Talk to Josh Kiszka, lead singer of the band Greta Van Fleet, about his time growing up in a small town in the American midwest and you’d think he was describing the life of Huckleberry Finn. “We were outside most of the time, building rafts and taking them down the river,” the 24-year-old told the Guardian. “There wasn’t a lot of television in the house. And when all the other kids wanted cell phones, I fought that. I preferred to take a hike.”
Kiszka’s parents strongly encouraged him and his two brothers in that pursuit. “My mother even took the clocks off the wall at one point,” he said. “They were the opposite of helicopter parents. They taught us to do things independently.”
That mind-set goes a long way towards explaining the insular world that shaped the music of the Kiszka brothers who comprise three fourths of Greta Van Fleet. They include Josh’s fraternal twin Jake, who plays guitar, and their younger brother Sam, on bass. (The sole non-sibling member is their close friend, drummer Danny Wagner). The musicians’ remove from the modern world also helps explains why their sonic taste falls so far from that of most in their generation, as well as part of why they have drawn so much scorn from contemporary critics. While Greta Van Fleet’s debut album, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, released in 2018, excited enough fans to debut in Billboard’s Top Five, critics treated it like a fresh outbreak of Ebola.
Many of the barbs centered on the band’s clear and present debt to the war-horses of classic rock, most glaringly Led Zeppelin. Rolling Stone wrote that the band often sound “preposterously close” to the creators of “Stairway to Heaven”, going on to label their songs “expert forgeries”.
“Do they have a musical knowledge outside of Led Zeppelin?” wrote a writer in Esquire. “They absolutely don’t,” while the New York Times led their review with the sarcastic line “somebody must have really missed this stuff”.
Josh Kiszka’s high and mighty voice – which, at full screech, can sound like an ejaculating hyena – has come in for special grilling. NPR balked at his “grating, maximalist pitchiness”, while the Times called his voice scratchy and shrill.
“I’ve gotten plenty of ridicule,” the singer acknowledged with a knowing laugh. “And I expect to get more. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.”
He may get his wish with the release of the band’s much-anticipated sophomore album, Battle at Garden’s Gate. The music it contains pushes the band’s commitment to ‘70s pomp to a shrieking new peak, while its lyrics explore the kinds of subjects that made albums like Yes’ Tales of Topographic Oceans critical whipping boys. If the results are unlikely to win over those already tired of the band’s sources, there’s plenty here to entrance fans. More, there’s something winning about the members’ earnest intentions, as well as their unwavering commitment to them. Their sincere love for the history of rock shows in the depth of their knowledge about it.
After all, how many other current groups of twentysomethings would think to cover a Fairport Convention song (Meet on the Ledge) on one of their EPs, or to eagerly allude, as did Kiszka in our interview, to everything from elder touchstones like Jethro Tull and Donovan to fossilized obscurities like The Gentle Soul or the Lord Sitar album by Big Jim Sullivan. The Kiszka brothers learned about such things by digging into the countless crates of music their father owned, affectionately dubbed “the vinyl playground”. (No CDs for him). “Those records were from a specific time and place,” said the singer, “but, to me, they’re timeless”.
The young men also absorbed the literature favored by his father, a chemist with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. (Their mother is a science teacher.) “We had a lot of books that maybe children shouldn’t read, by Nietzsche and Sartre,” he said. “It was all very interesting.”
Of course, such interests “made it harder to talk to kids my age in school”, Kiszka said. “They didn’t know what any of this stuff was. It was an early realization that my family was uncommon.”
The fact that his parents had a bohemian sensibility and “were very encouraging and sympathetic”, meant that their sons didn’t experience the usual generational rebellion. By the time Kiszka and his twin turned 16, and when their brother Sam was 14, they formed a band inspired by their father’s antique sources, joined by original drummer Kyle Hauck. They first played around the small town they grew up in, Frankenmuth, Michigan (population 5,000), a place known to outsiders, if at all, for its annual German festival.
The band took their name from a woman who lived in the town. (Her first name is actually Gretna). One year later, their drummer left, replaced by Wagner. In 2014, the foursome recorded and released a concert EP, establishing their emphasis on live playing and self-sufficiency. They’ve never used outside songwriters or hired extra musicians (the sole exception being the string section on the new album). “We’re proud of being able to achieve what we’ve achieved with just four people,” the singer said. “It’s very important to us to have complete artistic control.”
They got just that from the label that signed them, Lava/Republic which, in 2017, issued two EPs, the second of which went gold in the US. Their debut album earned them no fewer than four Grammy nominations, including best new artist, with a win for best rock album. For the new set, Kiszka said they “wanted to do something on a bigger scale”, a notable goal for a band already prone towards gigantism. “With the first album, we had the preface and the thesis. This is more of the body of the work,” he said.
At the same time, the album continues the lyrical bent of their debut. The titles of both sets employ war imagery. “We thought that would be a good through-line because war has been here since the advent of man,” Kiszka said. “There’s always conflict – from wars of religion to wars of industry.”
The lyrics the band write don’t address love or relationships, aiming instead for headier stuff. “I wasn’t turned on by the cliche ‘love you baby, I want to be yours’ kind of thing,” the singer said. “I want people to lean into things that are challenging.”
He believes the philosophical focus of the words suits the music’s grandiosity. “It’s theatrical,” he said. “That’s the rock’n’roll spirit.”
The fact that some consider the result bombastic doesn’t faze him. “I can get on board with that,” he said.
Certainly, he has in his approach to singing, which can make Freddie Mercury seem like an introvert. “It just felt natural to me to do something acrobatic with my voice,” Kiszka said. “I wanted to hang from the rafters.”
If the result has divided listeners, the singer’s look has pushed things to the limit. On the band’s Saturday Night Live performance last season, Kiszka wore a get-up he designed himself which NPR described as a cross between “a beaded curtain and a yarn bomb”. Even the singer’s stature (at 5’6”) has come in for cruel descriptions, causing many a YouTube commenter to compare him to Bilbo the Hobbit.
Kiszka said his outlandish outfits were inspired by Demis Roussos, singer of the Greek prog band of the ‘60s Aphrodite’s Child. “He was this big hairy guy with a beard who would go on television wearing a dress covered in rhinestones,” Kiszka said in awe. “It projected attitude.”
The singer accepts that his own visual presentation can raise eyebrows. “A grown man in a jumpsuit screaming,” he said with a laugh. “What is he thinking? Someone once said to us, ‘I can’t think of anybody else who can get up there, dressed like that and get away with it.”
But, “in the end. you don’t give a shit. You abandon fear because it only hinders you as a performer.”
Kiszka maintains just as blithe an attitude about the endless Zep allusions. “We’ve been honored and flattered to have those comparisons,” he said. “And it’s lovely that Robert Plant would speak so kindly about what we do.”
In fact, it’s not clear that he has. In an interview last year with Australia’s Network Ten, Plant described Greta Van Fleet as “Led Zeppelin 1.” When asked about Kiszka’s voice he slyly said, “he borrowed it from someone I know well.”
Pressed further about the uncommon level of criticism the band has received, Kiszka did allow a trace of ire. “Some people are writing their articles in their mother’s basement and they’re pissed off that we’re doing something,” he said. “If your career is writing negative things about people, I would think you’d have something better to do.”
At the same time, he recognizes the value of becoming a lightning rod. “If you drop flaming nitrous in someone’s lap, I think they’ll notice” he said. “It’s a sign that we’ve done something to arouse people in some way or other.”
And they fully intend to keep doing so. “Fuck anybody for putting it down,” Kiszka declared. ‘This is what we’re going to do.”
Battle at Garden’s Gate is released on 16 April