Greta Van Fleet
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen
Battle Tested: Greta Van Fleet's Jake And Sam Kiszka Talk Ambitious New Album, 'The Battle At Garden's Gate'
Greta Van Fleet is primed and ready for a battle. On "Age of Machine," off the band's latest album, The Battle at Garden's Gate, singer Josh Kiszka questions the domination social media, one societal machine, has on his generation, Gen Z: "Perfect child/Plugged in since the womb/Prophet of the dune/In this electric tomb," he sings.
"You have people, young men and young women, who are plugged into social media and into alternative forms of growing up and how you inter-personalize some of these things," his brother, Jake, tells GRAMMY.com during a recent interview.
"You make so many constructs, the social media telling a young person, 'You're not skinny enough, you're not pretty enough, you're not smart enough, you're not perfect.' And I think this song says, 'Yeah, you are.' It says that these things are machine-created constructs. That's not the reality; it's not truthful."
In the past few years, life on the road and a move to Nashville have made the band more aware of the wide world outside of their native Michigan. Being exposed to different ways of thinking and meeting new people gave them empathy for others less fortunate who struggle with inequality, hunger and poverty. It also made the band realize how alike we all are.
These themes, and more, are lyrically at the heart of The Battle at Garden's Gate.
"The stories are what translate most to the human soul," bass/keyboard player and fellow brother Sam says.
Adds Jake, "It is masked in hope and it's mastered with this kind of feeling that we, as a human species, can overcome these very great challenges."
Greta Van Fleet, which also features their friend Danny Wagner on drums, have come a long way since first performing in their small hometown of Frankenmuth, Michigan, nearly a decade ago. Following an unexpected surge in popularity thanks to their earlier, vintage-rock-infused releases, including their 2017 GRAMMY-winning double EP, From the Fires, as well as their 2018 debut album, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, they've since routinely sold out venues around the globe, performed on late-night shows such as "Saturday Night Live" and "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," and played international music festivals, including Coachella.
Building on that momentum, Battle at Garden's Gate, produced by Greg Kurstin (Paul McCartney, Foo Fighters and Adele), now sees Greta Van Fleet exploring a more cinematic and progressive sound while marking a vision fully realized for the band.
"I think this is the record that we always wanted to make even years and years ago, when we were still playing in the garage," Jake says.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Greta Van Fleet's Jake and Sam Kiszka recently to discuss their new album, The Battle at Garden's Gate, the importance of finding hope in songs, the effect of technology and social media on their generation, and embracing the Led Zeppelin comparisons.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Everything's screeched to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How have you kept busy over the past year?
Jake Kiszka: Well, we haven't. We've been bored off our asses … It's been kind of a double-edged sword because touring is such at the core of what we do; it's sort of the sole purpose of a group like [ours]. But I suppose on the other side of the blade, it's been interesting because we have been able to take a form of creativity and redirect it in another direction … We've been able to really shape and craft a lot of the visual aesthetics for what we're doing.
I think we also cursed ourselves because when we made the record, we went into it with this idea that we can do whatever we want. And whenever there was a question about how we are going to replicate that live, we said, "Don't worry about it. We'll figure that out later." So, I think it's perhaps the record that we made that shut down the world.
[The time off] lent us the ability for two more songs on the album. We pretty much had the record entirely recorded last summer and everything shut down. So, we started writing again—we started writing a new album, actually—and we came up with these two songs, "The Barbarians" and "Caravel" that … sounded so much like The Battle at Garden's Gate.
Many of the songs have a hopeful aspect to them. Why was it important to have that element?
Jake: It's tough to feel hopeful, especially in this day and age. I think that's something that's super important about the record. We didn't necessarily record it with the intention to be releasing it into a world like this, but it was very appropriate … [It's important] being able to deal with rapid industry growth and greed and being able to deal with gender norms and a lot of racial issues and a lot of things that our generation is going to have to solve in the very, very [near] future. It is masked in hope and it's mastered with this kind of feeling that we, as a human species, can overcome these very great challenges.
Sam Kiszka: Most people have chalked the album to be a very dark album, whereas actually, it's kind of the opposite. It's sort of a representation of the resilience of the human soul.
Why did The Battle at Garden's Gate feel like a fitting title for this collection?
Sam: I think that the whole idea of what humanity is, is fundamentally broken and we are just so fundamentally cursed as being humans in this world. There's always greed and there's always hate, and there's always some kind of misunderstanding that causes some kind of ridiculous wars and everything that can destroy humanity. That's what's outside of the gate, and in the theoretical world inside the gate is perfect mankind, right?
It's kind of like this Garden of Eden idea: It's all perfection within the confines of those four walls. [There are] so many metaphors that you can pull out of that. And that was our intention to build this world, to be able to tell these stories because the stories are what translates most to the human soul. You may not know somebody until you know their story, and that is a fundamentally understood thing.
I think the gate and everything outside the gate and everything within this world that we've started building exists only as a tool that we can use to show people what is happening in our world currently.
