Santiago Canyon College

How Greta Van Fleet finds purity and freedom in music

Outside the Hollywood Palladium sits fans sprawled across the pavement between steel barricades arranged in a snake-like formation. As the rock ’n’ roll roar of Greta Van Fleet’s vocalist Josh Kiszka in soundcheck becomes faintly audible, some fans lunge closer to the venue walls while others suddenly sit up straight with their ears intently focused.

Their anticipatory energy is matched backstage as managers and stage technicians quickly pass along the dark corridors in an attempt to get all the working pieces together. When soundcheck ends, the band’s proximity to the green room is measured by the increasing volume of drummer Danny Wagner tapping his drumsticks and Josh’s laugh.

Guitarist Jake Kiszka, outfitted in cuffed blue jeans and a lighter jean top not fully buttoned, cautiously enters the room lined with road cases displaying wardrobe seeping with sequins, feathers and reminiscences of the 70s (despite all band members being in their early 20s) while joking with their tour manager about the sign on the door reading “Do Not Disturb” and “Interview in Progress.”

Behind him enters bassist Sam Kiszka wearing a cloud blue velvet suit jacket before taking a seat on the couch horizontal to Jake, both dripping with the scent of essential oils.

The night prior they played their first of two sold-out shows in L.A. on the “March of the Peaceful Army” tour. Not to mention they also received a Gold Award marking five hundred thousand copies of their second EP “From the Fires” sold and were just in town recording their second album.

Talking with Jake and Sam it’s clear that fame doesn’t drive them. It’s their musicianship.

Jake Kiszka onstage during the second of Greta Van Fleet's two sold-out shows the Hollywood Palladium (Ashley Ramynke / L.A. Times College Insider)
Jake Kiszka onstage during the second of Greta Van Fleet’s two sold-out shows the Hollywood Palladium (Ashley Ramynke / L.A. Times HS Insider)

With rural Michigan serving as the backdrop of their childhood, brothers Josh, Jake and Sam were raised in a household filled with music and surrounded by nature. Their father is a blues musician that kept records on rotation and had other local musicians over to play, which they became enamored with.

After playing along with them and learning the different nuances and techniques of blues instrumentation over the last two decades, it remains ingrained in them and translates into the band’s recordings and live show.

But not only does the blues play a part in how they construct their music, it also connects them with an audience that resonates with this sound that has been long gone from the mainstream.

Amalgamating their knowledge of the blues with poetic lyricism centralizing on tales of love and the natural world — which lends to remembrance and the lasting impact of the farmlands where they were raised — has helped them form a distinguished rock ’n’ roll sound. And with each note, they continue this seemingly lost art of the blues and rock music that has been drowned out of the mainstream.

This is why what Greta Van Fleet is doing is important. They are creating music that brings back an emphasis on musicianship, roots and the pursuit of purity.

Have childhood influences carried into the writing and production of the new album? 

Jake Kiszka: I think that a lot of our influences are still at play and probably will always be because it’s something that when it’s listened to since you were young it drives into your DNA. What we’re doing now in terms of new music that we’re writing or creating it’s really pushing the envelope of the precipice of what we’ve done before and trying to achieve many new goals. There’s a lot that’s premeditated into what we want to achieve, but then there’s a lot that isn’t. When we release the album that we’re working on now, I think it will give a good representation of where we are musically now in many ways.

Sam Kiszka: So many weeks of trying and trying to premeditate everything. As an artist or musician, I think as an artist just in general, you have to let go and let whatever goes on between the four of us let that do some work [and] let the universe do some work too.

How have the blues influenced you as musicians and a band?

JK: As much musical influence that we have and we had growing up, I think one of the center points of all our influences — at the heart of it I suppose — is blues. It’s something that we all sort of commonly appreciate and that was some of the earliest music we grew up listening to. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not but it was a lot of blues records [playing].

Our father was a blues musician himself on the side as well as a chemist — a blues harp player — and so I think a lot of that stuff was around and that was what we gravitated towards when first learning with an acoustic guitar. Just listening to blues records and trying to play along with that. Our father would bring over blues musicians and I would try to play with them and I’d go and try to continue to learn or rehearse and try to remember what they were playing.

SK: Blues is a very interesting genre, especially right now because it’s kind of gotten to the point where it’s almost an archaic style of music. Like you’ll hear people releasing new blues what have you, and when it came out there was no intention for it to be successful or anything. It never was until the late adaptations in the ‘60s with the Rolling Stones and all the English rockers. It kind of raised the question, because we know blues lives in so many of our musical genres [and] it lives in so much of what we think of as modern music, you kind of have to raise the question, “Is blues dead?” You hear it in everything and it lives on, but has it taken its spot in history? Because that’s what art and music should do.

