The Michigan-raised bass guitar player Sam Kiszka and his brothers Josh, a singer, and Jake, a guitarist, are joined by drummer Danny Wagner in Greta Van Fleet, a band that has successfully redefned rock for Generation Z.
Their debut album, Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, came out in 2018 when the band were ﬁnishing high school, and was met with immediate success, scooping GVF a Grammy and exposure for them at the very highest levels of the industry.
A certain number of older critics have complained that GVF wear their Led Zeppelin influences a little too shamelessly, thanks to the almost comically accurate Robert Plant impression delivered by Josh Kiszka, but there’s no denying a) the group’s expert musicianship or b) the expectation that has built up around album number two, The Battle At Garden’s Gate.
Let’s ask Sam how he brings the low notes to this thoroughly energetic band of brothers.
How are the songs written in your band, Sam?
“The way that we work is that we find these seeds – a melody, a drum beat, anything – and we take those seeds and we find a good spot for them to grow. And sometimes we forget about them for a long time, so when we come back we’re able to stretch it and pull it and paint it and, you know, fuck it up and put it back together and rebuild it.
“And our producer Greg Kirstin is a real talented guy. He’s got a real interesting style of taking the producer’s chair. The way that he will interact with the band is very special, because he knows what goes on musically, between the four band members. He waits for the moment that he’s needed, and then he swoops in with a solution.“
Has your bass style evolved since your first album?
“I’m deﬁnitely stepping now towards a lot more of a melodic style – being able to write my own kind of bass parts that aren’t just playing the same thing as the guitar – – but there’s something very strong about a unison riff.“
The new album steps into slightly diﬀerent musical territory than the ﬁrst one. Was that deliberate?
“Well, I would say it was deliberate, but it wasn’t in the mindset of, ‘Oh, let’s completely change our sound.’ It was the record that we really wanted to make. When we ﬁrst met Greg in Los Angeles, we sat down with him and he said, ‘What’s your concept for this album?’ And what we said was that we wanted to make a cinematic album – something that’s very widescreen and larger than life, because movie scores are really a big inspiration for us. The album is like a score to a movie that doesn’t exist yet.“
Which movie scores have inspired you?
“2001: A Space Odyssey, and a lot of Westerns. Ennio Morricone – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. And, to be honest, a lot of John Williams stuff. I’m a big fan of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones soundtracks. Hans Zimmer, too, everything that he’s done is really genius stuff. It’s huge, and it’s mysterious, and it’s fascinating.“
Did you study bass as a kid?
“No – the reason I got into playing bass is because I was pressured into it by my mother. Josh and Jake were singing and playing guitar together with different drummers from the jazz band at our high school, and I was recruited to go play with them. Jake showed me something very rudimentary, and we would just riff on that. I think the first song we played together was Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll.“
Which bass players inspired you?
“Jack Bruce was a huge inspiration for me, because he didn’t necessarily sound like a bass player. He was really eye-opening as to what the bass could be, because the common conception of bass is that it’s boring. I really took to guys who made bass really interesting, and Jack taught me how to create a feel. From there, I realized that the possibilities are endless, and I really fell in love with the instrument.
“I really delved into John Paul Jones, who is obviously one of the best rock and roll bass players of all time, along with John Entwistle. After that, I got into a lot of Motown music, and listened to a lot of Stevie Wonder and James Jamerson. I was just trying to ﬁnd the best players. We stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before us.“
Are you impressed by any more recent bass players?
“Yeah, I heard all this stuff about Thundercat, so I listened to some of his solo records. He’s incredible.“
How old were you when you got started?
“I think I was 13 years old, and I’m 21 now. Literally the only thing I’ve really been doing since then has been playing bass. We were playing together for, I think, about four years or so, and then we got swept up into this giant industry. And we put together our team and we hit the road, right out of high school. We toured right there at the end of our senior year, when we were about to graduate. We had to miss the last month of school to go on tour.“
You won a Grammy award pretty much straight away.
