“It’s probably the most fun we’ve ever had” Greta Van Fleet on Starcatcher and going from farm towns to arenas
Greta Van Fleet’s Jake Kiszka on his early guitar influences, their rapid rise to superstardom, and why Starcatcher has been their most fun album yet
Kelly Kiszka had reached the point that every parent of young kids reaches in the end – he was admitting defeat.
We all go into it thinking that on some level we’ll be able to keep our kids broadly separate from our ‘nice stuff’ – you put it in a drawer, a cupboard, a high shelf… and for the first eight to twelve months you think, ‘This is going great!’ Then they start crawling and walking, and you begin to realise that ultimately, short of keeping everything you own in a locked safe, you just have to let them have at it and hope your stuff comes out the other side intact.
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When you’ve got four young kids running around the place, you come to those sorts of realisations quicker than most, but we doubt that Papa Kiszka realised what a profound, life-changing impact surrendering his guitars to the curiosity of his kids would have on his family down the line.
“He would leave guitars and things like that on the ground – just strewn about. And we’d all climb around on ’em, and my mother would say, ‘Pick ’em up because they’re gonna destroy them!’” recalls one of those aforementioned tiny tearaways, Jake Kiszka. “But he would say, ‘Ah, it’s alright, they’ll get sick of them eventually’. And that’s true! Everybody did – my two brothers and my sister – but I never did. I never stopped playing with the guitar.”
That worked out pretty well for the whole family. Jake, of course, is the guitarist of Greta Van Fleet, alongside frontman and twin brother Josh and younger brother Sam on bass and keys . The band has risen from sleepy Frankenmuth, Michigan to the global stage in less than a decade, despite a climate of indifference or outright hostility on the part of most of the music press.
In 2017, the first song the band ever wrote, Highway Tune, topped the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, beginning a run of four consecutive number ones over the coming years. Their second EP, From The Fires, won the Grammy for Best Rock Album. Their debut album, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, reached No 3 in the US charts and went gold. And despite the lack of enthusiasm from those aforementioned critics, they’ve built a global fanbase that shows up in their tens of thousands night after night in arenas all across the world. Oh, and Jake and Josh are still just 27 years old.
Quite frankly, this is not supposed to happen to guitar bands in 2023. Certainly not guitar bands playing the sort of unabashedly retro rock that Greta Van Fleet play. And yet here they are – defying the odds, defying trends, defying pretty much everything to ensure that the flame of classic rock continues to burn in a new generation.
“If I could tell that bunch of young kids playing in the garage, crafting something and intending to get on the road and play some shows, what would happen in five years time? I don’t think that any of us would’ve even believed it,” Kiszka reflects. “We step out of the door and then five years later we’re filling these arenas – how is that even possible?”
Start ’Em Young
For the younger Kiszka twin, those early moments clambering over his dad’s guitars would leave their mark, starting him on a guitar journey that began when he was just three years old, but it would take a bona fide legend to really set the fire ablaze.
“I remember sitting with my dad watching an old cassette tape of a Cream performance,” Jake recalls. “Eric Clapton came on playing a solo or something, and that was the seminal moment where I was like, ‘Wow, you can do that?! With the guitar!?’”
Given how persistently those dismissive comparisons to Led Zeppelin follow the band around, you might assume that the Kiszkas spent their entire childhoods listening to nothing bar Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, but Jake insists that their formative musical education was much more broad, which has allowed them to understand classic rock through a more considered prism.
“A lot of people think we were listening to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll growing up, when in fact, we weren’t really,” he says. “We got into rock ‘n’ roll, the golden age stuff, around high school. But when we were growing up, it was blues and jazz, roots music, classical and folk music, Americana music… Peruvian music! And I almost think that it was done intentionally, because our parents had a massive vinyl collection, and a lot of the stuff that we were listening to was really the beginning of where other things had evolved from – where rock ‘n’ roll comes from. And so later, when we discovered rock ‘n’ roll, it blew our heads off because it was like, ‘Woah, what is this?!’ It was a personification of all these roots genres we’d listened to.
“And of course, the guitar itself is a foundational aspect of that type of music, so I was drawn to it immediately because I’m a guitar player. It was bands like The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Kinks, Cream, The Rolling Stones… just this flood of British bands who were at the forefront of guitar playing in this era. And so that was when I was like, ‘Hmm, this is interesting – maybe I can put something together that toys with those similar elements.’”
