BY JOE BOSSO | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
“Nothing can really prepare you for being told you went to #1,” says Greta Van Fleet drummer Danny Wagner. “You dream about it, but it seems like this unattainable goal. And then it happens, and it’s like this mixture of surprise and shock and happiness. It’s all pretty surreal, but as far as surreal experiences go, I’ll take it.”
Wagner, 20, was on tour in Europe with Greta Van Fleet when he got the news last fall that the band’s debut LP, Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, did indeed land at the #1 spot of Billboard’s Top 200. There were strong indications that the Michigan-based outfit would do well: Their first two EPs, Black Smoke Rising and From The Fires, packed energetic, classic-rock-sounding gems such as “Highway Tune” and “Safari Song” that stormed radio and streaming services. With gigs selling out as fast as they could be added, music critics quickly hailed the band as the “saviors of rock and roll.” To top it off, the band was also nominated for four Grammys—Best New Artist, Best Rock Performance for “Highway Tune,” Best Rock Song for “Black Smoke Rising,” and Best Rock Album for From The Fires. They won for Best Rock Album.
“We tried to keep all that stuff in perspective,” Wagner says. “I think what’s nice about the success we’ve had is that, yes, we’re playing rock and roll, so it’s good that any band can hit it big in this day and age playing rock. We’re trying not to let anything go to our heads. Otherwise, we’ll jinx it.”
Despite all the ballyhoo, there has also been a fair amount of criticism leveled against the band, most of it focused on their uncanny sonic similarities to Led Zeppelin. Wagner has heard it from the start, and he acknowledges the comparisons as something of a mixed bag. “I mean, if you’re going to be compared to somebody, Zeppelin is as good as any,” he reasons. “I’m a huge Zeppelin fan, and so are the other guys, so perhaps that’s our foundation. We just do our own thing while we wear our influences on our sleeves.”
John Bonham looms large for Wagner, who began playing drums in middle school, but so does Ringo Starr. “They’re my two biggest guys,” he says. “With Bonham, it was the way he could distill so many styles and make them sound straightforward. Even when he did something complex, it still felt simple. As for Ringo, he was just so creative and unique. Maybe it’s because he’s a lefty who played with his kit set up for a right-handed drummer. He came at his fills his own way.”
Wagner isn’t Greta Van Fleet’s first drummer. He was high school friends with the Kiszka brothers—there’s Jake on guitar, Sam on bass, and Josh on lead vocals—and followed them when they performed with their original sticksman, Kyle Hauck, at biker bars in and around their hometown of Frankenmuth, Michigan. When Hauck left the group to pursue college, Wagner jumped at the chance to claim his spot. “I had been studying Kyle’s playing, and I was practicing just in case he split,” he says. “I took Kyle’s parts but changed them to sound like me.” The difference was dramatic and immediate. “We all felt like, ‘Okay, now this sounds like a band.’ Josh told me that he never truly felt confident onstage till I played with him.”
Anthem Of The Peaceful Army is chock-full of feisty, rifftastic rockers, and Wagner powers each of the album’s 11 tracks with a thunderous right foot that calls to mind the hammer-of-the-gods-like stomp of Bonham mixed with the swinging, splashy hi-hat sound of Starr. “You can really hear me channel both guys on ‘The Cold Wind,’” he points out, “but I’m also thinking Alex Van Halen. He has such a strong right foot, but his hi-hat playing is just as fierce. It can throw my balance off a bit when I concentrate on both of those elements, so I have to be careful.”
He peppers the spunky, funk-laced “When The Curtain Falls” with nimble ghost notes on his snare, but mentions that he later overdubbed a shaker “to give it that added zing. Some guys can get that particular sound all by themselves. It’s something I’m working on. I want anything I do to sound organic.”
The song that gave Wagner the biggest fight in the studio was the six-minute behemoth “Lover, Leaver (Taker, Believer),” a song that often stretches to 20 minutes live. “We could have recorded that track in sections, but we really wanted to jam it out in one take,” he explains. “Live, it changes so much night to night, and I was thinking, Okay, how am I going to pack all of these sections in and make it sound aggressive but natural, knowing that this is gonna be forever? I had to think, but not overthink.”
His assessment of the finished product? “Well, you listen to it and you say, ‘Hey, that’s great, but I probably could have done it better with one more try.’ But you know, we’re just getting started with making records. There’s still a lot for us to learn.”
Transcription by Andy Ziker
When you’re the drummer in an original group often compared to Led Zeppelin, expectations are high. Danny Wagner pays homage to John Bonham, but definitely approaches the Greta Van Fleet gig with his own flair. In the intro of “Cold Wind,” sextuplets on open hi-hat lead us into an ensemble hit on the & of 2 in measure two. A Bonham-ish funk groove materializes in measure three and includes another group hit in measure four. The fill into the verse in measure five has a cool two-note snare skip before traveling down the drums.