BY ANDREW LENTZ
Prog-metal wunderkind Matt Garstka never thought he would wind up in the genre’s most buzzed about band, Animals As Leaders. A Berklee grad that basically thought of himself as a jazz guy, the idea of being in any kind of band wasn’t in the cards.
During his time at the prestigious music college the 24-year-old Massachusetts native was on the session drummer path, but knew even that was a long shot. “I was lucky because I had mentors who were realistic with me,” he says on the phone from Los Angeles where he has lived for the last two years. “That actually pushed my playing a lot. My goal was to be so good that people won’t have a choice but to hire me.”
Although he was a metal fan, the genre’s formulaic drumming was a turn off. If he were going to play metal it had be a forward-thinking band like Animals As Leaders. “It’s metal fusion,” he says. “I could hear the jazz influences and the rich harmony and melodic sensibility in [guitarist Tosin Abasi]’s playing. Also, I originally thought that it was a real drummer. [laughs] I was like, ’How is this guy so perfect?’”
How Garstka got the AAL gig isn’t much of a story in an age where social media makes auditions so efficient and drama-free. Short version: A friend hipped him to the open drum chair. Garstka posted videos of his playing and sent the link to AAL guitarist Tosin Abasi and rhythm guitarist Javier Reyes. After they picked their jaws off the floor, the three hung at NAMM, and the offer to join the band soon followed. But the real work for the drummer had yet to begin.
If un-dynamic playing plagues the extreme-metal world, Garstka is doing everything in his power to change that. You hear it in every beat on The Joy Of Motion, on which he rebuilt the band’s rhythm framework from scratch. “The first Animals albums weren’t even live drums,” he says. “It definitely took some convincing for the guys to let me record it that way.” To demo with programmed beats is one thing, but for the actual recordings? Heresy. On the self-titled debut, the beats were punched in by Periphery guitarist Misha Mansoor (who co-wrote over half of The Joy Of Motion). Breakthrough follow-up, Weightless, was a combination of programming and recorded hits on a hand pad by former drummer Navene Koperweis. “It’s so easy to program, which is why it’s so popular,” he continues. “Someone comes up with an odd riff, you match the bass drums to it, then put quarter-notes on the China over it and the backbeat on the snare and you got yourself a djent group.”
You can add polyrhythms, metric modulation, and Latin influences to Joy Of Motion’s beat palette, not to mention that the whole album is 100 percent instrumental. With phrases as long, fast, and dense as Animals’, finding the 1 is a full-time job for Garstka – that is, when he has any interest in doing so. “Ah, yes the 1, the Matrix,” he jokes. “I would put it in two distinct groups: the first is feeling it, naturally hearing it. If you’re having trouble with that, that’s when musical literacy comes into play: Deciphering the macro beats and the micro phrasing happening underneath.”
Garstka does not use triggers live or in the studio for one simple reason: “You don’t get dynamics with bass drums,” he says. “I’m more interested in different orchestrations, like supplementing bass drums with snares. Like [new track] ’Ka$cade’ [sings rhythm]. That intro riff is snare drum and then four bass drums.” The bodily disparity that plagues metal drumming – lower limbs do the grunt work; upper limbs get all the dramatic action – is problematic for him. “With the hands, you’re not just going to play singles all day. Your hands are much more musical than your feet typically.”
The band plays at respectably high tempos, but the faster you play the less opportunity for musicality. “Whatever speed I can play at to maintain enough power and maintain an even sound on the drum kit, that’s usually my max,” he explains. “I’ve never been really obsessed with bass drum speed. It’s not as musically exciting to me.”
In the Garstka household, music was a family affair. Even before he was a teenager Garstka was playing clubs with his father – a guitarist who owned a music store – bashing out R&B, reggae, and blues. Some random guy attending a gig turned out to be an instructor who instantly recognized the drummer’s potential. That’s when a 14-year-old Garstka got into Latin jazz, funk, and fusion, and began immediately attacking his weaknesses, i.e. playing with swing. “Just the ting-tinga-ling jazz ride, you know? I couldn’t do it. [Eventually] he had me doing stuff like songo with a 2-3 clave and stuff that just makes you retarded.”
