There is an expression “an old man’s soul in a young man’s body.” With a keen sense of both music and the music business, as well as being unfailingly polite and articulate in conversation, Sam Kiszka exhibits a maturity far beyond his 18 years. Sam, who doubles on bass and keyboards, along with older twin brothers Jake (guitar) and Josh (vocals) plus drummer Danny Wagner comprise Greta Van Fleet, a band out of rural Frankenmuth, Michigan who have recently released the astonishing four song EP Black Smoke Rising. In a mere four songs, these young adults have managed to channel the excitement and revolutionary spirit of music that was happening in the late 60’s, a full four decades before they were born.
Much of the credit has to go with being raised in a close family within a tight-knit community of just under 5,000 people. There was always music in the air. Their father was a musician, and at family gatherings there were frequent impromptu jam sessions. The Kiszka boys eagerly absorbed everything they heard, and over time molded those influences into their own unique sound.
When listening to the album, one is struck by the undeniable resemblance to Led Zeppelin. Given an unmarked CD, one could easily think it was collection of newly released Zeppelin tracks. Sam is well aware of that, but at the same time tries to distance himself from the comparison. “You know what? That’s been a big thing ever since we started. There were early inspirations that definitely correspond, but we tried to not take too much away. We really don’t want to be associated with…it’s like being a cover band or some kind of imitation.
We want to be musicians on our own merit. So yeah, that’s definitely been a big thing. People always say that. But we try not to grab that too hard.”
Musical groups containing siblings are not uncommon, but three brothers which include a set of twins…that’s definitely rare territory. The day the interview with Sam took place was National Siblings Day (yeah, there’s a holiday for everything) and he was asked if it’s difficult to be in a band structured in that manner, given that siblings don’t always see eye-to-eye.
“You know what? It’s really not. There used to be some fighting because we’re all very passionate about the music and we’re all very, let’s say, stubborn about our own ways. In the past couple years it’s definitely evened out and we’re able to communicate a lot better with each other, try each other’s stuff. But definitely in the early years, there were some problems. And sometimes we still get mad at each other, but the music’s always strong enough to bring us back together. And we live in the same house, three of us, so it makes it easy for practice because Danny just comes over and we play, we’re all here.”
Now about that band name…it’s definitely unusual, unique, and says very little about their music. For example, slip in a CD by Cannibal Corpse, and you pretty much know what type of music is going to come blasting out of your speakers. But the moniker Greta Van Fleet is pretty cryptic. “That’s an interesting story,” says Sam. “It was four or five years ago. We were playing Auto Fest, which is a big festival in Frankenmuth. For Auto Fest, there’s thousands and thousands of people [who] come into town, this little 5,000 capacity town and it’s wild, it’s great. But we were gonna play there for the first time, that was our first real gig, and we didn’t have a band name or anything because we were just playing. We’d play at our buddy’s houses and for the grad parties or whatever.”
“So we’re all trying to think of a name and our drummer at the time was out at…I believe it was breakfast with his grandpa, it was the morning of the gig. And his grandpa was like…he said, “I have to go chop wood for Gretna Van Fleet after breakfast.” And Kyle’s like, ‘Oh, that’s tasty. Gretna Van Fleet.’ So he brought it to us and we took out the ‘N’ in Gretna, and then it just came out Greta Van Fleet. And we haven’t really thought about it since, except maybe Josh. Josh doesn’t think that bands should have names because they’re all awkward,” laughs Sam.
For any band poised on the edge of success, that success comes with a price. It’s definitely rewarding when countless hours of practicing and gigging translate into increasing visibility and adulation. On the other hand, the demands on one’s time become more and more. There’s meetings with management, lawyers and record label personnel, interviews with the media to promote the music, more time away from home as tours are booked. Also, fans who have been following the band since the days of playing backyard parties can grow frustrated as “their” band grows in prominence and access becomes limited. All of the above can be a lot to handle for any musician, but a musician who’s still in high school?
“Well honestly, it’s funny because one of my buddies actually said something about how sometimes I won’t get up for school, but if I have anything music related, I’m up and ready. So it’s definitely hard with the school, but we all are very dedicated to the band, we’re all dedicated to the music, getting the music out there and we’re all very aware that it’s our occupation. So we have no problem getting in there, getting everything ready on time. It has been a lot really fast, but you know what? It hasn’t seemed fast enough because it’s only three weeks in between the single and the EP.”
