Greta Van Fleet
After non-stop touring since the release of their 2018 debut record, it took a global pandemic to get Greta Van Fleet to settle down, regroup, and create their own call-to-arms.
The catalyst of being stuck in one place for the first time in over 3 years? Greta Van Fleet’s latest body of work: The Battle at Garden’s Gate. Where Anthem of the Peaceful Army was built with the pressure that comes when a young band is creating their first album, their sophomore release feels more confident; every part, from the symboling to the packaging to the sounds, is entirely crafted and backed by the band. It is equal parts cinematic and cosmic; a score to a film that doesn’t exist and an ethereal escape for anyone who wants to look deeper, internally and externally.
1883 caught up with Sam Kiszka from Greta Van Fleet from his home in Nashville and talked all about their sophomore record, why music should make you question the universe, and the band’s foray into the fashion world.
This is the follow-up to your 2018 debut record Anthem of the Peaceful Army — how would you say the band has evolved and grown since that debut record from then to now with The Battle at Garden’s Gate?
It’s about three years now which… I feel like we were caged in, in a way. We were still very young, very green, very new to everything. I feel like the work we’ve done over the past 4 or 5 years has laid the groundwork for us to be able to do whatever we want creatively. I don’t think we were ever necessarily told what to do, but we never really had the means of articulating what we wanted to create in regards to our vision. All those years of experience in the studio and touring the world helped us make Garden’s Gate and we had the tools necessary to craft it exactly the way we wanted to. In a way, this is the record we wanted to make even in 2018.
I read that you guys were approaching music with the mindset of you’re writing for anyone who wants to listen and that you don’t have anything to prove anymore. With how you’ve all grown over the past few years, how has that mindset released some pressure?
It’s kind of a young person’s game, isn’t it? I feel we always went into a project trying to impress ourselves, first and foremost, and impress each other to an extent. I don’t think we need to do that anymore, though. We’re a lot more calm and comfortable with it now. Back then, when it all started, it was sheer insanity; it was like being in a storm and the sails were catching too much wind and you could barely hold on. I think… if this last year didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be talking to you with any perspective. We were able to settle down and weather the storm. Making this record has been very freeing, because art should be freedom, and that’s given us a lot of confidence.
Do you think this record would sound the way it does without 2020 putting a pause on everything?
Most of the record was recorded in summer 2019, but we did go back and take an RV from Nashville to LA and did a cross-American road trip.
It sounds like a reality TV show waiting to happen.
[Laughs] Well, funny enough, we brought a couple of Super Eight cameras and we shot the entire trip and it’s worked in every music video we’ve released so far. The music is somewhat old to us at this point, even if the record has only been out for a few weeks, but the shutdown of the world led us to experiment with a lot of different creative things that are involved in the Greta Van Fleet project that we didn’t have time to do before. We spent months and months on the packaging, there’s a symbol for every song, and there’s a music video for every song. So, to answer your question: yes, that cross American road trip and the pandemic helped us pull together from the last two years, like a collage of our lives, and make a project out of it.
You just mentioned a video for every song — does the band actively think about visuals when writing and recording, or is that something you figure out after?
It’s funny you ask because I only realized something recently. We went into this project saying we were going to make a cinematic album that’s big and ballsy and bigger than life itself. The way we used to write was to go in with one idea and that idea brings you to a place and before we would get too far, we would all affirm a visual or extension of that song. That helps put us all in the same mindset as we get deeper into writing and recording.
Some intense themes are flickering throughout this record — Biblical references, references to war, and the human experience. These are not themes you hear often in music today. What inspired you guys to explore these types of themes?
Those are the things nobody is talking about. It’s bigger than us, bigger than humanity, it’s this all-encompassing thing. I feel it’s taboo for a lot of people to indulge in a doomsday concept, but I love that stuff. When I hear a song that is talking about heavy concepts in creative ways, I feel like there’s so much substance there. Perhaps that’s why people don’t talk about this stuff… because it’s not fun or popular to talk about. I think it’s the job of the artist to be the village speaker and know what’s going on at least a little bit, and use your platform, your power, and your influence for good.
I agree, and we are in this time in music where so much pressure is on streaming and artists churning out quick hits as quickly as possible to see what catches and it can feel disingenuous at times.