Good Friends To Have
A desire to toy with those elements was a big part of why Jake started jamming in the family’s Frankenmuth garage with original drummer and school friend Kyle Hauck back in 2012. Jake had always dreamed of starting a band, but he never had any intention of making things a family affair. Before long however, these practices would attract the attention of his brothers, who promptly filled out the line-up, with Josh the singer and younger brother Sam on bass. Hauck would be replaced by another friend, Danny Wagner, after just a year, and the rest is history.
Greta Van Fleet began making a name for themselves around Michigan in those first few years, and by the time the twins were 20, they had built enough of a following that they were ready to embark on their first proper national tour. Jake had been an SG devotee since he was 12 years old, but at this point the band’s gear was still very much at the budget end of the scale – that was about to change dramatically thanks to an encounter with a 1961 Gibson Les Paul SG with a Vibrola tailpiece.
“When we first left Michigan, Josh and I must have been 20, and Sam and Danny were like 17 – and we just hit the ground running,” Kiszka reflects. “One of the stops along that first tour was Chicago, and so of course we stopped off at Chicago Music Exchange while we were there. Now, due to the fact that we had grown up in a town of 5,000 people in the middle of a bunch of farm fields, the access we had to instruments was pretty limited, so being in this massive instrument shop that had everything – vintage, contemporary, you name it – it was like, ‘WOW!’
“And the owner was taking us around and he was like, ‘If you see anything you like, let me know and we can pull it…’ And so I was walking around being like, ‘Well this is cool, this is cool, this is also cool…’ But then I stumbled on that guitar, and we took it back to his apartment, which was right down the street and plugged it in… and it was like divine intervention, because that was the sound that I’d been trying to find pretty much my whole life. Going all the way back to being that kid picking up a guitar at three years old, it was that sound – that was it.
“I hadn’t even owned a tube amp up until that point, I was playing solid-state stuff! We hadn’t even really made our name, we were just starting out touring, and he just said, ‘What you heard, I think I heard it too… take this guitar on the road with you and you can just pay me back when you can’. This guy just let this kid take a $20,000 guitar out the door! And a year later I was able to pay him back, but I have him to thank for that still – we’re friends to this day!”
That ’61 has since become Jake’s ‘Beloved’ – his number one, mate for life-level guitar, and so it’s no surprise that Gibson tapped him up when the brand was reissuing a very similar guitar last year. It’s a partnership that’s not just fleeting, however, and soon that guitar is going to spawn that ultimate slice of guitar nerd cred – a signature model.
“A little while ago, when Gibson came out with the reissued ’61 SG with the sideways tailpiece, they were like, ‘Well who do we go to for this?’ And I guess it was obvious that they were gonna come see me!” he chuckles.
“So, I did some championing of that guitar, but now they’re actually coming out with a more basic model, which is really exciting for me to be involved in because kids can afford it! It’s an Epiphone, and it’s cool because I know people will play it and cherish it – it’s amazing.
“There was some talk about doing a Murphy Lab version of my number one, the Beloved, but it was just really funny because that thing has seen the face of war! I don’t know if anyone would be willing to pay $10,000 for basically half of a guitar. They were talking about doing it. but they said they would have to invent a new scale of relic’ing – it’d be destroyed!”
It’s not just secret new signature models that we’re here to talk about, however. Last week the band released their third long-player, Starcatcher – a record that sees Greta Van Fleet climb down a little from the pomp of their sophomore effort, The Battle At Garden’s Gate, and embrace the grit and bite that propelled them so forcefully out of that garage in Frankenmuth.
“I think because The Battle At Garden’s Gate was this giant, cinematic thing, it was like, ‘You know what we should do? We should scale back, go back to the roots.’” Jake explains. “And it was interesting because I would argue that Starcatcher sounds bigger because of that – because it was stripped back. That was one of the objectives – going back to the primitive edge of where we were kind of coming from.”
To try and capture this old-school edge, GVF turned to Grammy-winning Nashville producer Dave Cobb – a man who might not be known for making music that puts hairs on your chest, but certainly understands how to make a band sound raw, organic and impactful.
“I find it very difficult for producers to come and work with us and kind of blend into the mix, because we’re so tight-knit?” says Jake of their decision to work with Cobb at his RCA Studio A in Nashville. “Because we grew up together, there’s a certain vernacular, and it’s really hard for producers to come into that fold. But Dave seamlessly came into it, like I’d never seen before. And I think it’s attributed to; one, his ability to work with a group and the chemistry of that. And two, I think we grew up in very similar ways – he came from a very artistic household as well. Then thirdly, I think our influences are very very aligned.
