathy towards rock music.
The four young men in the eye of this storm grew up about an hour and a half’s drive north from here, in the rural Michigan town Frankenmuth. There’s 22-year-old vocalist Josh, his twin brother guitarist Jake, their 19-year-old brother Sam on bass, and childhood friend Danny Wagner – also 19 – is the band’s drummer. The extended layover in Detroit is so the group can play three sold-out ‘hometown’ shows at 3,000-capacity
“PEOPLE HAVE LOST SIGHT OF WHAT ROCK’N’ROLL IS…” SAM KISZKA
venue The Fillmore. It’s an important place for the quartet – one they would travel to while in high school. There’s also a deep fondness for the city itself, not least due to its rich musical heritage. Motown, MC5, Grand Funk Railroad and Stevie Wonder all receive name-checks as influences.
“People always presume that we listen to rock’n’roll all the time, but it’s just not true,” says Josh in his wood-smoked voice. “There’s so much great music that’s not rock’n’roll.”
Their collective musical education apparently started at an early age in Frankenmuth. The small farmland town has a large German population, and is known for its Bavarian architecture and being home to the world’s largest Christmas store. The band paint it as a mystical idyll. They recount building rafts to sail down the local creek in the summer, and venturing across snowy tundra during the winter. “Like a weird German version of Huck Finn,” offers Danny.
For the Kiszka brothers, it was their parents who first introduced them to music. The boys would rummage through their folks’ vinyl collection, listening to whatever they could find – blues, soul, folk, jazz, R’N’B – while their father was a keen musician himself. “He would play guitar when we were growing up,” says Josh. “But the one instrument that he’s always played and found his heart in is the harmonica. He’s such a blues man.”
Danny’s musical awakening also came via his parents, when he found his mother’s old 12-string guitar in the basement. “I eventually convinced them to get me a younger, six-string version,” he says with a smile.
It’s Jake, who says he first started learning guitar age three, who takes credit for the official formation of the band around 2012. Having got his brothers involved, he then recruited Danny, and their jam sessions quickly gained momentum, with the group taking things seriously from the get-go. “Within that first week we all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘There’s something substantial here,’” says Jake. “And that’s when we had the professional ideals on our shoulders.”
The band’s early sound centred around experimentation with blues music – the one genre that all four members commonly shared an interest in. It’s since developed into a spellbinding tapestry of rock’n’roll, with additional elements of psychedelia and folk woven throughout. When we watch the band’s third and final show at The Fillmore the following night, it’s the power and precision of the performance that stands out most, with Josh’s thunderbolt vocals reducing a heaving room into reverent silence. It’s a sound that gets the band constantly likened to some of rock’s most prestigious elders…
“Oh, you mean like Led Zeppelin?” Josh says with a sarcastic smirk. “Well, there are worse things that could have happened. Led Zeppelin are… they’re pretty good.”good.”
His brother Jake offers some diplomacy: “They were one of the bands that were a factor in the evolution of that genre of music. They’re a brilliant band, and I think we’re all honoured, and I think we always will be.”
The comparisons may be starting to grate – Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant even referred to the group as ‘Led Zeppelin I’ a few months ago – but it’s clearly only because musical integrity is important to the group. To that end, they’ve been in a Nashville studio recently, recording their debut full-length and aiming to create a sound of their own – one that captures the imagination of a new generation of rock fans.
“We’re just making music that’s true and honourable to the things that we grew up on,” says Josh. “We’re a bunch of young kids and we’re contemporary artists. It’s not classic rock, it’s progressive rock. It’s based off some older stuff, but everything is. Hopefully it’s also moving things forward into the next decade.”
Sam backs him up: “That’s the thing about it. Moving it forward. That’s the problem. Nobody moves it forward. People just say, ‘Oh, this is what’s on the radio, we’re going to write a song just like this…’
“Sometimes [when writing music] we think, ‘What should come next?’ and we put something in just because it’s weird. Music is supposed to be unique.”
O ne thing you quickly realise about Greta Van Fleet is that once they start talking about music like this, trying to get them to stop is like stepping in front of a freight train. In fact, the only time they slow down during our time together is when all four are silently leafing through vinyl inside the record store we stop off in.
It’s why you can believe that the group are in this for the music, first and foremost. And there are other signs – ask them what it was like to play Elton John’s Academy Awards party earlier this year, about which celebrities lined the halls, and they’ll tell you they’re not great with famous faces, but will instead describe playing Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting with Elton. “We left afterwards thinking, ‘Well, we can die in peace now,’” says Josh. “After that, it’s like, you’d have to bring in Paul Mccartney in a clown outfit.”
A similar act of musical nerdery occurs later, when the group are asked what the biggest rockstar moment of their career has been so far. “Opening for Bob Seger,” comes Jake’s immediate and surprising reply.
Despite their collective humility, the group do confess to some hefty aspirations – headlining Coachella festival in the U.S., and Download festival in the UK, for starters. They’re also not shy when it comes to pinpointing when and why they reckon rock’n’roll lost its way in the past.
“Well, rock’n’roll post-1975 was pretty horrible a lot of the time,” says Sam. “I think people had stopped perceiving what rock’n’roll really is. Everybody thinks it’s about sleeping with multiple women, drinking ridiculous amounts of alcohol and just partying their whole lives, but I think it’s more than that. People just lost sight of what rock’n’roll is.”
It’s a bold assertion for a young man drinking champagne in the midday sun to make, but whatever their thoughts on the follies of rock acts of the past, what’s for certain is that Greta Van Fleet have absolute faith in their own ability to bring the genre back to the masses.
“There’s a truth to what we’re doing,” promises Josh. “There’s so much manufactured music out there, but you can’t fake emotion.”
“For a lot of our generation, this is a new sound,” says Sam with a grin. “It’s a new wave and I genuinely believe this is the future of music. Rock’n’roll is on its way back.”
Big words. But we’d expect nothing less from Greta Van Fleet now we know them a little better. Here’s to those about to rock…
How big are you lot gonna be, Danny?