Music

"As Brothers We Stand": An Interview with Greta Van Fleet

Photo credits: Sachyn Mital

Rising band Greta Van Fleet brought their tour to NYC for two sold-out shows. Guitarist Jake Kiszka spoke about their new EP and the excitement of touring.

One of 2017's most exciting new bands was the four-piece rock group, Greta Van Fleet. The band consists of three brothers, lead singer Josh Kiszka, Jake Kiszka on guitar (Josh and Jake are twins), Sam Kiszka on bass and keys, plus their friend Danny Wagner on drums. Hailing from Frankenmuth, Michigan, not far from Detroit, Greta Van Fleet derived their band name from that of a local octogenarian musician from their hometown. The group has a raw sound that harkens back to Led Zeppelin, the Kinks, and other classic rock, R&B; and blues bands.

Their earnestness and enthusiasm, plus their rocking tunes, have Greta Van Fleet drawing new fans around the world (including the Olsen twins), and have them selling out multiple shows in the U.S. They have been heralded in multiple Ahead of a two night stand at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, guitarist Jake Kiszka sat down with PopMatters to discuss their latest EP, From the Fires (four of the eight songs are also found on their debut EP Black Smoke Rising), and the excitement of touring through new cities and countries.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Photos from their show on December 5th, 2017 follow below.

My understanding is your family had a limited record collection. When you were listening to their albums, did you or your brothers understand that music to be classic rock? What did you make of your parents' collection?

It wasn't something that was you know, previous or contemporary. It was just what we were listening to when we were younger. It didn't seem to us as if it was classic rock, or it was older, traditional blues, folk, and R&B; and stuff. It was just what we had.

It wasn't until later when we'd hear pop, or we'd hear things on the radio that we were unaccustomed to. Then you hear pop music, it's like, "What the hell is this?" Because I don't think it did very much for us.

So the band's sound has been inspired by your family's music collection. And obviously, people see a comparison to Led Zeppelin, myself included, With your guitar sound, were you trying to imitate Led Zeppelin in any way or did you just come about it naturally?

Not really. I mean, Jimmy Page being one of the many influences that I have as a guitarist, was a part of my plan, but it wasn't a direct, or an intention to replicate any of the Led Zeppelin sound with the guitar. I think it's because I listened to a lot of British Invasion, and a lot of that comes in my playing. So it's like Clapton, and Jeff Beck, and Pete Townshend, those guys.

How did the band, specifically the three of you that are brothers, how did you guys decide on what instruments to play? Did you pick up the guitar first, and that's what you wanted to play? Did you play another instrument first?

Yeah. It was, something that was initially appealing. I started playing probably around [age] three. And so it was the first time I picked up a guitar, and my dad would set out his bass and his guitar on the ground, and we'd crawl around on them. And my mom would tell him that he could pick them up, or we're going to break them. He said, "Well, they'll get bored of them eventually, and stop crawling around on them." But I never did. So eventually, I picked it up and started playing with it. That's an instrument that I've been drawn to -- stringed instruments in particular -- my whole life

Josh and I would sing in the car growing up. That was another thing that was sort of initially there. Eventually, he grew into being a good vocalist, and I was more interested in the guitar. We had finally got together, Sam came in, and filled the spot on the bass, and then started playing around with keys. It was kind of a natural.

I know you have a raw, natural sound but do you have any favorite pedals or effects?

I don't use many pedals or effects. It's pretty straightforward. I find that I don't want to lean on any falsities that sort of implicate my playing, or my ability to play. I find that I can actually emulate a lot of pedals just naturally by doing different things, and using different tricks. So I don't play with too many pedals, but I do have a Holy Grail reverb pedal that I use. And a boost pedal. That's about it.

Do you remember the first song you guys recorded? That was "Highway Tune", right?

"Highway Tune" was the very first song we recorded. Yeah.

What is the difference between recording that song, whenever you recorded it, two years ago maybe, to recording something like "Change is Gonna Come" more recently, or another song off the From the Fires EP?

I think it was like two and half years ago; we got with our current producer now, Al Sutton out of Rust Belt Studios. We'd been to some other studios around Detroit, Plymouth Rock Studios, and Metro 37. But it wasn't until we found a producer that we intended on working with that could give us the attentiveness that we needed, and to help us create the sound we wanted in the studio setting.

We're all really live musicians. I think we always will be live musicians, as opposed to studio musicians. But two and a half years of learning and evolving as studio musicians, I think we now retain a lot more insight on how to record, like a recorded song. So a lot of the tunes are more mature, and working together makes it a lot easier. And it's more fun to try new things, and be more creative and expand.

What are the newer songs you've had fun playing on, expanding your sound on?

Those covers were really interesting to do because we'd never attempted to cover anything. So it was kind of a new breed of, I wouldn't say problem, but [a] new breed of approach to some things. It was like, all right, we'll take that challenge, playing around with different parts, and not a simple structure, and to stretch the tones farther than we normally would, and change parts, and try to honor the song, but also at the same time sound like us.

Yeah, so you covered Fairport Convention and Sam Cooke. "Change Is Gonna Come" is your slowest song. Did it feel different recording that?

Yeah, it did. And especially for me, because I do like, right now, more aggressive, faster-paced songs, because people tend to enjoy that sort of energy. But, you can also on the other side of the spectrum be gentle and delicate, and give them that variety.

