Josh Kiszka was watching an ice cube rise and fall in his drink at 2 a.m. at Hollywood’s Sunset Marquis hotel last year when he came up with the lyrics for a new Greta Van Fleet song. The movements of the ice made him think of a favorite philosopher, the late British theologist Alan Watts, who described human existence as a kind of ebb and flow. “That’s what I saw in the ice cube,” says Kiszka, 24.
“That’s what ‘Ah Sri Rama Jayam Ram’ is about,” he continues, quoting the mantra in “Trip the Light Fantastic,” from the band’s second album, The Battle at Garden’s Gate, due out April 16th. The next single, “Age of the Machine,” is out Friday. “Self-liberation, or this idea of letting go, or transcending. Is there an afterlife? I think I would rather cease to exist. Taking a big sleep or something. Your body goes back to Earth, and there grows a tree, and the tree gives off oxygen. That’s just it: We’re tripping the light fantastic. We’re cosmic.”
Growing up in a small town in Michigan, Kiszka delved into spiritualism while almost everyone else attended the local Catholic church, and swanned around with his grandmother’s camcorder while other kids were hooked to the Internet. The singer formed Greta Van Fleet in 2012 with his twin, Jake, on guitar and their little brother, Sam, on bass, adding drummer Danny Wagner the following year; by 2017, they’d topped rock-radio charts with their single “Highway Tune,” whose rollicking riffs and wild shrieks put them on course to become one of the biggest new rock bands in recent memory. They’ve since headlined Red Rocks, taken home a Grammy Award (for their 2017 EP From the Fires), and weathered countless comparisons to Led Zeppelin.
The twin brothers’ joyful one-upmanship shines through over the phone from their Nashville home, making it easy to imagine them holed up in their old shared room in Frankenmuth (population roughly 5,000), “throwing shit at each other,” as Jake says. When Josh mentions that he carries around a mustard-and-gold notebook full of song lyrics and recollections from the road, Jake counters that its contents resemble the ravings of “someone who escaped from a mental institution.”
Books, from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book to Aldous Huxley’s dystopian visions, litter the floor of their living room — they have yet to get a bookshelf in Nashville. Thematically, those authors are a good indication of The Battle at Garden’s Gate, which picks up where 2018’s Anthem of the Peaceful Army left off with its grand mythology and dire warnings about the state of the world. “There are definitely Biblical references,” Josh says. “Not just in the title, but throughout the entire album…This is a world with the ancient civilizations in it, just like our own parallel universe, really. It’s an analogy. Each song is a theme. A magnification of different cultures and civilizations inside of this world searching for some kind of salvation or enlightenment.”
The brothers say they found their early experiences on the road eye-opening, exposing them to a wider world than the one they came from. “We didn’t grow up with poverty,” Josh says. “We didn’t see people on the side of the street, begging. We didn’t see people trying to get enough money to survive.” Jake recalls an incident in Chile when he witnessed a member of the cleaning crew at a venue stowing partially-eaten food in his coat: “You see something like that … I think things like that have impacted who we are, and certainly who I am.”
On “Tears of Rain,” Josh sings of a burning Earth waiting for relief; on “The Weight of Dreams,” wealth turns out to be fool’s gold; and on “The Heat Above,” the drums of an oncoming war grow closer. “There’s reoccurring themes in my work . . . constantly, there’s war,” the singer says. “Sometimes there’s this idea that it’s for religious reasons, but then there’s industry — the war industry, I suppose. Then there’s this idea of when industry becomes the identity of society. What will become of humanity?”
The band started working on the album in the summer of 2019, meeting with producer Greg Kurstin in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake to record a rare GVF love song, “Light My Love.” Over the rest of the Southern California sessions, at Henson Recording Studios and No Expectations Studio, they ended up with a new sound that takes Greta Van Fleet’s classic-rock worship and turns it up even higher, with scant radio-length songs and one track that stretches out to more than eight minutes of jamming.
“We wanted to do something on the scale of a film score,” Josh says. “We wanted to do that for a long time, but we didn’t think people would be ready.”
He and Jake talk over each other for a moment before Josh concludes: “But being in music long enough, there’s more of a relationship that we have with people. I think that will help them understand this particular album — because it is a very sophisticated album. There is no doubt about it.”