Greta Van Fleet: Breathing Life Into Rock ‘N’ Roll

Before they played for a crowd that was packed wall-to-wall at the sold out Chameleon Club in Lancaster, PA, I had the chance to sit down with Greta Van Fleet’s Sam Kiszka and Danny Wagner. Sam is the bassist and the younger brother of lead vocalist Josh Kiszka and lead guitarist Jake Kiszka, both of whom I met briefly before the show. Danny joined the three brothers in 2013 as the band’s new drummer. Together, they make Greta Van Fleet – a band that, in this day and age, is like no other. This collective of young, raw talent work magic to bring the seemingly lost stylings of classic rock back to life.

Although they have only released four songs to the world, all on their Black Smoke Rising EP that released this year, their talent is undeniable. Their music digs deep into the roots of rock and strikes hard upon the soul. Greta Van Fleet revamp rock ‘n’ roll for a new generation and they have what it takes to be the next big name in the music industry. They are extremely talented, they have a refreshing sound, and they won’t let their creativity falter. Kiszka and Wagner opened up to me about what life has been like since the release of Black Smoke Rising, how they utilize their artistic freedom, when to expect their debut album, and much more. Check out their single “Highway Tune” below and then read our interview that follows.

You guys are on your first headlining tour and you’ve been playing for festivals, so your crowds are getting bigger. Is it nerve-wracking to play for bigger crowds or to have the pressure of being the headliner?

SAM KISZKA: To a certain point, for big crowds it is kind of nerve wracking when it gets to a really big scale – like when we opened for Shinedown [at] Summerfest in Milwaukee.

DANNY WAGNER: I feel like if it would have gone from a small crowd to a big crowd instantly it would have been way more extreme, but it kind of built up slowly…we were able to take that nervousness and turn it into adrenaline and show energy and I think that’s the key really.

KISZKA: Yeah. I think it’s funny, Ringo Starr says he still like, feels like he’s gonna faint when [he performs]. Cause the Beatles, they were studio musicians for the last half of their careers. But yeah, it was kind of like we all started playing like grad parties for friends like five years ago, I was probably twelve or thirteen years old. And then it worked into like these small bar rooms and then bigger bar rooms and then clubs and like festivals. So, yeah it’s been very gradual. We’ve learned how to be more comfortable in front of crowds.

Has there been one concert experience that has stuck out to you guys? Maybe a favorite venue or city you performed in?

WAGNER: As far as touring goes, Ram’s Head in uh…was that…

KISZKA: Baltimore.

WAGNER: That was in Baltimore, Maryland, yeah. That was cool.

KISZKA: Because they were so accommodating. Like they made us really good food and they gave us like this really nice greenroom and checked on us constantly to make sure we were [alright].

WAGNER: The crowd was phenomenal, too.

KISZKA: The crowd was great. That was a date in, I think, May – we opened for The Struts.

WAGNER: I think for me, it was… [20 Monroe] in Grand Rapids, because that was our first taste of a very professional show setup and everything. That was when we opened for Shinedown for the first time and I remember walking on stage and knowing there were a lot of people out in the audience when you can only see the first few rows. And then we all sit down and we’re about to play our first song and the lights roll back from us onto the crowd and then we all like kind of look at each other and go ‘whoa shit’ [laughs].

KISZKA: But, you know, once we get on stage – like, that was nerve wracking because that was the biggest show by far we’ve played up to that point. That was like February.

WAGNER: Yeah that was February. One of the opening days of the venue.

KISZKA: Yeah, that was like 3,000 people. And when we went out there it didn’t look like that many, but those crowd lights…phew. But you know, we’ve played the set so many times we feel so comfortable and we start rollin’ with it.

What advice would you guys give a band that’s in the same position that your band was in, say, two years ago?

KISZKA: Play. Play, play, play, play. You gotta play with each other – not in a sexual way [laughs]. Because the way we learn to communicate with each other, with our instruments, is playing, you know, just like five hour shows. Like we’d be booked at bar rooms at the local hall in town for like four hours and sometimes we’d play for five. So it was crazy. Then we would load out at like three or four o’clock in the morning as like kids who can’t even drive yet. So, basically, just play and play and don’t let your creativity falter. Don’t second-guess what you’re doing.

Yeah, that’s another thing, you guys are pretty young. You just graduated high school, right? You’re both 18?

WAGNER: Yeah, we did.

