“Hi, folks – hey, got a favor to ask – we’ve just signed a new band – Greta Van Fleet – who I think is right up your alley, and I’d love for you to give a listen to one of their songs – Highway Tune. Just for you, not to be shared or made public yet – and I’d ask one more thing – when you listen to it, please, TURN IT UP LOUD.”
Given the rocket launch to recognition that Greta Van Fleet is currently riding, it’s hard to believe the above email pitch from the band’s publicist was sent to Screamer Magazine on March 9th of this year. At that time, it was just another email from a band, a manager or a publicist seeking coverage; one of an average of 30 we get each day. At that time, GVF was almost completely unknown outside their immediate geographic area of Frankenmuth, Michigan, perhaps best known for having the world’s largest Christmas store. Even the band’s name sounded odd to the tongue…what exactly was Greta Van Fleet? A bizarre German polka band?
Less than five months from that email, oh, how things have changed! GVF is in the midst of an unbelievable summer. They are playing huge outdoor festivals, sharing the stages with some of the legendary names in rock music. Their first single Highway Tune is climbing the charts. They are headlining their own nationwide club tour, and a tour of Europe has just been announced. The dizzying pace that everything is happening is highlighted by the interview that all four band members (brothers Josh, Jake, and Sam Kiszka along with long-time friend, Danny Wagner) gave to Screamer on June 16. After the formal interview in their hotel room just off the Sunset Strip, the band along with myself, Screamer photographer Matt Quina and GVF’s publicist Heidi Robinson Fitzgerald embarked on a walking tour of the Strip. They had never been to Hollywood, so stops were made at the Rainbow, Whisky and The Viper Room. For the entire hour, the band strolled in complete anonymity. Even when we gained access to the The Viper Room, where a tribute band was preparing for a soundcheck, the Kiszka brothers and Wagner went unnoticed—just four young men with long hair and funky clothing, indistinguishable from hundreds of others like them trying to make their mark in music.
The music business is indeed fickle, and nothing is guaranteed. History is littered with stories of one-hit-wonders, but one thing is certain: When Greta Van Fleet returned to The Viper Room on July 25, they most definitely were not anonymous.
When asked how they’re adjusting to the dizzying pace at which everything is happening, Josh says “It’s different for every one of us, but for me personally, and I think for the majority of all of us, that it’s hard to really gauge anything because we’re right in the thick of it. So, it really isn’t…we really haven’t been able to…there’s no time to process what is happening. We’re so close to the madness.” Jake adds “And if you stop to think about it, I think ‘surreal’ would be the best way to describe it in one word. It’s kind of like being in the eye of a storm. You know, you have the center which is perfectly calm, and you can’t tell what’s going on outside of that. You just hope it’s all good.”
When looking online at both music journalist’s reviews and fan comments, one name appears again and again: Led Zeppelin. Most make the comparison between Josh’s singing and Robert Plant, which is so amazing that GVF’s tracks could easily be mistaken for lost Zeppelin tapes. However, the resemblance doesn’t end there. You’ve got Jake’s guitar riffing, which is clearly Jimmy Page-like in certain songs. Sam doubles on bass and keyboards, as did John Paul Jones. And listening to Wagner’s drumming…being mentioned in the same breath as John Bonham is a tall order, but damn…Wagner’s got those chops.
The band doesn’t shy away from those comparisons, but rather chooses to explain them. It all goes back to the roots of rock n’ roll: The blues.
“I think where that comes from is that a lot of us have the same influences as those guys did,” says Josh. “And it wasn’t like I was really trying to sound anything like Robert Plant, but I found to get more power out of my voice that that’s what it ended up sounding like. We all have…I mean, Daniel seems to be the folk guy and Jake the rock guy and I like world music and Sam’s more jazz oriented. Blues kind of was the thing that bound us together. It turned out that a lot of those influences that we individually had were those of the same sort of ilk. And I think the similarity in sound to Zeppelin is based on each individual’s influences coming together to write a song. So, I mean, we’re not trying to deliberately create that sound. It’s just the way it is. It’s just how we’re interpreting the old blues guys.”
Perhaps what is most impressive about the music of Greta Van Fleet is that none of the four band members has had formal music training. As Sam puts it, “No one took lessons, music lessons. We’re all just self-taught. We pick it up here and there.” As for Josh, “I did a lot of acting. I went through an acting phase. I was never considering music as a career. It wasn’t even in the scope of things. I wanted to be a writer and actor, a filmmaker first and foremost, but then it ended up that I could sing and Jake was making music and Sam came in. And all of a sudden, it was us. And Daniel came in later. It’s interesting. It just happened so naturally.”
Although they’re self-taught musically, they did receive invaluable guidance in their most recent studio experience from producer Al Sutton, most noted for working with Kid Rock. Jake explains that the sessions for the Black Smoke Rising EP were different from their previous times in a recording studio. “We had an idea of how to record. This was our third studio experience, but it’s been the most complex of our studio experiences.” Wagner chimes in with “Well, for me, I joined a little later, so it was only my second real studio experience, and the last studio experience we had prior didn’t really involve a whole lot of learning. We just kind of went in and started recording and then grabbed the CD when we were done and headed out. This one was…we’ve been there for two years and I learned so much. It’s crazy. I didn’t realize how much I really didn’t know going into it. It was like going to take a crash course, you know? Al really taught us how to make a good recording, which involves a lot more than an average person would think. Even us. I was blown away how many subtleties there are. You know, just the…it’s an incredible process.”
Indeed. The casual music fan who thinks it’s just “turn on the tape machine and start playing” would be amazed at how much is involved from start to finish. Even before recording there’s microphone selection and placement, getting proper sound levels, setting up the mixing board or computer. Then there’s the actual tracking process, which is the musicians recording their parts. After that there’s mixing and finally mastering.
