Album review: Greta Van Fleet – Starcatcher
Nature-loving retro rockers Greta Van Fleet take us on a third magical mystery trip on the inspiring Starcatcher…
Just off a busy street – near an even busier highway – in East Nashville, there’s a very quiet road that leads to an industrial park. Two strips of large white buildings, all with docking bays, line said road as the sun beats down on its faded, cracked tarmac. Parked cars, shipping containers, commercial rubbish bins and metal skips fill some of the space in between the rows of buildings, but it still feels vast and there’s plenty of room for cars to drive by. Oddly, there are very few signs on any of the buildings, which means there’s no clue as to what any of them are. In a weird way, then, it almost looks too normal, like this is all a front for some undisclosed government operation where they perform autopsies on alien bodies in underground labs, or perhaps a Breaking Bad-style secret meth lab.
As it happens, there is something special being cooked up inside one of these giant, nondescript buildings, but it’s nothing sinister or extraterrestrial. Rather, it’s where Greta Van Fleet – twins Josh and Jake Kiszka (vocals and guitar, respectively), their younger brother Sam (bass) and drummer Danny Wagner – have been rehearsing for their forthcoming world tour, conjuring up the live version of the universe they’ve created within the songs of their new album, Starcatcher. And while the studio itself isn’t decked out to reflect the record’s aesthetic – unlike the nearby record store, upon which a mural of the artwork is in the middle of being painted, which the band are all visibly excited about – there’s nevertheless an aura surrounding the four guys that certainly matches the otherworldly, anachronistic fantasy setting of their songs. Even talking to them – and Josh in particular, whose accent has a noticeably anglicised lilt – you get the sense they’re from elsewhere, a kind of Tolkien-esque Middle-earth rather than the real one that’s burning up under the intense Tennessee heat.
At the same time, they also come across as truly delightful humans who, despite becoming one of the world's biggest rock bands in recent years, are still having a lot of fun. Not only do the group – who formed in Frankenmuth, Michigan, in 2012, and relocated to Nashville in 2020 – count a GRAMMY and an iHeartRadio award among the gongs they’ve won in their relatively short lifetime, but their 2018 debut album, Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, landed at Number Three on the Billboard charts (and Number 12 in the UK), while its follow-up, 2021’s The Battle At Garden’s Gate, made it to Number Seven in the U.S. and Number Eight in the UK. They also have their fair share of famous fans – from Elton John to Robert Plant. All of which is to say, there have been plenty of eyes on them for a while, and that’s only going to increase with Starcatcher. And yet, as soon as the dictaphone is turned on, they have no bones about joking about things that bands of their stature normally wouldn’t…
“Don’t come on to us!” jokes Sam as soon as we hit record.
“What about the Nazi gold we’re coming onto?” chuckles Josh, and everybody laughs. There’s a lot of joking around over the course of the next hour, as if any guard that should be up for a professional interview is immediately dropped. There are also a lot of surreal digressions as they unexpectedly explore odd avenues of conversation – cosmic pirates, anyone? – but ultimately they come off as four normal young men. Well, four normal but eccentric young men – brothers and best friends – who enjoy blurring the line between reality and fantasy, between who they are in real life and who they are onstage, and who have somehow perfected the art of being all of it at the same time.
And who also love talking over each other’s sentences like excited kids.
“When you walk onstage,” says Jake, “I think you’re the personified version of the stories that you tell, and as soon as we walk off, we’re the storytellers.”
“It would be inappropriate,” butts in Josh, before his twin has barely finished his sentence, “to turn up, as frontman of this group, in my skivvies. Although it would be fun. But that’s the responsibility of the entertainer, whereas, you know, as people behind the proscenium, behind the stage, behind the curtain as artists and writers, it’s a little different. You’re more of a regular human, I guess, if you want to call it that.”
“It’s that dichotomy and duality,” says Danny, “between the process of creating a story and, when you’re onstage, telling it.”
“And it’s the environment, too,” adds Josh. “I would feel really silly if I were sitting here wearing a full-blown jumpsuit.”
“He’s lying!” laughs Sam. “He wouldn’t feel silly. He does it all the time!”
“It’s interesting, though,” says Jake, adding a sudden air of contemplative seriousness to the conversation. “It’s a tradition as old as Shakespeare or even Roman theatre. Everybody’s been dressing up and telling stories onstage for thousands of years, and it’s just part of that tradition.”
The notion of duality that the band have found themselves discussing is particularly apt, given Starcatcher explores another duality – that of fantasy vs. reality, and the contrast between light and darkness. It’s an album that, through the universe it creates – one built upon and expanded from foundations laid down on the themes of The Battle At Garden’s Gate – asks questions about the nature of this universe, and our existence within it. It also noticeably reshapes the band’s sound and sees them evolve from an outfit who (for good reason) couldn’t escape the Led Zeppelin comparisons, into an entity all of their own.
