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Greta Van Fleet On Becoming The World's Biggest Garage Band

Tuesday, 14 November 2023 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Neil Krug

It’s no secret that rock ‘n’ roll sounds absolutely dynamite in huge venues. It’s also no secret that all the legendary rock ‘n’ rollers who’ve been gracing such enormodomes for as long as most of us can remember are slowly but surely coming to the end of the road. But if you’re fearing that might lead to an extinction level event for such anthemic music in such atmospheric communal settings, you’d be well advised to holster your grieving process and embrace one of the genre’s most promising, not to mention divisive, young groups.

On the back of their recently released third album ‘Starcatcher’, US retro-rockers Greta Van Fleet have confidently stepped up to headline such exalted venues without breaking a sweat. Having seen years of hard graft rewarded with Billboard-topping albums, desirable support slots to some of the world’s most iconic acts and numerous awards, their ascension to that kind of status was seemingly inevitable. If not without its obstacles.

For a long time after forming in Michigan in 2012, the quartet of twins Josh Kiszka (vocals) and Jake Kiszka (guitar), their young brother Sam (bass) and drummer Danny Wagner were regularly, and somewhat understandably, crucified by both the media and their beloved rock ‘n’ roll community for being Led Zeppelin clones without an original creative thought in their heads.

Yet, thanks to a more cinematic second album (2021’s ‘Battle at Garden’s Gate’) and the ferociously accomplished ‘Starcatcher’, Greta Van Fleet have not only begun to assert their own identity with impressive results, but also doused many of those critical flames. That’s handy because, put plainly, there’s no other band on the scene right now with the traction, reach, and charisma to keep the classic rock flag flying high and handsome in its most natural of environments. 

Prior to Greta Van Fleet headlining arenas across the UK and Ireland — with stops planned in London, Dublin, Manchester and Glasgow — we caught up with the delightfully chatty Sam to hear all about conquering the live scene, how they constantly strive to breathe new life into a beloved vintage form and why he believes rock ‘n’ roll is due for a commercial second coming.  

I always like to start by catching up on what people have been doing lately and with you there’s a very obvious first question. Namely, Greta Van Fleet recently headlining Madison Square Garden. Did you do anything extra special for that occasion?

We just let the environment do the heavy lifting because the buzz in the air and something about New York City is just electric and everybody is really, really wired and amped up. So, the energy was really powerful and it’s one of those legendary venues people we grew up listening to have famously played. Elvis, The Beatles and of course Led Zeppelin live from Madison Square Garden is one of the most iconic fucking concert films ever. It felt like we were following in the path of the people we look up to and it was really special.

You started as a garage band and are now playing in front of tens of thousands of people. What have been the most challenging aspects of stepping up to headline arenas?

We’re still a garage band. We just have a bigger venue now. In the garage it always sounded alright because it had tall ceilings, lots of wood to absorb sound. Stuff sounded really good in the garage when we played really loud. Then we started to get into clubs and it didn’t sound quite as good, because everything is so right ‘in your face’ but it’s very energetic and there’s nothing between us and the audience. In that environment rock ‘n’ roll really flourishes, and that’s kind of where it was invented. 

The first arena we played was opening for Bob Seger in Saginaw, Michigan years and years ago. We were shocked because the arena was so boomy and we got this massive delay. We would hear the music hit the back wall and bounce back at us. We kind of figured it out and got used to it. The one thing I will say is that our music is perfect for that environment. Rock ‘n’ roll feels really good in that room. When we listen to playbacks I’ll be out in an empty arena like, ‘Wow...this is really energetic’ and I can hear the crowd mics and everything so it’s really great. 

As far as challenges go, when you’re playing for more people it takes more out of you. In the moment it’s very much this positive feedback loop where we’re playing and they get the energy and they give the energy and we give the energy so it’s a volley back and forth. After the show you’re buzzing and buzzing and buzzing and then, an hour after that, you’re just kaput. So it’s a lot of people, a lot of energy, a lot going on. Subjecting yourself to that kind of excitement will really do a number on you. And that’s why touring is tough. It’s not just the playing. The playing is not the part we get paid for, it’s the travelling and going from here to there. If we could play every night and not necessarily have to jump on a plane to go there, the job would be a lot easier. But it’s called touring for a reason, right?   

You released ‘Starcatcher’ earlier this year.  How have the new songs from that record been translating live?

‘Starcatcher’ is kind of the response to ‘The Battle at Garden’s Gate’ where, I don’t want to say it’s not intricate, but ‘Starcatcher’ is more direct. It’s an all out rock ‘n’ roll album and more stripped down in a lot of ways. It’s a bit more garage sounding and that was the goal, to step back from the big orchestral pads and very filmic environments. Go back to the raw aggression of rock ‘n’ roll and pay homage to energy. That makes it very easy to translate into a big room, which is why AC/DC are a great arena or stadium band, because their music is very straightforward. It translates. There’s not a bunch of notes going on, it's just right there.

Is that why you chose Dave Cobb to produce? Such an organic way of writing and recording is very much his forte.

Totally. We had trouble finding a producer that could do what we wanted to do, which was record and write at the same time. We had about half the album with the stuff we knew we wanted to do. We wrote parts for some of those songs and also wrote some songs in the studio when Dave was with us. Not only was he able to keep up with what was going on but he offered a lot of ideas and guided us in some ways. He also made it sound fucking awesome. He’s a tried and true nerd for the classic recording techniques and combines those with today’s technology. So I really think that, sonically, ‘Starcatcher’ is the most realised Greta Van Fleet album. We owe a lot to Dave. We definitely had our creative squabbles within the band and he was able to say, ‘OK, if you want this and you want this, then let’s try to compromise here.’     

