FRANKENMUTH – Kelly and Karen Kiszka fed their three musician children a steady diet of Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Howlin’ Wolf and The Who at the family home in Saginaw County’s Birch Run Township.
These days the boys – who along with Danny Wagner make up the band Greta Van Fleet – are devouring the competition on America’s hard-rock scene, with their song “Highway Tune” ranked No. 2 in the U.S. among rock songs according to billboard.com.
The four Frankenmuth High School graduates are playing a man’s tour schedule, too, performing around the country this month and having played in July at the famed Viper Room in Los Angeles. On Thursday, Greta Van Fleet is the opening act for Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band at The Dow Event Center in Saginaw.
Figuratively, anyway, it’s a long way from the band’s first paid gigs at Vassar’s Cork Pine Eatery & Saloon, which occurred after the group formed in 2012.
“We have always been into blues and classic rock and all those sorts of sounds,” said Karen Kiszka, 51, mother of three members of the band: lead singer Josh Kiszka, 21, and his twin brother, Jake (the lead guitarist), and their brother Sam, 18, the bass guitar player.
“That’s what we always listened to when they were growing up,” Karen Kiszka said. “Pretty much, they weren’t allowed to listen to the pop music. We didn’t like most of it.”
Danny Wagner, 18, son of Dan and Lori Wagner of Saginaw County’s Frankenmuth Township, plays the drums. Wagner and Sam Kiszka are 2017 Frankenmuth High School graduates, while Josh and Jake Kiszka graduated from Frankenmuth High in 2014.
Greta Van Fleet, known for its four-song extended play record, or EP, entitled “Black Smoke Rising” and released in the spring, was lauded on air this summer by disc jockey Howard Stern.
Eddie Trunk, rock music critic, took to his podcast on SiriusXM VOLUME this week and called Greta Van Fleet “the buzz band right now at rock radio that’s blowing up all over the country.”
The website loudwire.com described Josh Kiszka’s “eerily Robert Plant-esque vocals” in a reference to the lead vocalist for the legendary rock band Led Zeppelin.
“Everyone in rock is talking about ’em,” Trunk said. “They are in their early 20s and late teens. They are buzzing all around the world. They could be the band that finally gives rock a kick.”
The Frankenmuth foursome certainly has kicked up interest around its hometown, where locals point out that “Highway Tune” outranks top U.S. rock songs by acts including Papa Roach, Foo Fighters, Green Day and Metallica.
“Everybody’s just really excited for them,” said Heidi Chapman, 24, of Saginaw County’s Blumfield Township, a Frankenmuth High School graduate who works with Karen Kiszka at the Frankenmuth Historical Association.
“I was in high school with the (Kiszka) twins – they were a couple years younger than me, but I actually took a theatre class with Josh (Kiszka), I think, and just knowing him as a little freshman growing up into this huge rock star it’s really amazing,” Chapman said.
“If you follow Greta Van Fleet on Facebook, they always post that Rolling Stone magazine wrote a story about them, or this (other) magazine wrote a story about them. It’s just crazy, seeing them come from here. Stuff like that doesn’t happen to anybody you know.”
Even Gretna Van Fleet, the 86-year-old Frankenmuth woman from whom the band takes its name, is happily surprised at the band’s run.
“I think it’s great,” Van Fleet said. “I like to see young people do things, and they seem to be very talented.”
Gretna Van Fleet’s first name has one extra letter than the name of the band, but she doesn’t mind that the band’s original drummer, Kyle Hauck, heard her name and then suggested it to his bandmates, who adopted it.
“I did not think they would keep the name this long,” Van Fleet said. “I thought they would find some other more cool, more modern name, but they didn’t.”
Karen Kiszka said she felt similarly after Hauck and the Kiszka boys named the band before its first public appearance outdoors on Main Street at the Frankenmuth Auto Fest several years ago.
“They decided that Greta Van Fleet was going to be the name of the band,” Karen Kiszka said. “I said ‘Well, that’s a lovely name, but it’s somebody’s name, so she might not appreciate that.’ And it’s a long name – it’s not a good band name.