Did you cover that one specifically, because of our current political times?

I think that its ability to be political, but also flexible and talk about, oppression. Mainly oppression. It was something that, not necessarily politically, but sociologically, fell in with the times and sort of our generation.

That's another song that's kind of like "Black Smoke Rising", where you stand up in the cold. It's something that advocates to our generation, that change is gonna come. So yeah, I think it was a testimony to this time frame.

I want to ask about the Edge of Darkness line. "All my brothers who stand up / for the peace of land". Do you know what meaning or intent Josh [who wrote the lyrics] put into the line?

I guess it's subject to interpretation. But I think the initial idea with that was that, as brothers we stand for the peace of land. And that was for the good of the Earth, and for man. And all those lessons of peace, and love, and unity, that was something that he had said. And it was sort of advocating that peace, love, and unity. As brothers we stand, for the peace of the land. I think that's what he was going for there.

Does it feel more special to hear that lyric, because you are brothers? Three of you are brothers.

Yeah, that was a special thing. And I hadn't thought about it until later. And he could say it onstage, and it gives you a sense of pride. We're doing this for the right reasons, you know. It's really powerful.

Do you have a favorite lyric? Have you done any of the lyric writing with Josh?

A little bit. Some with Josh. Sometimes it seems that he'll need a little push, and it's usually the two of us. Mainly it's him writing the lyrics. But yeah.

A favorite lyric… There is one longer piece of the song. I don't know if you ... It's "Oh, my holy lord, lights my soul on fire. Flames of love and sweet perfume. She's my heart's desire." It's a cool, poetic thing. That's "Love or Leaving". That hasn't been released yet. I thought that was a really cool lyric.

Could you say you have a favorite track on the new EP?

I don't particularly have a favorite, but I can tell you that the intent on those new four songs was to sort of project the range, and influence. So you can hear the soul on the Sam Cooke, and the folk. And the rock, the pure rock and roll on Edge of Darkness. And then the catchy fun on Talk on the Street, sort of element to it.

I read that you played shows in your home area there were like three hours long. You have eight songs officially released. How do you sustain a three-hour show? Is it the fans' energy?

There's quite a bit of original work that we've written in the past. And I think, about 75% of the three-hour set consisted of original material. I would be extending stuff, and just jamming around, and having fun, and going off on tangents, and really just jamming. And then the rest, we put in some covers and stuff.

Do you have any plans for a three-hour show tonight? What are your surprises?

I think we had a surprise of our own. We'll be getting up and doing our hour set, and then, yeah, we may have a surprise. But we also have another surprise. I didn't know that the Olsen twins are coming tonight. That was interesting.

So surprises for the audience, and one for us.

You have two nights here. How does it feel to be selling out shows everywhere?

It's humbling. Because I don't think that any of us had expected this sort of immediate attention, and for it to be received so well so quickly. But yeah, it's humbling to see that every single venue consistently, continues and consistently sells out. It's great.

Do you have any fun touring stories?

It seems to be that everywhere we go, we pick up some sort of item of clothing from the area. And it usually looks like it came from that area. So we did this stint through, the last tour we did down the East Coast, and we have these sweaters and things like that. Different types of jewelry. And we went through like Texas, and Galveston, and Austin, Odessa to Southern California. And I got like bolo ties, and things like that.

So we, by the end of that last tour, by the end of the two months, had sort of a tour outfit. And we put on every item of clothing that we collected along the way. We just looked like a bunch of hilarious jackasses. So that was kind of a thing, that when we got home, we got home and walked into the house with those clothes on. And everyone is wondering what the hell we were wearing.

But you got memories from every city. Did you get cowboy boots?

I tried to get some spurs, but I didn't have any.

Or a big belt buckle?

I did… I actually got this copper horse.

That's cool. Has the touring influenced your music? You're hitting new, larger cities?

I think that the fact that we've become more aware of certain ideas, different ideas, and different types of people from different areas… I guess it's that worldly, or that maturity that changes your perspective on how to write a certain song or something, and what to say.

Your current tour ends this month. Will you start recording a new set of songs after? I read you generally write songs on the fly.

We go home December 21st. We're off for Christmas that week, and then the first week of January, we're in the studio all of January. There were a lot of songs written on tour.

So do you have plans to release a new EP, or a full-length album?

It's going to be our full-length, all original album. And they'll be all new songs.

What else are you looking forward to in 2018?

I think we're really looking forward to next year. We've got a lot of great stuff coming along for that album. I think people will be surprised with what we have in mind. It's going to be cool. And we're looking forward to, because we've sort of gained some sort of credibility now, to moving into bigger venues. We'll be playing some bigger festivals this summer, and more countries. So, we're coming to a town near you.

So, your summer tour is about planned. Any European festivals?

Yeah for the most part. It's pretty, stacking up. Some European festivals, as well.

That'll be awesome. Is there any city you're looking forward to visiting that you haven't been to?

Yes. All of them. Yeah, we're really excited. Especially, we've really wanted to get into Canada, so that's something that we're really excited to be able to do. We've always wanted to go. And then also, we get to go to France, and Germany, and London, England again. So that's, we're really excited for all of it.

I'm sure you've been to Canada, right across the-

No. Never. Never. So, it's going to be an experience.

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