“You couldn’t stop us if you tried,” Greta Van Fleet bass player Sam Kiszka says with a laugh. And the young man is undoubtedly right, for at the moment, Greta Van Fleet is one of the hottest up & coming hard rock bands in rock & roll. With the release of their EP, Black Smoke Rising, in April and From The Fires just coming out on November 10th, you could say these guys are, well, unstoppable.
The brothers Kiszka – vocalist Josh, guitarist Jake and bassist Sam – have been playing music since they were kids back in the town of Frankenmuth, Michigan. Drummer Daniel Wagner was a friend who joined the band about a year after it’s formation. “We all have similar taste in music and that helps a lot. But at the same time we have these little differences in what we like and when it comes together it produces this sound,” Wagner has said. And that sound is what has earned them top of the charts positions and over four million YouTube views. Not too shabby for a little ole band thirty minutes down the road from Flint, which spawned a band that went on to great success, Grand Funk Railroad.
Debuting with a swirling, psychedelic blues number called “Highway Tune” that evokes Robert Plant’s Moroccan wails and Deep Purple’s rambling anthems, it was just the shot of adrenalin that rock needs. Black Smoke Rising featured four original songs – “Highway Tune,” “Safari Song,” “Flower Power” and the title track. For From The Fires, they kept the aforementioned tracks, added two more originals (“Edge Of Darkness” and “Talk On The Street”) and two very powerful covers – Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Fairport Convention’s “Meet On The Ledge” – that are not necessarily what you’d expect from guys barely out of puberty. “Our parents had a lot of vinyl laying around so we grew up listening to that,” Josh explained about their musical roots.
For younger brother Sam, he tends to lean towards singer/songwriter harmonies. “I’m not very good at it but I absolutely love hearing it,” he told me during our interview. He is also known for being the multi-instrumentalist of the band, playing everything from bass to guitar to mandolin, drums, keyboards and organ.
While enjoying his first day back home in a “quite cold Michigan,” Sam talked with us about his contributions to Greta Van Fleet, what it means for them being in a recording studio and staying grounded amidst all the sudden success.
You had Black Smoke Rising come out earlier this year. Why do this record the way you did it instead of having these other songs be a separate entity?
Because it’s a connected piece, it’s a continuation. Honestly, how I kind of feel about it is that Black Smoke Rising was showing different angles of our sound. It’s like telling a story but telling the first part and the middle part and then another part of it. Then you fill in the pieces in-between. So I think this is going to be more of a complete body of work and I think it’s going to mean a whole lot more when everything is all together. It really is kind of a continuation. It has the same themes of, I guess, humanity, archetypes of human behavior, and that’s why we chose to put them all together.
What is the oldest track?
Well, “Highway Tune” was the first song we ever wrote as a band. “Safari” is right up there with it; very, very early material. It was about four or five years ago it was written and it’s the same thing with “Flower Power.” Jake just started playing two chords together and, you know, magic happened. I sat down on the organ and started playing the part and then Josh came out and sang the song all the way through, like it was already written. I think it was just floating around in the universe and we snagged it up before anyone else (laughs). Then “Black Smoke Rising,” that was written in the studio when we were working on those other three songs that I just referenced. Then more recent ones that we wrote were “Talk On The Street” and “Edge Of Darkness.” Those were written probably about nine months ago. Then we do the two covers. “A Change Is Gonna Come” is a very timeless song. It has as much meaning as it did fifty years ago.
You said you guys only started writing four years ago. Was that when it clicked that you wanted to be a band?
It’s funny how that happened. I don’t think it was ever like, “Hey, let’s be a band!” It just kind of all fell into place. Jake started bringing over buddies from Jazz Band and Josh would go out and sing. Then eventually I decided to pick up bass and was like, yeah, this is really cool. My dad had an old bass lying around so I picked it up and started messing around with it and next thing you know we’re playing Grad parties cause we’re asked to. Then we moved on to the bar scene, clubs, music festivals. It was awesome because we’ve always just done it for fun. It’s like, this is fun, this is what I want to do. Even if it was just a hobby, I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. But it’s an amazing excuse for a career, for sure, because you get to see all these beautiful places, all these beautiful faces. It’s an amazing thing and you can make a living at the same time (laughs).
