Greta Van Fleet

An interview with Greta Van Fleet bassist and brother Sam Kiszka
by Tommy Rage
February 2019

Greta Van Fleet bassist Sam Kiszka - photo by Emily Sisson

Greta Van Fleet bassist Sam Kiszka
photo by Emily Sisson

Comparisons are often made in the music industry. Bands are compared to other bands, both stylistically and performance wise. In some ways, being compared to a legendary band can be a compliment. In other ways, it can be an insult; depending on what the band is trying to craft from their own creative standpoint. Either way, the similarities can turn a fan off or grab the attention of like-minded music lovers. One band which has certainly gained this praise, along with being compared to previous rock legends, is Greta Van Fleet. Hailing from Frankenmuth Michigan, Greta Van Fleet has garnered a collection of awards including 2019’s Grammy nominations for Best New Artist, Best Rock Song “Black Smoke Rising” and Best Rock Album: From the Fires. Since their formation in 2012, Greta Van Fleet has toured extensively throughout their young career. Brothers Jake Kiszka (guitar), Josh Kiszka (vocals), and Sam Kiszka (bass/organ), along with longtime friend, Daniel Wagner (drums) have showcased their live performances in Wisconsin with sold out-shows at the Sylvee, and 2017 JJO Sonic Boom, as well as an upcoming concert this June at Breese Stevens Field in Madison [06/04/2019].

With two previous EPs, Black Smoke Rising and From the Fires, Greta Van Fleet released their first full length album, Anthem of the Peaceful Army in October 2018. The first single, “When the Curtain Falls” sold over 80,000 initial copies and debuted at number three on the Billboard 200. The diversity of Anthem of the Peaceful Army draws from the band’s love of classic rock, as well as their early blues influences. Sam Kiszka (bass/organ) has shared that his favorite bass player is Motown session bassist James Jamerson. Sam has used these influences to help craft 10 unique tracks that break away from the band’s early British comparisons, all the while reaching new levels with their modern texture.

Anthem of the Peaceful Army combines the talents of all four musicians on songs “The Cold Wind”, “The New Day”, and “Brave New World”, with their tight arrangements and skillful compositions. When asked how they all come together for the song writing process, Sam explains, “The thing is, these guys are just an extension of myself. It’s not like I’m spending time with them [laughter]. It’s like when you take a walk in the park and you are by yourself and in the company of your own mind. Being with my brothers and Daniel, it’s like an extension of my own consciousness.”

With their growing pains behind them and the success of their latest release, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, Greta Van Fleet has found a comfortable song writing process. “It seems that when we are on the road, we have this energy to write and be creative,” explains Sam, “it seems like it’s an advantage really, because when we do get the time, things really get moving and everybody gets a lot of ideas. There isn’t a designated time, it just kind of sneaks up on us, which is really, really cool and really fun.”

“Age Of Man”, “Mountain Of The Sun”, and “Lover, Leaver (Taker, Believer)” carry the classic rock feel while adding a mix of harmonies and blues to create a nostalgic groove. The underlying blues feel isn’t by accident explains Sam. “Blues is where we all get along and where we all agree on a musical sense. We kind of branch out with our genre and style, but we all have our own preferences. I’m glad we found a spot on the album where we could take it down to full-out blues; from our very very beginning. With ‘Lover, Leaver (Taker, Believer)’ that song really embodies rock and roll and I think that it’s maybe not the best song that we’ve written, but it’s a stoned-out track with a full-on rock jam. We just went into the studio and did 2 or 3 takes - just jamming. About the third one we said, ‘Ok, that’s the one, let’s just keep that one,’ and we just put down our instruments and that was it. It was that way pretty much the whole album. There was only one song that wasn’t a full live take. We really wanted to bring the stage into the studio, because that’s what we consider our strongest suit, playing live and interacting with each other.”

This simplicity of both recording songs live and skillful performances came naturally to the band. When they originally recorded their debut EP Black Smoke Rising, Greta Van Fleet recorded over twenty songs, so it’s no surprise that Greta Van Fleet had a lot to draw from for Anthem of the Peaceful Army. Asked if they still have songs waiting for the public, Sam laughs, “Ya. We have a good amount of songs stowed away. But I think that the new stuff we are writing is much better than the older stuff. Honestly, we may just can that older stuff and write all new material.”

Within the collection of songs, “You’re The One”, “Watching Over” and “When The Curtain Falls” allow the band to show both their maturity and their true joy of playing live. Sam shared some of his personal joys of playing Anthem of the Peaceful Army live. “When The Curtain Falls” is one of my favorites because it has a raw-rocking feel and Josh did a great job with the lyrics. And it’s very different from a lot of our other songs. But if I had to pick a favorite, from a composition standpoint and playing live, it would be ‘Watching Over’”.

Playing together since their childhood, all three Kiszka brothers enjoy playing and writing songs. Sam sheds light on the bands approach to song writing. “Someone will come up with a guitar part or a melody or something and we all just jump on it. It’s really cool when everyone gets in on something and someone says, ‘Oh Yeah, let’s do that!’ People come up with different parts. You get sucked into a different universe of what seems like days and days of writing a song, but it’s only been an hour or two [laughter].” Being able to play multiple instruments, Sam explains how he chooses between playing bass guitar or a classic Hammond organ, “It really depends on the feeling of the song. It’s all about what we think the song is all about or where it’s going. Usually a song is a vision of what we see. We kind of relate to that and shape a song. Even without lyrics, that way we can feel what a song should be, and you really have to change your thought process behind performing. When you switch instruments that dramatically, from bass to organ, you go from being behind in the background with a bass, to then shaping the song in the direction it goes, with an organ. It’s a totally different language. As a totally different instrument, some nights it’s weird to be changing the way I’m thinking, but I think it adds a whole new dimension to a show and it’s really fun. I couldn’t imagine playing a Greta Van Fleet set without getting on the keys for a little bit [laughter].”

Looking back at highlights from 2018 and their first full length release Anthem of the Peaceful Army, Greta Van Fleet displayed a dazzling live performance in July, as they made their TV debut on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon performing “When the Curtain Falls”. Sam chuckles as he reflects on the experience. “We were doing the pre-rehearsal for the show and there were 30 trillion lights with all the cameras. It was pretty nerve racking initially. But then we went back to the hotel and just hung out for a while. We went back to NBC, and when it was our time to get on stage, it just felt really peaceful. There wasn’t any nerves, we just had fun. We just went to town and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we have a tight band and having each other. We’ve done this a trillion times and we know that we can get up there and perform. That’s the greatest part about being in a live band, is that anything can go wrong, or it can all go right. Perhaps it was the 3 tequila shots Josh had before we went on [laughter]!”

With all the attention Greta Van Fleet has received, one could assume that the young band has been caught up in the whirlwind of rock-stardom. Instead, each of my encounters with the fellow Midwesterner’s is refreshing. From the pure enjoyment that each member gets out of playing live, to their genuine classic-rock upbringing, Greta Van Fleet has flourished. Their humble roots haven’t let the spotlight go to their head, laughs Sam, “Actually I haven’t been keeping up with that. As an artist, you do something and it’s behind you, and you want to get onto the next thing. When we do something, we do it as a band, and I don’t think people do that enough anymore. There are imperfections in music, and I think that’s what’s beautiful about it, it’s the imperfections. I think the best things in music come from being imperfect or technically incorrect. If you get down to it, it’s the energy and it’s your feelings. I think it’s in those moments, and it’s special to capture that on tape. We are ready for what’s next, and we are looking at album two now.”

We are ready for what’s next too, Greta Van Fleet, we are too.

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