“It’s surreal, that’s what it is.”Those are the words of Greta Van Fleet drummer Danny Wagner as he talked about the band’s explosion onto the national music scene, their new double EP From the Fires and more, prior to their May 11 show at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville. They’ll return to the area in about two months, performing on the last day of the July 27-29 Panorama festival at Randall’s Island in New York; visit panorama.nyc.
Since forming Greta Van Fleet in Frankenmuth, Mich. circa 2012, these young men have taken the music world by storm and have caught the attention of some of rock’s elder statesmen such as Elton John and Joe Satriani as well as the eye of many a festival and tour promoter across the globe. Their hard rockin’ sound has drawn comparisons to elite such as Led Zeppelin — something the band wears like a badge of honor.
“It’s a compliment, for starters,” said Wagner. “I don’t know how much it really affects us as a band and as artists, but I think we definitely take it humbly and as a compliment. I look at it like it could be so much worse (laughs). They were probably at their time considered the best rock band of all time and it kind of paved the way for a lot of following artists; they’re timeless and very well respected.”
When asked about Satriani (who listens to the band on his tour bus) and being praised by rock royalty like Elton John, Wagner had this to say: “It’s very humbling. These are the guys we grew up listening to. I’ve been listening to Elton John since I was a kid. Absolutely, classic rock, blues, funk, I listened to a lot of folk music growing up. So, yeah, it’s very cool. It is really flattering because we’ve received similar attention in the past but it was mainly local attention. Just the fact that we’re getting all of this contemporary attention and it’s coming from all over the world, I think that’s pretty cool. It’s reaching areas that I never expected to reach as a musician.”
With the recent release of their double EP, Wagner says that the group is going through a “transitional phase” and that by re-releasing the four songs from their first EP with four new ones, the overall product acts as a segue from their beginning to their soon-to-be-released first full length disc.
“Well, we released Black Smoke Rising out of the blue. We had just recently signed with the record label. We didn’t really have much to expect from it because it was just four songs, just a little EP. It was starting to do very well and then we realized that it wasn’t a complete thought; there was more to us than that. So we were trying to develop a transition, a bridge, and in doing so we discovered that if we added four more songs, a couple of covers in there, that we could start to pave the way into this new album, which we are actually working on right now.”
The four members that comprise the group are Wagner, singer Josh Kiszka, guitarist Jake Kiszka and bassist Sam Kiszka. When it comes to the songwriting, Wagner says the load is shared, which gives the band a nice versatility.
“We’re all multi-instrumentalists, which is cool, because that helps in the songwriting because the songs, or at least the concepts, can come from any of us — four corners of songwriting potential, which is great, and that’s how we keep material coming, because we all bring it to the table.
“If you’re familiar at all with The Beatles, it’s kind of Beatlesque, really. And that’s the most fortunate way to do it because then, all ego aside, you can bring your personality in and identify who wrote, or different styles within the song, but when it all comes together, it’s Greta Van Fleet.
“Josh ultimately writes all of the lyrics because he’s the lead singer … he’s a phenomenal writer and very quick, too. He writes all of his lyrics in the studio, which is kind of, I guess, a little different. Usually, you picture John Lennon in front of a tree with a feather ink pen in a garden, writing down lyrics (laughs). But no, we use a marker in the studio, last minute. We’ll say to Josh, ‘Hey, we need another verse,’ and he’s like, ‘Okay, hold on,’ and we get another verse. Our songs come from stories and ideas and it’s very easy to write when you have the general idea.”
The band is on the European leg of their current tour. This is their second lengthy venture on the road, and Wagner says the band sees the subtle differences that success brings.
“Our first real full-length tour was back at the end of September, and we got back early- to mid-November; that was our first time away from home. We just recently had a run in Europe and then we came back, and now this will be our second real full run in the United States.
“The first tour went very well. It was still pretty early on, so the types of shows were very scattered. We were still playing shows that were booked nine months prior, so every once in a while we’d show up to a venue and the cap was at 175 people, and then the next day would be a show that was booked more recently and it was a 3,000 cap. It was a bit different, but this one we have high hopes for, because we have a bit of hype going because we just recently played Coachella, and that’s pretty significant and got the ball rolling a little bit.”
One of those differences is the comfort level, which Wagner says increases with each show as the foursome acclimates itself to life on the road and larger audiences.
“Actually, I definitely experienced some nerves,” he said with a laugh as he recalled the first show in front of thousands of fans. “It’s weird: Each one of these shows is like an actual milestone that you get to experience, which is pretty awesome because everything is happening so quickly. Once we played a show for thousands of people, it seemed easier to do it again. Meeting some of the people that we’ve met, all these different types of people, helps. Once you’ve done it, it’s easier to do it again in the future.”
So how did four young guys from Michigan, who were all less than a handful of years removed from graduating high school, arrive at a name like Greta Van Fleet?
“It comes from a woman, a town elder — a matriarch, I guess, if you will (named Gretna Van Fleet). She is actually in her mid-’80s now; she’s just a local woman.
“She was a name that was brought up at the time when the band had our first gig booked and we needed a name. It was just a name that had been heard earlier that week and we decided to take the second ‘n’ out, because linguistically it made more sense and that’s all there was to it. We dropped an ‘n’ and used it as a name and I think it stuck because we feel it has certain qualities. It’s very ambiguous, where it kind of leaves you not exactly sure of what you’re about to hear, so you come into it with an open mind. She is actually a musician herself, and she came to the first show. People saw her name on the marquee and started calling her, asking if she was performing, so she decided to come check us out. She stayed for an entire set and gave her blessing, which is very cool.”
Van Fleet and the band come from what can truly be considered “small town America,” midwestern style. “Yeah, the town has between four and five thousand people and there’s not really much in terms of a music scene, but I do believe there are a lot of creative scenes, which has to do with the way the landscape of the town is set up, and its location. … The schools, the town, the people, the overall community. I think a lot of it comes from that; it inspires creativity. Growing up, we spent a lot of time outdoors because we lived out in the country, and there are a lot of key characteristic Michigan events that affected us. So yeah, there was plenty of creative outlets.”
When asked about expectations at a GVF show, Wagner says it’s a work in progress, but that they continue to improve the product with every performance.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in the studio and I think that’s helped us quite a bit, but now we are advancing, becoming more of a live band and putting on a different type of show. I mean, we have a lighting crew now and we’re upping our tour game. I think for a lot of upcoming shows, the audience can expect an experience to develop and a whole lot of noise (laughs).”
For more about Greta Van Fleet, visit gretavanfleet.com.