A town like Frankenmuth, Michigan, which has one of the biggest year-round Christmas stores (Bronner’s) on the planet, doesn’t necessarily scream rock-n-roll, but Greta Van Fleet defies that assumption. While the four-piece band is a product of their musical influences with a resulting sound that is deep in bluesy rock and folk music, it’s their upbringing from a small town that holds a unique foundation that is just different than we usually see in the topsy-turvy world of music.
Greta Van Fleet just released their debut EP, Black Smoke Rising, and I was able to chat with lead vocalist Josh Kiszka about growing up in Frankenmuth and how the town influenced their music.
How was it growing up in Frankenmuth, Michigan?
I think it’s kind of romantic, in like a traditional sense, sort of like books you’ve read about Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, that kind of thing. We’re outside of town, right in the country. Frankenmuth is actually agricultural as a community, so we got to play in the streams and run through the fields and explore the forests. That’s how my experience outside of the thick of the town was. It’s a tight community and a wonderful community filled with genuine loving people, supportive people. All good things. I had a wonderful childhood. It was like a picture perfect Americana sort of thing.
How did you first get into wanting to be a musician?
I never really saw it on the horizon to be honest. I had a plethora of various interests prior to considering a singing career. I liked the idea of acting. I did all kinds acting in the community theater. I wanted to be a writer of books and film. I even considered being a comedian, but most of all; I wanted to be a filmmaker. That was the biggest one for me. As soon as I discovered film at a young age, it transformed my perspective on most things because you could tell a story. Something about all of that stuff is kind of in music and music has always been around in my life in my upbringing. My father was a musician. We were exposed to a lot of that stuff, usually older stuff. More of the roots like the blues music or the folk music. When that happened, it was natural. It was something I was familiar with and felt and I could do. There’s singing in acting too, its just a part of being a performer.
As a filmmaker, what were some of things that you were doing? Were you actually making anything?
Yes. Heavily. A day in the life of Josh Kiszka practically consisted of making or working on the next project. Always writing. Always casting. Always searching for music that would perfectly score or capture the essence of that particular film. We would shoot the movies, some of the ranging the scale of something that had no budget or small budget to something that was like $8,000 to make.
How did the film work help with this band you have now?
I think there’s an extraordinary visual approach to music as far as my work in concerned. A lot of it comes out in the literature of the work. A great deal of it is telling a story or putting something into perspective.
The name of the band Greta Van Fleet was named after a town elder. What’s the story behind that?
Well, Gretna Van Fleet with an “n” between the “t” and the “a”. I never really got to meet her prior naming the band after her. We had to come up with the band name a day before one of the shows we were doing, the first big show we would do in the street at the Auto Fest there. Our previous drummer, the original drummer that we had for about a year, had gone to lunch with his grandfather and his grandfather was going to drop him off over here so we could practice here in the garage. It’s the epicenter of our meanderings. We said “My grandfather said he had to go cut wood for Gretna Van Fleet. I think that could be a cool title.” So we took the “n” out because it would be easier. That’s what we stuck with. We went into town and did the first show and from then on, that was title. A lot of interesting things happened since with the title. Because she’s right in town, we would play festivals at the Fischer Hall downtown and there would people calling Gretna asking at her house asking if she was playing a show there. She used to be a drummer in a polka band. Her and her husband came out to listen to us and they gave us their blessing. We’ve had a good relationship with them.
How does the history of where you grew up in Frankenmuth fit into the music that you make now?
I think there is humbleness to it. It’s sort of a real world perspective on something that has no traces of ego. I have to imagine that there is romanticism about it. Nature plays a big role in our music. Our environment growing up here has been pretty much that. It allows us to very clearly see the whole world coming from a simple place, looking at it almost from the outside, not being so lost in it as a part of it, in it’s wildness.
With all these opportunities coming your way, how do you stay grounded and not succumb any of the temptations that the music industry might have?
It has to do a lot with a great support system both in the community and within our families. We’re all incredibly graced in having wonderful families who’ve been beyond amazingly supportive and understanding. The people that we’re working with in the industry have been just all of that too, as one would hope. Simply put, it had to do with a great degree with our principles just as we are as human beings and where we came from and our support system.
With the debut EP “Black Smoke Rising”, you definitely have this particular sound that touches on the blues and classic rock, but there is a breathe of fresh air with it. How did you come about crafting the sound of the band?
I think a lot of it came together naturally, but it’s coming from such a eclectic, diverse group of musicians and influences. So, whatever it was, I think naturally came together from all these various elements. Its hard for us to fully really understand because it so organic and natural to create what we’re creating that it doesn’t so much have an easy explanation. I don’t think any of us really know how it came about sounding like that, but obviously there’s blues in it and there’s folk in it. There’s country in some aspects of it. There’s many influences. Personally, some of my influences are Wilson Pickett, Joe Cocker, Sam & Dave, John Denver, and Demis Roussos. I listen to African music a lot. I listen to music from the Andes Mountains in Chile. I love the sitar and traditional Indian like Rave Shankar. And Native American. Those things to me just really appeal to me and it really is so absolutely strange and eclectic that there is no way to truly explain how that happened. It just did.
How do you go about consuming all that different types of music?
For me, its what that music makes me feel when I listen to it. Its like a spiritual language. Most of these more traditional elements of music appeal to me because they are so raw and natural. A lot of the music of African tribes, for instance, is very expressive of love for their God or for the universe of nature and living and things like that. Its all of those things that makes is human and makes us feel good to be alive and to be human. Those are things I identify with strongly.
Greta Van Fleet’s new release “Black Smoke Rising EP” is available now. They will be hitting the road for a short string of dates starting May 12th in Libertyville, IL. For more information on Greta Van Fleet and full tour dates, visit gretavanfleet.com.