Greta Van Fleet: Small Town Roots, Rock Star Dreams

MICHAEL LAVINE | PHOTO COURTESY
Greta Van Fleet members (L to R) Sam Kiska, Josh Kiska, Danny Wagner and Jake Kiska.

Childhood friends turned bandmates Samuel (Sam) Kiska and Daniel (Danny) Wagner were completely at ease during my recent interview with them at the Sonic Boom Music Festival in Janesville, Wisconsin Sept. 30.

“Yeah the creek that runs behind our house, if you go down it a few miles you’re at Daniel’s. So that’s usually how; he just swam up the creek for practice,” Sam laughs before Danny jumps in. “No, that’s not true. I took a canoe, duh!” (Neither of which is true).

Originally bonding from an early age over their love of good music, Sam and Danny weren’t originally part of the older Kiska brothers’ music venture. Twins Jacob (Jake) and Joshua (Josh) Kiska eventually recruited their younger brother for the role of bass player and keyboardist, but Danny didn’t join the ranks until former drummer, Kyle Hauck, left the band in 2013.

With their first solo, “Highway Tune,” comfortably sitting at No. 1 on Active and Mainstream Rock radio for more than four straight weeks, over 5.2 million plays on Spotify and over 2.7 million music video views, it’s easy to see this band is going places — and fast.

Their EP “Black Smoke Rising” goes beyond the realm of a debut, sounding like an album created by seasoned veterans of the industry; a true testament to their musical prowess. While the members of Greta Van Fleet continue to work their way into rockstar status, at its heart, they are simply four small town guys with a passion for music and sharing it with the world.

If their current success is any indicator, we have much more to hear from Greta Van Fleet.

The band sprouted from the small midwestern town of Frankenmuth, Michigan, and was nurtured largely by old blues records, folk music and Michigan greats such as Bob Seger and Stevie Wonder. The Kiska brothers were raised on their parents’ record collection, which they have since dubbed their “vinyl playground,” and while they have no regrets regarding their musical upbringing, they do admit it made it more difficult to relate to fellow classmates.

“In middle school, all that people were listening to was hip-hop and just whatever was on the hits station they listened to, or what was on the pop station the next week is what they listened to, but me and Daniel were always bouncing off of each other classic (rock) stuff that we listened to,” Sam said.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Greta Van Fleet’s sound harkens back to the “golden age” of rock.

While they have commonly been compared to Led Zeppelin and their sound, the similarities are purely coincidental, as the bandmates maintain it was a combination of their inspirations and influences that created their sound, not aspirations to copy that of a classic rock monolith.

For example, Sam brought Motown’s active, groovy bass lines to the table in the group: “Actually, I learned to play (the bass) from Motown, which is actually Detroit, which I never think about … I just listened to it and that’s how I learned the bass … James Jamerson.”

Although Danny is inspired by folk music, he draws his influence from elsewhere: “Influence goes to Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, a lot of the early jazz drummers that were just powerhouses.”

Guitarist Jake has been pegged the “rock guy” of the group, while Josh pulls from world music such as Aphrodite’s Child. However, the blues influence draws them all back together.     

The band’s unique moniker has local roots, as it is the name of town elder Gretna Van Fleet. The band was in search of a title and liked the sound of the name, but removed the “n” so it “flowed” a little easier, all with her blessings, of course.

Frankenmuth, Michigan is not a large place. As a matter of fact, it’s only 2,000 people larger than my hometown of Bottineau, North Dakota (Frankenmuth has around 5,000). This got me to thinking about the possible similarities between their experiences in their small Midwestern town and mine.

Luckily, Sam and Danny were more than happy to chat about growing up in Frankenmuth and offer a few musings on how growing up in such a musically rich state influenced and inspired their band’s sound.

Not all that surprisingly, a lot of their experiences may remind you of those you experienced yourself if you grew up in the Midwest.

MIKE ROSENFELD | PHOTO COURTESY
They may have attempted a North Dakota accent, and they may or may not have pulled it off, but either way their good natured humor made this interview a breeze (L to R: Sam Kiska, Laura Ellen Brandjord and Danny Wagner).

Laura Ellen Brandjord (LEB): So tell me a little bit about Frankenmuth. With a tourism number of 1-800-FUNTOWN, it must be quite the place!

