FOR decades, there has been a gaping Zeppelin-shaped hole in rock and roll.
When Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones called it a day following the death of drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham in 1980, they brought down the curtain on a golden age.
Greta Van Fleet comprises three brothers Kiszka — Josh (vocals), Jake (guitar) and Sam (bass and keyboards) — with Danny Wagner on drumsCredit: ©ALYSSE GAFKJEN 2020
Now Greta Van Fleet are on a mission to “fill the void” by bringing rock back to the front and centre of a music scene dominated by rap, dance, R&B and, dare I say it, insipid singer-songwriters.
Comprising the three brothers Kiszka — Josh (vocals), Jake (guitar) and Sam (bass and keyboards) — with Danny Wagner on drums, they’ve emerged from a small town in Michigan, not far from the Great Lakes, with global domination in their sights.
They’ve got the riffs, the looks, the drive, the hooks . . . and Josh’s extraordinary, high pitched, Plant-like holler.
Rooted in blues and soul, their songs summon the mystical realms previously explored by the creators of Stairway To Heaven.
Greta Van Fleet are on a mission to “fill the void” by bringing rock back to the front and centre of a music scene dominated by rap, dance and R&BCredit: Alysse Gafkjen
Some critics have been harsh on Greta Van Fleet for their obvious influence. But let’s just say Page, Plant and Co received a monumental whipping from Rolling Stone magazine for Led Zeppelin’s debut album. (Didn’t do them much harm, did it?)
A while back, Plant famously joked that Josh’s voice reminded him of “someone I know well — beautiful little singer”.
Enduring tastemaker Elton John is also a big fan but, as you will hear from the frontman, Greta Van Fleet are much more than a Seventies throwback.
Their wildly ambitious hour-long second album The Battle At Garden’s Gate has just, er, gate-crashed the UK Top Ten.
Producer Greg Kurstin (Foo Fighters, Paul McCartney) gives the 12 tracks a contemporary sheen and the result is a fever dream of dazzling interplay and suitably barmy lyrics.
Greta Van Fleet are often compared to rock legends Led Zeppelin, above
To mark the release, Josh is talking to me from his recently adopted home town of Nashville, aka Music City.
“There’s young, creative energy here and it’s very welcoming — not like those music scenes where everybody’s burnt out and rejected,” he says of the Tennessee state capital.
First we need to get Led Zep out of the way — a familiar theme the 25-year-old tackles with gracious good humour.
“Do you get sick of the comparison?” I venture. “If you’re going to have a comparison, Led Zeppelin’s not so bad, quite flattering really,” he replies.
“I mean, you get sick of it but I hear it less and less. I’m sure they’re sick of hearing it too!”
Rooted in blues and soul, their songs summon the mystical realms previously explored by the creators of Stairway To HeavenCredit: AP
Josh continues: “It’s actually a high compliment and those guys were quite nerdy anyway. They had their noses in Tolkien.” (Just listen to Ramble On.)
The main reason Greta Van Fleet are the real deal, not some unforgivable pastiche, is that the brothers have been making music since they were kids.
Twins Josh and Jake and younger brother Sam grew up in quaint Frankenmuth, a town of 5,000 people somewhere between Saginaw and Detroit, known for its German heritage and Bavarian-style architecture.
Despite their very “proper” surroundings, Josh says family life was “rather bohemian”.
He remembers his mother “running around taking clocks off the walls and saying, ‘Time is a construction!’”
Twins Josh and Jake and younger brother Sam grew up in quaint Frankenmuth, a town of 5,000 people somewhere between Saginaw and DetroitCredit: Getty
Their dad’s record collection, inherited from his parents, became their beautifully curated “vinyl playground”.
“We grew up around a lot of good music,” says Josh. “We loved Robert Johnson and Son House and found Taj Mahal so melodic.
“Howlin’ Wolf was one of the big ones for Jake and, of course, there was John Lee Hooker.”
Josh also got into soul and says: “Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett were huge inspirations. Then Aretha Franklin changed everything for me.”
He describes soul queen Aretha’s voice as “astonishing for its emotion and power. It wasn’t just soul, it was rock and roll”.
Josh describes soul queen Aretha’s voice as ‘astonishing for its emotion and power’Credit: Reuters
And it wasn’t just music that inspired their rock-band dreams, as Josh explains: “We were also fuelled by the literature my father had lying around. He had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.”
The boys’ unconventional existence turned towards making music in their garage.
“Jeez, Jake and I would have been 13 or 14,” recalls Josh. “Sam was about 12. I think he had braces at the time.
“I remember being turned on to the piano as a kid. I’d be reaching up to the keys and it probably sounded rubbish.
“Eventually, I got the hang of it and I also learned the drums but I had always been singing.”
A while back, Led Zep’s Robert Plant famously joked that Josh’s voice reminded him of ‘someone I know well — beautiful little singer’Credit: Getty
And what about his like-minded siblings?
“Jake has been playing guitar since he could crawl over the thing,” he says. “Sam came out and played bass and he also got turned on to the keys really fast.”
Josh tried out “a deep, bluesy vocal” but when he heard higher-register singers “like Robert and Aretha”, he thought they were “spectacular”.
He adds: “I went for that style and it came pretty naturally. Sometimes I thought, ‘Oh, that hurts, don’t do that’. I blew my voice out a couple of times.”