Djent/tech-metal’s aggressive nature has forced a gradual change in the drummer’s grip; the degree to which arms are involved; and maybe posture. Classical educator types may see this as a negative, but only if you believe that technique informs style. For Garstka it’s the opposite: Form follows function. “I messed with some heel-toe and swivel technique, and heel down, and heel up, but what really seems to serve me is just playing and letting it unfold naturally,” he says. “You should definitely monitor things and be aware of your body and whether your technique is causing problems. But typically it’s just meant to facilitate musical expression. It’s not supposed to be the objective of playing drums.”
The idea of crib sheets is intriguing, maybe because they’re superfluous for Garstka. In this guy’s highly qualified opinion, memorizing parts is key to making the music second nature. “Cheat sheets are certainly helpful in the learning process, but I think they should be just that – unless you’re trying to sight-read on a gig, but that’s very rare these days,” he says. “I see cats using cheat sheets as a crutch or as a reference, but I think that prohibits really becoming unified with the music and embellishing it.”
Animals As Leaders is but one course on a broad rhythmic navigation. Two areas concern Garstka right now: African rhythms based on two against three. “The other thing would be getting creative with the ostinato,” he says. “I guess it comes down to the bass drum and left hand because it’s such an integral part of all music.”
Sometimes drummers suffer from image confusion at the earliest stage of their career. Garstka, who was featured on the third DVD from the Gospel Chops series, may be the only prog-metal drummer who has roots in the church-based genre.
“Everyone was like, ’Oh he’s a gospel chopper,’ but then the metal was in the limelight, so that’s all they saw.” For all the superficial differences between the prog-metal and gospel chops camps, the drummer feels the same forces drive both. “They’re really pushing the limits for patterns,” he says. “They’re not just thinking of how it sounds; I feel like they’re dancing on the drums. It’s like kung fu at times. I like adding different elements like that into my playing.”
Misperceptions ought be a thing of the past with the imminent launch of a new drumming portal: therealmattgarstka.com, featuring lessons, performances, the works. It’s part of Garstka’s master plan to un-typecast himself as the typical technical-metal guy. Besides YouTube vids of him playing country, pop, and groove styles, there is French fusion guitarist Louis De Mieulle, on whose 2011 album Defense Mechanisms Garstka played, as well as a new release dropping soon. “There’s other sides to me that people haven’t seen yet.”
Those sides will be evident in this summer’s Big Drum Bonanza, the week-long band camp created by Thomas Lang, plus clinics in Europe and Asia. “Typically I get asked about my ghost notes, linear playing, learning Animals stuff, or deciphering drum parts and how I expound upon what’s already written,” he says of previous clinics. “I don’t just want to teach chops. I’m trying to teach what’s behind the chops.”
Garstka got the ultimate validation when AAL played the Tama 40th Anniversary Party at last winter’s annual NAMM convention, just two years after he first met his future bandmates there. It wasn’t just because the band graced the same stage as Lenny White, Simon Phillips, and other drum royalty (though that was part of it), but for reasons closer to home. “My dad and my sister were there – that was the coolest thing.”
Animals As Leaders
The Joy Of Motion
Does the idea of instrumental prog send you running for the hills? If that’s a yes, you need to check out The Joy Of Motion, the third full-length from Animals As Leaders. Between eight-string maestros Tosin Abasi and rhythm guitarist Javier Reyes’s layered arrangements, keyboard plug-ins, and synth-bass backing tracks, you’ll never miss the vocals. And we haven’t even gotten to Matt Garska’s superhuman drum parts, an onslaught of odd times, linear playing, and whatever drummistic insanity it takes to enrich this harmelodic tapestry. The flamenco-tinged “Para Mexer” shows off Latin influences reconfigured for the djent crowd. In “Crescent” and “The Future That Awaited Me” Abasi deigns to play a blatant melody. Elsewhere hooks reveal themselves more gradually. Unlike the excessively weedly axemanship of previous albums, Abasi has found a spot where melody and rhythm become the same thing, or at least play off each other in ways that will startle.
Matt Garstka is one sick drummer. Like most metal drummers today, he has scary fast feet, but surprisingly has more in common with fusion drummers like Vinnie Colaiuta and Gavin Harrison than he does with his metal peers. Odd times, displacements, and metric modulations seem to pose no problems for Garstka. On this track he shows his ease playing in 11/16 while superimposing a dotted eighth-note feel on top of the pattern. This guy is incredible!
Latest Release The Joy Of Motion
Birthplace Hopewell, Virginia
Influences Buddy Rich, Billy Cobham, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, Gary Novak, Yahnn Hunter, Ronald Bruner, Chris Coleman, Thomas Pridgen
Sticks Vic Firth