I totally agree with you. I think there’s a really big audience of people who want more. What we are talking about, the “hit singles,” tells you exactly what to think and there’s no real room for interpretation or space for your mind to wander. I always hope that our music has three or four meanings that aren’t exactly obvious because it’s fun to be taken on this journey and have it force you to question your mind and thoughts. Anything that invokes thought is our kind of art.
This record is produced with Greg Kurstin, who’s worked with the likes of Paul McCartney and the Foo Fighters. What was it like to work with him?
Usually, when we go into the studio we have 20 songs and we figure out what direction to take. For this record, we didn’t have 20 songs — we had 5 or 6, max. The rest were seeds that we grew in the studio, in that space, with Greg. There’s something to be said about his presence for writing those songs. When we would get stuck on an arrangement, Greg would play the piano and it would completely free us; it’s taking all of the layers off and feeling it for what it is. He was comfortable sitting there, listening to us, and suggesting things in a way that didn’t make us feel pressured. He’s so mellow, we’re all high-strung. We’re aggressive in the studio, he’s very calming. It was a cool environment to work in.
One of my favourite songs is Light My Love, which is a really beautiful, evocative track. Can you tell me a bit about the inspiration behind that song?
That song is the first we recorded with Greg Kurstin. It was the beginning of the album as a whole, and I say that because that song is primarily piano rather than bass and it was a key sign to us where the rest of the album was heading. It was written three or four years ago and Josh and Daniel put it together. It’s a beautiful song and it hits this point that’s important to humans which is this out-of-this-world, pure, unconditional romantic love. A lot of the other tracks talk about the love of your fellow man, but this one is something else.
This album is full of songs that I think are rally cries and that unite us together. Like ‘Heat Above’ — “Marching across the land/Is a peaceful army joining the band/Walking hand in hand/To an anthem loudly sung where they stand.” During a year like 2020, did writing and recording these tracks feel more prevalent?
The experience of making this record was insane because we recorded the whole album and six months later, the pandemic happened and we were in a very dark and strange place. It was riveting that the album took that meaning because it obviously wasn’t meant to be when we first recorded it, but I strongly believe in the interconnection of the universe and nothing happening coincidentally. I believe The Battle at Garden’s Gate is about the struggles humanity has faced this past year and a half and how can we, as a society, transform our ethics and come out of this as a new culture. I think the pandemic, in general, helped put a mirror to humanity and show all of its worst things so we can learn from them.
I remember seeing you play at Rebel in Toronto and you’ve basically been touring non-stop since. That was obviously a very abrupt change for you guys, what was that like?
Yeah, getting our life taken away was weird. We got out of high school and we hit the road with The Struts and we basically never stopped since. We drank wine and toured the world for three years. No touring felt like our plane was falling out of the sky….. Which, actually, isn’t a great comparison since there’s a lot of musicians who have died that way. [Laughs]
Not the best, but I get what you’re saying.
Thank god. But it did force us to settle somewhere and we picked Nashville. I moved to Nashville a week before everything shut down so, again, the language of the universe and timing was aligning perfectly. It gave us a lot of time to explore things about ourselves we wouldn’t have found out otherwise if we were still touring. I also have a much bigger closet now
How has it been to watch the fan reaction to the record?
It has been everything we hoped for because we spilled our hearts and souls into this project, as we always do. There’s a lot there to be digested and if we can invoke thought and meaning and have people listen to it and feel something, that’s the most powerful tool.
Lastly, when the album dropped, you wrote “Everything begins with a spark.” Now that the album is out, what do you hope this next chapter brings you and the band?
I see Greta Van Fleet expanding in this period and getting into other fields… We’re getting into the fashion world more which is exciting.
I love that you guys are venturing into fashion — when I was watching the Broken Bells candlelight session, I was amazed at the styling and fashion choices.
Thank you! We’re big fans. When you’re wearing like a $6,000 Alexander McQueen piece… There’s something about the power there. You can feel like a rockstar.
In addition to fashion, I’m excited to see where the band takes you guys.
Yeah, it’s all about expanding what we do and learning to be more present and having commentary about things because we know we have a responsibility to let people know what’s going on. I just see us growing in every facet imaginable.
Greta Van Fleet’s new album The Battle at Garden’s Gate is out now. Follow via @gretavanfleet
Interview by Kelsey Barnes