The next great rock 'n' roll band may have finally arrived. In a decade dominated by electronic influence, Greta Van Fleet feels like a rock rebellion, with an earthy sound rooted in the blues and a worldview informed by the Beat Generation. The band's Black Smoke Rising EP already scored a chart-topping mainstream hit with its fiery lead single, "Highway Tune," and most of the dates on its upcoming five-month world tour are already sold out. Drawing comparisons to the biggest rock bands of the '60s and '70s, Greta Van Fleet is set to rattle the music world again with its forthcoming full-length debut.
Impressively, those who only hear the songs might envision older musicians, but Greta Van Fleet consists of three brothers and a close friend who are all between the ages of 18 and 21. Band singer Josh Kiszka also impresses with this articulate interview in which he spoke with PRØHBTD about the blues, the beatniks, biker bars and celebrating the Sixties as the American Renaissance.
What core elements of rock 'n' roll really connected with young people in the '60s and '70s, and how are you tapping into those elements and making them relevant for modern times?
Rock 'n' roll was an independent voice from a generation that wanted to be heard and rebel against tyranny. It was made up of so many different elements that it was hard to categorize initially, but the music took all these elements and heightened them. Those are elements that really appealed to us from the greatest rock 'n' roll generation.
An original influence for the band was the blues, a genre that helped inspire what we now call "classic rock." How does understanding the blues help you write a different type of song than might arise from a band that's only familiar with classic rock?
A lot of rock 'n' roll now is derived from classic rock, as opposed to rock 'n' roll then, which was derived from the blues, soul and funk. We were directly raised on that kind of stuff, and I think there's a certain element of angst or emotion. There's an oppression about the blues. The musical expression was used to transcend out of an existence of oppression. I think our music speaks in the same way about transcending oppression and manifesting freedom, peace, love and unity. Those are a lot of the elements that we would probably take from the blues.
Billboard wrote that you have a "Haight Ashbury vibe," and the EP includes the song "Flower Power." Is your appreciation strictly for the music, or do you also embrace the ideas that drove the late '60s social revolution?
Of course we do, and I especially appreciate it. I studied these things, and I have a great appreciation for what they were, what they are and what they mean. I can admit that there was a loss in the ideology and the lifestyle at a certain point. The whole hippie movement, which was pretty much spun out of the beatnik movement, probably went to hell when the idea of peace was overtaken by [the desire to take] copious amounts of narcotics, but the real turnaround was when things got violent. But yeah, I embrace the ideals of the movement and unity and peace and standing against oppression, classism and hatred.
Do you see the era's embrace of psychedelics and cannabis as good or bad?
In a lot of ways, the use of marijuana or lysergic acid diethylamide could be an expansive [experience] if taken in minute amounts, or whatever works for one person or another. I think they're good for certain people, and I don't know if they work for others. It's just one of those things. It's like, if you haven't tried it, don't knock it, or if you've taken it and had a bad experience, then maybe it's just not your thing. If they move the mind or expand the perspective or perception of possibilities, the use of it as a creative and mind-expansive drug is, of course, a good thing.
What drove your interest in this period of time and the culture around it?
It was probably the closest we as a country ever got to a Renaissance. I refer to it as the American Renaissance. There was such political turmoil with an old generation addled on all these ideals that the youth looked at as unenlightened, and it sparked a pop culture movement. There are a lot of parallels for what went on in the '60s to what's happening now. It's a lesson of history, and hopefully we'll do it right this time.
Music obviously made a tremendous impact in the '60s.
In what ways would you like to see your music impact society today?
In times like this, or in times like the '60s, there was this clarity in music and the importance that it imposed on the society. Music became just as, if not more important than, politics to a lot of people. Hopefully our music sends a powerful message of love, peace and unity and explores a lot of ideas and asks a good amount of questions. I hope it allows people to find it in themselves to be independent, individual, free thinking, to question authority and things that threaten the ideals of a peaceful society. Hopefully this is part of the music of a generation.
How do you see peace, love, and unity coexisting with sex, drugs, and rock and roll? Or can they?
To a degree, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll and peace, love and unity could coexist. I am now in a real world where I don't know how drugs, sex, and rock and roll couldn't exist. I think that was the initial problem [with the '60s]. Certain people had predetermined connotations with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll that were bad, when really sex is love, drugs are mind-expansive opportunities and rock 'n' roll is the anthem of the whole damn thing. I think they can coexist, and I think they are one and the same in a lot of ways.
Or maybe if sex, drugs, and rock and roll were guided by peace, love, and unity...
Exactly. Well put. Rock 'n' roll music these days has probably lost a lot of that, which is really upsetting, but it still exists. It's just a little more dormant.
You talk about drugs as being mind-expanding. As for cannabis, do you believe in the medical benefits it appears to have?
Yes. Absolutely yeah. I'm a supporter of legal marijuana. I think it's a positive thing, even in the realm of hemp, too, which would be beneficial. If we could use these things correctly, we probably move forward into the 21st century, you know what I mean?
Absolutely. You already mentioned the beatniks, and the band has called literature an influence. What are some of the literary building blocks that helped shape your worldview?
My father, who has a bachelor's degree in philosophy, always had these books around so naturally we were drawn to what was inside. It would be authors like [Friedrich] Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre, and later I got into Allen Ginsberg and Aldous Huxley and Ernest Hemingway and [John] Steinbeck and [Henry David] Thoreau and [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, and then I moved into mad literature like Hunter S. Thompson. Fuck, even National Lampoon, you know? We were surrounded by really challenging thoughts.
In addition to music and literature, you personally have a deep love for theater. In what ways has stage acting helped you as a live performer and songwriter?
Hopefully it helps me translate thoughts and emotion. It's a communication [tool] in the form of really free expression. If I had to speak on it, really, I'd have to say a lot of life could use a lot more of that. And maybe [life could use] less war, too, for Christ's sake!
Your parents let you play in bars as early teens. In what ways did this environment shape you as an artist and as a teenager growing up?
Our friends would go to the movies or something on the weekends, and we would be at the bar… and not because of a drinking problem but because of a music problem. Luckily our parents were very supportive and would take us into bars at like age 14, and we'd even play biker gigs. I remember four or five of them where we'd be in the middle of the woods in northern Michigan with these scary dudes wearing leather. You drive in, they have a pig roast and a giant bonfire, and we have to get up on a stage. Our parents were really accommodating, but those weren't things you're normally exposed to at that early of an age.
What stage are you at with the full-length album?
It's hard to say. At this point, there's been a good amount of recording. I'd like to think the album is close to being completely recorded. Granted, there are some things that have been in debate, and there are so many options as to what we're moving forward with in terms of the selection and arrangement of the songs. We are near the end phase, but I think we're looking at a late spring release.
The last question is a heavy one. If you were to write a song for the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, what would you want to say?
That's a great question. The amount of gun violence that's been happening in the last years has been really disturbing and concerning to the greatest degree. I think it'd be a song full of sorrow and probably full of confusion as to why that kind of hatred has to take the lives of innocent children. God bless 'em.
I was just meditating on this the other day. Maybe it's like the war of peace. We have to try over and over and over to try to create a peaceful world to live in. We have to look back constantly on the lessons of history and why it didn't work, and continue to find a way to make it work.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Photo credits: Michael Lavine and Ford Fairchild.