Greta Van Fleet wanted new music 'fit to be the score of a fantastic film'
The shimmering swirl of a Hammond B3 organ, a sound straight from the gospel church, opens Greta Van Fleet’s new album like a statement: We’ve got something a little different in mind this time.
“The Battle of Garden’s Gate" is the spiritually tinged, Technicolor-toned second album from a young hard rock band that says it wanted to capture the personal growth and worldly experiences that accompanied the group’s international rise.
“We went into this hoping to make a record that was fit to be the score of a fantastic film,” said bassist-keyboardist Sam Kiszka, who plays that organ intro on leadoff track “Heat Above.”
The new album is the first featuring the services of veteran producer Greg Kurstin, best known for his work with Adele, Paul McCartney and Foo Fighters.
In January, as promotion for the coming album ramped up, the single “My Way, Soon” became the latest rock chart-topper for the band of brothers and their childhood pal: twins Josh Kiszka (vocals) and Jake Kiszka (guitar), who are 25, with Sam Kiszka and Danny Wagner (drums), both 22.
Having grown up in tiny Frankenmuth, Michigan, cutting their teeth in that area and eventua lly Detroit, band members officially settled in Nashville, Tennessee, last year. The group, whose management team was already based there, had become acquainted with Music City during recording sessions for its debut full-length album.
The quartet was still very much a Michigan band when it broke big in 2017 with the lightning-in-a-bottle singles “Highway Tune” and “Safari Song,” hard-driving rockers recorded when the elder twins were barely 20. Snatched up by Lava/Republic Records, the group was a national success out of the gate and to date has notched seven hits on Billboard’s mainstream rock chart — five of them No. 1s.
The band's ascent wasn’t without tension. By the time the full-length album “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” arrived in 2018, GVF had weirdly become one of the most controversial acts going. To many, the group was a long-awaited savior of vintage hard rock, earnestly conjuring a sound and style that had been missing for decades. But naysayers slammed the band as a prefab Led Zeppelin knockoff, as if Greta Van Fleet had been concocted in some label board room.
The band took the heat in stride, shrugging off critics as it toured the globe for ever-growing audiences. Before the pandemic hit last spring, Greta was scheduled for a series of stadium dates with Metallica and was plotting its own arena headlining tour, including a homecoming show at Detroit's Little Caesars Arena.
On the new album, the 1970s spirit is intact, a bongs-and-black-lights aura still permeating the music’s nooks and crannies. Brawny rockers remain — “My Way, Soon” has a snarling groove — and there are Led Zeppelin remnants via the sizzling riffage of songs such as “Built by Nations” and “Caravel.”
But “The Battle at Garden’s Gate” also finds the band aiming more cosmic, crafting heavy but ethereal soundscapes with the sort of complex edge first glimpsed on “Anthem.” In four years, Greta Van Fleet has moved from “Highway Tune” to the heavens.
“This was the first record where we were really able to completely dive in hands-on with everything, getting it all exactly the way we wanted it to sound,” Kiszka said. “We were able to get every performance to the point where we're very comfortable how it lives and interacts with the other instruments. And the songwriting was a big element to that, too.”
The new music was produced at four Los Angeles-area facilities, most notably Henson Recording Studios, where GVF’s working neighbors included Justin Bieber and tech mogul Elon Musk, who was mixing an EDM track he released in early 2020.
“We were kind of all over the place,” Kiszka said. “But I think that LA energy is part of the record.”
Band members were already settled on the album’s musical direction when they enlisted Kurstin in 2019, said Kiszka, figuring the producer could help marshal “the massive sonic landscapes” they envisioned.
Greta Van Fleet had scored big success with Al Sutton and Marlon Young, the Detroit studio team that worked with the group from its nascent days and shepherded the early hits. Now the band sought “a wild card,” Kiszka said.
“We were looking for another element,” Kiszka said. “And I think that's the producer’s function for Greta Van Fleet. We have a strong idea of what we want to accomplish, so the producer is largely a tool to garner a different perspective.”
The band hunkered down in LA for the record, but eventually found the Hollywood vibe not to their hippie-chill liking. By last spring, realizing they “just couldn’t take it anymore,” as Kiszka put it, he and Wagner migrated to East Nashville, a thriving arts and creative district in Music City, where the Kiszka twins had already settled.
“It became very apparent that this (pandemic) was not going to be over quickly, so we tried the whole living-in-one-place thing.” Sam Kiszka said. “But touring is still in our blood. I mean, we can't sit around in one place for too long. It gnaws at our soul.”
Still, the forced break from the road had benefits: Greta Van Fleet had been touring relentlessly for three years, and by 2019 the wear and tear on the band — Josh Kiszka’s voice in particular — was causing sporadic show cancellations.
And the downtime let the band flesh out the new album in ways that might not have been possible otherwise.
“It pains me to say that in the pandemic, we found a silver lining. We were able to make a very, very bad situation into something we can work with,” Sam Kiszka said. “We got to add two final songs to the album, which we probably weren’t going to be able to do. And we really explored the visuals — getting into filming these music videos and digging into the art direction of ‘Garden’s Gate’ quite a lot.”
Kiszka said the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations makes him and the band hopeful they’ll be able to perform live again by late summer, in some form or another. By 2022, he’s confident, they’ll be back in full swing.
The new music will feature prominently onstage, Kiszka said, including “My Way, Soon,” which he calls “one of those anthemic rock 'n’ roll tunes” with a message of freedom and free will.
And then there’s the album’s closing epic, “The Weight of Dreams,” which unfolds into a transcendent jam. If it seems prime for a hot onstage workout, there’s a reason: that lengthy guitar-led outro featured as an instrumental number during the band’s live shows in 2019 with the placeholder name “Black Flag Exposition” — a nod to Jake Kiszka’s favorite book at the time, the pirate history “Under the Black Flag.”
“It's a statement piece,” Kiszka said of the nine-minute track. “And you know, I don't think you can necessarily get away with that kind of thing if you're not a rock ‘n’ roll band. But that’s what we live for: bringing that live energy into the studio.”
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