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Greta Van Fleet // Sam Kiszka

26 February 2019 | 1:18 am | Alex Sievers
Originally Appeared In

"Once people start saying "I hated that album", that's when I start thinking that I should really listen to it." -Sam Kiszka, Greta Van Fleet.

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It's rare to see such a young rock band grabbing the world's attention in such stark contrasts: both extremely positive and also insanely negative. Yet that's the interesting pickle that classic rock loving youths, Greta Van Fleet, have found themselves in since their two 2017 EPs, 'Black Smoke Rising' and 'From the Fires' took them further than they ever thought possible; the very same can be said of 2018's opinion-splitting 'Anthem of the Peaceful Army' LP. 

Hearing over the phone from bassist Sam Kiszka (one of  the band's three Kiszka brothers) when Greta Van Fleet were in Sydney during their 2019 Australian run - which they shit-canned the last leg of so they could jet-set back to the States for the Grammy's, as you do - the bassist is invigorated by what he does. And that's all that matters to him and the rest of his band: enjoying what they do. Yet what about THAT Saturday Night Live performance? Those scathing Pitchfork and Needle Drop reviews? The endless Led Zep comparisons? And what about making music for people who believe that they're truly born in le wrong generation? Well, I cover it all with the young yet excited and honestly receptive bassist. So go and dig into this classic rock grub below.

Sam, the most recent thing regarding Greta Van Fleet is that Saturday Night Live performance. Which is quite interesting. As while the performance of 'Black Smoke Rising' didn't see you guys bomb , it wasn't great either. And people have been talking about it. Yet you also filmed a live take of 'You're The One' - which I don't think some people realised - and I feel that second song went down much smoother in terms of performances and nerves. So I wanted to get your take on all that, man.

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Sure! See, that's the thing about our music. When people think that they're going to exactly hear the song on the record, that's just not what is about to happen. The way that we play is that we reinterpret our songs. 'Black Smoke Rising' was first recorded years ago at this point, and that was just our interpretation of that song. To us, we really thought that it was a great performance. There is also a certain amount of T.V. and audio that can get messed up in the mix with these things. And rock'n'roll is not perfect, you know? And the people who just go onto YouTube to complain about things? That does nothing to us, that's just a waste of their time. The thing is, it was a performance. The way that we do our music is inherently a little sloppy; creativity is not always pretty. We could onto a track or perform to a click, but that's not us. We could go overtime, under time, an amp could blow up. We play real music and that's what comes with real music. People don't have to like it, and they don't have to be apart of that.

Do you think that as Greta Van Fleet goes on, as you grow and mature, obviously the playing will become tighter and more stream-lined? Whether you're playing a real gig or a T.V. performance, wanting it to be "perfect" or not?

In the grand scheme things, I'd say so, yeah. Getting more comfortable with T.V. performances, I think that's the biggest thing. You can have this state of mind that it's just another show, and it is, but it'll be a strange show as there'll be a lot more people watching you than just that audience. It's a little unnatural. The people who have played SNL, I think they can all relate to it being a strange or different set to what any performer is used to. As time goes, I think these kinds of performances will be better in stature. It's very different being there and watching it on T.V.

With that 'You're The One' showing, you all seemed far less nervous and more relaxed. Yet with the 'Black Smoke Rising', your brother Josh [Kiszka, vocals], looked really nervous and out of place. Though, I also think of that Nirvana Top Of The Pops performance, where Kurt Cobain is purposely fucking up his vocals and the other guys are just taking the piss. So, there's always that route for Greta.

Well, that's the thing about people like that. Kurt Cobain was not a natural performer, he was a musician and a writer. He was all of those things but by no means a frontman in the traditional sense of the word. But then there's Josh, who is a frontman. Even we can have those problems of trying to feel present. Nervousness is normal for those things, but it's when you can't deliver because of the pressure behind it. That being said, I think he did a tremendous job. All you can hear is the vocals and he knows that. We all have a very high sense of perfection, as we want everything to be perfect.

I totally get wanting to put on your very best performance, but I think you contradicted yourself about perfection regarding your prior statement. But let's move onto the contrast that Greta creates. As you get so much backlash and criticism - from social media comments, to negative reviews from Pitchfork and Anthony Fantano - yet that album sold very well, and now you're up for a few Grammy's. For every person who dislikes you, there's someone who loves your music dearly. It's interesting. It's like Imagine Dragons or Nickelback. 

Yeah, I feel that too. I feel that our fans are very hardcore and they will be really relentless in how they defend us. Yet I don't think there's much purpose that that serves. People will always have their opinions, whether we want to hear them or not. Your question before is actually the first time about the SNL performance getting a bad response. Because we really like to stay far away from what people think of us as much as possible. Which may sound pretty bad, but it's our own way of protecting the art, the civility of the art [laughs]. For anyone, directors and painters and everyone else, people have their opinions, credible or not, but no matter what, if you're too conscious you can lose sight of your art and what your intention is. We do like to stay pretty far away from that. I really feel like the people who trash talk us is a tremendous waste of time.