“I thought ‘We’ll change that later.’ It never changed.”
Gretna Van Fleet, a fan of big-band music who once belonged to a band called The Allenaires, keeps attracting attention along with the rock band that derived its name from hers.
“Everywhere I go, somebody has to ask a question about the band,” Van Fleet said. “I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I hope they have success and just keep themselves straight and not get into trouble – for their sake.”
Van Fleet has dealt with questions since the rock band performed at Fischer Hall in downtown Frankenmuth during Zehnder’s Snowfest in 2013.
“There was an ad in the paper that Greta Van Fleet was going to perform at Fischer Hall,” Van Fleet said. “My neighbor pointed it out and said ‘Are you going to be (performing) down there?’ I said ‘Well, if I am, I missed rehearsal.’”
Rock fans hit ’Muth
The success of Greta Van Fleet, the band, has visitors asking questions around Frankenmuth, one of the state’s top tourist attractions and known as Michigan’s Little Bavaria.
“The mood is very hyped-up,” said Brittany Dukarski, 25, barista at The Harvest Coffeehouse & Beanery, 626 S. Main St. in Frankenmuth, a spot that attracts the band members when they’re home.
“A lot of people actually come in to see them or to be in the town that they came from,” Dukarski said. “They want to come in and see where they hung out, where they grew up, and learn their origin story.”
Dukarski said she and Josh Kiszka, while students at Frankenmuth High School, “used to write movie scripts together and do a lot of movie-oriented stuff because that’s where his passions lie.”
Sam Kiszka, the band’s bass player “actually used to play his guitar out in front of our business when he had free time,” Dukarski said.
“He would just jam out and do some busking (playing for money) and stuff,” Dukarski said. “He is so talented on the keyboard. He’s amazing.”
Tonight, Greta Van Fleet performs in St. Louis, and Sunday night the band takes stage at The High Watt, a club in Nashville. The group is the headline act on this tour.
“It’s very exciting. It’s crazy,” Karen Kiszka said. “It’s kind of scary, but they’ve got each other, so they’re not (alone) as individuals and we know all the people surrounding them.
“I’ve lectured them. They were playing bars when Sam (Kiszka) was, like, 13, and there were drunk people all over them. They got flashed (by a woman) once. I said ‘That’s just life, boys.’”
Lori Wagner, 52, mother of the band’s drummer, Danny Wagner, said her son has been gone for about three weeks while on tour.
“They’ve kind of been gone since June 6 and they only were home for one two-week period and then they were gone again,” Wagner said. “They have not been home much at all this summer.”
Biggest gig yet?
When band members return to Frankenmuth this week, though, it will come with a reward: opening for Bob Seger in Saginaw.
“What an honor,” Lori Wagner said. “That’s all I can say. We thank Bob Seger and his manager (Punch Andrews) for giving our boys this opportunity. … Actually, I didn’t think anything could surprise me and I was speechless when I heard he was going to let them open for him.”
Lori Wagner said the band released the song “Highway Tune” this spring and the song already has soared to No. 2 in the nation on the rock charts.
“Just the fact that they got a headline tour so fast, and the fact they got a headline tour in Europe so fast, and the fact that they are opening for Seger – happening within months of them even putting out four songs – was crazy,” Wagner said.
“Who does that happen to? Not four boys from ‘Christmastown.’”
Dukarski described the band’s music as “a new-school take on the old-school.” The lyrics from “Black Smoke Rising” are philosophical, declaring that in a world where “many people are dividing,” the “fate of man is in the hands … Of he who stands and heeds the call.”
Karen Kiszka said the band has about 50 original songs, so Greta Van Fleet could stay on the run for a while.
“What makes me proud is that they found a passion in music, and they write music that comes from their hearts and their souls,” Karen Kiszka said. “Their mission is to share the love.
“That’s a throwback thought, too, kind of. They want to share the peace and love of what music can do for people. They want to affect people and change things for the better.”