KISZKA: Yep.

Is it weird, being the age that you are, to gain this fame all of a sudden?

WAGNER: I don’t know if weird’s the word, but it’s different. Because look at Jake and Josh, who are 21, and this is all hitting them, but they had a few years between high school and now. So it was a different experience kind of going into it all. But we went from having a schedule, you know in school you have at least somewhat of a schedule, to music scheduling. And you’re literally just bouncing back from time zone to time zone and it’s just, it’s overwhelming if you’re not young and…

KISZKA: Agile! [Quickly jumps up from couch].

WAGNER: Yeah, agile [laughs].

KISZKA: [Sits down] But, yeah like, for example, last night we played in…where did we play?

WAGNER: Cleveland, Ohio.

KISZKA: Cleveland! And we drove…

WAGNER: We played…well first of all the show was at 10:45 at night. Our set got done at, like, basically midnight cause we did … a long ass encore. We got done at like 12:30. And we had to load everything. We didn’t even get out of the venue until three o’clock.

KISZKA: We drove straight here through the night. We arrived at nine in the morning.

WAGNER: So we checked into the hotel then, took a few hour-naps in the morning and then we came straight here [to the venue]. People only had one cup of coffee.

KISZKA: But yeah it’s like, when we go home, people are like ‘yeah I’m busting my ass getting up at six every morning’ and it’s kind of like that for us. It’s probably not quite as hard because we really love what we do.

WAGNER: Yeah, they’re not going to be playing music.

KISZKA: Yeah, getting up there and playing a sound check is just so refreshing – just from like not playing for hours.

What’s been the hardest part of getting to where you are today? What’s the biggest step you’ve had to take as a band?

WAGNER: Honestly the persistence, I think, because like he said you just have to play, play, play. You take breaks and it’s, when you back to it, it’s different, whether it’s good or bad. But I think just that consistency because there’s so much going on and you want … the goal is momentum. Once you get momentum, you just, you know, it’s hard to sway from it. You keep building, you keep pushing, and that’s how you grow your image as an artist. So I think just that persistence and staying focused.

KISZKA: And another big thing is like, it’s like an actual job. We have a date this day, we can’t go to our best friend’s birthday party or something. So that’s another hard aspect about it – not being able to do most things that guys our age would do, usually. So, yeah, sacrificing a normal life for rock ‘n’ roll life [laughs].

It’s worth it though, right?

KISZKA: Oh yeah, totally. It’s much more productive.

So, “Highway Tune” is your most popular song and it’s becoming bigger and bigger. Did you expect it to become this popular? Did you think it would have enough momentum to get to where it is now?

KISZKA: No [laughs].

WAGNER: No, because, I mean it’s a great song when you sit back and [listen] with a naked ear, you know, you respect it, but for us it has so much…it has such a different…I don’t know…feeling to it, because – I wasn’t even in the band when they wrote it.

KISZKA: It was like five years ago when we wrote it.

WAGNER: Yeah they wrote it five years ago, it was one of the first songs that was just kind of to get the first song out of the way, it had a format, you know, like verse, chorus, that sort of deal. It has that ‘single’ sort of setup. You know and it still has that guitar riff and that heaviness to it that, that’s why it kind of stuck around for the last five years. So when we were approached by our managers that we needed a single, it kind of made sense that that song would be the first one out.

KISZKA: Cause it’s short, it’s to the point, and it’s…it’s just rock ‘n’ roll. It’s one of those songs [where] you’re driving down the highway, you can’t help but to put down your foot a little bit.

WAGNER: It makes sense that it’s doing well because…I think it’s doing well because it’s a single.

KISZKA: Because there’s an argument that can be made that it’s the least good song on the EP.

Is that what people say?

KISZKA: No.

Oh, that’s just what you guys think. So what song would you say is the best?

KISZKA: I would say ‘Black Smoke Rising,’ just because it’s the most contemporary one that we wrote. We wrote that one in the studio when we were working on the other tracks.

So that’s a newer one?

WAGNER: Yeah, ‘Highway Tune’ was five years ago, ‘Black Smoke’ was like a year [ago], if not less than that. So that’s why it’s kind of cool to have those together on the same EP, cause you get a taste of both.

Do you have any unreleased songs that you feel can reach a similar level of success as ‘Highway Tune?’

