[Interview] Greta Van Fleet Shed Light On Their Surprise Success And Life On The Road
Some would find it hard to imagine an emerging rock band finding immediate success in the changing musical climate of 2017, but Michigan-based blues rockers Greta Van Fleet seem to have hit that sweet spot. The band consists of brothers Josh, Sam, and Jake Kiszka, as well as lifelong friend Danny Wagner on drums, who, along with bassist Sam, only just recently graduated high school. After their songs "Standing On" and "Highway Tune" were featured in a Chevy commercial and the popular TV show Shameless, respectively, they released their debut four-song EP Black Smoke Rising this past April.
Greta Van Fleet's music is hard rock in the traditional sense, taking clear influence from the likes of Led Zeppelin and other blues rock greats. Lead vocalist Josh's fiery vocals evoke the passion of Robert Plant, backed by an incredibly talented band who, only in their late teens to early twenties, sound as tight and bombastic as many other bands who have been around for years. After supporting The Struts earlier this Spring, Greta Van Fleet has recently embarked on the first major headlining tour of their career. I sat down with Sam and Danny before their sold-out show at The Earl in Atlanta to talk with them a bit about their rising success and life on the road, among other things.
Coming off the heels of the release of your debut EP, Black Smoke Rising, in April, what has the overall experience been like for you guys since it came out?
Sam: It’s been fascinating. It's been crazy.
Danny: I mean just based off some of the statistics, the numbers are rapidly growing. The numbers don't lie! *laughs*
Sam: Yeah, no it's really great because the attention we’re getting is ridiculous, honestly.
Danny: Compared to a lot of contemporary acts coming through in the last couple years.
Sam: But I think we’re starting up something different from I think what most people are used to for the past twenty or thirty years
Danny: Oh that's part of it, definitely.
Sam: But there’s definitely great music out there that I think doesn't get enough attention.
Danny: I’m humbled that we are getting it.
Sam: You just have to find the right stuff. It's great that we’re able to sustain all the sold out shows, so that's great, and overall it's all been moving really fast.
That's crazy. Your first experience and it's just sold out show after sold out show, that must be awesome.
Sam: Yeah, we just got out of high school and then we hit a bunch of festivals and we opened for The Struts for five dates and then Shinedown for two or three dates, too. It’s been wild.
It’s no surprise that you guys are influenced by Led Zeppelin and other British rock greats from the '70s. What are some of the more off-the-wall influences that you’ve incorporated into your music?
Danny: Well, anything contemporary would be considered off-the-wall or an outlier in our catalog.
Sam: I would say some stuff that people don't expect is classic country. Yeah, because we have a lot of songs that it's kind of like our own interpretation of country. Like Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, that kind of thing.
I think I heard a little bit of soul in it, too. Any soul singers, R&B?
Sam: I think that's not really wild, I think that's just where a lot of the sound comes from. You know, like Joe Cocker, Sam, and Dave, that whole soul movement, Wilson Picket. Plus some other weird shit.
Danny: I’m trying to think...how about some Seals and Crofts. You haven't heard as much of it yet, but there's a lot of folk influence in this band, too.
Yeah, I heard one or two of the songs had acoustic on it.
Danny: Yeah a lot of our songs are written first in that way. In sort of a folk set up and then they evolve into something else.
Sam: It’s not like we set out to be a rock and roll band, it’s just that sound that comes out we get together and play.
So it’s like stuff that y'all listen to and just kind of bring it all together and incorporate what you listen to?
Danny: It’s kinda like taking the average of it all. *laughs*
Sam: Pretty much, we all have similar influences, but then when you go out a little more to what we primarily listen to it's totally different.
Have you found that being from Michigan has influenced your music in any way? Like the environment.
Danny: A lot of people when they think of Michigan they think of like Detroit, Flint, but we come from an area that doesn’t really fit in with a lot of the rest of the cities in Michigan, which kinda helps with the sound. We grew up in a very rural, countryside sort of small town. A lot of woods, a lot of grains, a lot of farm fields, a lot of rivers and streams.
Sam: A lot of great places for kids.
Sam: Great place to grow up. We would run all around and just explore.
So you incorporate nature into your music because I've heard some of that a little bit, kind of pastoral?
Danny: Yeah, absolutely.
Sam: Totally, that’s the perfect word for it. Because that's exactly what it would look like. There’s this little town, Frankenmuth, and you go like two or three miles outside of it which are where we both live, and it's very farm. Farm animals, barns.
Sam: Pastoral! It’s beautiful, you're a poet!
Not quite. *laughs*
Sam: What was the question? I feel like I had some more ammunition on that one.
Being from Michigan influence.
Sam: Oh yeah, like the whole Detroit thing, I learned how to play bass in the Motown style. I’m not sure if that is because we’re from Michigan, but that's what I was listening to at the time. I’m like: This stuff just moves so sexy, you know? I was able to notice like as I would say, like a 12-year-old non-musician, that the bass is moving that whole thing. My dad had an old bass laying around, so that's kinda where I learned. So, in that respect, definitely.
In what ways would you say that Greta Van Fleet has evolved since their inception in 2012 till now? How much have you evolved the way you play music or write it?
Sam: Well, we have an interesting timeline because in 2012, when the band started, that's when I started playing bass. At that time it was never really a serious thing.
So it took a few years to get into the groove of it?
Sam: Yeah, the first step was our buddies started asking us to do grad parties and stuff. And we were like “Oh yeah sure we love playing, we love playing for people.” And the next thing you know somebody is interested in managing us, so we’re doing all these local shows around Saginaw, these bars, and stuff, and then we started doing Detroit clubs. So I guess it fell kind of organically. People started catching onto the whole movement.
