Greta Van Fleet Interview: Danny Wagner

Greta Van Fleet is a young classic blues rock band from Frankenmuth, Michigan, which is known for its family style chicken dinners and Bavarian festivals as well as the world’s largest Christmas store. Michigan has always been a hot bed for music and has produced hundreds of culture impacting artists over the years from John Lee Hooker and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels to Kid Rock The White Stripes. Greta Van Fleet is comprised of three brothers, 21-year-old Josh Kiszka, the lead singer, 21-year-old Jake Kiszka on lead guitar, 18-year-old Sam Kiszka on bass guitar and their best friend, 18-year-old Danny Wagner on drums. Black Smoke Rising their current 4 song EP was reviewed on Blues Rock Review and their debut single “Highway Tune” was the #1 track for five weeks on Mainstream Rock Radio as well as having nearly 4 million views on YouTube and almost 6 million plays on Spotify. Their current tour of the US has been performing to sold out houses across the country. Drummer Danny Wagner took time out of his busy schedule to talk with our Bob Gersztyn about how the band came about and what their future holds.

I’m originally from Warren, Michigan and as a kid my parents would take me to Frankenmuth for their chicken dinners. I really love your EP and the first time that I heard “Highway Song,” it blew me away. Your drumming is a distinct driving force in the song. How did that song come about.

Thank you very much first off, but it’s actually kind of funny because that song specifically is the only one on the EP that actually dates back to even before I was in the band, which is kind of interesting. The song was written I want to say four or five years ago. It wasn’t written in the current state that it’s in now, it obviously has gone through much more production, but it was one of those songs that as the band was forming it was one of those songs that served as an ode to classic rock. It has a lot of the parts and the feelings and a lot of the showcase, well showcasing of vocals and guitars. It’s one of those songs that you just want to play loud and that’s the direction that the song took us. We started writing it and that’s the direction that it took, on the EP as well.

How did you replace Kyle Hauck, the original drummer?

I think that one of the main reasoning’s behind the replacement was his age relative to the rest of the guys. It’s not that it was too old of an age, but it was at a point where the rest of band were either in middle school or high school and he was graduating high school that year. He just wasn’t exactly sure if it was something that he wanted to pursue. He was at that crucial point in his life. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t have as easy a decision as I did, when I reached my senior year in high school and I think that it just kind of happened that way. It was something where it wasn’t in the heart of it, you know the passion wasn’t exactly there, so I guess the torch was handed to me.

So all of you are out of high school now and you can get on with some serious touring and performing.

Yes, now we are. The biggest holding point was time. We were in high school. We had a lot of shows we were going to be playing, but we didn’t have the time to do it. Sam and I both wanted to graduate from high school, it was our goal, we wanted to make sure that we got that out of the way, because it was pretty important to us.

On the four songs on the EP, your drumming has such a distinct clear sound that is as audible as the vocals and guitar without dominating or overpowering them. Everything fits together as a complete whole, is that because of the mixing?

Thank you very much. Part of that, a very small part of that is the mixing, for sure, but I feel like it is the way that it is, because of the youthful energy that we provide or supply in our music. I think that it just comes very naturally, everyone being young wants to have that showcasing kind of sound in their music.

Who are the primary songwriters in the band?

It’s really equally distributed between all of us. It’s kind of who starts the song, really, because it could come from any one of us. A melody, a riff, some sort of a groove, a feeling, a direction. It all starts, generally by one of us. Maybe more than one of us and then we all kind of collaborate and write as a band from there. We like to keep it pretty equally distributed.

So it’s a group effort then?

Absolutely!

That is not the norm. It seems that in many bands that the songwriting is done by one or two individuals.

That’s very true and I think that’s part of the reason we do it. I mean the other three guys are brothers, so they kind of grew up doing that sort of thing. They’ve kind of had to work with each other their entire lives, so it’s something that we take very personally. We take it very personally when we’re writing our music.

How did you first connect with the brothers?

You’ve been to Frankenmuth, so you understand how small a town that it really is. I think that we lived about five miles from each other. We all went to the same high school, middle school, elementary school. We were all Frankenmuth natives for the most part and it kind of just got to the point where we were at the stage in our lives where we were starting to experiment and to get into hobbies. I think it was about middle school when Sam and I really started getting into playing musical instruments and playing with each other because as a musician I firmly believe that a crucial point in your career is playing with another musician and that all kind of happened in middle school. We all just really grew up together. I’d always known them and it just got to the point where we wanted to work extra hard to actually pursue this.

Even though you weren’t the original drummer, were you with them when the band first formed?

