Greta Van Fleet on Nostalgia, Criticism, Playing SNL, and All Those Grammys They’re Nominated For

Sam Kiszka of Greta Van Fleet Photo: Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic

Last March, a journalist asked Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant to name a group that he currently enjoyed. “There’s a band in Detroit called Greta Van Fleet,” responded the rock icon, (they’re actually native to Frankenmuth, Michigan). “They are Led Zeppelin I.” It’s a co-sign that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s come across the quartet’s Zeppelin-indebted sound — in fact, says bassist Sam Kiszka, it’s a high compliment. “For us to have somebody like that put themselves out there and comment on a young band like us? That means they’re taking us seriously,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest troubles we’ve had going back three or four years.”

Greta Van Fleet, which also consists of Sam’s brothers Josh (lead vocalist) and Jake (guitarist), plus childhood friend Danny Wagner (drummer), has etched an unlikely space as one of the singular new rock acts to achieve any sort of recent mainstream clout or traction. Since debuting in April 2017 with their Black Smoke Rising EP, and chasing it with their From the Fires EP later that year, they hit a power streak of three consecutive No. 1 singles on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. Its most recent, “When the Curtain Falls,” led its full-length debut Anthem of the Peaceful Army, which bowed atop the Rock Albums tally and at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 in October. Amid sold-out international dates, they’ve proved themselves as standouts on hip-hop-dominated lineups for festivals, including Coachella and Austin City Limits. This year, they’re up for four Grammy awards, including Best New Artist, and will serve as musical guest on Saturday Night Live on January 19.

It’s Greta Van Fleet’s nostalgic aesthetic, from the Led Zeppelin–facing sound right down to the flared pants and vests on bare chests, that’s struck a generation-spanning chord. Anthem of the Peaceful Army is tantamount to the guitar-shredding purveyors of classic rock that came before them, repackaged for the streaming consortium. (Think the Darkness, without the pronounced humility.) Because of it, they’ve faced a daily onslaught of online potshots decrying them as an industry plant, or Zeppelin tribute act. The most vicious takedown came care of Pitchfork, which panned Anthem and said the band sounded like they “did weed exactly once, called the cops and tried to record a Led Zeppelin album before they arrested themselves.”

Still, Greta Van Fleet remains altogether impervious to the dissent. “It’s difficult to keep up with what the press is saying and to care a lot of the time,” says Sam. “To a certain degree, if the artist is too involved with that, it ruins the artist’s intent. There’s been some people who have been too overwhelmed with what people say about them.” Instead, they’ve been focused on their ceaseless string of tour dates, with plans to record and release a sophomore album in 2019. Ahead of their SNL debut, Sam tells Vulture why hearing from Greta Van Fleet for the first time over the past few years won’t be the last.

You were recently nominated for four Grammys, which is very sizable for a new band. Did you envision that happening so quickly?
Absolutely not. It completely caught all of us off guard. We didn’t even know when the Grammys were or when they would be announced, because as a new band, we often consider awards crooked or stacked against the odds. But then you get into a different realm of awards like the Grammys, and it’s a whole different game. Hopefully, this will be able to change our perspective on things and give us a better sense of — there are people out there who appreciate great music and there has been some great music that has been nominated and awarded in the recent past.

In today’s pop- and hip-hop-dominated climate, rock bands don’t necessarily scale the same heights as quickly and prominently as you guys have. Why has your music resonated not just with a youthful audience who may be new to the sound, but an older generation who may identify some qualities of your music with music they grew up listening to?
We attract the older crowd because it’s rock-and-roll music. It’s probably similar to what they were listening to growing up and it’s a nostalgic crowd. And then you have the younger audience, which is us. We are the young people. There are a lot of kids my age who look at the grand scheme of things and say, “No, that’s not possible; we can’t do that.” I suppose it wasn’t really a thought in our heads because we had high aspirations to be the best. We didn’t ever understand what being the best would bring, and we’re still striving for that every day. As long as you make yourself a better person than you were yesterday, it’s a good day. It is attainable; you can do it.

