Critical derision, like musical trends, is cyclical. In a now-infamous pan of Led Zeppelin’s debut, Rolling Stone slammed guitarist Jimmy Page as a “very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs.” Decades later, RS named Led Zeppelin the 29th-greatest album of all time. Enter Greta Van Fleet, a Michigan-bred hard-rock quartet with a penchant for greasy “Moby Dick” riffs and wailing vocal bombast. Fittingly, even the response to their first record, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, mirrors what the Golden Gods encountered close to 50 years ago: rabid fan devotion coupled with accusations of musical plagiarism (Zeppelin copped from the blues masters, now Greta are swiping second-hand).
But according to Greta Van Fleet singer Josh Kiszka, there are far more serious issues plaguing today’s musical landscape.
“If I’m being blatantly honest talking about pop music to you, it would sound like me shitting all over it — I dislike most of it,” he says. “What we’re lacking [in the culture] is musical honesty, and that’s beyond just the realm of rock & roll alone.”
Since emerging in 2012, Greta Van Fleet’s “rock is back” mindset has helped them climb the charts while touting an outsider’s mentality — an aesthetic of old-school virtuosity and bare-chests-under-vests fashion in an era when Gibson has filed for bankruptcy, Guitar Centers are ghost towns and Rae Sremmurd have crowned themselves the new Beatles.
Guitarist Jake Kiszka — one of three brothers in the band, along with Josh and bassist Sam — is flattered by the endless comparisons to rock giants, even if he finds the “throwback” description a bit lazy and unproductive.
“They’re one of the greatest rock bands of all time,” he says of Led Zeppelin. “And we’re humbled by the reference and honored by the affiliation. It’s a primitive, instinctual thing for people to take one thing and create parallels to better identify with something they don’t initially understand. I find myself being guilty of that as well. Throughout listening to an entire song, I’ll hyper-analyze it and say, ‘It kinda sounds like that and kinda sounds like that,’ and by the end of the song I’ve beaten it to death.”
Josh is more outwardly annoyed by the nostalgia label, though he chooses to remain blissfully ignorant of the reviews and YouTube comment-section debates. “I’ve only been privy to so much of the ugliness, and that’s only because I recoil,” he says. “I just choose to remain uninformed because it’s honestly not important to what we’re doing, you know?”
He’s grateful to have earned the playful verbal equivalent of a big-brother noogie from Robert Plant himself (“There’s a band in Detroit called Greta Van Fleet,” the singer recently told an interviewer. “They are Led Zeppelin I … Beautiful little singer — I hate him!”). “It was just flattering to say the least that we’re even acknowledged by another master,” the frontman says. But he’s eager to highlight the band’s myriad other influences — from modern indie/alternative rock (Fleet Foxes, Kings of Leon, Cage the Elephant) to various strains of “world music” (reflected in the Sufi-inspired singing of lava-lamp–lit psych-rock barnburner “Watching Over”).
The Kiszka brothers were raised on the eclectic record collection lingering in their parents’ dusty basement, but they were never forced into some kind of creepy family-band scenario. Jake started playing guitar around age three, and their musical obsessions escalated exponentially in middle and high school. “We didn’t really hang out much with people after school or on weekends,” he says. “It was difficult to maintain any close friendships because we were always out playing at bars every weekend. Normally you’d hang out with friends or schoolmates, meeting new people. But we were really just playing.”
As their teenage band started to gain traction throughout Michigan, Josh was forced to table his original dream of filmmaking. “I was determined to write and direct films, and I was avid in doing it,” he says, noting that he spent much of school time fiddling with scripts. (He estimates he’s penned over 100, which currently occupy a cabinet in the office at his house.) “I’m a big fan of Kubrick’s work. I’m a big fan of Stone, Tarantino, the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson. When music came along, it frightened me because it threatened the vision of a career I wanted to pursue. This was something important that came out of nowhere for me, and it’s offering me a lot more. I think it’s the right thing to do at this time.”
He was correct. Greta Van Fleet scored their breakout hit in 2017 with the pummeling slide-guitar blues of “Highway Tune” — which appeared on Black Smoke Rising, the first of two EPs the band released that year. Then came the late-night TV slots, the festival gigs, the headlining tours — all building to Anthem of the Peaceful Army, a more eclectic affair that finds the quartet subtly expanding beyond their early style. Sure, there are plenty of horns-up SG riffs (“The Cold Wind,” lead single “When the Curtain Falls”), but the album’s definitive moments flaunt a more progressive edge, like the knotty “Brave New World” (based, lyrically, on one of Josh’s film scripts) and the spooky, mellotron-laced “Age of Man,” which the band demoed during an idyllic mountain cabin retreat in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“We were isolated in the mountains on this perch looking over a range of hills in this rustic cabin right down the right from a graveyard,” Josh says. “If there’s a haunted fucking cabin, this would be the one. It was quite an experience. We set the drums up in this big room in front of a fireplace. We wanted to get out into more of a wilderness setting because that’s where these things become clear. Jake would get nice and drunk and talk to the spirits. I’d step out on the balcony and look down, and he’d just be drunk and talking off into space like nothing existed.”
Greta Van Fleet are open to these kinds of new experiences and influences, fresh forms of channeling the muse. (In fact, they’re on such a roll, they’re already deep into the creative process for their second LP, tentatively due out in 2019.) They’re confident their success isn’t a fluke, that they’re built for the long haul — after all, Jake says, their music is the antithesis of what defines fashionable pop in 2018.
“That’s the thing that destroys a lot of good art now: chasing trends,” the guitarist says. “There’s comfort in knowing that you’ll make that money. The record company will hire writers to make sure they see the a return on their investment because — structurally, scientifically — the song will work. It’s catchy. It’s a mathematical fact that people will perceive it one way or another. That’s why it’s difficult in our world to cut through. When you are doing something truthful, it’s easy for someone to say, ‘That sounds like this band from the Sixties and Seventies. It’s the throwback sound.’ In that response is the answer: That is because music meant something during that period — a lot more than it does now. It was done by the artist for the artist. It was music for the people.
“But rock & roll has become a novelty,” he continues. “It doesn’t have the essence of what it was — its greatness. People say it’s dead now. But it’s a minority. It’s an endangered species. It’s gonna take young guys like us in our generation to see that.”