In a way, very much so. We’d always been friends and I even hung out with them when Kyle was a part of the band. We went up North, we went camping, we played music and it was the five of us. At the time it was more…I hate using the word hobby, but it was more of a hobby, it wasn’t as prevalent on our radar, but yeah, I was definitely around a good chunk of that time.

Drummer Danny Wagner performs with Greta Van Fleet.

At what point did you come to the realization that after high school you wouldn’t have to work at McDonalds, but you could actually make a living doing rock & roll?

That was probably later on in high school, but I’ll tell you what man, it was a very refreshing feeling having that support, knowing that it could actually, potentially be a career. It wasn’t until much later in high school, obviously when the record deal and the management team came on board and we started building this monster, I guess. Once people really started showing in their emotions, in their responses, what I guess we were capable of doing, it kind of sculpted us and it was a cool feeling.

I know that you’ve probably been asked this many times and I’ve read some on it, but exactly how did you arrive at your name?

It goes back, and it’s cool because it kind of pertains to Frankenmuth in a way. Back again, before I was in the band, very early on, they were going to play their first show. It was hooked up some way through a family friend in the middle of town. It was during one of the festivals that goes on in Frankenmuth and they needed a band name. The drummer came over after he got dropped off by his grandfather, who had to leave to go cut wood for a woman named Greta Ann Fleet, with an Ann in it and I think it was Josh who kind of said, you know what? And it wasn’t anything in band name terms, but was something that he thought was a really cool band name, and Josh doesn’t believe in band names. It’s kind of like a label and there are a lot of bad band names out there, so it’s kind of a lot of pressure to shoulder, but it was something that came out of left field that no one had heard in a little while.

I was wondering if your first full album is going to be coming out any time now. Exactly when will it be released?

I wish I actually knew exactly, but I’m not exactly sure at the moment, because we’re still in the recording process. We’ve been playing so much over the course of the last half year. We really don’t have much time, but we’ve been slowly in the works. It should be, my guess would be mid to late February or March, somewhere around there. There’s also another EP on the way that will be out very soon.

So the EP will be out before the album?

Yes, the plan is to have another EP (From The Fires) that will be released in November and it kind of is a very interesting EP, because it’s gonna have its own little life. It will kind of enjoin with the first one in a way and I think that it will have that supply of music, at least until we finish the full length, in a way, but I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to getting that full length out.

So is the album going to contain any of the songs from the EPs?

No, the album itself is going to have all fresh songs, but we’re going to have four fresh songs out before that. So it’s going to be two separate deals. All original.

How many songs do you normally play in a set?

It depends on the set. Right now in our careers we’re at the point where it’s either an opening set or a headline set. It’s usually generally 30 minutes or an hour 15 or an hour and a half or like an hour or something. Every set we always cover the EP. We cover the songs that are going to be in this new EP and a couple of songs that probably no one has ever heard or no one will hear recorded for a little while that we just grew up writing, but definitely there is a lot of new material.

Greta Van Fleet performing for a packed Hawthorne Theatre in Portland.

What kind of music do you like to listen to in your down time?

Personally, I’m more of a folk music listener. Believe it or not, that’s really what I grew up with. My mom kind of got me into guitar, because she played growing up and she grew up with a lot of folk music. That’s typically a good starter for guitar. It’s very simple, it captures a lot of energy. That’s what I grew up learning how to play. I think that “Puff the Magic Dragon” was the first song that I learned how to play. So, in my off time I’m listening to a lot of that.

Who are some of the other artists that you like to listen to besides Peter, Paul and Mary?

Yeah, Peter, Paul and Mary; I’m a huge John Denver fan, I love Crosby, Stills and Nash. Bob Dylan was one of those, and I speak for everyone in the band, that was one of our absolute largest influences, period. Even some of the Beatles’ old stuff and Zeppelin did a lot of old stuff. A lot of bands experimented in that and I always thought that it was cool, because there was always something there that musicians were drawn to.

Do you have any hobbies not related to music?

Yeah, I grew up playing a lot of sports, so I was always into sports. The biggest sport for me was actually golf, believe it or not. I am quite the avid golfer. It was almost a deciding turning point in my career, whether or not to pursue golf or to pursue music. That’s how into it I was. I went to the state tournament every year in high school, but golf I would have to say is my biggest hobby. You better believe that I’m going to get out on the road.

Before we conclude, is there anything that you would like to add that we didn’t cover?

I guess, just keep an eye out. We’ve been traveling and playing all over the country, so it’s pretty cool to have the ability to cover so much ground in a little time. So, I guess keep an eye out for future tours, lookout for festivals in the coming year, 2018. Keep an eye out for the CD debut full length album. They will be on the way.

Interview by Bob Gersztyn

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