Hard hits and groove: A conversation with Greta Van Fleet's Danny Wagner

Drummer talks touring and upcoming debut album

greta-van-fleet

Greta Van Fleet flaunts synth, and Danny Wagner is the driving force.

Over the past year, the Michigan rockers have embarked on a journey to revitalize ‘70s rock.

The 19-year-old drummer maintains an arsenal of heavy hits while mixing in a steady dose of grove. Tracks like “Safari Song” and “When the Curtain Falls” have a refreshing sound, which Wagner lays the foundation for. His drumming not only drives the songs, but balances exceptional fills with a temperament that flaunts his personal chops.

Now, Wagner is given ample space to raise the bar.

Ahead of the Oct. 19 release of Greta Van Fleet’s debut album, “Anthem of the Peaceful Army,” The Spectrum spoke with Wagner about influences, songwriting and Greta Van Fleet’s growing following.

Q: “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” builds on a foundation laid by the two EP’s, “Black Smoke Rising” and “From the Fires.” There’s also a lot of different influences on this record with singer-songwriter-inspired tracks crossing over into the hard rock sound that Greta has been rolling out. What was the focus for “Anthem of the Peaceful Army?”

A: The main difference in putting those two different works together for “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” was we had time –– like as much time as we wanted to record this thing. We had this direction that it was our first real album, and to us this is our first really important piece because it’s a collection for a lot of our music that we’ve been putting off and saving for this moment. For us as a band, it was also our first album experience, our first time getting into a real studio for as long as we did and sitting down to record this album. It was very important to us and very personal to each of us. I think it actually happened very naturally and it all came together a lot quicker than we all thought. It really ended up being magical how quickly this came together and how the songs ended up sounding; that big rock n’ roll sound that just kind of happened. 

Q: Greta has been touring nonstop for the past two years in support of the two EPs as well as the upcoming debut. Has the dynamic changed with time? What’s different with each show as the band continues to pick up steam?

A: What’s important about our shows is that they’re different every time. I actually believe that because we’re a band, we’re not playing to tracks, we’re not necessarily stuck to a setlist every night. We kind of just look at each other based on the reaction from the audience say ‘Do you want to play this song or that song?’ We try to make our shows very personal with ourselves and with the audience, and that's how we tapped into our own stream of consciousness almost when we’re playing. It allows us to express ourselves differently every night and I think that’s an important part to a Greta Van Fleet show. That was kind of how we recorded the album too. We sat down with these live takes at the very beginning, and it’s weird because you’re not exactly sure if you’re confident to let it sound like that, but that’s what makes it characteristic to us.

Q: A lot of labels have been thrown out there for Greta, whether it’s comparing the band’s sound to the past or decisively determining its influences. What do these labels mean to you? Is it important to maintain a certain autonomy, or is embracing it all the mindset?

A: I think, as of now, it’s very important for all of us to kind of let whatever is happening …  happen kind of organically. When we write songs, we don’t force ourselves to write a song ... usually they just kind of happen. The best artists that have the best understanding of their music and what they’re doing allow their music to evolve. I think that’s pretty important. As long as we’re able to continuously perform and write as often as we can, we’re going to try and let our music evolve over time as we grow into real adults. It’s only a matter of what will happen in the next year or two.

Q: You’ve listed some of your heroes as Ringo Starr and John Bonham. Ringo personified the drummer as an equal member of the 4-piece, where as John Bonham seemingly took over on multiple occasions, not afraid to show off his chops. Where do find yourself leaning towards in that scenario?  

A: It's tough because I look at them as the same. Yes they were in different genres, they were in different bands [and] did different things. Ringo was kind of like that fourth member, Bonzo was the driving force behind the drums of Led Zeppelin. At the same time, they both knew what they were capable of and they both fit in very well. They both realized what part they served and played that part very well. ... I know what I can do but it’s whether or not it’s too much or too little and how it interacts with the music itself. I would have to say I can relate more with Ringo just on the personal side of things. How he came into this band where there were three other tight-knit guys, and that's kind of like the brothers [Josh, Jake and Sam Kiszka] when I came in and joined the band. It was me trying to establish myself as a drummer even though I had no background. I [had] never played in a band or percussion, I just picked up the drums to play a few beats when I met them. It was really putting myself out there as a musician rather than necessarily being a show off.

Q: Greta Van Fleet focuses on the collective efforts to write a song, as credits show. Where does a song really take off for the band? Is it a process where music comes first, or where a Josh, Jake, Sam or yourself bring lyrics first?

A: The coolest thing is, there is no answer to that. In previous years, it has come from lyrics first, guitar first, bass first, mandolin first ... all sorts of crazy, unnameable instruments first. It comes from that moment where one of us, and it could be any one of us four, sits down with the instrument or a piece of paper and starts going at it and all of a sudden, this concept comes about. Before they know it, we’re starting to write a song. What we try to do is get it to the point where we feel like we can present it in its full concept and idea. [If] me or Jake write a riff or something, we’ll bring it and show it to the rest of the guys, and then we’ll all come together and write it from there. We all play the guitar and we all play the bass. We can sit down with these instruments and bounce ideas back and forth off of each other until we have a song.

Q:  You’re hitting harder, and perhaps more deliberate with your fills. To me, this directly contrasts your first two EP’s where the effort sounded more on keeping time while formatting a solid rhythm section and groove. Do you strive to bring a certain demeanor or mindset to a Greta Van Fleet song?

A: Growing up with these guys, I’ve realized that I always lean toward the folk side of things. For example Jake, when I first met him, when we both start sharing music tastes, he was pretty well versed in the rock n’ roll genre of all types. I learned a lot from him about rock n’roll. He’s more of the rock n’ roll guy. Sam is quite the jazz freak, and Josh loves everything, he loves world music. I like to say that I like folk. I like that quieter genre of music where it’s very expressive and delicate. I think that has a lot to do with my writing ... I do help write songs on the guitar and other various instruments. I think that Josh and I get along in that sense too, he’s a very folky kind of person. In terms of the album and the fills, I really think that has to do with the time thing. We had much more time not to just work on the album but to really develop this idea of what we wanted this album to become. Once we had more time to let that become itself, the fills just started coming out ... we kind of all latched onto these ideas whenever we heard something. We’re kind of starting to identify with each other, which is great because we’re working toward our own sound.

Brian Evans is the senior arts editor and can be reached at brian.evans@ubspectrum.com and @BrianEvansSpec.

BRIAN EVANS


Brian Evans is a senior English major and The Spectrum's senior arts editor.