During his Rig Rundown in early 2018, Jake Kiszka’s beloved 1961 Gibson Les Paul was being held together with gaff tape. Since then, he says he’s had to have major repairs done on the guitar, so the tape is gone. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen
Would you say that you all shared an equal amount of songwriting?
Jake: Yeah, for the most part. Everybody brought in a song, and even if it was someone more than others, all the writing comes together from different perspectives—where Sam is writing the bass part, and Danny is writing the drum part, or Josh with the vocals. It’s always like four parts evenly contributing to that one song.
“Brave New World” has a different guitar sound, especially the solo at the end. Jake, you don’t use a lot of effects, but can you elaborate on what you were doing there?
Jake: I wanted to try new tones for solos and have that really be identified by something unique so that when you hear that solo you instantly know what song or solo it is. I wanted to keep it minimal as far as pedals go and focus on performance with the guitar on the album. But a close friend of our producer, Al Sutton, works with Jext Telez. Bob Ebeling brought in this Jext Telez pedal that was a fuzz face. I plugged it in and it was just this really fuzzy, ripping, crunching sound and it was perfect for this solo. I had it when we were writing in the studio, and I switched it on and played the solo and it worked so well.
The last song on the album, “Anthem,” sounds like it has some pedal steel on it. Who’s playing that?
Jake: That was a lap steel. Sam tracked some of the first parts, and he kinda brought that in and there was one lying in the studio and we’d always play it. I took the last verse and the solo out.
Sam: I think the track I’m most excited about is “Anthem,” which is kind of a pseudo title track. I don’t think I’ll be getting into the meaning of what it is because it’s very vague. But as far as the writing goes, it was this little gem that was found. We were going through old tracks and deciding what should be on this album. I remember the song was haphazardly written as a substitute for something else. We all sat down in the studio with two acoustic guitars and a lap steel … it was this magical mystery of different things we kept pulling from our past. It’s just so much different from what I think people will expect from us. That’s one of the reasons I’m excited about it.
Are you going to play lap steel on that song live?
Jake: We might. Probably, but we have yet to determine that. I think there’ll be a lot more lap steel on songs to come as well.
Another guitar part that sounds experimental for you is midway through the song “Watching Over.” It has a sitar influence to it. What’s going on there with that tone?
Jake: We were at Blackbird Studio and I was rummaging through the guitar vault that was upstairs and I came across this actual sitar. I started playing around with it, which was really cool, and I’ve since purchased one. But there was a sitar guitar that was even more interesting to me because it was something I was super familiar with—emulating a sitar—and I wanted to use it on the album. It perfectly fit into “Watching Over,” because it has foreign aspects to it.
Sam, you’ve got a really thundering, thumping bass tone on the album. Did you play through any pedals?
Sam: No pedals. It was actually the most incredible amp that nobody’s ever heard of. I pulled this old thing out because it looked cool and it reminded me of what Noel Redding used. It was a Sunn 2000S. These things are not expensive. They’re maybe $1,000 for a 100-watt bass head from the late ’60s or early ’70s. They’re amazing and I’ve been touring with it ever since. I think a lot of people use clean amps just to feel it onstage, but my whole thing about it is you can blend in that tone and it’s the most aggressive-sounding amp I’ve ever heard out of a bass. It’s not overdriven, it’s not gained out, there’s not really a playing advantage you get with it. It’s just beef. It’s mean. It’s aggressive. We blended that into pretty much every single song on the record. My gosh, it was just pure magic to my ears that something could even sound like that.
Was that amp at Blackbird?
Yes, it was like way back in the closet at Blackbird. And John McBride, the owner of the studio, actually gifted it to me and I’m very thankful for that. I traded him with eternal access to any show he ever wants to go to [laughs].
So you’re not using your Bassman on tour now. You’re using the Sunn?
Sam: I’ve got the Bassman up there for a backup, but for now I’m playing the Sunn with a 2x15 Sunn cab that our producer, Al Sutton, had at his studio.
What is your current favorite song that you listen to that isn’t Greta Van Fleet?
Sam: I’ve been listening to a lot of Jim Croce. Some of the music is fun and very silly but some of the songs are the most emotional love songs that I’ve ever heard.