It is strange, though, in the rock-and-roll world, to have quite a massive uprising. I think that’s in part due to what is out there right now, what’s mainstream right now. You have a lot of hip-hop, pop in the most generic sense. I don’t think people want to listen to bullshit anymore. People want to listen to real music. There’s a lot of real music that’s coming out right now, and it’s amazing to see and it’s a revolution.

Rock has lost its lead to hip-hop and R&B as the most popular genre of music, and few new rock groups are making any sort of moves on the charts. What do you make of the current state of rock?
There are a lot of people out there who are doing some really cool shit. First, I have to define that rock and roll, as you probably know, is not just rock and roll. It’s the attitude behind it, which makes Hozier rock and roll. He just came out with an EP a few months ago and his stuff is just awesome. Of course, there were bands leading up to the big rock-and-roll resurgence. Even in the alternative world, like Kaleo, they had two pretty mainstream alternative songs that were awesome. Then earlier, I remember when we were recording our first EP, we were listening to Rival Sons like, Wow. There are people who have a sense of great production and kick-ass, balls-out, unwavering rock and roll. That is the biggest problem, where people aren’t willing to take a chance. Whereas we don’t care if we have a hit or don’t have a hit. That’s the most important thing when you’re making art, is to not care.

Criticism can be hard to shut out. In particular, the Pitchfork review reached a large mass in terms of how people were interpreting your record.
I don’t know the intent behind the piece. I haven’t read it. I’m not sure if it’s a publication trying to get attention or if it’s somebody who genuinely doesn’t like us and what we’re doing. I really don’t think we get worked up about that, because here’s one person who’s complaining about it. If you can’t do it, then you just write about it. I feel like this man has had a troubled past. Prayers up for him. But it actually feels really good, because some of our favorite bands have had some pretty aggressive criticism. I think it’s cool. [Laughs.]

What do you think it is about your sound and aesthetic that makes you rise above the rest?
I think it’s so to-the-roots organic that it’s unmistakable to hear the music and not be convinced of something. Because when we’re playing, when we’re recording, we put out our very heart and soul into the sound. We played in shitty dive bars and biker clubs for maybe two or three years before anybody really said anything. I think that we really just developed to play like a band, like what it used to be. I don’t think that’s throwback or retro. It’s just guys that know how to play rock and roll with each other. You can design a band that’s perfect. You can get the most handsome boys and girls or whatever and you put them together and you’re like, this is going to be massive! Maybe it’s massive for ten seconds but tomorrow nobody cares. It really is a building process. You can’t just snap your fingers and have it all. You have to build it and love it and give it love and let the people give it love and get people’s attention, and that takes time. I think people just aren’t prepared for the investment.

Led Zeppelin comes up a lot when people are talking about you guys. Is that tiresome at this point?
Oh, yeah, of course. It’s an innate human instinct, to compare and contrast and make things more relatable. That’s something that will always be a human instinct. I really feel like it’s died down though, over the past three or six months. Which is nice, because I’m getting kind of tired of answering those questions.

Do you think it had anything to do with the fact that Anthem of the Peaceful Army came out in October and may have played a role in disassociating you from them?
Yeah. Anthem of the Peaceful Army is very Greta Van Fleet, and even now, it feels a bit dated to me. We’re excited to get back in the studio and put the next step out. But you’re right. I think Anthem of the Peaceful Army has its sound, and it’s very Greta Van Fleet instead of roots rock, like I think a lot of the other stuff was, like From the Fires and Black Smoke Rising.

You’re playing Saturday Night Live this weekend. What does that mean to you?
This is just another one of those things that has come full circle for us. We used to sit around the TV … This is getting so weird to say, “We used to.” We used to watch the Grammys as a family and watch SNL as a family. We would watch the late-night television shows when we couldn’t sleep. It’s a re-circling of something very relevant in family and life. This is one of those milestones.

Do you still feel like you have something to prove?
I do think so. I think that until we’re at the top, I think we have something to prove. And even until then. Look at Paul McCartney. He’s still touring and still proving himself. I think as an artist, your life is proving to yourself that you can do what you think you can do.

Greta Van Fleet Talk SNL, the Grammys, and That Review