That sounds like a dream come true for you
It really is
When you decided to be a band and go out and play, what was going on in the local music scene?
This is the interesting thing: Frankenmuth is a town of about 5000 people, and it’s very interesting because there are a lot of amazing musicians there. However, nothing very substantial has ever came out of Frankenmuth. But when we’re home we love to get buddies over and just play, play, play, so it’s always a great time. So I guess when we were growing up, the stuff that people listened to, the non-musicians, they listened to whatever was playing on pop radio or hip hop radio. I never got along with anybody with my musical tastes until I met Daniel. Well, I’ve known him since about first grade but around sixth grade, we started figuring out that we liked the same kind of music and little did we know that three years later he would become the drummer. When the old drummer had to leave we threw Daniel in because he was already playing with us. He’s a brother.
As far as clubs in Frankenmuth, there’s a local music hall that we used to play. People always took interest in it cause it’s a community thing and we’re part of the community. But Frankenmuth, it’s an old Bavarian town. It’s like, is this place for real? It looks like some mock-up for like nuclear bomb testing houses.
From pictures, it seems like you’d be playing a polka there or something in that town
(laughs) Our grandpa is in the Polka Hall Of Fame for accordion so I guess it’s in our blood.
So that’s what your last name is?
Yeah, it’s Polish and Kiszka in polish also means blood sausage.
I should title my article that
That’ll catch some people’s attention (laughs). I would look at it if it said blood sausage.
And you guys are right down the road from Grand Funk Railroad’s old stomping grounds
Yeah, it’s about a half hour away in Flint. There’s been some great acts out of Michigan. It’s flattering to be compared to them too. Like, Stevie Wonder, holy shit, growing up listening to Stevie Wonder. All of Motown. My favorite bass player is James Jamerson. There’s MC5, Grand Funk, Bob Seger – love all of that.
You played the organ on “Flower Power.” How did that come about?
It was in the garage and it was like an old Wurlitzer and it sounded sweet because it had this horn in it and it was like distorted so it was a really cool sounding thing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work anymore but Jake started playing two chords together with a little melody in there and then I sat down at the organ and started playing like the same kind of thing and it turned into “Flower Power” right there. There’s no other way to describe it. It feels like five seconds went by and then the song was over but it was minutes, you know. It was one of those experiences that you can’t really explain.
Are you playing mandolin on that too?
Actually, on the album, Jake played mandolin on that. I wasn’t there that day.
And you’re supposed to be the multi-instrumentalist who plays everything
(laughs) Well, I do play mandolin but I’m not as good a guitarist as either Jake or Daniel. My strumming hand is not as quick. I’ve got to work on that. I can play guitar but the thing is, I’m not as good as two other guys in the band so I never get to. Except for radio stuff. Then I get to play guitar and I’m like, Yes! (laughs).
I’m going to say “Safari Song.” It’s up in the air what actually happened with it but how I remember it there was a percussion break. We were playing the song and there was a big percussion break with like bongos and congas, very kind of Santana, kind of South American style, really cool stuff. But that part got cut from it. Also, you know the vocal break, where it’s kind of a singing solo, no other instruments; that was never in there until we got in the studio and we did something on accident. And Josh started singing that and we were like, “Holy shit, let’s put that in there!” The bass line completely changed, the drumbeat was changed to just clean it up and make it sound like a good steady rock song. So definitely “Safari.” I’ve got to find the demo that we did for that a few years back because that is way different.
Since you guys were kind of novices in the studio, how much guidance or non-guidance did Al Sutton and Marlon Young give you?
I’m going to have to teleport us to about three years ago where we first stepped foot in Rust Belt Studios. We had two studio experiences before that but the producer wasn’t really like putting in his point of view. And that’s the most important thing a producer can do is that and make it sound good. So when we got in the studio with Al, it was life-changing, you know. Cause you walk into a studio and you no longer are four members, you’re infinite members, you can put as many things as you want. We took about two years to actually learn how to do it – what sounds good, how to make a good recording, which includes so, so much. So by the time we recorded the tracks for the EP that we released, we had a pretty good idea of what we were doing. We were taught well by Al Sutton and Marlon Young.
Are you ready to do even more new music?
Oh yeah, I’d say we’re about halfway done with the album.
How are those songs sounding?
