By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — In a time when the future of music industry seems cloudier than ever, it is surprising to find out about a young band like Greta Van Fleet enjoying such a meteoric rise with such and retrograde heavy blues-rock sound. Formed in the small Michigan town of Frankenmuth five years ago, the quartet came together when brothers Josh, Jake and Sam Kiszka were all still in their teens.
Raised by musically inclined, supportive parents, the youngsters along with original drummer Kyle Hauck formed Greta Van Fleet (named after a beloved Frankenmuth community figure) and started playing together regularly. Heavily informed by the rock albums from the ’60s and ’70s in their parents’ record collection, their songs also drew on soul music the classic blues sounds of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. But as Jake refined his guitar technique and youngest brother Sam got a handle on the bass, it was Josh’s vocals that would push the band in a specific direction.
Possessing an uncanny echo of a young Robert Plant’s stratospheric wail, Josh Kiszka’s powerful singing voice exerted a bit of gravitational pull on the original material the band wrote. By 2013, childhood friend Danny Wagner had replaced Hauck on the drums and the teens began to pursue their dreams in earnest. Regular performances at clubs in Detroit and elsewhere started to build the band’s following, leading up to the four teens crowdfunding their self-released Live in Detroit EP in 2014 that showcased just how quickly the band had refined its potent sound.
The young group’s growing notoriety led to interest from all sides, eventually leading to more recording at Detroit’s Rust Belt Studios with established producer Al Sutton (Kid Rock, Hank Williams Jr.) that led to a deal with Lava Records. Greta Van Fleet’s debut EP Black Smoke Rising and it’s eerily Zeppelinesque lead single “Highway Tune” quickly caught on with rock radio when it was released last spring.
Since then, the band’s success has only snowballed with high-profile Michigan concerts opening for Detroit rock hero Bob Seger, festival appearances that have critics citing their early, small stage sets as highlights and a string of sold-out headlining dates at progressively larger venues across the U.S. including multiple shows at the famed Troubadour in Los Angeles and a pair of scheduled December concerts at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom.
CBS SF got a chance to speak with still teenage bassist/keyboardist Sam Kiszka just ahead of Greta Van Fleet coming to Northern California for their first visit. The band plays the first day of this year’s Aftershock festival in Sacramento’s Discovery Park early Saturday afternoon. Kiszka talked about his early interest in music, his first concert experiences and some of the band’s plans for the future.
CBS SF: It sounds like you picked up bass at a pretty early age. Was that your first instrument because your older brother Jake had the guitar and wouldn’t let you play with them? Or did were you already playing guitar too?
Sam Kiszka: Well I guess what happened was Jake was always bringing home a buddy from high school that he knew in jazz band and they would play guitar and drums together. They would do this Black Keys Magic Potion style stuff, and sometimes Josh would come out and sing. Then it just got to the point where I decided that they were missing a bass player [laughs]. And my mom always said I looked like a bass player. What the hell does that mean?
CBS SF: You’re pretty tall, though I imagine a bass was still big on you when you started at 12 years old. And your dad played bass? Was he professional or did he just play for fun?
Sam Kiszka: We used to do this thing every year where we’d rent out a bunch of cabins and it was really fun because everybody brings their guitars and keyboards and drums and everybody sings and plays. It was an amazing experience. But there was never a bass player there, so Dad decided he’d try to fit in as a bass player. I guess he tried to playing for a couple of years and decided he didn’t really have the bass playing thing.
So there was a bass and a bass amp that sat for a few years before they found a new life in my hands. He must have gotten that bass in the mid-to-late ’80s. It was an old Japanese Fernandes P bass. It was actually a pretty nice bass with super high output. But it was a really organic upbringing.
It happened very naturally, me grabbing that bass. I was listening to a lot of Motown and that’s what really got me into playing the bass. The first bass riff I actually learned with my own ear was “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” And that’s the greatest bass line ever.
CBS SF: So from what I’ve seen online, you’re also playing some keyboards live. I imagine that’s you playing mandolin on “Flower Power” since that’s another instrument you play?
Sam Kiszka: Actually, on “Flower Power, ” I wasn’t there that day. Jake actually tracked that.
CBS SF: When you picked up on new instruments growing up, were they just around the house?
Sam Kiszka: We always had a piano. I kind of got to the point where I didn’t want to just be a bass player. What got me into it was that Beatles track, “She’s So Heavy.” In the background of the chorus of that song, there’s this ripping organ. And I thought “Holy s–t! That sounds so cool! I want to be able to do that!” So ever since that, I’ve been interested in the equipment that makes those sounds.