“And I am just so ready for it. I wanted the EP to come out the next day. But we were very, very fortunate with the people who are on board with us, and I can’t say that enough. All our mentors who’ve brought us this far, starting with our original manager and our new manager, our lawyer, all our PR, the label, they’re all so supportive and they watch out for us, and they make it so easy for us to get where we need to go with everything we need. And with the road maps they set out, it’s fabulous. It makes our job really great because we can just focus on the music.”
Of course, long before the professional support there was family support. Midwesterners are famous for their strong tradition of family values, and Sam says “I can’t be thankful enough. Our family has been so supportive. The Kiskas and the Wagners, they all come to the shows all the time. Until recently, our parents had been taking us everywhere. The support from our family is just…I can’t thank anybody enough for that.”
Being a four-piece band, playing live has its limitations. In the recording studio, anything is possible with countless overdubs but live, with only one guitarist there’s choices that have to be made with the arrangements. Some bands use touring musicians to supplement their sound, but GVF have chosen not to go that route. Sam’s keyboard playing helps, but as he explains, “Well, you have to think about them as two different things because a lot of the time, a band wants to completely duplicate what they sound like in a studio. And if they don’t do it right, then it’s really disappointing.”
“There’s a lot of bands like Lewis Del Mar, they have these crazy studio recordings. And you know what? They live up to it live because they have the right production on there and they make it its own, but it still stays true to what people are expecting. And for us, we have a hell of a lot of guitar overdubs that can’t be there because we stick with the four piece. So we just change some parts around, kind of cut some fat and we give it the energy that it needs to push past the recording thing, because after all, the songs were written with the arrangement. And it’s a little different for acoustic songs. I’m really a big fan of playing the acoustic songs, because most of the time I’m on keyboard for that.”
For the mere mortal musician who struggles to master just one instrument, musicians who can use all four limbs to simultaneously play rhythm and melody lines are definitely awe-inspiring. “Yeah, that always wowed me. I’m like, ‘Damn, yeah, I want to do that.’ I see these guys playing rhythm with their left hand and playing lead with their right hand and then swelling the volume with their right foot and then bass playing these ridiculous lines with their left foot, it’s insane. But yeah, I always loved that, so I kind of picked that up. I was a big fan of Ray Manzarek of the Doors, his bass lines.” Sam also cites James Oscar “Jimmy” Smith as an inspiration. Smith was a jazz musician who revolutionized the use of the keyboard in jazz, particularly in his use of both the keys and bass pedals. “Jimmy Smith was my inspiration, James Oscar Smith, he’s my man. I have a Hammond K2, which is a double tier, and I have a shitload of voices. And I play the bass with my feet, so I have a whole lot of headroom to shape that sound more, rather than just sitting more in the back with bass. So it’s a nice change up.”
Greta Van Fleet may be influenced by the music of the late ‘60’s, but their approach to distributing said music is strictly 2017. Rather than doing an LP, they will be releasing a series of EP’s, with Black Smoke Rising being the first. Also, there was no physical disc of Black Smoke Rising—it’s all digital. “You know what, man? I’m a big fan of the vinyl, the big foot by foot and you get this nice image. It’s a great piece, because what people love are physical things. But right now, the way I listen to music is I just stream it on Apple Music and it’s just so easy. And a lot of the time, people don’t bother to go out and buy that vinyl, that CD. But down the road, personally, I would absolutely love to do a vinyl release.”
Despite (or perhaps because of) their young age, the band has a ton of material in the can, so to speak. “For this cycle right now, we’re gonna do three EPs of four songs each and that’s gonna make an album. And I suppose after we’re done touring for the summer, we can get back in the studio and look at all of what we have, which is a shitload, because of the weird way that this all came together. We were in the studio for two years before we released Highway Tune. So we have a lot of material. We have a lot of demos of songs that we probably don’t even remember, and we have a lot of final stuff too. So yeah, we have two more albums worth of material ready right now.”
Given how mind-blowing, crazy scary unbelievably freaky good the first four songs we’ve heard are, what’s even more awe-inspiring is that this is just the first from Greta Van Fleet. It might be a good thing that Black Smoke Rising wasn’t released on vinyl, because you’d be wearing out those grooves pretty damn quickly by now.