Interview + Photos: Greta Van Fleet
Greta Van Fleet is a living, breathing contradiction.
The band is comprised of 21-year-old twins, their 18-year-old brother and 18-year-old best friend, and yet, their music harkens back to a time long before any of them were born. While they hail from Frankenmuth, Michigan, which is the state’s “Little Bavaria” and is known for its scenic farmland and Michigan’s best indoor water parks, it’s likely only a matter of time before the rest of the country catches on. Five months ago, no one had heard of them. Now, thanks to the band’s debut single, “Highway Tune,” Great Van Fleet has embarked on their first tour as a headliner.
After finishing up soundcheck a few hours before their sold-out show at DC9, Greta Van Fleet guitarist Jake Kiszka spoke with me about the band’s growing popularity, their upcoming full-length album and what it’s like to constantly be compared to rock and roll legends.
Is this your first time in D.C.? If so, are you going to have a chance to see the city while you’re here?
Yeah, it is. I really hope so. I mean, we’ve landed here at the airports, but I’ve never been able to actually be on the ground here. I think the monuments would be cool. Yeah, definitely.
Things are really starting to pick up for you guys. You’re headlining your first tour and everything sold out immediately. How does it feel?
It is surrealistic. It’s also pretty humbling. I don’t think that any of us had expected such a direct and effective response right off the bat especially in the United States because of the trade off, which is usually Europeans would come here and we would go over there and trade off. It’s definitely unexpected.
What was your childhood was like growing up in Michigan, with three brothers and a family friend? How did you guys end up in a band?
We grew up in a very creatively free environment to sort of explore, and it wasn’t just music either it was literature, film and things like that. We grew up 10 minutes outside of Frankenmuth, sort of the country area. We were always outside. Either we were outside playing around or we were playing music, trying to shoot a film or whatever it was. It was unconventional, but it was kind of that Americana sort of thing, you know?
When did music become such a big part of your life? When did you first take lessons or realize, “Hey, this is something I really love?”
That’s interesting, none of us have ever taken any lessons. I don’t know, music was always sort of there. There were instruments around and we’d always played them, so I don’t know particularly when anything was serious or the fact that we’d ever envisioned that we would try to be a serious musical act in the music industry. It just kind of happened over a period of time.
Can you tell us a little bit about Gretna Van Fleet? Who is she and how did she get a band named after her?
She’s actually a matriarch of the community, frankly. So, she’s kind of like the town elder and we took that name and we thought it sounded really cool. We had a show the next day and we hadn’t named the band yet, so we named it Greta Van Fleet and it was on the marquee in town, and people kept on calling Gretna, “Are you playing a show at the Fisher Hall?” The venue in town. She’s like, “No.” But eventually she got to go check us out and she saw our three-hour set, you know this live, loud rock ‘n roll music. She sat through an hour and a half of it and then basically gave us her blessing and off we go.
You have Gretna’s seal of approval? That’s got to be a relief because it could have gone the other way, with her saying, “I don’t want this to have anything to do with my name,” and then you’re in a bit of an awkward situation.
But, it’s cool because we get to take a piece of home with us anywhere we go.
Obviously more than a few music fans have made a connection between Greta Van Fleet and the Led Zeppelin. We’re guessing you’ve heard once or twice by now. Is it flattering to be compared to one of the greatest bands in the history of the universe?
Yeah, it’s very flattering. How could that not be? It’s very cool. I think that it’s great that when someone hears something new — something they’re unfamiliar with — the first congnancy of human consciousness is to try to relate it to something else to be able to understand it better. I think that, that’s what goes on with any group, and I think that connection is the coolest thing ever. I wouldn’t have wanted to be compared to anyone else really.
Was Led Zeppelin included in your parents’ vinyl collection?
There was Zeppelin in the vinyl collection, yeah. I didn’t discover them until a little later though, after we’d been listening to a lot of the roots blues and stuff. My dad would do sadistic shit like that. He’d put out all the original blues albums and let us listen to it, but he wouldn’t summon things historically that happened after that until we grew up a little bit, and he’d put in vinyls and we’re like, “Oh, this is new.” So later, in middle school, I found some Zeppelin records and really got into that sort of thing. I liked all the influences that they had, and a lot of the British Invasion influences. I think that we all share a lot of those influences, which is probably why it sounds like that in a way.
Who are your influences? Which two or three bands really impacted you, and made you who you are with a guitar in your hand?
That’s really difficult. For me, as a guitarist, I might say Cream. The Rolling Stones, being such a fan of Keith Richards, that’s one of the large, large ones. And probably The Beatles. That’s a good one.
