Matt Garstka: Let's Get Technical
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.”