On The Cover

Matt Garskta

The Soul Machine

Animals as Leaders’ beat scientist has found heaps of inspiration and endless challenges in the wonderful world of mathematics. And for sure, he shares much of what he’s discovered with us here. But studying the numbers only gets you so close to truly understanding any task—drumming included. As AAL’s brand-new album makes abundantly clear, focusing equally on matters of the head and heart is what turns craft into art.

Story by Ken Micallef
Photos by Alex Solca

Jutting out their progressive-djent chins like warriors conquering a city, Animals as Leaders take prog and metal to extreme heights of riff-rock intensity. The D.C.-based band had challenged drummers Matt Halpern (Periphery) and Navene Koperweis (Entheos) to up their already significant abilities while navigating the maniacally twisted arrangements and tortuous rhythmic conundrums. Matt Garstka joined in time to record 2014’s The Joy of Motion, and now, with the release of AAL’s fourth album, The Madness of Many, it’s clear that the twenty-seven-year-old drummer has raised the group’s game even further, bringing a soulfulness and sense of ease to gloriously complex material, while injecting his own compositional slant and idiosyncratic musicianship.

The Madness of Many frames djent as an artificial-intelligence endgame, with song titles like “Ectogenesis,” “Transcentience,” and “Arithmophobia” proposing a future dystopia where man and machine are one and humanoid soul is steered by robotic thought and computer machinations. The album is like something that the surrealist designer H.R. Giger would come up with if he had his own in-house band to direct, akin to the creature that he designed for the Alien movie series, or the biomechanical being on the cover of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery—ambitiously conceived, remarkably detailed, and frighteningly powerful.

“This record is definitely more granular and fixated on the micro and subdivisions rather than the macro, like playing in 7/4 or 7/8,” Garstka tells MD from his home in L.A. “That’s where things start for us. [Guitarists] Javier Reyes and Tosin Abasi are very melodic players, and as advanced as they are rhythmically, they really have a great sense for harmony and melody. That’s the greatest asset to my drumming, their harmonic and melodic prowess. It allows me to be highlighted in a context that’s super-musical. It’s not typical.”

Whether Garstka is playing parallel time signatures, displacing odd meters, splitting metric modulations into increasingly smaller subdivisions, or grooving in a simple 4/4, his power, intelligence, and innovation are obvious and at times astounding. Among other profundities, Garstka metrically modulates triplets in 4/4 to 16ths in 3/4 and into groups of nine over four in “Cognitive Contortions”; maneuvers a tricky seven-over-four pattern in “Backpfeifengesicht”; and plays triplets rather than 8ths or 16ths in 7/4 while almost creating a four-over-three figure in seven in “The Brain Dance.” All in all, it’s a searing, soaring ride that only Animals as Leaders would dare launch.

A product of the suburban sprawl of Westfield, Connecticut, Garstka showed an early aptitude for music, and by the age of fourteen he was making a living playing in clubs and with bar bands, eventually leading to enrollment at Berklee College of Music in 2007. While attending Berklee he toured with the Senegalese hip-hop/reggae band Gokh-Bi System and recorded two albums with the French classical/jazz bassist Louis de Mieulle. After Berklee, Garstka relocated to L.A. and met Abasi and Reyes, who invited him to audition for Animals as Leaders.

The ensuing Joy of Motion required Garstka to program drum parts before recording them acoustically, and The Madness of Many is no different in that regard. New to the menu, however, is Garstka’s compositional input, which, coupled with the extreme cohesion and simpatico sentiments of Abasi and Reyes, results in music that is as viscerally powerful as it is intellectually stimulating. Garstka’s technical exhilaration and soulful, deep-bottom grooves are the icing under the cake, as it were, his goliath drumming rising from strength to strength.

MD: What drumming concepts have you been working on since the previous Animals as Leaders album, The Joy of Motion?

Matt: I’ve become more concept driven. I’m more focused on specific patterns and trying to create my own patterns, ones that are not typically used. I’ve used those patterns in the writing of this new record. I’m always trying to improve all aspects of my drumming, of course, but finding my niche in very specific patterns and even certain rhythmic illusions, like parallel time signatures, has been my recent focus.

MD: What are parallel time signatures?

Matt: That’s when a measure of 5/4 occurs within the same amount of time as a 4/4 measure. You take accents from a 5/4 time signature and group them as four groups of five instead of five groups of four [5/4]. You play the five groups of four as quintuplets in 4/4. Then you can convert the quintuplet pattern to the nearest 16th notes. This gives you a 4/4 version of the same approximate rhythm. We do this all the time when translating 8th-note patterns to swung triplets. It’s the same concept. But with parallel time signatures, instead of taking two 8th notes and interpreting them with an 8th-note-triplet feel, you’re converting 16ths into quintuplets, or vice versa.

MD: It’s an illusion?