“So the language that we were speaking and communicating was similar enough that he was able to say, ‘I get where you’re going, let’s build on that…’ And that was really, really amazing.”
When it came to recording guitars, Jake opted to throw everything comfortable out and approach things completely differently – gone were the Marshall stacks, replaced with a dizzying array of small combo amps (mainly Fenders) and a guitar arsenal loaned to him by an old friend…
“Remember that guy from Chicago Music Exchange that I was talking about?” Jake smiles. “Well for this record I called him up and I said, ‘Hey, I wanna try just a bunch of weird, outrageous stuff!’ And so he brought down a literal truck full of guitars, and we laid them out in RCA Studio A, and I opened every single case. Then every song, I’d walk up and I’d grab a different guitar and see how it felt. So the expanse of guitars on this record is amazing. He brought like, the third ES-335 ever made, which was pretty amazing. That guitar wiped out every other guitar in the entire studio and anything that I’d brought, so I used it a lot. Then on Fate of the Faithful, there’s a B-Bender ’63 Telecaster – so there was an assortment of stuff!”
Read The Room
As much as the gear was important, the way that Cobb recorded them was also a key factor in Starcatcher‘s evolution, and finally vindicated Jake after years of fighting to get the sound he wanted on record.
“All the techniques and stuff that he was applying were the things that I had come across in a lot of research of how old records were made,” he explains. “In the past with other producers and engineers I’d asked, ‘Can we just put the mic ten feet off the amp and just let the room do its job?’ And I was always told no and would end up recording in an isolation booth with me and the amps, and then you’d add a reverb digitally afterwards.
“With this record, pretty much the only reverb on the guitar is RCA Studio A. Dave was like, ‘Oh that sounds good, maybe we should just back the mic off a bit and let the room do the work…’ and I was like, ‘That’s exactly what I was saying I wanted to do!’
“It was really just using all these classic techniques that made the guitar sound so big, but the cool thing is, we’re living in an age of high-fidelity. So, you get these beautiful huge sounds, but the nuance of the tonality means you get so much clarity in largeness – so it’s a blend of the old and the new.”
Starcatcher wasn’t just an opportunity for Jake to explore new recording techniques either – it was a chance for him to finally explore altered tunings: from DADGAD and Open C, to novel tunings he came up with himself. It’s something he’s long been interested in trying, but the practicalities of replicating these things live always put him off.
“I think in the early days I’d always always held back because I didn’t have a guitar tech, and I only had one guitar that I was gonna mainly use, so it was out of necessity,” he admits. “But this time I was like, I don’t really care about trying to replicate it live. I can kinda do whatever I want at this point.”
Over their first five years of mainstream success, you’ve often got the sense that the members of Greta Van Fleet have approached interviews like a boxer coming out of their corner at the round bell, guard up, ready to deflect the inevitable loaded questions that will come from a media that is unable or unwilling to understand their appeal.
Today, however, there’s none of that defensiveness, indeed there’s an ease and confidence about Jake that reflects a band that are fully at ease with themselves and their music, and they’re having a great time doing it.
“It’s probably the most fun we’ve ever had making this album – it was like an adventure!” he agrees. “We were in the studio for like a month, we cut most of the record and it was all live and then Dave would be like, ‘Hey I’m moving to Savannah, you guys should come down and finish the record in Georgia!’ So we went down to sunny Savannah, Georgia and hung out on Tybee beach in the bars with these art students, and then went to the studio. It was really just like an absolute blast, and I feel like the energy kinda translated to the album.”
There’s also a sense that Jake understands just how unlikely their rise has been, and his pride and gratitude at what they’ve accomplished in such a short time is evident. As the success of fellow retro-revivalists Måneskin demonstrates, GVF have been at the vanguard of a mini-rock ‘n’ roll revival in the 2020s.
“It’s been sort of hiding in the shadows, but now it’s coming to the light of day again,” Jake agrees. “When something becomes sub-cultural, or counter-cultural, you get a situation like what happened when the English bands in the 60s discovered the blues. It was like this remissive African-American music that was under the radar, and because of that, contextually, it was interesting. It was intriguing because no one else paid attention to it.
“I feel like it’s the same thing with rock ‘n’ roll and guitar-based music – it’s receded, but it’s still so important to the structure and foundations of everything else, that it’s still interesting. The fact that we’re doing what we’re doing and we stand here and have the capabilities that we have – it shows what rock ‘n’ roll is capable of, and what it is doing for our generation.”
Starcatcher is out now on Republic Records