Sam Kiska (SK): Yeah, it’s a pretty fun (place). There is always a festival going on; it’s a beautiful little town based on Bavarian architecture … (with) plenty of creeks. We are actually known for our chicken dinners at Zehnders … lots of novelties.

Danny Wagner (DW): There’s a river going through the center of town with boat rides, complete with a wooden bridge … horse carriage rides … fudge. We have the best fudge.

LEB: In Bottineau, we have North America’s largest turtle sculpture, and it’s riding a snowmobile. North Dakota has the world’s largest holstein cow, world’s largest buffalo, etc. Does Frankenmuth have any random sculptures or other curiosities?

SK: We have a nice big hunk of cheese on Main Street with a mouse head coming out of it. The largest christmas shop in the world!

DW: There’s a kilt shop in town, too. The entire world is right in Frankenmuth. We also have a big pig that was in the movie “Whip It.”

SK: Yeah, yeah, but we never know where it (the pig from “Whip It”) is. It moves around. One time we were just driving down some country road and it was in someone’s yard and we were like ‘What the hell!’”

LEB: You graduated from the only high school, right? What was the size of your graduating class? Mine had 42.

DW: OK, well I guess it’s not THAT small. We’re division three, you guys are like division 300!

SK: Oh geez. We had about 119-120 in our class.

LEB: Is Frankenmuth mostly agricultural or is it more factory related?

SK: It’s mostly agricultural. All around (town) is farm fields.

LEB: What rock station do you listen to when you’re home?

SK: There’s two classic rock stations we grew up listening to.

DW: There was one (classic rock station) north of us and south of us. So, no matter where we went, 20 minutes north, 20 minutes south, there was always a classic rock station. The way my mind works and the way my ears work, (classic rock) is entertaining.

LEB: That’s great, because most of the time, because my family live and farm so close to the Canadian border, we turn on the Canadian classic rock station when we’re in the tractor.

DW: Sam knows how to drive (heavy machinery), too!

LEB: Really? What can you drive?

SK: Case combine. No, I’m just kidding! I wish! My buddy has offered multiple times to teach me.

LEB: Well, Autosteer helps out quite a bit in farming today. So you just line it up and press a button and then only steer for turns.

SK: Well, actually, this same guy told me about another local guy who goes and (harvests) his fields in like one day because he gets on his combine with like a 30 pack and a fifth of Captain Morgan and he comes out 24 hours later. So, I guess I always wondered how you could do that and still actually (do it right).

LEB: On to music. As far as songwriting goes, are there any specific bands that you drew inspiration from because you admired their storytelling ability?

DW: A lot of our lyrics are folk-based if you think about it. It’s very melodic.

SK: I think that Josh has really developed his own style of lyricism, but I think we would have to give credit to Bob Dylan because he writes about humanity in a very beautiful way.

DW: He was the king at purveying a message in another language, writing music.

LEB: How different is it to be listening to your music when you’re practicing in your garage or basement versus in the studio recording it and then hearing it come through the speakers the first time after it’s mixed?

DW: You know, not a whole lot different because of the way our studio is set up. It’s kind of set up like a garage. Which is why we’ve stuck there through the last two and a half years or so, but, yeah, through the speakers, through the mics, for that level of production, we need to be able to hear how off we are or how wrong we are in a song. The clarity is important.

LEB: So I’ve seen on your guys’ social media accounts that you have gone record shopping for some photoshoots. Are you actively growing your record collections? Do you try and get out to a record store as much as possible on tour?

DW: There’s one way to find good records in this world and that is to go out and find them. They are never going to come to you. So that’s why we go out and do that. It’s building; I think we have a collection of at least 20 from just being on the road. Lots of times we schedule interviews at record stores and stuff intentionally, so we will have photoshoots and interviews. It’s kind of a two-in-one because we get to shop around and get some history and others get to document it.

LEB: You’re both multi-instrumentalists, but which is your preferred?

DW: I definitely have a lot of fun playing the guitar. You can write songs with the guitar whereas, unless you’re Alex Van Halen, you can’t write a song on the drums. But it’s very interesting to me to think about why I switched. And I think it’s mainly shown as we’ve progressed that I don’t think I could see myself on stage looking natural as a guitarist.

SK: I would say that I actually don’t feel as comfortable behind the keys, just ‘cause everyone can hear me a lot better, but I do enjoy playing the keyboard; it gives me a lot more freedom to shape the sound.

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