One of the big inspiration points for me was this family heirloom, I guess you could call it. We had it sitting in the garage for a number of years. It was my great grandfather’s Hammond M-103 organ. And that’s where I learned how to play. Maybe that was its purpose, sitting in our garage for all those years. It’s actually the same organ that was used on “Whiter Shade of Pale” [by Procal Harem]. It’s actually a really great piece. I at some point I will have it restored and get it back in full playing mode. Tonally it’s another world from a lot of the organ you hear on records.
CBS SF: Given your early interest in music and your family’s focus on music, I was wondering what your first live music experiences were? Did your whole family go to concerts?
Sam Kiszka: I guess the very first concert experience I can recall was me and my brothers and my sister going with my parents, or at least my mom and her friends, to see this Beatles cover band. It was this thing in the town where we lived called Sunday in the Park. I think that was the very first concert that I ever saw.
CBS SF: Do you remember what your first rock show at an arena was? Say the first touring band as opposed to like a community get together?
Sam Kiszka: I would have to say the first concert I really sought to go to was just last March. It was Young the Giant. And actually this band Lewis Del Mar opened the show and I’ve really come to love that band. They’ve got an EP and an album out. It’s probably the first time I can remember really being excited for new music to come out. It’s one of the modern influences I have.
CBS SF: Does the band tend to write collectively, or do you and your brothers write on your own and bring finished songs to the band?
Sam Kiszka: I don’t thing that there’s a general way that it works. There’s no standard way it comes about. Sometimes Josh and Jake work something out or sometimes the three of us or all four of us. Sometimes Danny brings something to the table. A lot of the time, we try to bring it in the least evolved form it can come in so it gives everyone a chance to contribute. A lot of the songs start with a riff, but a lot of my favorite songs of ours, they just kind of wrote themselves.
CBS SF: I was checking out some of the live recordings of the band on YouTube and really like the live version of “Evil” I came across. Did you pattern it after the Cactus version from No Restrictions?
Sam Kiszka: Oh, we completely copied the Cactus version [laughs]! They did a great job with it. I was actually listening to that Eric Clapton album 461 Ocean Boulevard and there are outtakes from that and that band did a version that sounded a lot like that. It was weird! It was the same riff and same format. But Cactus does it better. That’s a great recording. They were a Detroit group. Great stuff…
[Editor’s note: Clapton’s version of “Evil” was actually released on the 40th anniversary edition of his Derek and the Dominoes album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs]
CBS SF: I was hoping that you’d be making it to San Francisco on this tour, but Aftershock 2017 is as close as you get to SF. I was wondering what your experience has been playing other festivals on the tour? And are you going to make it back to the West Coast to play San Francisco soon?
Sam Kiszka: Oh for sure! The thing that we’re doing right now is really pushing to get more material out. I think November is going to be studio time and Thanksgiving. But after the next release, we’re definitely going to be doing more touring. I honestly believe LA is our biggest market right now, so we’ll be back out there.
CBS SF: In one of the interviews I came across online, you talked about listening to a lot of jazz and said you really admired Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock. I was curious if you were into more of the classic acoustic jazz from the ’50s and ’60s that Miles and Herbie did, or if you’d explored their electric music from the late ’60s and ’70s as well?
Sam Kiszka: There’s some of that I like, but some of it is even too far gone for me. There’s some wild s–t! Sometimes a little too wild. But I’m a really big fan of [Herbie Hancock’s] Headhunters. That’s some real jazz fusion. There’s a lot of rock to it, a lot of funk. That’s some really great stuff.
But I think mostly I’m more of a traditional jazz listener. One album I’ve been listening to a lot lately is [Hammond B-3 organ player] Charles Earland’s Black Talk. That’s a great LP. But my all-time favorites are My Favorite Things and Giant Steps by Coltrane.
CBS SF: As band that is really steeped in a traditional ’70s hard-rock sound — and with you as an 18-year-old just coming into the music industry — I was curious what your expectations were from an industry that has changed dramatically from what it was back then? It seems like the CD is going the way of the dodo and so many people are content to stream or just straight up steal music off of the internet. Any thoughts about that?
Sam Kiszka: I would say that I don’t really have any expectations. This whole trip for me has been life taking me where it will. And I think that’s worked out pretty well so far. I’m really happy with it. I don’t think there are a lot of people who get to go right out of high school into full-scale touring. That’s an amazing thing.
I guess I don’t care about people stealing music personally. Sure we worked hard to produce and record it and we spent a lot of money recording it; but I want people to hear it and love it. Really in my heart, I think as long as people are enjoying it, I’m happy with it. Because if they love it, they’re going to come out and spent the night with us, hanging out and listening to rock and roll.