“We had a lot of fun experimenting with the technical side, different amps, doing all this crazy stuff,” explains Jake. “It was like there’s three segments in recording that we can categorize. The tracking and the dubbing, and the mixing, and then the mastering. All those little details inside each of those categories is just crazy, just to be able to learn as much as we have thus far. Thank you, Al!”
Highway Tune was the first song released from the four-song EP, but in many opinions, the other three songs are much stronger. Josh doesn’t necessarily disagree with that viewpoint. “You see, Highway Tune was written four years ago and Black Smoke only about a year ago. And I think that that really shows the evolution of Greta Van Fleet. And it seems to continue to go into that realm. We’re really looking forward to releasing more songs.”
For a band as new as GVF, they have a great deal of autonomy over their music, which no doubt comes from their attitude and personalities. Yes, they are young and yes, they have a lot to learn, but they also have a great amount of poise and confidence, which earns respect from management, booking agents and their record label.
Josh explains “It’s certainly unusual how much freedom they give us with our own material, our own music. We’re the ones writing it and recording it, so I think they understand and respect that. Yeah…it’s an unusual amount of freedom to do what we want to do with our stuff. And that’s Jason’s [Jason Flom, CEO of Lava Records] approach. He’s the head of our record company and basically he just lets his musicians do what they want. He gives them that freedom because he knows this is our image.”
Jason Flom has had a long, distinguished career in the music industry, serving at times as Chairman and CEO of Atlantic Records, Virgin Records and the Capitol Music group. A feature in The New Yorker named Flom “one of the most influential record men of the past 20 years.” Given all that Flom has seen and heard in that time, one would imagine it takes a lot to impress him. A lot. In a separate conversation with Screamer, Flom said “It’s moving very, very quickly. I think that nobody has seen a rock band break this quickly in many years, and it’s happening in the right ways.”
“All the partners are super excited, all the key partners, whether it’s Spotify, Apple, YouTube jumping in with both feet. I think they’re the YouTube artist of the week or whatever that program is they have right now. Radio; both terrestrial and satellite radio has been great. Everything’s happening so fast I can’t keep track of it. So yeah, it’s really good. And you know, it’s interesting, too; for example, I had lunch with a woman who’s really one of the top people at YouTube and she was showing me how when people search for the single Highway Tune, they also search for other content by the band. We live in a singles world, but they seem to be defying that by virtue of the fact that people want to know everything about the band, and want to hear the other songs as well. So, every week we’re seeing a lift on all the songs.”
Again, given all that Flom has accomplished in his career, those are strong statements, but make no mistake—he is definitely excited about Greta Van Fleet.
“Josh is so interesting because, you know, his brain doesn’t function in a predictable manner, right? When you ask him a question, you’re not going to get the standard answer. And one of the things that’s been wrong with rock n’ roll for a while is that it’s been very cookie-cutter. For example, a lot of bands these days, the band members look like they just got off work at a gas station, then they go on stage, and they forgot to change their clothes, and they don’t have anything to say. You ask them any question and you’re going to get a boring answer. With Josh, you never know what you’re going to get. I was playing golf with Marlin Young, who co-produced the record, and he was telling me Josh did an interview and somebody asked him, ‘Where do you get your inspiration from?’ You know what he said? ‘Nature.’”
“It’s so exciting and fun for me because it’s really back to the beginning. I grew up on this music, you know? I’ve missed it. I’ve wanted to try to bring rock n’ roll back, didn’t know how to do it. I mean I know how to do it, but you have to find a band. And I found the band! Yeah…their star is just going to keep rising, and the best part is that the best is yet to come.”
Flom’s statements mesh with the mindset of the band. As Josh puts it, “I think the best…personally, for me, the best era, the best decade of music was ’65 to ’75. I think the amount of…the level of musicianship it took back then was so authentic, so to speak. I don’t think that people take their musical abilities that seriously any more or the technicality of their instruments they’re playing. That was a time when music was very important, you know? It was just as important as the political and social and human condition. It was the way that people used to communicate ideas of what was going on. And now is a very strange time and I think it’s what seems to be going around. Now, it’s just boom-boom-boom.”
Sam says “Back in the day it took two or three people to do what 40 people do nowadays to produce one song. You had tape machines and all of that. You had to be pretty smart to do that stuff. We just want to make good music. We don’t really have…it’s not that we’re so concerned about financial success. It’s not that. We say, ‘Listen, this is what we’re going to do.’ Really, ultimately, this is how we want to do it and we want it to be organic. We want it to be real and truthful and if you want to put all this auto-tuning and stuff on it, forget it.”
The band members all murmur various forms of agreement, with the words “auto tune” and “fuck off” being used both liberally and playfully.
After the laughter in the room dies down, Josh says “We want to bring the authenticity of music back, you know? It’s been gone too long. Someone needed to do it, and we weren’t afraid of doing it. And I think it’s like when we all put it in perspective, five, ten years from now, what are people going to be listening to? It is like you kind of have to…someone needs to step up, and hopefully, influence the next generation. And so on and so forth.”
The four young men in Greta Van Fleet go from playing in front of a few hundred people at the Frankenmuth Auto Fest one year to tens of thousands of people at huge summer festivals the following year. That Viper Room employee, completely unaware of who they are, politely instructs them how to submit their music to the club booker if they want to play a gig there, and a few weeks later they sell out that venue in less than two hours. A rocket ride to fame, huh? But no matter how fast the rocket and how high the altitude, don’t expect Josh, Jake, Sam and Danny to change much.
“We were never really going into any of this for money or fame,” says Josh. “It was that we just wanted to make our music—the type of music we love. And in the end, you can take the boys out of the humble community and family, but you can’t take the humble community and family out of us.”