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Josh Kiszka is talking to me about Led Zeppelin. I assume he does this with other people dozens of times per day, and almost never by choice. Journalists and fans of Kiszka’s band, Greta Van Fleet, constantly drone on about getting the Led out in the 22-year-old singer’s presence these days. And, really, who can blame them? When Kiszka sings, he sounds a lot like the golden god. (Robert Plant has even ragged on him about it.) When his twin brother Jake leans into a thunderous blues-rock guitar riff, he strongly evokes Jimmy Page. (Jake claimed in a Rolling Stone interview that he studied Jimmy so closely that he now knows “how he thought” back in the ’70s — presumably this also makes him an expert on Aleister Crowley and heroin.) As for the rhythm section, composed of yet another Kiszka brother, 19-year-old Sam, on bass and family friend Danny Wagner (also 19) on drums, they swing and slam with a graceful force reminiscent of ol’ Jonesy and Bonzo.
As you might expect, these qualities haven’t exactly endeared the Michigan-based quartet to a music press inclined to viewing classicist rock bands with knee-jerk snark. It’s impossible to imagine a band less suited for the current critical climate than Greta Van Fleet, an unapologetically anachronistic outfit that harkens back to a lemon-squeezing, blues-worshipping, dude-centric period in music history that peaked nearly 50 years ago. The kind of band that music critics have always loathed, up to and including the original Zeppelin.
What’s surprising is how commercially successful Greta Van Fleet have been in their brief yet thriving career. Formed in 2012 when the Kiszka brothers were still learning about the mysteries of shaving and Howlin’ Wolf, Greta Van Fleet signed a major-label deal five years later with Jason Flom, a high-level industry executive credited with shepherding future superstars such as Lorde and Paramore at the start of their careers.
The first song Greta Van Fleet ever wrote, “Highway Tune,” subsequently took rock radio by storm, and has since lodged more than 30 million streams on Spotify. Hardly blockbuster numbers if you’re an up-and-coming rapper, maybe, but Greta Van Fleet also is doing impressive business on the road, headlining sold-out gigs in large theaters, often over the course of multiple nights in the same city, all on the strength of two EPs and enthusiastic word of mouth passed down from grizzled classic-rock dads (and grand-dads) to a growing legion of millennials and Gen-Z kids.
On Friday, Greta Van Fleet will finally release their debut full-length album, Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, and no doubt the expectation is that they will be packing arenas in the not-so-distant future. A loosely defined concept record about how “we are all sort of interconnected and reside in a global community,” Josh explains that the idea came to him early one morning while the band’s tour bus was speeding down the highway and he was toggling between various states of semi-consciousness.
“I guess it was a state of meditation,” he says. “I had these thoughts, these words coming to me. I jumped out of bed and I had to write something down. This is a great concept, whatever it was! It was this poem that I titled Anthem Of The Peaceful Army.”
As if to underscore the album’s grandiosity, Josh speaks in a faint British accent — which is odd given that he grew up 90 minutes north of Detroit, though perhaps understandable given his childhood background in musical theater. (Every drama-club kid has a “British accent” phase.) His tone turns harder when I ask about Army‘s first track, “Age Of Man,” a mini-epic that opens with Josh’s startling shriek over the trilling of a mellotron. Right after the guitar and drums blast in, he utters a line that references “lands of ice and snow,” an obvious lift from “Immigrant Song” off of Led Zeppelin III.
Is this a deliberate homage, an unintentional theft, or playful trolling of the band’s critics?
“In some ways it was a bit of a wink,” Josh confesses. “There’s winks everywhere. And I think that’s what happens when you’re just a fan of all this work. You tend to do unintentional homage. It just sort of flows out like a cultural language.”
Josh pauses, and then adds with a conspiratorial, London-by-way-of-central-Michigan lilt, “In some ways that acts as a middle finger, too.”
Almost nobody outside of the band argues that Greta Van Fleet isn’t derivative. The people who love this band appreciate how imitative Greta Van Fleet is of classic rock and roll. The question is whether imitation is inherently bad, or if it’s possible to actually be good at being derivative.
To detractors, Greta Van Fleet is an irredeemably icky manifestation of deathless rockist fantasies decked out in love beads, leather vests, and flared pants. But that criticism doesn’t really account for how well this band has done with such an unlikely formula — sound like 1969 in 2018 — given how nothing remotely like Greta Van Fleet has a mainstream profile right now.