Matt: Yeah, it sounds similar but it’s a little different. Even considering subdivisions. Say you’re playing a tumbao in 2/4 and it’s divided into 16th notes as “1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2.” You can take both of the three-note 16th groupings [“1, 2, 3”] and the two-note 16th grouping [“1, 2”] and force four notes over the three-note groupings and three notes over the two-note grouping. So now you have a rhythm with two four-note groupings followed by a three-note grouping. That sounds like it’s in 11/16.

MD: Do these rhythmic illusions appear on the new Animals as Leaders record?

Matt: Those examples don’t happen on the new record, but that’s where my mind is going lately. The other stuff, polyrhythmic patterns and patterns I’ve curated, all that comes through on the record. “Curating” is, for example, how a typical pattern in seven can be divided into two groupings of four and two groupings of three. A typical way of playing seven would be, “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3.” Those ways of counting or feeling seven have been around forever, and I’m trying to change that up.

And furthermore, breaking up seven in a different way—for instance, playing triplets in seven rather than 8th and 16th notes, which are so common when playing a phrase in seven. It’s rarer to hear triplets in 7/4. So I came up with a four-over-three in seven. It’s kind of bastardized because it’s not perfectly four-over-three, it’s 4-, 4-, 4-, 5-, and 4-note groupings. And this triplet pattern in seven is played under a 4/4 backbeat. That’s in the middle of “The Brain Dance.” A displaced version of that concept can also be heard at the end of “Cognitive Contortions”; it’s displaced as 4-, 4-, 4-, 4-, and 5-note groupings.

MD: What inspired these fresh ways of approaching odd meters?

Matt: There are different levels. The first level is being inspired by something someone plays and analyzing it. Once you do that enough, polyrhythmic patterns become normal. The next step is trying to create your own things, whether that’s being scientific in your approach or simply using your musical ear. I’m trying to create a new way of playing the same old stuff.

MD: You’re no doubt inspired by Tosin and Javier. How about drummers? For instance, are you inspired by Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta…?

Matt: I’m certainly inspired by the older guys; their playing has inspired me more than that of current drummers. But I don’t know that they’ve inspired me to go on this path of deep patterns, and being super-fixated or focused on creating these patterns. I owe that more to Meshuggah, or the guys in my band, or drummers like Virgil Donati, or even pianist Tigran Hamasyan.

Writing and Recording Madness

MD: What was the recording process for The Madness of Many? Were you required to program the drum parts before recording them, as on the previous album?

Matt: This time we were all in the same room, writing the songs linearly together. Usually Tosin plays a riff, then the songs evolve based on Javier’s and my input. I tried to get them to improvise, and we did a couple times, as with “Cognitive Contortions,” then we went back to working on things in the computer. I still programmed drums before tracking this time, but from scratch. I would program an idea, and then we’d write to that as a group. That’s how a lot of my patterns got on the record.

MD: How did ideas progress?

Matt: Each song took about two days of work to complete. In each session Tosin would begin by inputting a guitar riff into the computer, and from there I’d program drums or Javier might suggest a direction and I’d complement that—ask for a tempo and take an odd-metered pattern and modulate to a triplet at that rate, things like that. We’d collaborate on patterns beginning from Tosin’s original idea.

MD: So the band discussed ideas verbally and then programmed parts?

Matt: Yes. That’s what’s cool about this process—it’s like talking. It’s more thoughtful, and we still write in an efficient fashion. The three of us are usually in Javier’s apartment. He’s got his computer with Logic Pro X up; sometimes I’d play a pattern through my Yamaha DTX electronic kit so I didn’t have to arduously program it. I played acoustic drums on the record, though.

That’s one of the challenging aspects of the album—I programmed parts and then refined them to where they would be suitable for the record. I did three weeks of intensive preparation, four to six hours every day. I homed in on each of these parts. I could play the majority of them immediately, but some parts were conceptual. One part I wrote at a tempo that I was sure I could play, but it proved to be really challenging; that’s on “Backpfeifengesicht.” There’s a crazy double bass drum part there too. I thought I could play it at tempo, but it proved very challenging.

MD: So after writing and programming, you’d spend time learning the parts?

Matt: Yes. So basically it was three weeks of dialing in the parts. I had to get them to where they were good enough to be captured on record. I wanted a natural drum sound. We tried to avoid quantizing. So the grooves needed to be super-tight. That’s where my intensive practice came in. We ended up quantizing 5 or 10 percent of the double bass drum parts. Aside from that you’re hearing me—my feel, all natural.

MD: What was the recording process for the drums?

Matt: I recorded the drums first. I had a subdivided click for the main subdivisions; I’d crosscheck that first to make sure the click was accurate. Then I’d check to make sure that it felt good naturally without the click. After that, I checked the drum recording with music. Each part on the record had to pass those three parameters. I took seven days to record drums, and they took two weeks for guitars. We changed a lot of synths and added additional layers in the mixing process. That gave us freedom and control.

MD: Did you tempo-map the tracks?

