There was a time (say, 40 or so years ago) when Greta Van Fleet's brand of high-octane, soul- and R&B-influenced riff rock could be heard just about everywhere. These days, however, it's so rare as to sound almost revolutionary. And the fact that the musicians playing it in this case top out in age at just 21 years old, with two of them still teenagers (and three of them brothers), only adds to Greta Van Fleet's unique vibe.
Since coming onto the scene earlier this year with their debut four-song EP, Black Smoke Rising, the band has garnered comparisons to everyone from Led Zeppelin to ... well, mostly Led Zeppelin. But whereas most acts that pick up on the Zep mantle tend to lean hard on that band's heavy stomp and vocal and instrumental histrionics, Greta picks out other nuances as well — the British traditional folk influences, the churchy, organ-warmed balladry, the Delta blues nods.
You can hear those sonic elements in the songs on Black Smoke Rising (in particular on current single "Highway Tune," punctuated by singer Josh Kiszka's Robert Plant–like howls), and even more so on the new From the Fires, a "double EP" that combines the four tracks from Greta's initial offering with four new cuts, including powerhouse covers of Fairport Convention's "Meet On the Ledge" and Sam Cooke's classic soul ballad, "A Change is Gonna Come."
If this all sounds a bit out of step with the times, 21-year-old Josh Kiszka would tend to agree. "Yeah, we're the minority at this point," he says of his band's sound. "But that's important, I think, because there's more significant attention that one pays to the voice of a minority."
And indeed, plenty of people have been paying attention to Greta Van Fleet, who, in addition to just finishing up a sold-out run of U.S. club dates, have also garnered praise from, Kiszka says, rock legends like Nikki Sixx, Alice Cooper and the Sex Pistols' Steve Jones. "We've kind of had to be rational and ground ourselves, because it moves so quickly," he says of the band's success. "It doesn't seem to have created too much of a situation yet. But you just try to remain, you know, with it."
The roots of Greta Van Fleet stretch back to the small town of Frankenmuth, Michigan, where Kiszka and his brothers Jake (guitar, also 21) and Sam (bass, 18) were weaned on a steady diet of classic music. "We were mainly listening to a lot of blues growing up because our father was a deep-rooted blues musician," Kiszka says. "It was the traditional stuff, going back to Robert Johnson, and then there was also soul, like Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett, Joe Cocker, things like that. And even folk like Gordon Lightfoot or John Denver, Joni Mitchell and all of that scene. Bob Dylan. A lot of roots music, really." In fact, he adds, "We really didn't know what rock & roll music was until we were in, like, middle school. We would start to hear classic rock stuff and we were going, 'Oh! I get it!'"
But even then, he continues, they were still completely out of step with their peers, who were all listening to more current music. "But we felt it wasn't substantial enough, to be blatantly honest," Kiszka says. "It was just kinda silly, hooky, generic, manufactured…shit, you know?"
According to the singer, the brothers first started playing together around 2012, when he and Jake were 16. "It initially started with Jake and a friend of ours in high school who was with us for about a year. And then I was the next to come out and start singing in the garage, and then Sam would come out to the garage and start playing bass." He laughs. "Or, learning how to play bass. He didn't have any idea how to play anything."
Later on, the brothers' friend, Danny Wagner, also 18, joined on drums. At one point early on, the young band had a gig scheduled at the annual Frankenmuth Auto Fest and were still without a moniker. And so they adopted and adapted the name of a local Frankenmuth elderly woman, Gretna Van Fleet (who has since given her blessing to the boys), and were on their way. "It just kind of took off, really," Kiszka says. "Like wildfire."
These days, Greta Van Fleet are playing considerably larger shows. They recently opened for fellow Michigander Bob Seger at an arena in Saginaw, as well as did a run of dates with U.K. hard rockers the Struts, a jaunt that resulted in Sam and Danny having to miss two weeks of school — and their prom. "I don't think they were sad about that, though," Kiszka reasons. "They don't play any good music at the prom, anyway!"
Now that From the Fires has been released, the next step, Kiszka says, is a full-length album. "We'll be working on it pretty soon, so I can't imagine it would be more than seven, eight months from now until we get it done."
Until then, they're happy to keep on touring. On the road, Kiszka says, "It's like every single day there's something significant that you might not ever forget. We found it's pretty much everything you'd imagine being on the road would be. That sort of mysticism ... there's a fair deal of truth to all of it. It's glamorous and it's excessive and it's addicting and all of those things."
And then there are the crowds. "One of the most beautiful things about what we're doing as musicians is that when you look out at our audiences you see what Jake likes to say is 'eight to 80,'" Kiszka says about the age range of Greta's fans. "There are people that grew up on that blues stuff, or that grew up on that roots stuff. And then there are their kids, who grew up in the rock & roll era. And then there's their kid's kids that they bring to watch what was sort of real rock & roll music to them. And those kids, you can see they're really excited, sort of wide eyed. Because some of them are hearing this stuff live for the first time."
Kiszka laughs, then continues. "And then at the same time there's a nostalgic glimmer in the older crowd, too. They'll kinda be more in the back of the venue, but they're there. So, yeah, it's a wide sea of varying ages, and that's really spectacular. Because that's who we want to make music for—everybody."