Despite the polarity of the album’s themes, as well as the dichotomy between who the band are onstage compared to when they’re not, Greta Van Fleet have truly found and become themselves with Starcatcher, both on and off record. Indeed, less than a month before this interview, Josh came out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, announcing that he’s been in “a loving same-sex relationship” for eight years. It’s a stipulation of the interview that no questions are asked about that, as Josh feels he said everything in his initial statement that needs to be said, but the flamboyance of both the band’s stage presence and their ‘normal’ attire (which is still relatively extravagant) certainly carries more weight and importance with it since the announcement – especially in a state like Tennessee, whose governor, Bill Lee, signed a bill banning gender-affirming healthcare for transgender minors and a new law preventing public performances of drag acts.
Although the band’s sound has shifted with this record, their sartorial flamboyance still harkens back to the likes of rock gods like Queen and Led Zeppelin, and is the ultimate, unbridled expression of self. It’s not something many rock bands these days do to such a degree, but Greta Van Fleet aren’t afraid to make the aesthetic their own and carry it proudly forward into the 21st century. Of course, in the most immediate terms, the stage costumes are merely an extension of the music and the universe it creates. In fact, it’s all very much inseparable, and designed to come together full force whenever the band take to the stage, so that they can give back to the crowds who have given them so much over the past decade or so.
“We like to entertain ourselves by being able to create various sets that inevitably change from night to night,” says Josh, “so that the crowd eventually find themselves in an entirely different place by the end of a tour. The intention, I think, is to communicate an idea, or to offer intriguing ideas that might challenge people, and to celebrate, and to be present, and to heal. And to entertain. That’s a great deal of it, too, because there’s a little escapist element – when you step into a show like that you want to be taken away. When our audience comes to a show, they’re really ready to cheer because they trust you. They’re really ready to allow you to move them or to take them somewhere.”
"Every night it’s a different thing," says Sam more succinctly, "but we always blow shit up."
“Yes!” booms Josh. “For those of you who have not seen Greta Van Fleet or heard us, you’ll be walking out of here with two thoughts: ‘Wow, those guys really like dressing to the left,’ and, ‘Wow, those guys really like blowing shit up.’ And we do! It feels good. It’s really helped me deal with all of this unresolved childhood trauma.”
He’s joking. Or is he? Either way, his statement raises a profound point about Greta Van Fleet. A few, actually. Firstly, that they’re kind of like the geeky kid in your class that wasn’t at all fashionable, but who would, years later, become one of the coolest people who ever went your school. Secondly, that as fun and entertaining as their music is – especially live, with all the outlandish costumes and blowing things up – there are also deeply serious, emotional and philosophical aspects to it. And thirdly, even though the band have done incredibly well and found success beyond most people’s wildest dreams, they still don’t necessarily have the answers to, well, anything. In fact, Greta Van Fleet – especially on Starcatcher – are merely asking questions. Their music is part of the process to solving problems, rather than the solutions themselves. After all, as the album title suggests, this is much bigger than them. Besides, there aren’t any definitive answers.
“The questions we’re asking,” says Jake, “are pretty open-ended, and the answers are different for every individual. As human beings, we think we have a solution for every single problem, but sometimes there are questions that just don’t have answers. Sometimes a question can’t have an answer, or an answer cannot exist, because there is no answer to that question. But the idea – and this is what we’re kind of doing musically, and I think what Josh does lyrically – is that sometimes you can’t have a solution, or maybe you can’t find an answer because you don’t have a question to ask in the first place.”
“I remember JD Salinger,” adds Josh (of course he references the Catcher In The Rye author), “talked about how people kept coming to him and asking, ‘What’s the answer? What does this mean?’ and he’s like, ‘It’s just a fucking question. I don’t have the answer. I’m just as frustrated as you are. That’s why I wrote it.’”
“And even when we are finished with a song,” says Jake, “there are four different perspectives on what that song means before anyone else ever hears it, four different ideas of what the story is in our minds. But that’s also the beautiful thing about it.”
Outside, the sun continues to beat down, scorching the record store's mural, which after our time spent together now acts as a colourful sign that even if they don’t know the answers, Greta Van Fleet are certainly asking the right questions. Their songs – and even their demeanours – may often make the group feel like they’re from a distant, ancient world, but perhaps they’re actually just in tune with the nature of humanity. After all, our lives are unfolding underneath a sea of stars that technically exist in the past. Who knows what answers they contain?
Starcatcher is out now via Lava/Republic/EMI Records
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