By Rich Henrich
What happens when four kids grow up on their parents vinyl record collection in a small Michigan town famous for Bavarian culture and the world’s largest Christmas store? The world receives a gift called Greta Van Fleet. Rising from the campfire smoke above the ashes of a history from a midwestern state that has given the world, Bill Haley & His Comets, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Grand Funk Railroad, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Iggy Pop, Madonna, Eminem, Jack White, Rodriguez, Kid Rock and so many more talents from Motown, Hip Hop, Punk, Folk, Techno and Rock and Roll, comes the next edition from this fertile wellspring, a rock and roll rebirth known as Greta Van Fleet.
Pick a song, any song and you will soon understand the transformative power of the music this band is blasting across the lands. The publicist approved story goes like this: Greta Van Fleet is four young musicians, brothers Josh (vocals), Jake (guitar) and Sam (bass/keys) Kiszka, and longtime family friend Danny Wagner (drums). Josh and Jake are 21, Danny just turned 19 and Sam is 18, and are all from the tiny Michigan hamlet of Frankenmuth, known for its family-style chicken dinners and the world’s largest Christmas store. All four were raised on their parents’ extensive vinyl collections (shared influences are Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, The Who, Jimi Hendrix), which helped give birth to the music they make, a high-energy hybrid of rock’n’roll, blues and soul. Each band member has killer musical chops and Josh has a voice that is simply jaw-dropping.
Greta Van Fleet’s debut single “Highway Tune,” was released in March 2017, was #1 at U.S. Rock Radio for five consecutive weeks and #1 at Canadian radio for nine consecutive weeks, has amassed 15.8+-million Spotify plays and 12.2+-million YouTube views for the companion video. Their follow up single “Safari Song” also went to #1 at U.S. Rock Radio and a record-setting 16 straight weeks at #1 at Canadian radio. Rolling Stone singled the band out as one of “10 New Artists You Need to Know,” Loudwire readers voted them “Best New Artist,” and Entertainment Weekly named them one of the “8 artists who will rule 2018.”
And, Sir Elton John, a fan of the band’s, personally asked them to perform at his annual Academy Awards viewing party set for early March, having said, “It’s the best rock and roll I’ve heard in twenty f**king years!”
Greta Van Fleet’s shared message with their music is to spread “peace, love and unity,” and their collective goal in terms of their live shows is to have people “walk out of the show feeling invigorated, energized, exhilarated, and to take that feeling out into the world.” The band will release its debut album Summer 2018.
I had the opportunity this week to catch up with golfer turned drummer, Danny Wagner, while he waited to play a round of golf with his dad (and former golf coach) at his Studio City, CA hotel.
CVW: You just played your first week of Coachella. How was the experience?
DW: Honestly, I didn’t know much about it other than it was a huge stage to play and an incredible opportunity for us to play and be a part of the festival.
CVW: What did you expect? What did you learn? Will you do anything different in week two?
DW: So far, it’s lived up to our expectations. We painted a picture in our heads of what it would be like but there’s a lot more going on than we knew about. Coachella has its own culture and that’s been cool to experience. All the art and having that perspective is wonderful. We played the Mojave Stage and before we started to play we just looked at each other like this is cool! We had a lot of fun.
This week we will spend more time prepping before the show. We flew in from across the world trying to adjust to from an eleven hour time difference! There was a lot to sort out and we had some amp and tube challenges so we felt the show was a little rough but the energy was amazing and really what we focused on throughout the show.
CVW: You ever feel like a time a culture capsule flying through time and space?
DW: Ha, yeah. Totally, it’s weird. We were just in a whole different place, completely different culture and then on a plane and on a stage at Coachella. Sometimes you end a show, get on the bus and wake up in a different place. It’s the same but not. It’s like time travelling, I guess!
CVW: Like a song by fellow Michigander, Bob Seger, who your producer, Al Sutton worked with, right?
DW: Al (Sutton), has worked with a lot of great bands. He’s worked with Kid Rock on several albums, Bob Seger, Sheryl Crow…he’s amazing. He’s been a great mentor to us and really helped us make the smooth transition from being a live band to a studio band. We walked in with zero experience. He spent some time with us and figured us out as a band, who we were and then found the best strategy for us.
CVW: What did he figure out that was most critical for the band’s success?
DW: We were a live band so he had us play like we were playing any other show and then we recorded live base tracks. We wanted to maintain that sound and Al is all about analogue. He really understands it and helped us to understand it, too. I thought we would go into a studio and be required to use modern methods and digital. I was like I hope not ‘cause I didn’t know anything about it! Al is a giant pool of knowledge. I think he might know everything! He’s had ups and downs in his career, especially as things turned more technical. Being an engineer, he was almost out the door and then we came in and it was like a new life was born for all of us. We’ve all become engrossed in the process now.
CVW: The band was basically a cover band just a couple years ago. How did you evolve into the current edition?