A few months ago you said you’ve already started on your next record. How far along are you and what ideas do you have in mind to take it in a new direction?

We are conceptually in it right now and it’s gonna be different from a traditional album. I don’t wanna say too much yet because we haven’t hatched out the ideas specifically. It’s gonna be more segmented.

You’ve always worn your love of rock music from the ’70s on your sleeves and have tried to harness that to foster what you’ve described as ‘a new approach to the genre.’ Can you elaborate on that?

The fact the year is 2023 and we’re making the music we’ve made, intrinsically, makes it modern because it’s not like we’re covering old songs or anything. Love those songs, but we want to keep writing and making new stuff that’s inherently modern and represents the time of now. I love how a lot of music has evolved over the years but rock ‘n’ roll, in particular, kind of put a bad taste in my mouth when it got modernised. It was kind of schticky, a strange metamorphosis in which it just re-digested itself. It was too showy and had lots of big make up and stuff. 

So we wanted to take it in a different direction, with more elegant makeup, rhinestones, beautiful outfits that kind of herald to more ancient cultures. Of course Josh has his fucking jumpsuits but the live show is very, hopefully, timeless. We’re trying to do stuff that will always look good. Leaning into the show, we use a lot of real visual effects such as flames. Having that fire is a very visceral experience. Actual explosions. Canned lights. So it feels tangible and classic but utilising technology, like we do with the music, in a more modern way. 

But with the music, Dave is very well studied in the classic recording techniques of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. He’ll take the microphone, the vintage gear, but will then use modern technology. An example is a computer with these frequencies we could never touch back in the day because they were too low. The equipment couldn’t handle it.

We really learned our instruments from the greats too, I learned to play bass from Jack Bruce and John Paul Jones and James Jamerson, but as far as writing goes Jake, Daniel, Josh and maybe even myself have a unique style and that creates Greta Van Fleet. We started with Cream. We started with Led Zeppelin, but it evolved to the point where we are now. I feel Greta Van Fleet really has its own sound and I haven’t got too many of those Led Zeppelin questions in the past couple of years.                  

You’ve progressed a lot since your debut. Looking back, did any of the criticism hold water or was it the same as any young band, who often sound like their influences at the start? 

Yeah, it’s very much that. Looking back it’s like, ‘Wow, that was a headline huh?’ The press really ran with it and I never took offence to the fact people said we sounded like Led Zeppelin. But when we hit the scene it was so polarising, especially with older rock fans. The kids seemed to be into it because we were almost reintroducing a sound they’d never heard. We have a lot of people our age or younger who’ve gotten into Greta Van Fleet and are going back to the blues, to old soul, funk, R&B, all this stuff we grew up with. It’s great we can reintroduce all these great old artists to people who are listening to us because there’s so many young people, our age and younger, who haven’t heard it. 

So it’s kind of a brand new thing and another coming of rock ‘n’ roll. When everybody was saying ‘is rock ‘n’ roll dead?’ I was like ‘I don’t fucking know.’ People don’t listen to it as much any more and there’s not a lot of new stuff coming out that’s really worth a shit so it’s like ‘I don’t know.’ It’s one of those things. It’s a pendulum. It comes and goes but rock ‘n’ roll is timeless because we’re still listening to Free, Bad Company and the Rolling Stones. It’s cyclical and all I know about rock ‘n’ roll is it’s intelligent and makes you feel empowered and inspired.      

In fairness, it’s usually just Gene Simmons saying rock ‘n’ roll is dead, and his barometer for that claim is just because it doesn’t make millions and millions of dollars any more.    

My estimate is, in the next few years, optimistically three to five years, the music industry is gonna switch and say, ‘No, we don’t want pop shit.’ There have been many underground movements. There’s a lot of great music out there but it’s never really popular, never really mainstream. Maybe that’s where we wanna be? Maybe we wanna be under the radar as people who are genuine fans of music. But to complete that thought,  I think the whole industry is gonna turn around and say, ‘We don’t want this artificial stuff. We want really well thought out authentic stuff. That’s what we want to be consuming.’     

When you started your crowds were a lot older but the demographic is getting younger and younger these days. What factors do you attribute that to? 

It came naturally. We never sought out the youthful crowd. Of course we’re youthful and I want people my age to be hearing this stuff and hearing what’s going on. They saw us doing it and went, ‘What is this?’ I’ve never heard this before.’ Because what most people our age are listening to is hip hop and popular music. Whatever the top 40 is. And a lot of people have found an identity in Greta Van Fleet. A lot of young people have found a purpose or a community within Greta Van Fleet.

It’s touching when people say your music saved my life, your music gave me all these friends, your music gave me a community, a home within meeting like minded people. We can talk about the songwriting process and this and that but, at the end of the day, that’s what really counts. That’s another reason we do what we do and it’s the most powerful part about music. It brings people together. It brings young people together with the old people. It brings three generations of family members to a Greta Van Fleet show, which is really cool.

Greta Van Fleet Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue November 14 2023 - LONDON OVO Arena Wembley
Thu November 16 2023 - DUBLIN 3Arena
Sun November 19 2023 - MANCHESTER AO Arena
Mon November 20 2023 - GLASGOW OVO Hydro

Sun November 26 2023 - COPENHAGEN Forum (Denmark)
Tue November 28 2023 - MUNICH Zenith (Germany)
Thu November 30 2023 - BOLOGNA Unipol Arena (Italy)
Sun December 03 2023 - BARCELONA Sant Jordi Club (Spain)
Mon December 04 2023 - MADRID Wizink Center (Spain)
Wed December 06 2023 - LISBON Campo Pequeno (Portugal)

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