“ART IS SUPPOSED TO ELICIT STRONG REACTIONS, ISN’T IT?” Jake Kiszka asks rhetorically. The Greta Van Fleet guitarist is considering the extreme, diametrically opposed responses his band has received since they first topped radio playlists in 2017 with their single, “Highway Tune.” On the one side, there are those who have hailed the Michigan quartet as the brightest young band of this millennium and the redhot shot of adrenaline that rock has sorely needed. On the other side, there are the detractors who have tagged the group as nothing more than competent yet shameless Led Zeppelin clones. It’s a “love ’em or hate ’em” proposition with little gray area in between.
After four years of it, Kiszka isn’t letting any such noise get to him; in fact, he takes a philosophical — and surprisingly welcoming — view of the band’s polarizing nature. “I actually think it’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “There’s something sort of perfect about having one or another direct response to what we’re doing. It’s the essential point, really. Music can affect somebody in a very loving, peaceful or inspirational way, or it can go the other way and you have a determined opposite reaction in which people are infuriated by it. I think that’s the objective of all artists.”
In the years since their arrival, the band (which also includes Kiszka’s two brothers — Josh on lead vocals, Sam on bass and keyboards — along with drummer Danny Wagner) has come a long way, issuing two EPs, Black Smoke Rising and From the Fires, as well as their 2018 full-length Anthem of the Peaceful Army, all of them brimming with rollicking riffs, hammer-of-the-godslike rhythms and epic, high-register vocals. They’ve topped Billboard charts, collected a Grammy (for From the Fires) and toured the world several times. But along with their success, the band members have still been unable to shake the nagging perception that they’re simply Seventies FM-radio revivalists adopting a modern sheen.
“It’s somewhat perplexing,” Kiszka says. “I think one has to establish the fact that we are commonly referred to as a ‘classic rock band’ or a ‘throwback band’ to comment on that. I’ve always thought it would be really puzzling to try to identify ourselves in those ways, because I think we’re very much a product of our environment, politically and societally speaking. When I wake up tomorrow, I’m still going to be living in a world that surrounds me and influences me, and I think we’re contemporary in our flesh and blood.”
Which is another way of saying that he’s having none of it. “I think it has to do with age, really,” Kiszka continues. “Critics are hard to press, in particular to the Zeppelin reference, which we’re humbled by. We’re honored by that affiliation, but again there’s a point within factions of society that are drawn to ignorant criticism. It’s just something we’ll never be a part of contributing to. The loud minority will never speak for the quiet majority. That’s something Joe Bonamassa mentioned to me once, and I believe it’s pretty accurate.”
He’s quick to point out that his guitar influences go far deeper than the hallowed axemen of British rock, rattling off names like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Howlin’ Wolf. “The list goes on,” he says. “Blues is at the heart of my dominant influences, and the same goes for the rest of the band. What we do and how we do it is very truthful to us.”
From the start, Greta Van Fleet came front-loaded with elevated expectations — crazy hype, even (“Can they save rock ‘n’ roll?” asked many a news headline). Thus far, the band has cleared each hurdle put in front of them, and now they face the challenge of following up their full-length debut and the inevitable question: Can they do it again? “It feels as if we’re dealing with things that other artists would normally encounter a decade into their careers,” Kiszka says. “To be honest, we don’t feel a lot of pressure because we’re four guys who are creating what we want. I don’t think success is really a factor that plays into how we make our music. That’s on the back burner, I guess.”
The band’s new album, The Battle at Garden’s Gate, is bigger, grander, and more ambitious than its predecessor, with each element — every gargantuan riff and whiz-bang solo, each majestic keyboard flourish, and every foot-stomping rhythm — magnified to achieve maximum impact. The record’s first two singles offered a split-screen view of the band’s approach: “My Way, Soon” busts out of the gate with turbocharged force, propelled by Kiszka’s tangled, Pete Townshendesque lead-rhythm Riffery. “Age of Machine” is a nearly seven-minute-long cosmic doozy, full of slippery guitar leads and dramatic vocal textures.
Throughout the rest of the album, the band explores a wide mix of moods and atmospheres. There are dark, symphonic rock ballads (“Broken Bells,” “Stardust Chords”) on which Kiszka shifts between scorching wah-drenched solos and unaffected blues-based leads, as well as a pair of arena-ready anthems (“Heat Above” and “Caravel”) where he bags the lead work altogether, choosing instead to employ the full range of his chordal abilities. “Light My Love” is a piano-based beauty that stands as the band’s first unabashed love song, but before anybody thinks the group has gone soft, they tear up the walls and anything else in their way on the adventurous, nine-minute album closer “The Weight of Dreams,” which features a sustained crescendo of Kiszka’s sparky fretboard business.
The Battle at Garden’s Gate was produced by Greg Kurstin, who, aside from his recent work with the Foo Fighters, is more known for his chart-busting affiliations with Adele and Kelly Clarkson. However, Kiszka makes it clear that they weren’t aiming to go pop. “When we sat down with Greg, we said, ‘We want to make an orgasmic, cinematic piece of rock ‘n’ roll,’ and his eyes just lit up,” he recalls. “He knew exactly what we were after, and he knew how to bring it out of us. If we played him three pre-chorus ideas, he would tell us which one was best, and he could explain why musically. That was really exciting because it was a learning experience.”
Music that operates on such a widescreen scale demands themes of equal substance, and The Battle at Garden’s Gate doesn’t skimp on weighty topics. Throughout the album, the band takes on social inequity, personal enlightenment, warfare, religion — not exactly party stuff. “It’s a bit serious,” Kiszka admits. “I think that plays into our experiences up to this point. Traveling the world for the past three years, we’re seeing things, different cultures. It’s not all roses out there. You see someone mopping the floor after a show, and they find a piece of food on the floor and they eat it — it’s things like that that we wanted to address, as well as this peace and love and unity bit.”
Do you guys plot out the future that much? Do you have a five-year plan?
We do, but not necessarily in terms of where we want to be, career-wise. I think we plot what we want to try to achieve musically, but of course, that can change. I mean, it’s hard to predict what will be influential at any given point. Everything’s a moving target.
Since Greta Van Fleet came on the scene, there have been a few bands that also dabble in modern classic rock. Is there anybody out there that you look at?
The White Stripes were past pavers, in a sense. They were very influential from a blues standpoint. We listened to them in middle school. Gary Clark Jr. is another fantastic artist. There’s the Black Keys and Cage the Elephant — they’re fantastic.
It’s difficult to say because I sort of dabbling. I could pull up Spotify and name some groups I’ve been listening to, but they’re kind of in the same world. I love the people we’ve toured with. We select who we tour with specifically because we enjoy their music. I love Ida Mae. I don’t want to leave anyone out. We’re all in the same boat. We’re all paving a new path for our generation.
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