Greta Van Fleet's Sam Kiszka: From The Fires of High School

Sam Kiszka, bass and keys player of Greta Van Fleet, picked up the guitar at 12 years old in his hometown of Frankenmuth, Michigan. Now fresh out of high school, Sam tours the globe alongside his older twin brothers, Jake and Josh, and longtime friend Danny Wagner. Although they have been compared to Led Zeppelin, these four are no 'Zep' clones. With a full-length album on the horizon, Sam plays with a passion and style learned in a musically creative household. For Sam and the rest of the band, the future of rock and roll started in a small town garage. 

Danny Wagner, Sam Kiszka, Jake Kiszka, Josh Kiszka (photo: Ford Fairchild)

Danny Wagner, Sam Kiszka, Jake Kiszka, Josh Kiszka (photo: Ford Fairchild)

“Our Dad would take us to watch shows and play gigs around town,” says Sam. “I saw things that most 8th graders didn't get to see.” Sam Kiszka grew up fast around the music scene in Frankenmuth, Michigan. He and his older twin brothers, Jake and Josh, would play covers at the local biker bars and neighborhood venues. Now six years later, Sam, Jake, Josh, and close friend Danny travel the world as the rock band Greta Van Fleet. Sam, who plays bass and keys, credits his upbringing as a catalyst for the band’s formation. His parents fostered a musical environment at home. “The way we were raised was unique,” says Sam. “Our Mom and Dad encouraged us creatively and gave us freedom.”

Seizing this freedom, Sam picked up his Dad’s Fernandes-P bass at 12 years old. He watched his brother Jake jam out with friends after school and itched to start playing. “My mom said I looked like a bass player,” he laughs. Teaching himself to play, Sam harnessed the blues style introduced to him by his father. A master of the harmonica, his Dad shreds around the house and has built an iconic record collection. BB King, Buddy Guy, and other greats echo through the walls of the Kiszka home. “There are so many different modes, scales, and technical sides of playing I never noticed until I listened to recordings,” says Sam. “With blues, our whole family shares a deep connection.”

An avid blues and jazz listener, Sam gravitates towards the abstractness not heard in other genres. “Jazz is much more engaging,” says Sam. “You have to think a lot more.” When he puts down the bass, Sam loses himself in the bluesy riffs of his favorite players. In particular, he studies the soulful sounds of Motown’s James Jamerson. “He makes the whole song move,” says Sam. “It’s a very beautiful kind of playing.”

Freshman year of high school, Sam and his two brothers, who were two grades ahead, officially formed a band. They originally played with a different drummer who left soon after the inception. Danny Wagner, a mutual friend in Sam’s year, then came over to jam on drums. “We loved his style and it just clicked,” says Sam. Danny immediately picked up on their sound and added his own swagger. “With Danny on drums, Jake on guitar, and Josh on vocals, we knew we could make an impact.”

photo: Michael Lavine

photo: Michael Lavine

As kids, Sam, Jake, and Josh grew up singing around the house. They listened to Josh sing casually, but never full out. “The first time we heard him belt was wild,” says Sam. “We were playing covers, and he just opened up his mouth and let it rip.” The three brothers stood in shock as natural, rock-angelic vocals burst from their brother’s windpipe. “We were like shit! I guess that’s how he sounds,” laughs Sam. “It was so unforced.”

Not wasting this garage-grown connection, the four practiced relentlessly. In earlier rehearsals, pedals flew and windows broke. “We used to argue a lot more intensely about things, but we don’t physically beat the shit out of each other anymore,” says Sam. “We’ve turned it into a more logical working process.” The band lives together 95% of their lives, which fosters a close bond on stage. “A lot of things you can’t plan out - certain fills and riffs - it’s an improv kind of thing,” says Sam. “There’s no other way to do that without a spiritual and emotional connection.”

The deepened perspective on how to work together strengthens the songwriting process. A song can spawn from a simple riff or melody. “It’s unique every time we compose,” says Sam. All four need to see potential in a rough track before moving forward. The sound then takes on a identity equally infused with the artistry of Sam, Josh, Jake, and Danny. “When we have an idea, we bring it to each other as unevolved as we possibly can,” says Sam. “It’s important that all of us can get our hands on it and arrange it.” Greta Van Fleet exists where the minds of all four meet. “It’s something special when we all touch these songs.”

From arranging songs in high school rehearsals to playing festivals for over 20 thousand, the band has traversed the globe and marvelled at thrilling landscapes. But the miles between the stage and their hometown can be taxing. “Being away from our family is definitely the biggest challenge,” says Sam. “When we’re home, we can never stay long enough or see everyone.”

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Although a packed travel docket strips away from family time, the band has had the opportunity to witness the current, raw state of the world. “Taking in everything that goes on today, it’s an obstacle and an inspiration,” says Sam. “It’s an artist’s job to notify the people of what’s going on in this world.” A thoughtful musician does not just throw their ideas into the fire of opinion. They open the audience’s eyes to the problems they may not be aware. “We’re like clock tellers,” says Sam. “It’s 9 o’clock and all is’s 2017 and things aren't so great,” he says. “Right now, there are slaves being sold around the globe.” The band hopes to provoke uncomfortable conversations leading to a more powerful peace. “That’s what drives us,” says Sam, “adding to this universe a better understanding of each other.” In this journey for understanding, Greta Van Fleet has already released two EP’s. The first, Black Smoke Rising, introduced a sound that many compared to Led Zeppelin. “It’s the biggest compliment being mentioned in the same breath as the epitome of rock and roll,” says Sam, “but we have many other dimensions people haven’t seen.”

The group recently released the double EP, From The Fires, which builds upon the first project’s dynamic. Songs like ‘Talk In The Streets’ and ‘Edge of Darkness’ dive deeper into the Black Smoke Rising sound. Paying homage to soul influences like Stevie Wonder and Wilson Pickett, they covered Sam Cooke’s civil rights-inspired track ‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’ This version takes a centuries-long struggle and sheds light on the unspoken racial institutions still alive today. “From The Fires is a continuation of our first EP,” says Sam. “We felt like we had to expand our sound and pay tribute to our inspirations.”

photo: Chris M. Junior

photo: Chris M. Junior

Learning from his own, more soulful inspirations, Sam harnesses a style of bass that shies away from the mainstream. “A lot of bass these days just follows the chord structure,” says Sam. He plays a more active bass to add volume. Rather than follow the lead guitar, Sam treats the bass as a separate entity. “It brings out a fuller sound,” he says. Besides bass and keys, Sam also plays the mandolin, drums, and the organ. When switching instruments, the mindset changes. “It takes a certain level of comfort to do in front of an audience.”

Coming off of their first headline tour, Greta Van Fleet played in front of packed audiences across the US. After the last show, the band shacked up in a Tennessee cabin to unwind. They set up the drums in the middle, also bringing the guitars, keyboard, and speakers. The four worked on concepts beside the fireplace and winding staircase. Overlooking the smoky mountains, the view sparked new waves of thought. “We just wanted to play around and have some fun,” says Sam. “We got a lot done.”

In the next few months, the band will work on a full length album and headline a European tour. Reaching unseen heights for a group this young, they still run into disrespect on the road. “People treat us like we’re just a bunch of kids,” says Sam, “but we couldn’t be more serious about what we do.” The four fight for their music and believe in its staying power. “We want our art to have an effect on people, beyond just enjoyment,” says Sam. “There would be nothing better than if fifty years from now, people are still listening to us.”

Listen to Greta Van Fleet's double EP From The Fires below:

Watch Greta Van Fleet's music video for 'Highway Tune' below:

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