In the three years since releasing their debut Anthem of the Peaceful Army—headlining shows in five continents and selling a million tickets within a three-year span—the trajectory of Greta Van Fleet is just as meteoric as the arena-rock deliverances of the Michigan-bred Fleet, made up of the Kiszka brothers, twins Josh and guitarist Jake, and bassist Sam, along with drummer Danny Wagner.
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Formed in 2012, just north of Detroit in Frankenmuth, Michigan (a town often dubbed “Little Bavaria,” an ode to its German settlers), the past nine years have transitioned GVF from playing smaller sweaty bars to the release of two EPs—Black Smoke Rising and From the Fires in 2017, the latter nabbing a Grammy Award for Best Rock Album—a more epic debut one year later, and the recent arrival of the band’s sophomore album The Battle at Garden’s Gate.
A reflection of the band’s evolution, spiritually, personally, and as songwriters nearly a decade in, The Battle at Garden’s Gate opens a new portal to Greta Van Fleet.
Recurrent comparisons to Led Zeppelin aside, Greta Van Fleet brashly don their myriad influences on their well-designed sleeves. Garden’s Gate marches through war and peace, varied human conditions, and a connection to the natural world, while melding the band’s shared experiences, personal revelations, and more esoteric discoveries along the way.
“Garden’s Gate is everything that remains in the natural world, and the conflict is what threatens the natural world,” says Kiszka. “There are biblical elements to this whole thing, but I think it really did start with just sort of having such fascination with mythology, and we built this sort of Greta Van Fleet universe, which in a way acts as a platform for us to be able to communicate much more complex themes.”
Pulling from the cosmic and philosophical realms, for Kiszka, who grew up surrounded by music and books on philosophy—his father had a degree in the field—Alan Watts is an enduring inspiration, while also delving into more Aldous Huxley and other worldly connections for Garden’s Gate. “It’s some of the Eastern philosophy mixed with exploring the the human condition and breaking down barriers and I think underneath all of the facade that we have permeating our culture is that at the end of the day, we are free. We are humans on a pale blue dot, and we have been given the limitless freedom to create upon all of this, and to be mindful of that, and not to destroy it.”
Opening on the anthemic “Heat Above,” Garden’s Gate offers weightier tracks “Age of Machine,” exploring on technology and its effect on humanity and the closer “The Weight of Dreams,” clocking in at nearly nine minutes. Themes of war and a connectedness to nature all drift through Garden’s Gate, from the swelling “Broken Bells,” a song Sam Kiszka calls “what the fetter of society does to impact a pure and innocent soul,” and the removal of “the obligation of generational synthetic expectations,” or the heavier depth and riffs of “My Way, Soon” and “The Barbarians.”
“It’s very much about humanity and humanity’s struggle and search for salvation,” says Kiszka. ‘There’s a lot of spiritualism in the form of religion and a higher power, or more of a conscious connection to a greater force in nature. Then there’s war, and I think religion fits into that as well, and there’s industry, and with ‘Age of Machine,’ technology comes into the whole equation as well.”
Kiszka adds, “It’s ancient, and it’s very modern but we’re toying with archetypes, and a lot of this album is an analogy. There’s basically this parallel universe.”
Typically writing on the road or wherever they could plant themselves, the band holed up in a cabin just outside of Nashville, where lengthier tracks, “Age of Machine” and “The Weight of Dreams,” a song the band had already been playing live for more than a year, were rearranged.
“That song [‘The Weight of Dreams’] acted in the live show as a transition piece, so we thought we would explore it further and see if it would be a good song,” says Kiszka of the final track. “‘Age of Machine’ came together in that cabin, and started with a riff that Jake had, and we began building it out from there.”
Once ready to record, the band allowed themselves space to write more songs in the studio with “Tears of Rain” partially formulated under the helm of Paul McCartney and Foo Fighters producer Greg Kurstin.
“Songwriting is so constant for us, so it can happen at any moment,” says Kiszka. “A lot of the other stuff that we’ve released, we would be writing on the road, or we would be at a rehearsal space, but we allotted ourselves enough time on this album to actually write some songs right in the studio, and midway through the recording process, we laid enough groundwork—even the title came about. I just threw something and it stuck.”
Instrumentally, working with Kurstin was a symbiotic union, says Kiszka. “He was pretty much kind of fly on the wall, which is how we like producers to work with us,” he says. “He stepped in when there were artistic differences and was a wonderful mediator and sort of married things together and would make suggestions in terms of instrumentation [rather] than vocal.”
Similar to Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, Garden’s Gate is an amalgamation of songs that were from a variety of timelines. “A lot of the groundwork was sort of laid in the previous record, so I think that was a bit more of the thesis,” says Kiszka. “Garden’s Gate is an extension of that last album, sort of an evolution of it, and a progression of it.”
Working around some older songs, Kiszka dusted off “Heat Above,” a song written five years earlier, which ultimately became the bridge between Anthem and Garden’s Gate. “Marching across the land is a peaceful army joining the band—those lyrics were borrowing from the previous album, which is what I’d like people to understand,” says Kiszka. “It’s all sort of a shared world. There’s this tapestry that’s going on, and it’s all strands of material that make up this really colorful thing.”
Referencing concert posters plastered on outdoor facades or music venues, washed away, worn and torn over time, that’s how Kiszka sees the music Greta Van Fleet have created.
“Over time, they just sort of wash away and layer after layer gets ripped off,” says Kiszka, “and then it becomes this collage.”
He adds, “We’ve had so many years of writing and exploring and stretching, and growing, so I think we realized how to put these things together in a much different way,” says Kiszka. “We have a much more complex understanding of songwriting than we did before, so that songs have really transformed, even lyrically.”
Part of the fun of writing together is that everyone brings an idea, then they build around it, says Kiszka.
“There’s the push and pull of the four of us putting something together instead of one person coming with the groundwork laid,” says Kiszka. “I don’t think we ever really want to limit ourselves by trying to be conventional or make a three-minute song. We always see the process as not having a format or a conveyor belt. We just want to do something honest and organic.”
For Kiszka, lyrics often begin as more of a solitary revelation. “Lyrics are one of those meditative things where I have to go inside of myself and ask the questions what’s important to me, what am I thinking, what am I feeling, what do I feel inclined to share,” he shares. “Time changes many things, and we seem to change with time, so if this is constantly going to be the case, I don’t think there’s ever going to be an arrival, when you’ve come to the point where you’ve made it… whatever that means.”
Still, they’ll always be something to say, says Kiszka, or something to consider in music. “All of this mind-bending literature has been helpful and insightful and enlightening,” laughs Kiszka, who is in constant flux, drawing from literature, art, and more diverse genres of music.
“World Music has become kind of central in what I’ve been listening to,” he says. “I’m sure a lot of people would assume that I listened to a lot of rock and roll, but I don’t. I love rock and roll, but I’m really more of a folk freak.
“Greta Van Fleet are a product of doing something new, something different… a constant exploration.
“It’s about trying not to repeat yourself, and moving forward and really exploring and being experimental and pushing things as far as you want,” says Kiszka. “You can always pull back at the end of the day, but going there is the important part.”