Brotherhood, burnout and belief: How Greta Van Fleet took on the world – and won

Greta Van Fleet’s rise to rock’s big leagues felt, to its four young members, like “being shot out of a cannon”. So when burnout and a global pandemic brought them back down to Earth, how did they not only keep the train on the tracks, but return with an album of epic proportions and ambition? Josh and Sam Kiszka take us inside The Battle At Garden’s Gate, and the fight to block out the world…

Brotherhood, burnout and belief: How Greta Van Fleet took on the world – and won
Nick Ruskell
Alysse Gafkjen

Here’s how much Greta Van Fleet need to lead a life on the road: last summer, they packed themselves into a motor home and headed west on a 2,000-mile drive from Nashville to Los Angeles. Half a year after the curtain fell on their last show on December 30, 2019, the closing gig of a three-night run at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, and with a season of broken festival appointments to no longer look forward to, even if they couldn’t play a gig, they could still get in the van.

“That’s just the best absolute freedom,” says bassist Sam Kiszka. “We're our own bosses, we don't really have to adhere to any real rules of society. It's a wild realm.”

There was a point to all this. In Los Angeles, Sam, singer and brother Josh, guitarist and brother Jake, and drummer and non-brother Daniel Wagner would tie up the final loose ends and decide to record two more songs for their second album, The Battle At Garden’s Gate. They would make videos on Super-8 film, in which they acted on whatever impulses they had in order to create the wildest visuals they could think up. They would do lots of meeting-y things and take care of ‘business’. But it was the trip – just north of 30 hours each way if you don’t stop, which they did – that had them feeling centred for the first time in months. And as they drove, Greta Van Fleet were home.

“It’s a very American thing, to take a cross-country road trip that takes a week. It's very romanticised, the idea of dropping everything and just going across the country, from sea to shining sea, or whatever,” says Sam. “We really have no worries out on the road, because although the touring is hard, it's super-addictive.”

It was for them, anyway. For the three years up to the end of 2019, Greta Van Fleet had toured, toured, made a record, toured some more, and then toured a bit more. And all the while, they were exploding. Daily, they would run into so much cool stuff that Josh “doesn’t remember a damn thing” about a lot of it.

By the end of it, they were exhausted. Proper done. Ill health from fatigue had already reared its head earlier in the cycle, forcing the band to can shows. Come that final gig, Greta Van Fleet were jubilant and elated, but knackered.

“We really have no worries out on the road. It’s the absolute best freedom”

Listen to Sam describe what makes touring and travelling so “addictive”

What they found, though, was that when it stopped, and they’d rested, and the album was done, and they should have been back out living irresponsibly and getting looked after and leaving their shit in a different city every day, having not spent any of their adult lives fixed at home, was that they had a question: what do normal people actually do?

“We did it straight out of high school, essentially,” says Sam. “We lived in this giant above-ground submarine with wheels going down the highway, staying at hotels. And then the time came for us to hang our hat for the first time ever, and we’re like, ‘What do we do?’ It’s not so easy. I'm not seasoned in this this way of life. I'm not sure what to do.”

Today, Josh and Sam demonstrate varying degrees of what they call “domesticated”. At 1pm their time, at home in Nashville, where they moved from Michigan on account of it being a music town, Sam is starting his day with a coffee, while a heavy-lidded Josh admits that his good mood is down to “all the weed”. They’ve been filling their time well. Last week, at a thing in Nashville, he got to try on a jacket that once belonged to Elvis (“A pretty good fit,” he notes), while Sam shows us the new bass he was gifted by rock’n’roll legend Duane Eddy on the same day.

Even so, they’ve been sitting on The Battle At Garden’s Gate since last year. It’s an album on which you’d be hard-pressed to find any surprises – their wizardry with natural groove, swinging power and warm, VW camper vibes remains very much their most impressive hand – but it’s been pumped up and buffed out by the experiences of the past few years. The guitar work is even more liquid. The rhythms swing even harder. Josh sounds even more like a titan straight from the ’70s staring out at a baseball stadium full of acolytes. At over an hour’s running time, it’s long, but assuredly so, and the power stays on throughout.

Both talk confidently and boldly about the album, in their own distinctive ways. Josh speaks in a cosmic, hippy-ish fashion about its themes and “psychological heaviness”, Sam a more straightforward manner, calling their no-bullshit attitude in the studio “liberating”.

“There was no pressure. We weren't concerned about the public perception or something,” he says, shrugging off the fact that three million people a month listen to his band on Spotify alone, and their streaming high score on there, for Highway Tune, is over one hundred million plays. “Between ourselves, and me being hard on like, Jake, or Josh being hard on everyone, we have a very serious, self-governing system that has to go through a lot of steps. It has to go through a lot of hands for approval, which I think is a really strong thing, because if one person doesn't think something's worthy, it gets cut.”