I read in that Rolling Stone interview, that none of you had read the 1.6 Pitchfork review; Josh saying he didn't like that they were putting that energy into the world. And I'm not sure I agree. Obviously, not everyone will like what you do, as you said, but there can be other perspectives and information gained from hearing contrasting opinions that aren't just the positive ones. What's your vibe on that, Sam? 

I do think that you're correct in that looking at criticism can give you a different perspective on the art you make. But I think there's a good balance. I think the balances are what that people tell us what others say, and that's our filter. There's a lot of bullshit that we don't wanna hear, and then there's a wall between that of our friends, family and people that we're working with. If they told us something there was substantial being said - I don't even know what it would be - and once it becomes a very mainstream thing, we'll catch wind of it eventually.

For sure. From my end, as someone who does reviews and works in music media, I truly believe that the only bad publicity that you can get, would be to receive NO publicity at all. If no one's talking about, then no one cares. What's funny, though, is even those who vehemently dislike Greta, they'll still probably check out the next record regardless. 

Yes, exactly. I do think that you're totally right, man. I still haven't read that Pitchfork review. I will one of these days [laughs]. But I was really thankful for it, as my favourite bands coming up in the press and mainstream culture, some people genuinely hated them. I always wanted to do something that people absolutely hated. And I think that goes for my personal opinion about things too. Because if everyone says that X album is really good, then I'll get around to it eventually. Once people start saying "I hated that album", that's when I start thinking that I should really listen to it. There's plenty of stuff that people say I should listen to, but once the boat perspective starts getting flipped, I think it's then time to check it out.

Interesting take, Sam. I'm of a similar mindset. I heard some talk out here that once Pitchfork's review went out, it generated way more streams for 'Anthem of the Peaceful Army'. Enabling Greta to add new shows for the Aussie tour due to demand in tickets and new interest. 

[Laughs] oh, I love that.

Hey, once again, bad press is still press. But let's talk about Greta's sound too. As I do hear a lot of Zep, but also some James Gang and Rush as well. Yet what Josh said - let's move on" in regards to the Zep comparisons - whether they were a big influence or not, surely you guys understand that once your music doesn't sound so heavily like them, those comparisons will end?

Well, I don't really mind what people think we sound like. If I'm honest, Led Zeppelin was an influence when we were growing up. But it was just as much as the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and Muddy Waters. Because there was no specif artist that we listened to more than the other. I think it was a mix of what we liked. We listened to a lot of the same stuff that those guys - Zeppelin - were listening to as well. Like Elvis, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson. We grew up on that stuff too. So I think that puts us in line with those bands, and this is our interpretation of that music. It's almost like a circle; what influenced them influences us as well. It keeps going on over itself, and there's no end which is the beautiful part.

That cyclical nature of music is interesting; how the past informs the present and thus the future. While I'm not a fan, and not to be too antagonistic, the way I've always described Greta Van Fleet's music is that you make rock music for people who feel they were born in the wrong generation; making music for a classic rock crowd who wish they were alive during the 60's and 70's.

It's so funny that you mention that, actually. Because until the past year or so, that's what I always thought: "I wish I could've been apart of the music of the 50's and 60's." I live and regret from being in this time. But in the past year, with Greta Van Fleet, it feels like there's something in the air; like some kind of musical revolution. It feels like there is turmoil, and there really is. I feel that people are responding to that with rock music, and I think that people are ready for a resurgence in the youth to be anti-establishment. Knock down the old and build up the new. I feel like we've pushed past the precipice of politics, art, music, and what we're doing to the environment. 2019, it feels like a very special time, like the stars are aligning. Right now, I feel very in-line with where we are, and where we're all going. So I actually feel very thankful to be alive in this time, in this generation. It just took some time for me to realise that, is all.

I think that we're always on the cusp of change and revolution, but it never materialises in the way people so often want. That's just me, of course. Though, I'm also getting a vibe there that you and GVF also don't wish to stay in this vintage, classic rock lane-way forever? 

Yeah, I believe that our sound will naturally evolve, just following our hearts and our intuition. Recording and playing just what comes out. What is most important to us is to never lie to anybody with the music. It's to honestly put what's in us out there. It'll evolve into something even more Greta Van Fleet than what we're doing now. We just love what we do, and no one can stop us even if they tried.

The latest album from the world's best Led Zeppelin cosplay act, Greta Van Fleet's 'Anthem of the Peaceful Army', is out now.