The four members of the Michigan band Greta Van Fleet look, act and sound like they were grown in the lab of some classic-rock-loving mad scientist. How else to explain a group of kids who go around dropping references to Vanilla Fudge’s Carmine Appice and Free’s Paul Kossoff, who cover Fairport Convention and Howlin’ Wolf – and who, by the way, make huge, throwback, blues-riff-riding rock that often sounds preposterously, uncannily close to newly unearthed Led Zeppelin tracks? “We are like a bunch of old men,” acknowledges pixieish, curly-headed frontman Josh Kiszka, possessor of a blowtorch of a high tenor, with casual access to notes that Robert Plant misplaced during the Carter administration.
The singer, who was starring in high school plays not long ago, is sipping tea on an early-December afternoon in the band’s dressing room at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, sporting the same college-production-of-Hair look he’ll wear onstage tonight for a sold-out show: blouse-y kurta, ankle-high jeans, moccasins, a tribal necklace he believes to be African in origin. (“He’s always worn weird shit,” says Jake Kiszka, the band’s longhaired, justifiably self-assured guitarist, who’s more of a T-shirt-and-skinny-jeans guy.)
There was (probably) no laboratory involved, but three of the members are family: Josh and Jake are 21-year-old twins, while bassist-keyboardist Sam Kiszka is their 18-year-old brother – in their cover-band days, they had him playing biker bars at age 12. As it turns out, their dad is a chemist with a serious record collection and a harmonica-playing habit, and their mom is a former science teacher (their grandpa, meanwhile, is in the Polka Hall of Fame). The fourth member is strong-footed drummer Danny Wagner, 18, one of the few other kids in their tiny town of Frankenmuth who shared his friends’ prodigious musical gifts and time-warped sensibilities – their classmates didn’t even know what to call the odd music they liked, except “old.”
As incongruous as the whole Greta Van Fleet experience may be, it’s catching on, and quickly. Veteran exec Jason Flom – who helped launch Paramore, Lorde and Kid Rock – snatched them up for a major-label deal. The first song they ever wrote, the slide-guitar-heavy “Highway Tune,” hit Number One on mainstream rock radio, or at least what’s left of it. And their flat-out incredible live shows are attracting more and more fans close to their own age – something that first seemed possible back when they played their high school’s homecoming dance, and the kids freaked out.
As Josh and Sam tell it, Greta Van Fleet landed on their Seventies-rock sound by tracing the same blues-and-soul influences that shaped older bands, rather than through direct imitation – although even their earliest gigs were heavy on Cream covers, plus the occasional Bad Company tune. As a kid, Sam remembers listening to “all the Kings – B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King – and then, like, Buddy Guy.”
“I didn’t know who fucking Led Zeppelin was until I was in high school,” Josh adds. The story goes that his Plant-ian shriek simply came out in practice one day as he struggled to be heard over the band. “We stopped,” recalls Jake, “and were like, ‘Whatever you just did, keep doing that, ’cause it sounds badass.’ ”
Jake does cop to careful scrutiny of Jimmy Page – among many other guitarists, including Pete Townshend. “I went through a year of really intensely studying what Page did,” says Jake, “to the point where I knew how he thought.”
They’re not altogether averse to newer music, citing, among other acts, Fleet Foxes, Rival Sons, the Shins and especially the Black Keys, whose 2012 Rolling Stone cover decorated their garage rehearsal space for years. “Our dad brought the Magic Potion album home, and we’re like, ‘Wow, this is contemporary music?’ ” says Sam, whose long hair and boyish features make him look like a lost Hanson brother – albeit one who’s a phenomenally melodic bass player, when he’s not switching to organ and handling the low end via foot pedals, à la Ray Manzarek. But unlike the Keys, none of Greta Van Fleet’s members are hip-hop fans, and they can truly sound decades older than their years when they talk about current music. “People are doing it for the wrong reasons,” says Sam. “They are not doing it to change the world. They are doing it to make money.”
Before Greta Van Fleet – who are named after a local woman named Gretna Van Fleet – can change the world, they have to finish their first album. It’ll follow their eight-song EP, From the Fires, which had six originals (there’s also an excellent cover of Fairport’s “Meet on the Ledge” – and an ill-conceived version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”). The LP will be all-new songs, most already written, with time carved out in early 2018 to record.
In the meantime, they’re having fun. Jake takes a preshow swig from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s each night – “a rock & roll ritual,” he calls it. But they swear that they’re going to keep it all in check. “Everything that you hear about the rock & roll lifestyle is true,” says Josh, wide-eyed. “All of those wild, absurd things that you would like to romanticize about are very honest truth. The amount of excess always around. The amount of women that always want to hang out. It really is all there. It’s tempting, and it’s crazy stuff.” He smiles. “But we don’t seem to have too much interest.” He almost sells the line, too.