Greta Van Fleet on Taking the Classic Rock 'Torch and Boldly Moving Forward'

ISSUE 24 2018 - DO NOT USE!!! - ISSUE OUT OCT. 18, 2018
Alexandra Gavillet
From left: Josh Kiszka, Danny Wagner, Jake Kiszka and Sam Kiszka of Greta Van Fleet photographed on Oct. 8, 2018 at Big Red Sun in Venice, Calif.

Greta Van Fleet has already mastered classic rock posturing. In early October, singer Josh Kiszka, 22, emerged onstage at the Foo Fighters-curated Cal Jam in San Bernardino, Calif., dressed in flamboyant tie-dye, beads and feathers, waving an arm in the air and letting out a signature wail. His twin, guitarist Jake, leaned back, his hippie-like long hair blowing in the breeze, to share the mic on soulful ballad “You’re the One” off their debut album, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, out Oct. 19.

It’s an increasingly rare sight at festivals these days. Over the past year, the Michigan-bred band has consistently been one of the only rock groups excelling in a hip-hop economy, dotting lineups from Coachella to Austin City Limits and delivering a big, warm sound that echoes Led Zeppelin. Since releasing its breakthrough EP Black Smoke Rising in April 2017, the group, which also consists of younger brother Sam, 19, on bass and keyboards, and drummer Danny Wagner, also 19, has earned praise from classic rock icons including Robert Plant and Elton John. In July, Dave Grohl stopped by the band’s tour bus outside a festival in Quebec City (where the drinking age is 18) with a bottle of Jägermeister and a few words of wisdom.

Greta Van Fleet gets a lot of that kind of attention these days -- not just from the old guard rejoicing at the group’s rise at a time when rock has faded from commercial dominance, but also from a new legion of fans who hear something exciting and fresh in the band. Its intergenerational appeal is rooted in nostalgia for some, and its members play into it, dressing the part right down to the velvet bell-bottoms. But while it has been criticized for too cleanly playing to type, Jake insists Greta Van Fleet is no tribute band and that its mission isn’t to re-create the past.

“It’s to the best of our ability to take that torch and boldly move forward with it. To move forward, you have to [look] backward,” says Josh. Adds Jake, “It’s forcing our generation to look back at these particular lessons, these masterworks of history, and learn what was.”

So far, Greta Van Fleet’s projects have resonated: Black Smoke Rising hit No. 2 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, while follow-up EP From the Fires, which debuted at No. 1 on the Hard Rock Albums chart in November 2017, has earned 100 million on-demand streams since release, according to Nielsen Music. Anthem of the Peaceful Army is a natural progression, a real-time 10-track portrait of a band getting comfortable with its style: Jake’s soloing is far more muscular, and as a lyricist, Josh explores terrain stretching from the metaphysical to the blunt, fueled by his readings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Hunter S. Thompson.

“When most people think of Greta Van Fleet, they think of loud, fast, hard rock’n’roll music, and there’s a lot more than that,” says Sam. “In making the album, we spread out and touched the corners of what Greta Van Fleet is.”

For the band, diving this deep into arena rock’s past is as unlikely as its ascent. All four members hail from a town called Frankenmuth, with a population of roughly 5,000. The soundtrack at the three brothers’ home included Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Son House. Josh says hearing Cream and Jimi Hendrix for the first time while in high school was a defining moment, sending them toward a darker, heavier aesthetic: “There was really something magical in ’67 through ’70 -- that four-year period when [rock’n’roll] was just massive. There was a cultural renaissance going on.”

From that era, they built a facsimile of that blues rock sound, with Josh wailing like Plant. As the band got louder, and Sam’s childhood friend Wagner joined on drums, Josh found himself having to compete to be heard. “I had to find a way to sing over that volume, and that was tricky,” he says. “Lots of blowing my voice out.”

Greta Van Fleet now sees itself not as an outlier but as a forebear of an oncoming wave of rising rock groups like The Struts and Dorothy. “There are thousands of kids right now in their garages and in their basements, and they’re all playing instruments,” says Jake. “They’re all listening to rock’n’roll music from generations past and contemporarily, and they’re going to come out of the woodwork.”

These days, Greta Van Fleet is reaping the benefits of being at the forefront -- its touring unit has grown to include two buses and a semitruck. But the goal for the group, says Sam, is to keep its focus on the possibilities ahead. “In the past 10 years, there have been certain bands that kind of opened up the realm, but we’re probably the first band given an opportunity so enormous, to feel like there’s a large responsibility,” he says. “It turns into something that’s bigger than any individual person.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 20 issue of Billboard.

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