Talking to Sam Kiszka of Greta Van Fleet, you'd never guess he was the bassist of the biggest young rock band to emerge in decades. The 20-year-old speaks humbly and philosophically about his success. That's a feat for someone so young, especially after the band's first full-length album, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, debuted at number one on the Billboard charts and the EP From the Fires won a Grammy for best rock album.
But with Greta Van Fleet's enormous success has come brutal criticism, much of it claiming the band ripped its sound from Led Zeppelin.
"For every large-scale movement, there's an opposing force. It wouldn't be right if it was too easy," Kiszka tells New Times. "People complain that rock is dead and then they criticize us. They get negative about a resurgence of rock? Rock 'n' roll has always been underground. A lot of rock people would prefer it stays that way."
Kiszka grew up in Michigan in a musical family. He and his older twin brothers — singer Josh and guitarist Jake — used to play guitar by the campfire at night. When Kiszka was 12, his mother began teasingly pressuring him to join his older brothers in a band as a bass player.
"She was joking, but it had me wondering, What's the bass? My dad had one in the basement, and it was the most beautiful thing. First song I tried to learn was 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine.'"
Greta Van Fleet is the only band Kiszka has ever joined."I've jammed with other people, but this has been my only commitment to music." Positive attention came quickly to the Kiszka boys. They were signed to a record deal before Sam and drummer Danny Wagner were out of high school. "Josh and Jake are three years older than us. They had to wait for us to graduate to get going."
The songwriting process for their early work was a collective effort for the band. "Josh or Daniel might come up with a riff. It can start with a melody, a rhythm, a concept; then we all get our hands on it and start molding it. You can't put a song through a machine. The soul of every song is different."
The musicianship on their early recordings is impeccable. And, yes, from Josh's vocal tics to the bluesy guitar noodles, their output sometimes sounds like a Led Zeppelin album that never was. For fans, that's a great thing — Zeppelin is one of the most beloved rock bands of all time, after all. But the similarities also inspired some of the most scathing pieces of rock criticism in recent years. Jeremy D. Larson of Pitchfork famously wrote, "Greta Van Fleet sound like they did weed exactly once, called the cops, and tried to record a Led Zeppelin album before they arrested themselves. The poor kids from Frankenmuth, Michigan, don’t even realize they’re more of an algorithmic fever dream than an actual rock band."
The criticism grew even nastier. After Greta Van Fleet's appearance on Saturday Night Live in January, other curmudgeons came after these whippersnappers for sounding too much like someone else.
But in all the hubbub over Greta Van Fleet's lack of originality, the band's youth has been ignored. When the Beatles and Rolling Stones were in their early 20s, they were trying to be Chuck Berry. The last rockers to break out at such a young age in such a big way were the Strokes, who ripped off everyone from Television to Tom Petty when they hit the mainstream two decades ago. Hell, Led Zeppelin itself was famously panned for blatantly stealing from Howlin' Wolf and Bert Jansch.
No one comes out of the womb fully formed. Every artist has influences. A quick study of any of your favorite artists will reveal it took a few years or several records before they found their own niche from which later acts pilfered.
Kiszka seems to have a healthy attitude about the swipes Greta Van Fleet have taken. "In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter. We prefer to remove ourselves from what people think of us. If you get too involved, you get caught up in trying to please people. That's why the music industry today is so bland."
But the bandmates are obviously conscious, if not self-conscious, of the Zeppelin comparisons. Their publicity materials list dozens of influences, but Led Zeppelin and its members are nowhere to be seen. Kiszka tells New Times he's more a listener of Motown, '50s jazz, and soul.
The band is working on a second full-length album, which begs the question: If they stretch outside their style and confound the doubters, might they risk alienating the many fans they've already won?
As Greta Van Fleet prepares to make its Miami concert debut, Kiszka says they won't fret over such concerns. "We always wanted to be taken seriously. We had concern about getting in the music industry and being exploited, but we're four guys who love to play music and create. The fact that we can do that is surreal to us."
Greta Van Fleet. 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, at Bayfront Park Amphitheater,301 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-358-7550;bayfrontparkmiami.com. Tickets cost $44.50 to $54.50 via livenation.com.
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