Backstage in Nashville, the Kiszka brothers discuss getting Robert Plant's seal of approval, playing guitar as a toddler and recording their debut record.
There’s this moment three minutes and twenty-five seconds into ‘Black Smoke Rising’, the last song on Greta Van Fleet’s double EP ‘From The Fires’, where the music has built with such unstoppable momentum that when singer Josh Kiszka roars: “YEEEAAAHHHHH” it feels as inevitable and powerful as an avalanche, or a tornado. It is rock’n’roll as elemental force. It is the sort of sound which makes this writer leap into the air to attempt an ill-advised scissor kick while his cat eyes him warily. It is very good.
I tell this to Greta Van Fleet when I meet them backstage at Marathon Music Works in Nashville and Josh, a curly-haired, handsome cherub of a man, reassures me by saying he was feeling pretty much the same way when he first let out the aforementioned “YEEEAAAHHHHH”. He was responding instinctively to the music. “The song will, in a fashion, speak to you,” he says. “And you kind of just go with it.”
Kind of just going with it has served Greta Van Fleet pretty well so far. There are three brothers in the band: 22-year-old twins Josh and guitarist Jake Kiszka and 19-year-old bassist-keyboardist Sam Kiszka, plus drummer Danny Wagner, also 19. The four all grew up in the tiny Michigan town of Frankenmuth (population: just 5,131 at the last count) and their obsession with classic rock has led to them forging a sound that’s uncannily reminiscent of early Led Zeppelin. Seriously, it’s uncanny, and you don’t have to take my word for that. In March, Robert Plant told Australia’s Network Ten: “There’s a band in Detroit called Greta Van Fleet: they are Led Zeppelin I. Beautiful little singer, I hate him!” When the interviewer remarked on Josh’s voice, Plant couldn’t resist the sly dig:“He borrowed it from somebody I know very well!”
As Jake correctly points out to his twin brother, a sly dig is pretty much the highest form of praise you can get from someone like Robert Plant. “I think you got the best compliment,” says the guitarist, “Considering he’s an old, grumpy English guy.”
For his part, Josh takes the compliment modestly. “It was kind of strange to watch [the interview], but it was quite flattering. I think he likes the stuff! That’s good, to kinda get that seal of approval. He’s one of the most fantastic singers ever. He pretty much invented the platform for rock’n’roll singers. I think what he was taking from was those Black singers like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. It was just his interpretation, and I think I’ve got this separate interpretation. There are similarities, and I see it, so it was pretty amazing that he mentioned it.”
Jake, meanwhile, has been playing guitar pretty much as long as he can remember. He first started at the age of three. “Our father played guitar, and that’s what I wanted to do,” he says. “I wanted to play like him. Then I started listening to all the records our parents had laying around, listening to the guitars on those tracks and trying to do that with the acoustic.”
He became obsessed not just with Jimmy Page, but also with the other gods of classic rock like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. He would listen to and play their music so much that he began to feel as if he knew what it was like to live inside their heads. “You listen to so much of their material that you get to a point where you know instinctively musically what they might do if they were put in a certain situation,” he says. “That taught me how to assess musical situations for myself.”
The band came together around 2012, when the brothers were all still young teens, and they played their first ever show at a local festival in Frankenmuth. The night before they still hadn’t chosen a name and were deep in debate when their original drummer announced that he had to go and help chop wood for a local matriarch named Gretna Van Fleet. “It was Josh who caught it,” remembers Jake. “He said: ‘That’s the name right there!’ We took the ‘n’ out to make it easier to pronounce, and there we had it.”
Along with the electrifying ‘From The Fires’ EP, the band have also built a fierce live reputation. They play Download next month, followed by their own headline show at London’s Electric Ballroom on June 11. In Nashville, fans were queuing up outside the venue for most of the day in order to get a prime spot to see their new heroes, and were treated to a masterclass in vocal pyrotechnics and sledgehammer riffs. Josh is a naturally charismatic performer, with touches of Freddie Mercury’s high camp mixed in with the classic rock poses.
Nashville has become something of a second home for the band since they came here to Blackbird Studio to start recording their debut record. Known as America’s Music City, Nashville is home to the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and enough honky tonk bars to give you, give you, give you the honky tonk blues. As fans of old school country stars like Gene Autry, Conway Twitty, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams, the band soon fell for the place. “When we come here it feels comforting, because we’re very familiar with it,” says Danny. “It’s on an upswing now, Nashville’s doing well.”
They say the record is almost finished, and the plan is to release it by late summer. “We write really fast,” says Josh. “It’s fun and addictive.”
Where that songwriting road takes them remains to be seen, but one of the most exciting things about Greta Van Fleet is that their talents always seem to be deployed in the service of the song. There’s no showing off allowed. “Sometimes with a lot of those people who have that power in their voice it’s all about their attitude and their vocal prowess,” says Josh. “But I’m mostly interested in creating something that’s melodic. That’s what gets me about music: when melody takes you somewhere and makes you feel something.”
That’s what makes me high kick in front of the cat, I tell him.
“That’s what makes us all high kick in front of the cat,” laughs Sam.
“Yeah, exactly,” agrees Josh. “It’s visceral at that point.”