Danny: It’s also pretty interesting because when you go back to 2012, he and I were 13-years-old. The writing styles and maturity of all it has really evolved because it was in that timeframe of our life where everything's changing. We were hitting high school and things were getting different, you know.
So you’ve grown into it?
Danny: Literally we’ve grown into it. I mean high school wouldn't have been the same without it. It would’ve been so different.
Sam: It would’ve sucked a lot more. (laughs)
What kind of music were y'all playing in those early days?
Sam: A lot of blues. I remember doing some Black Keys numbers, their album Magic Potion. That's a great album.
Danny: We never had any specific genres, and that's the coolest thing about it. That's why those questions are so hard to answer. It’s like asking someone to say something in Spanish, and they know Spanish. Like what do you say?
Sam: I would say taco or nacho libre. *laughs*
Danny: I’d say no. *laughs*
Going back to this being your first big tour, you guys have currently embarked on your first big headlining tour after supporting The Struts and Shinedown. What are some things y'all have learned from your time on those tours to prepare you for this current tour?
Sam: I guess it's kind of what a professional band looks like.
Sam: You need to learn how the inner workings are because no one knows that stuff unless you’re in that industry.
Danny: Can’t learn it from a textbook. To me, it’s how big of a factor organization was in a lot of it. Because if you think about it there’s a lot going on at one time. There’s a lot of people and a lot of factors that can go just way wrong. And showing up at specific times, it just makes everything go a lot smoother and makes it look more professional, that's how you keep moving on.
Looking at your tour itinerary, it seems like you guys are staying busy throughout much of the remaining year. What are some ways y'all like to pass the time between tour stops?
Sam: Well, it's a weird job because we get to go to all these really cool places, but we never get to really get into it. When we can we like to hike, we like to camp, you know just do outdoors things, because so often we’re just stuck in hotel rooms, and inside events.
What's next for Greta Van Fleet going into the new year?
Danny: We’re finishing our headlining tour obviously. In September we head to Europe. We’re going to do a European tour for a couple weeks, head up some major countries over there.
Is that the first time y'all have been to Europe?
Danny: We went to Sweden in June for a Spotify show. The entire month of October we’re gonna be touring. After that, the plan is to get back into the studio because we need more material out there.
Sam: Yeah, we moved some shit around to be able to get that album out faster, so expect it out by the holidays.
Y'all already got stuff written?
Danny: Plenty of material.
Sam: Yeah, we got some good stuff. It’s just kind of arranging what stuff we want to put out there. We’re fortunate in that sense that we had so long just to write because once again it was just like a fun thing. We're in a band, let's write some singles, man!
It was a packed house at The Earl before Greta Van Fleet took the stage. Dressed head-to-toe in '69 Summer of Love clothing, the excited band wasted no time breaking in their first show in Atlanta with a performance of "Talk On the Streets." Restless power chords from guitarist Jake gave the song a punk-like swagger, while frontman Josh's energetic vocal performance brought to mind the onstage ferocity of fellow Michigan-native and rock legend Iggy Pop.
There was a great sense of power in the way these four young guys commanded the small, Earl stage. From the catchy punchiness of "Black Smoke Rising" to the rolling rhythm section of "When the Cold Wind Blows," Greta Van Fleet really knew how to make the magic of rock n roll look easy. Playing his heart out on his Gibson SG, guitarist Jake Kiszka made the swaggering solo of "Edge of Darkness" look effortless.
Bassist Sam took over the keyboard during Black Smoke Rising cut "Flower Power," as well as "You're the One." Both songs were acoustic-heavy numbers that sounded like they would have fit right in perfectly anywhere on Led Zeppelin's second or third album. Following up with an intense cover of blues legend Howlin' Wolf's "Evil," the band really let their ferocious side fly, delivering a slew of guitar riffs, pounding bass and drums, and piercing vocal delivery from Josh.
Jake owned the next two songs, "Mountain of the Sun" and "Watching Over." Slide guitar and huge, arpeggiated riffs dominated the ears of everyone in attendance, showing off his eclectic playing style. "We're gonna need an umbrella for the front row," said Josh, leading the band into an ear-piercingly loud performance of "Lover Leaver Taker Believer." This song was a showcase of Greta Van Fleet at possibly their most energetic. Jake once again impressed the crowd with a fierce guitar solo, as the band capped the song off in a rock-out frenzy.
If the diverse crowd of people both young and old weren't into the show already (they definitely were), "Highway Tune" was the song that brought them to their peak. A driving, bluesy riff combined with the vigorous rhythm section and Josh's blazing vocals really drove in the band's seemingly inherent ability to command an audience. It was truly impressive to see, and naturally after their set ended with the high-spirited closer "Safari Song" and a thrilling drum solo from Danny, the crowd was clamoring for an encore, more than at almost any show I've been to.
The band returned to the stage to finish off with a lengthy jam of "Stompin' All Down," "I'm the One," and Elvis Presley's "That's All Right Mama." It was a strong culmination of an awesome and fun 75-minute set that seemed to pass by in the blink of an eye. Far more than merely a Led Zeppelin tribute act, Greta Van Fleet show a lot of promise for a band their age, with strong songwriting and musicianship that brings influence from multiple different sources into one great package. These guys are old souls at heart, and anyone who claims that rock n roll music is dying would be completely out of their element to pass over this awesome band.
Photos by Sarah Htun for Bullet Music