“I would say it's heavy, it's heavy psychologically,” is Josh’s description. “It's thematically heavy. There's stuff like Trip The Light Fantastic and Light My Love that are more light-hearted, and I think more fun, but we set out to do something on a bigger scale, something cinematic, and be able to create a platform to be able to communicate through the universe.

“It's like a parallel kind of universe,” he continues. “But it allows us to be able to communicate ideas.”

Josh is wary of opening the box too much on the specifics of these ideas – saying he doesn’t want to cram things into people’s minds, Clockwork Orange-style – but he does elaborate to describe what he’s driving at. Largely, the overarching theme is of war, conflict, between the natural world and that of man, examining the threat to one by advancing the other.

“It's a lot of playing with the human experience,” he says. “There's a lot of beauty and wonder, there's a lot of pain and sorrow. There's a lot of themes of war, which touch a great deal on that sincere sort of grief. And it's sort of amazing that [war] really has been a prevalent theme since the advent of man. There's wars of religion, wars of industry, industries of war – it just keeps going. But it's sort of viewing the Garden’s Gate as what's left of the natural world, and then there's everything that threatens that natural world through this industry. And of course, there’s the impression humans have had in building civilisations, and, of course, tearing things down and building things out.”

Though he doesn’t really think the album is one to help the listener “escape” (and you may very well disagree with him on this), on the song Trip The Light Fantastic Josh goes as far-out as it’s probably possible to get.

“We're just stardust and carbon,” he says. “And we continue to just sort of waltz through time. And nothing is good or bad – it's all just what it is. And that’s the lackadaisical spiritualism of that song. And there is a lot of Eastern philosophy implemented into that track. It’s like a very bizarre psychedelic parade that's just sort of dissolving into the sky.”

“We're just stardust and carbon. We continue to just sort of waltz through time. It’s like a very bizarre psychedelic parade…”

Hear Josh explains the cosmic meaning behind Trip The Light Fantastic

If the album doesn’t reflect so much on Greta Van Fleet’s recent past, they’ve nevertheless had the chance to do just that during downtime. Both Josh and Sam are somewhat frustrated that, though recorded as close to the live experience as possible, they haven’t been able to properly hammer these songs into shape onstage yet. But with this chance to “take a fucking minute”, as Josh puts it, has come a chance to decompress and actually notice that they’ve been on a hell of a ride very, very fast.

The speed of Greta Van Fleet’s ascent is matched only by its height. By the time Anthem Of The Peaceful Army was released and the band appeared on the cover of Kerrang! for the first time in October 2018, people were already dubbing them the new Led Zeppelin. Barely breaking a sweat, this debut LP sold 80,000 copies in a week, hitting the Billboard charts at Number Three (the only things above it were Future & Juice WRLD's massive WRLD ON DRUGS, and Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's A Star Is Born soundtrack, a fixture at the top spot). For some, these four kids who were barely old enough to drink in the bars in which they were playing were the saviours of rock, a trump card to wave at those who said guitar music was dead. This was backed up by the fact that the people coming to see their exponentially big gigs weren’t just older and looking for a new thing that sounded comfortably like the old thing, but music’s new generation were looking for a gloriously unashamed rock band to call their own.

All the while, the band’s feet barely touched. Though, as Josh says, memories are blurry, there are bits and pieces that stand out as high points. Playing in front of 100,000 people with Foo Fighters while “a little tipsy because Dave Grohl came on the bus before the show” being one. Tom Hanks walking into the studio while his wife records next door being another. Getting a phone call from Elton John to ask you to play a party for him a third. Some critics came at the band for sounding like Led Zeppelin (something today they shrug off almost by rote), but that kind of loses its sting when Robert Plant says he digs you.

And then, when they came home and home was the same place two days in a row, the band noticed quite how far they’d gone on their first proper throw.

“It's always hard to get any considerable understanding of it from inside, you're like at the centre of something and it’s swirling around you,” admits Sam. “It's much easier now in retrospect to look at things and see how it was.”

“It was exciting,” says Josh. “It was like being shot out of a cannon into the real world or whatever you want to call it. It was a culture shock for sure. We came from the country. We came from the farm fields and the streams and open roads. Then you’re shot into this world where we're suddenly in a different city every night in different hotel rooms.”

Looking back at his band’s ascension, Josh says that things were often weird and wild, but they were all good, man. “It was never scary,” he shrugs. “Definitely difficult at some times, but never scary.”

“You have the high highs and the low lows. And you chase it,” adds Sam. “We're fucking thrill seekers. We're like those people that go up on 200-foot waves to surf. Then you call your friends back home. ‘What are you up to?’ ‘Well, I'm gonna, you know, maybe get some petrol in the car and head to work at 2pm. How about you?’ ‘Oh, yeah, I'm at the airport.’ It's weird in contrast to see where we lie in society.”

