How Greta Van Fleet Are Dragging Retro Rock’N’Roll Into The Future

Michigan four-piece Greta Van Fleet on being mobbed, performing with Elton John and those comparisons to Led Zeppelin...

How Greta Van Fleet Are Dragging Retro Rock’N’Roll Into The Future

Greta Van Fleet are on the cover of this week's Kerrang!. To whet your appetite, here's a feature from earlier this year, when Tom Shepherd caught up with the band in Detroit.

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 this state. More stupefying still is that these young rockers are yet to release a full-length record, their back catalogue currently made up of two EPs, totalling 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 pretty large chords in the Midwest and beyond, while the band believe they have the antidote for the mainstream’s apathy towards rock music.

The four young men at the eye of this storm grew up together about an hour and a half’s drive north from where they currently sit, in the rural Michigan town Frankenmuth. Twenty-two-year-old vocalist Josh is twin brother to Jake, while their 19-year-old brother Sam plays 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 venue The Fillmore, located downtown. It’s an important venue to them – one they would travel to as kids 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 local influences.

“People always presume that we listen to rock’n’roll all the time, but it’s just not really true,” says Josh in his wood-smoked voice. “There’s so much great music that’s not rock’n’roll.”

The four boys’ musical educations 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 opened their eyes to music. The boys would rummage through their folks’ vinyl collection, listening to whatever they could find – blues, soul, folk, jazz, R&B, while their father was a keen musician himself. “He was playing 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 the 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 kind of when we had the professional ideals on our shoulders.”

Greta Van Fleet, live at The Fillmore Detroit

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 elements of blues, psychedelia and folk woven throughout. When K! attends the band’s third and final night at The Fillmore the following night, it’s the power and precision of the performance that stands out most, with Josh’s thunderbolt vocals sending a heaving room into silence. It’s a sound that gets the band constantly likened to one of rock’s biggest elders…

“Oh, you mean like Led Zeppelin?” answers Josh with a sarcastic smirk, when asked about being compared to classic rock acts. “Why, are there other comparisons? Well, there are worse things that could have happened. Led Zeppelin are… they’re pretty good.”

His brother Jake offers some diplomacy: “That was one of those bands that were able to be a factor of evolution in that genre of music. They’re a brilliant band, and I think we’re all honored, 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. After divulging that they’ve recently been in a Nashville studio to record their debut full-length, they express a desire to carve out a sound of their own, one that captures the imagination not just of old-school rockheads, but a new generation.

“We’re just creating music that’s true and honorable 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 of some of the older stuff, but everything is. You know? So hopefully it’s just moving it forward into the next decade or generation.”

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 that doesn’t belong there. Just because it’s weird. Music is supposed to be unique. And I think that’s what we’re at a loss of.”

One thing that you realise very quickly 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 seem to slow down during our time together is when all four are silently leafing through the used vinyl collections inside the record store used for our photoshoot.

It’s why you believe that Greta Van Fleet are in this for the music first and foremost. And there are other signs – ask the group what it was like to play Elton John’s Academy Awards party earlier this year, about which celebrities they spotted lining the halls, and they’ll tell you they’re not great with famous faces, but instead will describe playing Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting up onstage with Elton for you. “We left after the show thinking, ‘Well, I can die in peace now,’” says Josh. “After that, it’s like you’d have to bring Paul McCartney in a clown outfit or something.”

A similar act of music nerdery occurs later on, when the group are asked what the big rockstar moment in their career so far has been. “Opening for Bob Seger,” comes the immediate reply from Jake.

Despite these humble attitudes, the group do confess to some hefty aspirations – headlining Coachella festival in the U.S., and Download festival in the UK, as two. They’re also not shy when it comes to pinpointing when and why 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 is. Everybody thinks they want to sleep with multiple women, drink ridiculous amounts and just party your whole life, but I think people lost sight of what rock’n’roll is.”

It’s a bold assertion of a young man drinking champagne in the midday sun, but whatever their thoughts on the follies of rock bands of the past, what’s for certain, is that Greta Van Fleet have absolute faith in their own ability to bring rock’n’roll back to the masses.

“There’s a genuine element, there’s a truth to what we’re doing,” says Josh. “We’re not manufacturing this, because you can’t manufacture this. I think people appreciate that because now there’s so much manufactured music. You can’t manufacture emotion.”

“For a lot of our generation, people our age, this is a new sound,” says Sam with a grin. “It’s absolutely brand new. I think it’s a new wave. I think this is what the future is. I think this is the future of music. I think rock’n’roll is on its way back, for at least a decade or so.”

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…

Words: Tom Shepherd
Photo: Gobinder Jhitta

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