Jake: As this thing develops, it starts to reveal itself to a certain degree that we now understand more of what the story is we're trying to tell lyrically or instrumentally; we had a greater understanding of the personality of the album and it's a story. It pulls from the mythology. It involves very contemporary issues and biblical themes. The Battle at Garden's Gate just seemed like a perfect title.
While touring the past few years, the band got to meet a lot of different people and were exposed to different cultures. How were those experiences impactful?
Jake: They really … [informed us] of a lot of the alternative ways of thought and certainly many different philosophies throughout the world … It gave us a topic to discuss, it gave us something important to say … There's ... hope that you've been reformed of in these different cultures.
There's also this aspect of sadness that you see in the world. There's poverty and there's hunger, and there are so many different things … in terms of what represents [itself] on the album.
What's one specific moment on the road that really impacted you?
Sam: Hearing Dave Grohl talk about what music is and his interpretation of that, and Taylor Hawkins as well … Seeing those guys be so excited to play and so excited to be there and be so talkative and soulful. It was really invigorating to be on the road and have that kind of energy shooting around. So we have a profound respect for those guys, how they do what they do.
"Age of Machine" questions the role of technology in society. What was the inspiration for that one?
Sam: One of the main ones was futuristic work in literature and film. The whole idea that society gets to a place in time where the technology takes over men and it poses this very fundamental issue: Are men more intelligent than the machine? Or is it the other way around?
You can think of machine as the technological kind of fetters; let's call it your phone, social media, whatever that is, whatever is poisoning our society's minds. And then you have machine, which is this very archaic system that functions only because of the greed and the wealth of exploiting the Earth.
Jake: In the song, there's a lyric: "Plugged into the womb." You have people, young men and young women, who are plugged into social media and into alternative forms of growing up and how you inter-personalize some of these things. You make so many constructs, the social media telling a young person, "You're not skinny enough, you're not pretty enough, you're not smart enough, you're not perfect." And I think this song says, "Yeah, you are." It says that these things are machine-created constructs, that's not the reality. It's not truthful.
Greg Kurstin was instrumental in giving the band confidence to try new things. How did he help the band go in a different direction?
Jake: What Greg brought was age and wisdom to this process … He was there to guide us if we needed assistance. Another thing that he really taught us was problem-solving, musically. You come into a bridge and you're like, "We have three options." And Gregg can say, "I like them all, but this one in particular stands out to me because." And I think that was a big leg up for us and a big learning experience.
Sam: Yeah, it was a good book ending to quite a story.
Jake: I think this is the record that we always wanted to make even years and years ago, when we were still playing in the garage. We just didn't have the means to do it. Also, I don't really think we had the resume to make a record like this, something that is so aggressively large.
It feels [like] we had the opportunity to choose and do everything our own way. We made this record and, in our eyes, it's perfect. It's exactly molded to the verifications and the specifications, tailor-fit, kind of exactly what we want. Which I can't say for any of our other previous work; there's always been things that we kind of abandoned. As Da Vinci said, [you never really finished art, you just abandon it. But we sure as f**k finished it on The Garden's Gate. It only took a year and a half.
When the band released Anthem of the Peaceful Army in 2018, many compared you to classic rock bands like Led Zeppelin, some positively, some negatively. Did the not-so-flattering side of that give everyone thicker skin or a motivation to keep moving forward?
Sam: Yeah, there have been so many comparisons over so many years to so many bands, so many artists. I guess we've always been humbled with reference, honored by affiliation, always. It's an interesting thing because it is a very loud minority that doesn't seem to speak for the quiet majority.
This seems to be this abhorrence within the factions of society that are drawn to ignorant criticism, but that's just something that we'll never be a part of contributing to. And I suppose we're really sort of enlightened to the idea of evolution and the fact that you take one thing to ascend to another thing, to contribute to the future. Sometimes, you have to look back to go forward. We stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before. It's inspiring, really.
How has the move to Nashville changed your perception of being a band?
Sam: It was very interesting, especially in terms of where we came from, which was a very small town in Michigan. It's interesting to call somewhere new "home," and I think we were all very reluctant. I think we're all very pleased to be able to call Nashville home now, especially in terms of its history, what it offers musically. There are so many musical people around and you can certainly feel [it].
I suppose we're in the new side of Nashville, but you can certainly feel this energy boiling and bubbling and in this sort of bloodline, this lifeline of energy. There's certainly an interesting scene going on now in this time. There's so much influence, so much inspiration and so many great artists here. I think it certainly offers us an alternative perspective to growing up in a small town … It's very strange, different, but also a very beautiful and unique thing.
How do you hope the band can be socially conscious beyond music?
Jake: You imbue things that you're saying, that you're creating. You become those things. I think that's ultimately natural, habitual for us to emanate those things, project them.
We're looking at a very new generation, we're looking for new problems to solve. These are the things that we're concerning ourselves with, in a certain sense, but also advocating for, sexuality, equality, etc. This year has certainly been a whirlwind for many different understandings, how we as a society can understand new challenges. I think we do participate ourselves in some of those things outside of the music.