Letting off steam, says Josh, is important, “which comes in various forms that could be destructive”. Exhibit A is the admission that he’s really good at smashing windows. And when that doesn't work, you just have to go further. “The best way to blow off steam is to steal a golf cart, and then drive through the door of a [festival] radio tent, destroy it, and then fuck off. I think that was pretty good.”

But, as Josh would discover, there’s only so much good breaking tension (or glass) will go before you’ll do yourself a mischief. In early 2019, the band were forced to can first an Australian tour, and then their entire UK and Europe run, after the singer contracted a respiratory infection. The doctor gave him a choice: take a rest and save your voice, or do the tour and destroy it.

"I think the exhaustion and probably the drinking way too much thing gets to you after a while," he ponders. “And then I got ill, and then a doctor prescribed me a blood thinner, and so I'm using my voice and bruising it. It just turned out to be a bad situation. And they said, ‘If you want to sing for years to come, you can't do this tour.’ So we rescheduled it and luckily went back and everybody showed up, and it was fantastic. But at that point, we just needed a break. Daniel had his hands all swollen and beat to hell as well.

“It's sort of best to do this thing in chunks and not push yourself so far that we destroy ourselves and everything,” he continues. “That's a good reminder, sort of what would have happened. It's probably best that we just took a moment. It’s your lifeblood, it’s your wellbeing, it’s your ability to communicate your art to people in a certain way. And then not being able to do that as well as you would like is disheartening.”

“Growing up together and being very like-minded people – and at times very difficult people – I think that is great to share a vision”

Sam explains how familial ties help Greta Van Fleet’s mojo

In all this, the triumphs and whatever else, the fraternal closeness of Greta Van Fleet has been a central anchor in their world. When they went on their first tour, Sam was just 17, while Josh and Jake were only a couple of years older, and that was after four years of playing together already. There’s always someone to have a laugh with, just as there’s always someone to have your back.

“Even before the first EP, we were busting our chops and sort of laying groundwork, and we were doing it together,” says Sam. “And pretty much everyone else you know is going out to the movies, and we're in a bar, you know, playing, blasting the roof off.”

“Being so close and being brothers, I think that really does help a great deal,” says Josh. “Just knowing each other so well and being able to communicate non-verbally, that translates into the making, or the performing of music. It's like this musical language is going on, and everybody's communicating. It's just a wonderful flow.”

“It's easy to lose sight of things when people aren't on the same page,” says Sam. “And I think that's also something fundamentally that we don't really think about within the chemistry of the band. Everybody really needs to be with the same vision. And I think that growing up together and being very like-minded people, and at times very difficult people, I think that is great to share that vision.”

“It would have been a little bit more disconnected or troublesome if Greta Van Fleet wasn't a band of brothers,” agrees Josh. “And I think that translates thematically into the music quite a bit as well.”

“And you can be really honest, too,” says Sam. “You can go, ‘I think that’s shit’, and you’re not hurting that person's feelings too badly, because at the end of the day, you’re brothers and they understand where you're coming from. I think that's really quite helpful. And especially on the road, you're not anywhere around the world that you don't feel that you're kind of home.”

For two people who feel so at home on the road, Josh and Sam have had to adjust to actually being at home. Josh says they’ve “made the best of a horrible fucking situation” by reading, painting, making music, making videos, doing livestreams, trying on Elvis’ jackets, but it can only go so far. Even piling in an RV and heading to LA is still just pretending to be on tour. Greta Van Fleet need the road.

“We've had to switch gears and read or paint or whatever,” says Sam. “But then of course, there's that that piece of you that's missing, which is live playing live in front of people. And then touring, that's a whole other piece. We've gotten close to that, the feeling [of playing live]. We've done a few stream things, but that’s kind of an artistic statement of playing live and creating the set and the feeling and how it's filmed and everything. And that's great fun. And that's very close to the idea of touring, but you can't replace it.”

“I don't even think we care about what's normal or not,” adds Josh. “I just think we want to be together – the human kind of thing. We just want to just walk back and hang out. People need people, you know.”

Right now, Greta Van Fleet have no choice but to live in hope that what they have booked will happen as it’s supposed to. But in this, there’s something from The Battle At Garden’s Gate that, through all its talk of war and suffering and the knife being held to the throat of the natural world and humans being insignificant bits of space carbon, that shines bright. There is, after all, always a next bit to the story, whether that’s getting through COVID, getting through on-tour exhaustion, or simply having to get up again tomorrow and try to do better.

“I think that overall, the album really encompasses hope,” he says. “It's kind of the overarching archetype of men, I suppose, and I think that's also the archetype of humanity. No matter what happens, we always move forward, and we’ll end up getting through it.

“After all said and done, there's always hope.”

The Battle At Garden's Gate is out on April 16 via Lava / Republic. Pre-order / pre-save your copy now.

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