KISZKA: I guess we don’t really take that into account, the part where it’s a radio hit, you know, we’re just kind of like…[loud engine revving outside cuts him off]…and some jackass just drove by [laughs]. But yeah, it’s kind of like, the mindset when we’re recording is just making music that we want to hear ourselves. So I guess that resonates well with other people. I’m really excited to get, like, a full-length [album] out.

WAGNER: Which is actually, going back to the advice, I think that’s a very key point in writing – keep writing what you want to hear because if you’re writing for what someone else wants to hear then you’re not doing yourself any favors, you know? What are you getting out of it?

KISZKA: That’s the part where it’s not about the art behind it and then it becomes more of a business strategy. Which, that’s how everything fails, you know, people get too greedy. There’s a bunch of bullshit on pop radio now because they’re sticking to this formula.

You mentioned the full length album. Fans are becoming anxious, they want to hear more music from you guys. Can we expect anything from Greta Van Fleet by the end of this year?

WAGNER: You sure can. Yeah we had some [tour] dates in November, and you know, all the way through up until Christmas touring, but there’s been such a demand [for music] that we’ve put them on the backburner. Yeah we’re just postponing them for now, because there is that demand. So we’re planning on getting in the studio in November and then, hopefully, having it up for presale for the holidays. And then obviously, after the holidays…So you can expect it around Christmas, New Year’s time.

I heard you guys have a lot of creative freedom from your record label. How does this help you guys as a band? I imagine it creates a good dynamic between yourselves and the label.

WAGNER: It’s kind of fortunate because the label – or record labels in general kind of mainly focus on contemporary music so it works out well that we are slightly different, um, because, you know, they have that trust in us. So they kind of give us a lot more freedom. Yeah they kind of know what direction they want to go in, so we’ll supply and help out as much as we can, but we…so you know, it’s very nice and fortunate that it is that way.

KISZKA: Yeah I don’t think they’ve ever once told us what to do artistically. So, that’s definitely the way to go because you hear about all the bands who get screwed when they sign a contract they don’t know, like, what it actually means and then they get stuck…[having] people tell them what to make. And that’s the worst thing you could ever do to an artist – take away their creative freedom.

WAGNER: And as far as figures go, Jason Flom is one of the most incredible CEOs of any record label. You know, he’s one of the coolest guys you’ll ever meet.

So going off the creative freedom, you guys seem to be a lot more focused on the artistic side of music than the business side, which is awesome.

WAGNER: We have other people for that [laughs].

Yeah, exactly [laughs]. So do you guys make any other kind of art? Are you into photography, drawing, painting, film, or anything else?

WAGNER: Josh, the vocalist, is very largely in film. We are into a bunch of different other types of music. We all paint or draw or doodle, you know. We get into that – film, art – any form of art, really, we’ve at least dabbled in.

KISZKA: Yeah I love painting, but, I mean…

WAGNER: It’s hard to paint on the road [laughs].

Yeah I was going to say you guys probably don’t have a lot of free time to do other stuff.

KISZKA: But you have to have those other outlets as an artist, because it becomes very frustrate when you get stuck on one thing. Let’s say you’re like…

WAGNER: Writer’s block. That’s the quickest way to escape from writer’s block.

KISZKA: Yeah, you have to expel that energy on something else.

WAGNER: It’s even as simple as just playing a different type of music or writing a different type of song, you know, for a different genre of music. That’s another easy way to break writer’s block, or – I hate to call it writer’s block. I just, you know – songs should write themselves. I just think it’s just that little dead point where your mind’s – the creative part of your mind’s taking a break.

KISZKA: When you’re not tapped into a creative well.

Where do you guys want to be in five years as a band?

WAGNER: Five years. Well, if we assume an album a year…I would like to, I guess overall have the same effect, but with slightly different types of music. Cause I feel like our, I guess our writing styles are so different I’d like to just branch out in every single direction without overstepping the boundaries…

KISZKA: Yeah, of distastefulness. I wanna…honestly, if I can just make good music that people wanna listen to, and that I wanna listen to, for the next five years, I would be very happy.

Greta Van Fleet’s Black Smoke Rising EP is available here and on all streaming services. Watch the “Highway Tune” music video here. Follow the band on  Instagram and  Twitter.

One Reply to “Greta Van Fleet: Breathing Life Into Rock ‘N’ Roll”

  1. Dear Adam, I read your article from beginning to end and enjoyed immensely. Your new company is going to be a huge success. Kudos.

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