JK: That’s the beautiful sort of thing about blues or any pure root [dimensional] genre where at the heart of it and the birth of it, it’s now we wonder where like Sam has said it lives in so many other genres. But I think it’s such a natural evolution that the previous generations who created something inspired the progression of the next and that sort of becomes handing sticks and stones so that we can make fire. So it just continues to build in that way.

SK: And you have these young kids and you’ll play them some type of R. L. Burnside song or something and they say, “What’s this garbage?” This garbage is what invented the chord progression that you’re listening to on every other single pop song on the radio stations. That’s a whole different problem.

Sam Kiszka onstage during the first of Greta Van Fleet's two sold-out shows the Hollywood Palladium (Ashley Ramynke / L.A. Times College Insider)
Sam Kiszka onstage during the first of Greta Van Fleet’s two sold-out shows the Hollywood Palladium (Ashley Ramynke / L.A. Times HS Insider)

What is the problem with pop music?

SK: It’s a broken format.

JK: It’s the format nonetheless, so I think that’s at the heart of it.

SK: It’s just an industry [that] is meant to produce money. It’s a monetary generation.

JK: You cannot monetize art, damn it.

SK: Like you have so many paintings and are like, “This painting sold for $550 million dollars.” What’s the point? It’s a painting [that] people should be able to look at and appreciate it and have a clear mind to have a clear thought towards something or something or be able to relate to it. I guess pop music is relatable, I don’t know. It’s simple, there’s nothing special about it.

Why do we listen to music? We listen to music to be intrigued and just like when you sit at a fancy dinner are you going to pay $50 dollars for grilled cheese? Maybe, if it’s something intriguing. That’s kind of the purpose of music to be intrigued [and] to spark some kind of thought. I just go limp when I hear it.

Sam, you told Rolling Stone magazine, “People ignore good music because it takes a little bit extra brainpower to listen to, but it’s so much more rewarding.” Why do you think your music has been able to reach mainstream recognition?

JK: It’s proof that you can do something [with] intent and that you can do something with freedom to create and not with inside any sort of format or structure or walls or confinement. That you’re doing something out of purely your heart can be successful and people can appreciate it. I think that’s when our generation specifically cultivates their own movement of music and art.

When we understood that you just have to be yourself, purely yourself and people will appreciate and respect it because you are who you are. I think there’s a lot of in terms of the pop world too, there’s a falsification to a certain degree. I can feel like I’m being lied to [and] that there’s not as much purity or truth in it. And I don’t like to be lied to.

SK: Isn’t that just rude. Someone looks right into your eyes and tells you a straight lie.

JK: That’s the example of what we can do and are lucky enough to be able to do to provide people music that touches us. I suppose that’s the reason why we write it for ourselves and everybody else and then they appreciate that. But if anything else, I think it’s a good lesson now to us, yourselves and everyone else that you can do something pure and people will respect it and people will come.

What does purity mean to you? 

SK: I think pure means that, especially in what we do, it’s something that goes through the heart and kind of skips some kind of thinking process someway and is able to be translated without being molded in the wrong way or too thought about.

JK: I think that’s the direct link and playing with instruments gives you the sort of ability to whatever is being held in your heart right through the instrument [and] out to the people in a very direct form of communication.

Josh Kiszka onstage during the first of Greta Van Fleet's two sold-out shows the Hollywood Palladium (Ashley Ramynke / L.A. Times College Insider)
Josh Kiszka onstage during the first of Greta Van Fleet’s two sold-out shows the Hollywood Palladium (Ashley Ramynke / L.A. Times HS Insider)

Last night in the audience, there were people on top of each other’s shoulders, dancing and getting lost in the music which made me think of what it would have been like to attend a show or festival in the 1960s or ‘70s. What do you think of these reactions to your live show? 

JK: There’s certainly an element of I want to say energy altogether, youthful energy that’s being brought to the table. But to see people react that way, a very visceral reaction every night it’s a reminder that music has such a powerful ability to connect people and move people. And you see that in many emotionally [and] physically in many ways.

Any parting words? Or anything to keep in mind? 

SK: I think everything in this world is [sharpening] to a new era. I think that’s one thing everybody should keep in mind.

JK: Let’s just keep that in the back of our mind, shall we?

I think the generation right now, especially for us and our generation, there’s a certain change and certain sense of more awareness towards our arts. In terms of our generation, there’s this progression starting to happen and a change starting to happen. You can sort of feel it, especially when you’ve been granted the ability to travel and you talk to these people and see these people onstage. People are excited for what’s coming next.

Referring to the purity element and what we talked about in the music and the freedom — and not the manufactured emotionally stuff — that we’re finding it ourselves to create music that is pure to ourselves and reflects who we are just naturally. I think a lot of musicians, right now, there are probably hundreds of thousands of kids in their garage or in their basement playing rock ‘n’ roll or blues or folk or any evolution of those genres and they’re going to come out of those garages and those basements at some point and be the next step for what happens.