Jake: One of my favorite songs is called “Strangers,” by the Kinks. I’ve been listening to that pretty non-stop recently.
If you could take a lesson or jam with any guitarist, dead or alive, who would it be?
Jake: Eric Clapton. I grew up listening to a lot of Cream and stuff. I have memories of sitting there watching a VCR cassette of a Cream documentary with my dad. Clapton was a really early inspiration of mine.
Sam: Oh fuck. Billy Preston, the Billy Preston. He did keyboards for the Beatles in later years. He had such a massive career. He’s the guy that got me into playing keys. Our great-grandpa’s Hammond organ was in the garage, and it’s the closest thing to a family heirloom that we have. I must’ve been 12 or 13 when I turned it on and, by the will of god, it worked. It hadn’t been punched in 30 years. I wanted to learn the organ parts in the Beatles song “She’s So Heavy.” I thought it was so cool. I didn’t know who was playing it. I thought it was Paul McCartney or something. Later I found out it was Billy Preston.
Someone recently asked me if I think the guitar is dead. What do you think?
Jake: I guess you’d have to define what you mean by dead. I see it as such a part of culture, even before it came to a flourishing point where it exploded. When anything starts to decline it’s often deemed as something that’s dead, but it still exists and it’s still in the hands of many, many players—even many players younger than myself. And me being a younger player, we’re all influenced by each other and I don’t think it’s dead. No [laughs].
Sam said earlier that he thinks great musicians stand apart for exhibiting emotion and truth. How do you know if music is authentic or not, as a listener?
Sam: That’s a fabulous question. I think that when you sit down and listen to a song, that you really feel something that you can’t explain. I think that’s what rock ’n’ roll is: you feel something you can’t explain. You feel elated or you feel genuinely upset or you feel understood. I think that’s authenticity because if you’re singing and playing something that makes you feel something, it’s just natural other people will feel it, too. Sometimes it’s hard to separate out what is emotionally authentic music and what’s not, but I think people instantly know the difference.
Jake: I think that’s really quite evident within the first 5 seconds of listening to something: You either feel if it’s truthful or it’s not. That’s the first thing that becomes offensive to me as someone listening and spending time with music: if you feel like you’re being lied to, if it’s not truthful. People are very quick to source whether it’s truthful or not. You can’t manipulate emotion and you can’t manufacture it either. It’s gotta be pure and it’s gotta be real.
If music had an odor, what would yours smell like?
Sam: Very potent, like sandalwood or incense. Really strong.
Jake: Hmmm, that’s a good one. It smells like freedom. Pine burning maybe.
Can you think of your most surreal moment in the last few years after all the success you’re having?
Jake: One of the top experiences that I’ve had personally was when we were in Quebec City, Canada, and we were opening for the Foo Fighters. There were probably 90,000 or more people. It was an absolute mass of people, a sea—literally you could not see to the back of the people, it went so far that they just vanished. It was sunset and it started pouring instantly in the middle of our set, and everybody in the crowd went absolutely insane.
You could just hear this roar of people and the singing got louder, and you could hear that people were singing the lyrics to our song. I think we were doing “Lover, Leaver (Taker Believer)” and were in the middle of a breakdown just jamming. We could feel the energy and their reaction elevated our performance and we were like, “alright let’s do this, we’re all together in this.” I walked out and started ripping a solo and I could hear the crowd going “Jake! Jake! Jake!” I just went somewhere else that whole performance. That was a really special moment for me. It was amazing.
Did you get nervous performing with Elton John?
Jake: Oh yeah. He’s like the only guy who could do that because we’re pretty easy-going guys.
Sam: I can only think of one other person, who would give me the nerves that Elton John gives me.
Sam: [Laughs.] No, Paul McCartney.
Jake: What about Eric Clapton?
Sam: Probably Eric Clapton, too.
Greta Van Fleet jam on “Watching Over,” the second single from their new album, at Pinkpop in the Netherlands in June 2018. The album version of the song features a sitar guitar for the solos, but guitarist Jake Kiszka uses his Les Paul on the live solo starting at 1:28.