Frankenmuth, Michigan – Michigan’s “Little Bavaria” – is known for its scenic farmland. Crispy chicken dinners. The State’s best indoor water parks. Picturesque wine and chocolate boat cruises. The world’s largest Christmas store.
These days it’s also home to one of the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll acts to come from the heartland, or anywhere, in many a year.
Greta Van Fleet – which took its name from one of the close-knit community’s town elders (link here to hear from Gretna herself) – is a hard rocking quartet whose creative ambitions and achievements reach far beyond the ages of the four band members. On its debut EP Black Smoke Rising, the group deftly straddles the line between timeless and future, sounding at once like many things you’ve heard before and also something you’ve never heard before. The three brothers – twins Josh (vocals) and Jake (guitar) Kiszka, younger brother Sam Kiszka (bass, keyboards) and drummer Danny Wagner – have turned their rich and varied musical background into an arresting mélange of rock ‘n’ roll with flavors of metal, pop, blues and grunge, the result of years of practice, study and familial good times.
“When we were not even born yet my father played us blues music and R&B, soul music – all the good stuff,” says Sam. Dad Kiszka was a musician himself, playing guitar and harmonica. “Our parents had a lot of vinyl laying around,” recalls Josh, so we grew up listening to that and really liked playing with the vinyl albums – putting them on the turntable and speeding them up and slowing them down. But, yeah, I really liked the blues and the soul and the funk – Wilson Pickett is the big one, and Joe Cocker, those kinds of things.
The Kiszka kids furthered their music education during winter ski trips to Michigan’s Yankee Springs, where a plethora of family and friends would gather with instruments. Someone was playing something nearly every minute of the day, and Josh, Jake and Sam soaked it up with relish. “Every year was better than Christmas,” Josh recalls. “In the evenings or during the day, there was always music being made there, everybody getting together and experimenting with sounds, having lots of fun, making music.” For Jake, meanwhile, it was “really awe-inspiring when you see this completely surrealistic environment, to see all these people from all over the place come together, and what brought them together was music. That was mind-blowing.”
It was Jake who turned that inspiration into Greta Van Fleet, drawing the idea from the likes of Cream, the Yardbirds, The Who and other 60s British Invasion favorites. “We liked to see how the English bands had reinterpreted the blues, and we wanted to interpret it again – Y’know, wouldn’t it be interesting if an American band came right back and reinterpreted the reinterpretation that the English did?” the guitarist explains. “I thought there was something there that needed to be created.”
Jake gradually assembled his brothers into a band. Sam was caught up when Jake began jamming at the family home with a drummer friend from school. “It dawned on me that I needed to play bass for them,” Sam says. “Plus,” he joked, “my mom always said I looked like a bass player.” Josh, meanwhile, was studying theater, film and painting at school, with acting giving him an ease on stage, as well as a voice, that made him a no-brainer to be Greta Van Fleet’s frontman. “It wasn’t something I set out to particularly do. But it felt pretty natural,” he says now.
Danny Wagner, a friend of Sam’s since kindergarten, became the last piece of the Greta Van Fleet puzzle, joining a year after the group started, after being a regular at the Kiszka house for jams and rehearsals. “We all have similar taste in music and that helps a lot,” Wagner notes. “But at the same time we have these little differences in what we like, and when it comes together it produces this sound. It’s got that classic kind of vibe but it has a lot of soul, a lot of energy, and that’s a huge part of it.”
You won’t find a better description of the four songs on Greta Van Fleet’s EP, recorded at Rust Belt Studios in suburban Detroit with producers Al Sutton (Kid Rock, Hank Williams Jr.) and Marlon Young from Kid Rock’s Twisted Brown Trucker Band. The introduction runs a gamut from the dusty grind of “Highway Tune” to the sinewy punch of “Safari Song” and the muscular crunch of “Black Smoke Rising.” “Flower Power,” meanwhile, is a trippy sonic tapestry that weaves psychedelic and folk textures into the mix. “No limits, no barriers, no boundaries,” Jake declares. “It was like that when we were growing up, and it’s like that when we’re making our own music.”
Listen closely and you’ll also hear the flavor of a small, tight-knit community seeping into the group’s songs. “I think it has a huge presence in the music,” Josh says. “It’s this romantic, simple, Americana kind of thing, like Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn growing up outside of town in the country.”
The good news is there’s more where these four songs came from. “We’ve been writing since Josh and I were 16 and Sam and Danny were 13,” Jake says. “We have so many songs we’re working on it’s ridiculous. We’re just trying to develop and get better. That’s very important to us.” So is playing live, where Greta Van Fleet has been slaying audiences with an electrifying show that sounds more like a band that’s been around for decades rather than just a few years.
They were signed to Lava Records in March 2017 and a month later the band released their debut studio EP, Black Smoke Rising. Their debut single, “Highway Tune”, topped the Billboard US Mainstream Rock and Active Rock charts in September 2017 for four weeks in a row. Their second EP, From the Fires, containing the four songs from Black Smoke Rising and four new songs, was released on November 10, 2017, alongside a second single, “Safari Song”.
Their debut full-length studio album, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, was released on October 19, 2018, and topped the Billboard Rock Album charts in the first week after its release. The album’s first single, “When the Curtain Falls”, was released ahead of it in July 2018 and became the band’s third number-one single on the US Billboard Mainstream Rock charts. Anthem of the Peaceful Army also debuted atop the Billboard Hard Rock charts and reached the number one spot on the Billboard Top Album Sales charts in the first week after its release.
Greta Van Fleet won the Best Rock Album 2019 Grammy Award for From the Fires.
Who is Greta Van Fleet?