DW: Yeah, we were playing in bars when we were like 15-16 years old. We just had a passion for playing music with each other and shared a lot of similar influences. We were just a small band, nothing specific, just a local cover band. We would get crazy time slots to play four, sometimes, five hour shows. We just knew covers but we would end up with thirty minutes left and then just jam out. I think this has a lot to do with our live sound.
CVW: How do you think growing up together in Michigan and enduring endless winters has helped you prepare for life on tour in close quarters and on buses?
DW: Wow, great question! I never really thought about that. Yeah, I think it has made a big impact on us and why we work so well together. Long harsh winters you spend a lot of time inside together and figure out how to entertain yourselves. The three brothers grew up together so for them being together isn’t out of the ordinary and for me, growing up with them, we spent a lot of time with each other, too. The worst thing that happens is we bicker a little. We’re young and learning a lot together, though. But we are all in this together and split everything equally. It helps growing up together and coming from a small town (Frankenmuth) were everybody has known us our whole lives helps. We’re still treated like a garage band when we’re home! I can’t imagine if we were from a big city what it would be like coming home. It’s still home for us even though we’re not home much! I think surviving winter and just growing up in Michigan, we all like the outdoors and being outside as much as we can but are comfortable we each other no matter where we are. But now we do have a heated garage we practice in!
CVW: The bands notoriety has accelerated since you began doing original songs. What has surprised you the most about the pace of progress?
DW: Yeah, I don’t know if anyone expected this. We had people working with us to get us ready and then the future never happened because it was already happening! We have had to adjust to (the demands) quickly but we are grateful. Instead of graduating and going off to college in some other town, we’re just going right to work, which a lot of people do. I think focusing on the work aspect helps people understand the transition, too. Our schedules have changed a lot! Some days there’s no time to eat or sleep and dealing with time zones and traveling is a challenge sometimes. We all grew up traveling a lot and going on road trips and I think that helps with the adjustment of being on tour.
CVW: You were set to play in a state golf tournament when you heard you were going on tour in Europe and wouldn’t be able to finish your golf career as intended. How difficult was that moment for you?
DW: Oh man, that was really tough. I’m a huge golfer. I’ve been playing since I could walk. The hard part was feeling like I was letting my dad down and my team down as we worked hard to qualify for the tournament. My dad was really supportive and that helped a ton but it was hard. I grew my hair out for the band and had to adjust with it blowing in my face on the course until it got long enough I could put it in a ponytail. I found myself thinking about music while I was playing golf but when I played music, I wasn’t thinking about golf. So, as hard as it was, and still is sometimes when I think about that moment, the tour was an opportunity that changed everything so fast.
CVW: When you drive through the Coachella Valley, a place with incredible golf courses, do you find it hard not to go sneak in at least nine holes?
DW: Ha, yeah. With touring, there isn’t enough time to play golf so I’ve never taken my clubs on tour but this time I did. I flew my dad out and we have a tee time at 3:30 that I’m excited about!
CVW: This valley, Palm Springs in particular, is home to one of your influences, drummer Buddy Rich. He has a star on Palm Springs Walk of Stars. How did you discover him? What do you like about his style?
DW: No way, really? I will have to go check that out! A friend came across a video of him (Buddy Rich) playing and thought of me. I watched a lot of the videos and noticed he looked mad at times, like he had this crazy look that only shows when he’s playing drums, even on The Muppet Show! I liked how he played, the energy he brought to the drums. He had a swagger to his style. Miles Davis said, “anyone can play, that’s 20% but attitude is 80%! (Note the actual quote: “Anybody can play. The note is only 20 percent. The attitude of the m@%#fer who plays it is 80 percent.”)
CVW: The crazy thing about Buddy Rich is he didn’t practice, just played but believed good drumming required solid musicianship and natural talent. What do you think about this Buddy quote: “There’s an inbred rhythm involved that I’m not sure people can learn. You have to be born with it. A great drummer has to be one and the same with his instrument.”
DW: I agree you need to be one with the instrument. Drummers are supposed to have natural perfect rhythm. I had to work at. My first instrument, I was fitted for at Marshall Music. I took tests and scored high so they gave me a French Horn. Josh (Kiszka) played that, too. I think being in band, we all have similar and different influences. Guitar was really my first instrument, drums came later. I struggled to maintain tempo and my hand speed. I wanted to be successful and kept working at it and made it a process to figure it out with the band. Now, I’ve got it and discovered I can recognize pitch, perfect pitch and supposedly you can’t teach that but I feel like I acquired it. Music is full of surprises! I think playing drums is like playing golf, you have to practice and develop muscle memory to the point you can play blindfolded. That’s why I set up my own kit every show. When I step on stage, it’s muscle memory so I can play with my eyes closed.
Greta Van Fleet will launch their North American tour following Coachella. The tour, with announced dates currently stretching into late August, will see the band playing a variety of major outdoor music festivals – Coachella, Lollapalooza, Rock On The Range, Hangout, Bluesfest, Floydfest, Summerfest, Panorama Music and Arts Festival – along with headline dates with multiple shows in many cities, all of which are completely sold out. For more information on tour dates and upcoming full-length album release set for sometime this summer.
Official band website: gretavanfleet.com