To their credit, they almost never stoop to doing one-to-one rip-offs of Zeppelin songs. There is no “Escalator To Heaven” or “Living Loving Housekeeping Professional” on Anthem Of The Peaceful Army. Eagle-eared Zeppelin fanatics will note how “The Cold Wind” vaguely resembles the electric half of “Ramble On,” or how the guitar solo in “Lover, Leaver (Taker, Believer)” sort of echoes “In My Time Of Dying,” or how the sultry ballad “You’re The One” recalls the psych-folk majesty of “Your Time Is Gonna Come.” But those songs are also different just enough to suggest that scientists working in a secret underground bunker have devised a highly sophisticated algorithm that magically produces new Zeppelin-sounding tunes.
The fact is that Greta Van Fleet is quite good at making ancient-sounding music that remains extremely popular at a time when nobody else is seemingly interested or capable of filling that void. A million thinkpieces this decade have defended the rights of pop artists to adopt whatever far-fetched aspirational personae they please, so long as the results achieve a kind of visceral pleasure. So why not this, a band inspired by classic episodes of The Old Grey Whistle Test?
If I may borrow a poptimist argument: Do you really want to slag these guys for not being authentic enough? Being accused of ripping off other artists is the most genuinely Zeppelinesque thing about them.
The most old-fashioned aspects of Greta Van Fleet might very well be the keys to their success. In the 2010s, the norm in indie rock has been “post album on Bandcamp first, learn how to play live second.” Many of the most acclaimed young rock acts of the past several years made their names by putting out music that garnered rapturous reviews, only to follow up with a series of shaky tours in which they learned how to perform in public on the audience’s dime. Greta Van Fleet has reversed that process back to a more traditional “live music first!” standard. Cue up a video from Youtube, and it’s hard to argue that Greta Van Fleet can’t swing the hammer of the gods.
“We’ve always considered ourselves a live band,” Wagner says. “I was 13 when I started playing with these guys. We played bars, and we played all through high school on the weekend and in the summers. It was three years until we recorded ‘Highway Tune.'”
At the risk of provoking eyerolls from fervent anti-rock partisans, Greta Van Fleet actually take pride in their musicianship. And it pays off on stage and on Army, which always sounds powerful even when the songs slip into pure pastiche. Wagner’s confident, assertive drumming alone would distinguish Greta Van Fleet from the many promising yet frustratingly amateurish indie bands I’ve seen struggle through shows during the Bandcamp era.
“I’ve been playing drums for six or seven years. I started in the sixth grade,” says Wagner, who joined Greta Van Fleet shortly after “Highway Tune” was written. “It was the first instrument that I successfully taught myself, and I think that’s where a lot of that confidence comes from. I didn’t have anything to compare it to. Literally, the setup of my drum kit, I just looked up Youtube videos of some of my favorite drummers, and looked at how high their drums were compared to their elbows.”
When Greta Van Fleet signed with Lava Records in 2017, Danny and Sam had to wait several months until their 18th birthdays to legally write their names on the contract. During the recording of the EPs Black Smoke Rising and From The Fires, both released in 2017, they had to steal studio time on school nights and during the weekend.
For Army, the band fought for extra time in the studio, setting aside a few months in early 2018 to head down to Nashville with a team of producers headed up by Al Sutton, a local scene veteran who’s worked with Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker that Wagner affectionally calls “an old-school Detroit dinosaur.” (Two members of Kid Rock’s band, Marlon Young and Hershel Boone, also co-produced the album.)
Wagner, who entered the Kiszkas’ family orbit after befriending Sam in the first grade, already speaks of Greta Van Fleet like it’s also a bit of a dinosaur. “We’ve all beaten the hell out of each other at some point, but it was a youthful stage, when we had all this testosterone in high school,” he says. “But now it’s real, and this is our lives, and we’re living together on a bus. It’s a whole new world and I think we’ve all acclimated to that really well.”
If Danny is the laid-back drummer, while Sam is the thoughtful bass player and Jake is the guitarist with mystique, that makes Josh the brash lead singer. It’s a classification he embraces, though he also has his intellectual pretensions as well. (Beware Greta Van Fleet fans — he’s a cinephile who worships Stanley Kubrick, so he might opt out for the inevitable film career if the band achieves superstardom.)
For now, however, he’s still trying to explain the “manifesto” behind the latest opus by America’s hottest young band.
“It’s a theoretical army,” he says of the new album’s title, “that would be marching to the beat of the war drum that is the heart. Something like that. It kind of turns these violent things into productive human movement.”
Kind of like Greta Van Fleet fans?
“That’s just it, you know?” he replies, beaming. Valhalla, he is coming.
Anthem Of The Peaceful Army is out on Friday on Republic Records. Get it here.