What do you listen to these days? Who out there, in terms of modern musicians, do you enjoy listening to?
You know, I’ve been listening to Rival Sons recently. I love Mumford and Sons. I went to see them the first time they played in Michigan and they blew me away. Their ability to perform live surpasses any other act. Maybe more contemporary, Black Keys. I’ve actually just recently … A lot of my friends wanted me to listen to Kings of Leon. I’ve never gotten into them, but now I’m trying to listen to more Kings of Leon.
What do you do when you’re not onstage? What do you like to do in your downtime?
If we’re not in the touring van or at the hotel or at the venue, we really like to get out and hike, explore and get into nature. Getting into the bigger cities and stuff, or even the smaller cities, they’re still bigger than where we grew up, so we like to get into nature. Helps keep us grounded.
Are there particular bands you’d like to go on a tour with?
Yeah, we do have certain aspirations to try to open up for certain acts. A lot of the bands I said that I’ve been listening to, we’d love to open for. Just to be able to take it to that audience, the more contemporary side of music, for those audiences and the larger audience. Playing in front of 20,000-30,000 people would, really give us more ability to cross our music over.
You guys have been playing awhile now, but the only music you’ve released so far are the four tracks on the Black Smoke Rising EP. We’ve heard rumors or an upcoming album. Can you shed some light on that subject?
Yeah, hopefully it’ll be out before the holidays, so we can get that into people’s homes. There’s quite a bit of material written already.
What can fans expect on your first full-length album?
I think we want to show more variety. Hopefully we can try to give people a range of material. I think that’s kind of what we’re going for — more of an eclectic approach on it. Of course, it’ll have our sound, but sort of our approach to different things. I think we’re going to do a few covers on it as well.
We might be wrong, but hitting the road for extended travel in close quarters with your brothers could be a recipe for disaster …
It certainly does at sometimes. It certainly does. I think that we all, for some reason, have the ability to kind of level with each other and stay off each other’s backs and give space when it’s needed. Things have come to head a few times where it may turn into a physical altercation, but I think we’re pretty good at avoiding that. And Danny’s a good mediator too, he’s like “Hey boys. Let’s all take a deep breath.”
Since this is your first tour as a headliner, are you trying to pause every now and then and take it all in?
It’s a bit difficult to really try to process it because it’s a bit like being in the eye of the storm, kind of right in the middle of everything happening around you. It’s hard to process everything while in the moment. I’m sure as soon as I get home, I’ll have a couple days to go, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.” Right now, I’m kind of in it. I think we’ve got three weeks, a short break and then another three weeks, I believe.
What happens once this tour is done?
Once the tour is done, it’s really exciting because we actually get to get back in the studio for awhile, and try to start honing in on that album, to finish that up. Then once we get close enough, I think we have a European tour coming.
How do you go about determining which tracks make it onto an album? We’ve got to believe that could be a contentious process?
That’s when it gets neck to neck. There’s a good balance between us, the management and our label so it’s a good balance, with everyone basically saying, “This is what we want to work with.”
How does a band of 20-somethings have a song called “Flower Power” and sound like such a throwback to music from long before you were even born?
I think that stems from the fact that we do have old souls, and that we kind of grew up in that sort of environment. We certainly got lucky with the fact that the music sounds so familiar to past generation and that it can also be influential, or very new, to the younger generation or even our generation. It’s like we get younger people taking it to their parents going, “I think you’re gonna really like this.” And you get the parents listening to it for the first time and taking it to their children and going, “You’re really gonna like this.” So, it’s kind of surreal to look out in the crowd see people from eight to 80. It’s the most beautiful thing ever.
What’s it like when you go back home to Michigan with Gretna and Greta both there?
The community has been quite elated about all of the success. You’re going to the grocery store or going into town, and you always get someone stopping you and saying, “Congratulations.”
How often do you guys get recognized these days?
Pretty often in our hometown.
We’d venture to say within the next year it’s gonna be a lot harder to be incognito in a lot of different cities as well …
We’ve already gotten that quite a bit in like New York, just walking down the street. It’s fun.
Do your parents get to hit the road to see your shows?
Yeah, we always have a ticket for them. It just depends on whether they’re free or not. They like to try to make it but it’s hard for them to get out of Michigan because they’ve got jobs and stuff.
What do they do?
My dad’s a chemical engineer. He works for Dow Chemical, and my mother works locally in town at the Frankenmuth Historical Association, which is kinda like they have a store. And then the Lager Mill which is the beer company in Frankenmuth. I’ve never gotten that question before.
Check out more photos from their show at DC9 show