Oh, they’re sounding great! In my humble opinion (laughs). I’m excited to get even more material out to show people like, this is a different angle of Greta Van Fleet, looking at it from this way, you know. We can do this too, we can do that, so I think there are a lot of things that people aren’t going to expect but again there’s a lot of continuity in our work. I’m really excited for people to hear that. And it’s going to be all originals, the album is.
You’ve had millions of plays and views and been on top of the charts; all this great stuff happening to you so quickly. How do you keep that from messing with you when you’re trying to create some new music?
That’s a tough question. There’s a few things and fundamentally I just think we’re Midwestern boys. I don’t think it’s going to go to our heads very easily. I’m just the same old Sam that I’ve always been. I have the same friends. And I think family keeps you grounded. Family is the most important thing. Your friends keep you grounded, they still tell you you’re an idiot (laughs). You need those people in your life. And nature is a big part of it, getting back to the roots of where you came from, the home ground. And I guess largely, not paying attention to what’s going on is a good thing cause then you don’t have that kind of in the back of your head, going, wow, this is taking off! I try not to read a lot of the comments, I try to keep hands off, because it does to a certain degree really does ruin the intention of art when you start thinking about what people want. We’re not going to be the biggest people-pleasers, unfortunately, but we’re just going to make the music that we want to hear still. That’s the reason why we’re doing it and it’s amazing that people are grabbing onto it like they are.
What was the first song that you obsessed over as a kid?
“I’m Looking Through You” by The Beatles on Rubber Soul. That and “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers. I think they’re powerful songs, fun songs, beautifully melodic, so well done, so well recorded and they have so much feeling. That’s the one thing you can’t fake in music. If you want to hear a lack of authenticity, you can flip to your local pop station. It’s interesting how that works but I think that’s one thing that people are responding to from our music. It’s authentic. When we record music, when we write music, we put our hearts into it. There’s no bullshit going on there.
What was the toughest song you ever tried to learn to play?
Oh shit, there were a lot of hard ones (laughs). Honestly, one that I did learn was “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the piano part. It took me like a week of just every day going out in the garage and listening to it. It doesn’t really matter if it’s the exact same thing as long as the feeling is there, right. But that’s one of the greatest songs of all time.
You must really like harmonies
You know what, I do. I’m not very good at it but I absolutely love hearing it. I guess my favorite part about that whole thing is the songwriting. The songwriting is so good. I love the acoustic, the wooden sound, the sonic quality of the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album. It’s like you’re sitting there in your living room and watching these guys play.
I was talking to Chris Hillman last night, who also plays mandolin.
He was in The Byrds and he was in Manassas with Stephen Stills. You know, for Manassas, it was such an array of amazing musicians but the songs I just don’t think were there. But there’s an album that I found that was like Manassas outtakes. It was awesome. Take a look at it but that first album is great, like “Jet Set (Sigh)” and “Johnny’s Garden.” Oh man.
When you hear new music, original music, in your head, what does it tend to lean towards?
I would say more folky, more melodic, I think. It’s a difficult thing to explain but when I wake up in the morning, and I’m not sure if this is like for everybody, but when I wake up in the morning, there’s a song that I’m singing in my head already. Then I want to go listen to it. And every morning it’s a new song and completely random. Like this morning it was a song that we haven’t even written yet. It’s one that’s been floating around forever. It’s not recorded or anything. But I guess when something comes into my head, it’s just a melody, a nice little thing I would imagine on piano.
Will you take that to the guys?
If it’s good enough. If I have a concept for it, you know. When we do get concepts, we try to bring it to the band as primitive as we can, just because I think everybody’s input is very important, as far as writing a song or organizing a song, it is very important.
Are you going back out on the road anymore this year?
We just got back home yesterday. It went from September 29th to yesterday so we’re going to be home for four days here and then we’re going to go off in a cabin in Tennessee and hang out and write a little bit maybe. And then it’s Thanksgiving.
You’re doing it the old-fashioned way, just throwing you all together in one room and seeing what happens.
Yeah, no distractions. It’s a lot better that way. Our grandma lives there and we’ve been going there ever since we were born. There are lots of hills and lots of waterfalls. Super beautiful.
Live photographs by Mary Andrews; bottom portrait by Michael Lavine