Around 2012, the brothers and original drummer Kyle Hauck planned their first public gig in Frankenmuth — and they needed a name.
Josh tried out ‘a deep, bluesy vocal’ but when he heard higher-register singers ‘like Robert (Plant) and Aretha (Franklin)’, he thought they were ‘spectacular’Credit: Getty
What you’re about to read next is the stuff of rock legend.
Josh says: “Kyle was out to lunch with his grandfather who told him, ‘I’m chopping wood for Gretna Van Fleet’.
“Kyle came back and suggested the name and I thought it was real neat. I said, ‘We’ve got to take out the ‘n’ because people are going to say ‘Greta’ anyway’.”
They discovered she was an elderly resident of Frankenmuth who happened to be a retired office manager, a good musician and a pillar of the community.
Josh describes his encounters with Gretna: “She’s so sweet and her husband is so kind and generous. The first time we met her, we were playing a marquee downtown with a big ‘Greta Van Fleet’ sign on it.
They’ve got the riffs, the looks, the drive, the hooks . . . and Josh’s extraordinary, high pitched, Plant-like hollerCredit: Getty
“She kept getting phone calls from people saying, ‘Why is your name on the marquee?’
“She came down to see what the hell was going on and there we were, a bunch of skinny kids playing loud rock and roll.
“We would play for four hours in those days. Gretna sat through about an hour and a half before coming up on stage. She said, ‘Yeah, go ahead and do it’ — which meant we had the green light for our name.”
The breakthrough was their barnstorming Highway Tune, one of the most Zep-like in their repertoire. Today, it draws a wry response from Josh.
“We released it as a first single and it really got people’s attention. It was a rock and roll wake-up call.
Enduring tastemaker Elton John is also a big fan and asked the boys to play with him at his Oscars benefitCredit: Getty Images – Getty
“Of course we’ve grown to resent that f***ing track. It is a real blast to play, though, especially when you nestle it in the set just right.”
Greta Van Fleet’s fast upward trajectory continued with their 2018 debut album Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, which hit No3 in the States.
And, of course, an endorsement from Sir Elton always helps. Josh says: “I’m not quite sure how he was turned on to our music but I remember being in Detroit recording when our manager told us, ‘Elton John would like to talk to you guys tomorrow, so he’ll just give you a call’.
“Next day, the phone rings and a voice goes, ‘Hello boys, it’s Elton’ — followed by silence which felt like a lifetime.
“We were just waiting for who the f*** was going to speak. When we got talking, it turned out he wanted us to play at his Oscars benefit.”
Josh admits how stunned they all felt. “We grew up listening to Elton John and he’s an international treasure.”
As for drummer Danny Wagner, Josh says: ‘He’s the peacemaker, the most reasonable character in the band. The rest of us can be a little unruly’Credit: AP
At the show, they sang Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting with him.
“It was one of those ‘pinch me’ moments,” he adds. “When we got off the stage it was like, ‘Yeah, I can die in peace now’.
“We’ve kept a rapport and he’s been to our London shows. It’s lovely having a rock and roll grandfather figure!”
With other bands of brothers such as Oasis, The Black Crowes and Kings Of Leon, there have been legendary fights. So I’m keen to find out how the Kiszkas fare.
“For the most part we get along,” says Josh. “There are artistic differences and there is conflict in the studio but I think that makes great art.
“On the road, there’s such deep determination and discipline that there isn’t any trouble, except for letting off a bit of steam.”
As for drummer Danny Wagner, Josh says: “He’s the peacemaker, the most reasonable character in the band. The rest of us can be a little unruly.”
Much of Greta Van Fleet’s music is high drama, so maybe it is no surprise they have flamboyant clothes to match, inspired by pop’s greatest showmen.
Much of Greta Van Fleet’s music is high drama, so maybe it is no surprise they have flamboyant clothes to match, inspired by pop’s greatest showmenCredit: Getty
Josh says their bespoke outfits are “most certainly theatrical”, adding: “Elvis and James Brown have a lot to do with it. They looked pretty spectacular.”
Rather than modify off-the-shelf items, the band decided on getting their clothes made from scratch.
“That has been one of the joys of doing this,” admits Josh. “Fashion is really important to rock and roll culture.”
Next he talks about The Battle At Garden’s Gate, happy it is finally out after a strange year in lockdown when they were deprived of audience-building live performance.
“We had to make a screeching stop,” he says. “But this period has been a good reset, a time to reflect and rest.
“Another silver lining has been adding the few extra tracks we wanted on the album.” Josh heaps praise on producer Greg Kurstin. “His name was at the top of our list,” he says. “His knowledge of music history is impressive and he’s a very sweet guy.”
As for the album’s themes . . . this is going to sound pretentious, but here we go: The listener is taken on a cosmic trip through time and space, with the ravages of war, the destruction of the planet and the human condition all looming large on epic efforts such as Age Of Machine and Stardust Chords.
Josh says that beyond the album’s titular gate “lies the Garden of Eden . . . everything that’s left of the natural world”.
The band’s new album, The Battle At Garden’s Gate, is finally out after a strange year in lockdownCredit: Getty
Finally, we return to Greta Van Fleet’s burning ambition for a rock revival.
“This music has had a back seat but we feel we can fill a void,” affirms Josh.
“People are hungry for it and I sense a movement starting to build.”
The Battle At Garden’s Gate is out now
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