“Yes, I think I was 19. I think that it’s good that it happened to us then, because we have strong roots in the ground. You know, we’re not going crazy over here. I think that the main thing is how satisﬁed are we with our own work. You know, you can give us a Grammy and that doesn’t mean all that much to us.
“What really matters is that we’re challenging ourselves and that we’re the best at what we do. That’s where that satisfaction comes from, to know that we’ve earned whatever level of success we have because of our love for the music and our love for the connection that the people have to the music.“
Tell us about your bass gear.
“Well, I prefer things that are quirky and have a character that I’ve never heard before. I really gravitate toward two bass sounds, often for different songs. On one side of the spectrum is crunch, and on the other side of the spectrum there’s fuzz – like a really smooth kind of drive. I use a Fender Bassman 500, and I throw that through an 8x10 Ampeg. It has a very nice overdrive.
“My other amp is a Sunn 2000 – those things are amazing. I put it through a Sunn 2x15 cabinet. It has just the most beautiful crunch. You turn it to about two, and it’s already blowing out, so I’ve never really pushed it. It was kind of an awakening for me as a bass player to be able to have this identity, this identifiable sound. As a bass player, most of the time I’m really trying to find that sweet spot where the crunch doesn’t stick out.“
Any eﬀects pedals?
“No, but I sent bass through a Leslie speaker a lot in the studio, and there’s a lot of synth bass too. These are things that will have to be implemented live, so it’s going to be very challenging to recreate what we did in the studio in an honest way.“
Are you going to tour with your Sunn and Fender heads? A lot of bands go out with a very light rig.
“Absolutely. We like to keep it true. It’s fucking rock and roll. Play it loud, right?“
It also helps when you have a roadie who can carry that stuff for you.
“Yeah, I’m very thankful for our team. It’s not like playing in front of 70 people in a nasty rundown bar in Michigan, when we were taking our parents’ van and loading it all in there. Now we have the opportunity to play for 10 to 12,000 people, and we can go into it with a very focused mind. After all, we’re looking for the most high-quality, emotional performance that we can deliver.“
And what are the bass guitars?
“I have one tried-and-true bass. She’s been with me ever since we hit the road on our ﬁrst tour. It has a late-'80s Surf Green P-Bass body, and a Jazz neck that I bolted on four years ago. I’m not sure if it’s technically correct or if I did it right, but that’s how it lives now, and that’s been my baby and my companion throughout.“
Do you take a backup bass out with you?
“Yeah. Fender made me a really nice P-Bass in the Custom Shop: they put a Jazz neck on there for me. So that’s my backup. They gave me a standard American Jazz, too.“
So, three passive basses?
“Yeah. The less stuff the better, for me. I prefer to be as minimal as possible because I find that the tweaks are more effective. I really love the Fender sound – that P-Bass, Jazz bass sound – and I don’t think I would ever want anything else. I’ve tried Gibson SGs, but the Fender really sits in that spot in the mix.
“That’s why the P-Bass has been tried and true and proven to be the best bass, perhaps of all time. Leo Fender was one of the greatest revolutionaries of our time. He pretty much shaped the groundwork for what would become rock and roll.“
Have the Led Zeppelin comparisons become a pain in the neck, or can you laugh them oﬀ and ignore them?
“Well, it got to the point where the phrase was, ironically, being used as an insult. It never really upset me. It didn’t really upset any of us. The annoying thing was that we heard it all the time, and it just became obnoxious. I mean, saying that we sound like Led Zeppelin is not a put-down by any means.
“It was a strange backlash from the music community, the rock and roll community. I think the real true people who understand the future, and who understand the young generation, were all on board with that.“
But not the boomers like me.
“Yeah, exactly. It just got to a ridiculous point. That’s just what people do. I mean, I’m guilty of it, too. I say this sounds like that.“
I think it was primarily your singer’s voice that caused the Zep comparisons.
“Yeah. There’s another strange thing that people always say, that we kind of sound like Rush. I don’t hear it myself.“
But as a bass player, what a compliment that is.
“Yes... I’ll take it!“
- The Battle At Garden’s Gate is out now via Lava Music