Matt: All of it is tempo-mapped. We were conscious of that. Each tempo change has some relation to the previous pulse.

MD: How was your setup miked?

Matt: We recorded at Sphere Studios in Los Angeles. We had a very large live room for the drums. We recorded my custom Tama Maple/Bubinga Starclassic drums. We used a lot of room mics as well as close miking and different overheads. We used great gear, which was crucial in maintaining the natural sound of the record.

MD: Did you trigger samples?

Matt: No. All natural drums. I love the sound of maple; it’s the go-to for live and studio recording for a reason. I changed out cymbals and snares. We used a Tama Bell Brass snare and some others, but I used the Maple/Bubinga snare from the Tama kit for the bulk of the record. Originally I’d asked for a maple kit with this exotic wrap, cordia, on the outside. But Tama needed to couple the maple with bubinga, so it’s a hybrid kit. The drum layers begin with an inner and middle layer of maple, an outer bubinga layer, then a cordia wrap.

MD: The drums sound very warm.

Matt: It’s a combination ply; it’s punchy sounding and has plenty of body. The warmth is also attributable to the Remo Emperor heads that I like to use.

MD: Those heads don’t give you much rebound.

Matt: Right. It’s a double-ply head, and it’s coated as well. With the lower tuning I use there’s very little tension on the heads; they’re a little more than finger-tight. You get a lot of body in the sound, but you have to work hard to get it.

Track by Track

MD: What does “Arithmophobia” mean?

Matt: Fear of arithmetic! I wrote that one; it’s mainly my brainchild. I came up with those crazy patterns that fit into 4/4 over long periods of time. It doesn’t resolve for eight measures of 16th notes in 4/4. But it may be hard to count!

MD: Did you have fear of math as a kid?

Matt: I did until high school. I learned that music helps with math skills, so I thought that surely math would help with music, and that’s all I needed to know. I just tried harder to be better at it; now it’s one of my strengths.

MD: What inspired the “rhythmic motifs” that you told us about before this interview?

Matt: I wanted to create a long phrase that took time to resolve, and which mimicked Indian rhythms in the way that the rhythms build until the moment they align and resolve, and it feels like magic. Then it was about trying to write and change up 4/4 phrases. Everyone is using a lot of the same phrases today, especially in the metal, djent, and rock worlds. I was just trying to start with different phrases, and the guys wrote to all the phrases I created. That’s what “Arithmophobia” is.

MD: Can you break down the drum pattern in that song?

Matt: That’s the hardest one! [laughs] I can tell you about the opening, the sitar part. Originally that sound functioned as a timekeeper. That is a very simple phrase, but it spans the eight measures required for the polyrhythms to resolve. When they align, it creates a guide as to where the quarter-note pulse is. So it functioned as a timekeeper, and it’s melodic.

MD: You’re beyond counting these complex patterns, but initially were you thinking 16th or 32nd notes as the overriding pulse?

Matt: I was thinking 16ths. When initially developing these patterns conceptually, I’m quite focused on the numbers, and then it becomes second nature and musical. I still slow them down to understand them from the perspective of feel. After that I’m just feeling the groove.

MD: You also told me earlier, regarding “Ectogenesis,” that the “middle double bass section has a couple fours where three 16th notes would be [at the end of a phrase], which would make them dotted 32nds.” Did you compose this one?

Matt: Everything was cowritten. We did it all in a room together. Any time a melody is written, we’re all three chefs in the kitchen.

MD: What’s the basic meter in “Ectogenesis”?

Matt: It’s 4/4, with some bars of 3/4 and one bar of 5/4. But mainly it’s in 4/4. That has my signature Meinl cymbal stack, which will be released in early 2017. It’s a 16″ Extra Dry China with holes, placed upside down; on top is an 18″ Extra Dry crash with holes. I love trashy and crunchy sounds and hate ringy ones. That kind of made the decision for me. I started experimenting with an upside-down China in a stack years ago. It was just a matter of getting the right cymbals that physically fit well together and interacted well sonically. I’ve been playing this stack for three years.

MD: Your solo at the end of “Ectogenesis” recalls Dave Weckl. Was that intentional?

Matt: I can’t deny your allegations! I was such a Weckl-head for so long. That wasn’t my specific intention there, I was just trying to rip a solo over that brief section. I wanted to accentuate the phrasing of that riff but still say something and add to it.

MD: You described “Cognitive Contortions” to me earlier as “metric modulation madness…constant modulation from triplets in 4/4 to 16ths in 3/4…even some groups of nine over four in the guitar solo…I wrote the end with the crazy polyrhythms.” What sort of metric modulation is being created in the song?

Matt: It’s triplets in 4/4 modulating to groups of 16ths in 3/4. That happens quite a few times in the song, but in a way that isn’t jarring.

MD: You said, “The end of the track is a displaced ‘4, 4, 4, 4, 5’ in triplets, which makes seven over four.” Can you break that down?

Matt: It’s triplets in seven grouped as 4-, 4-, 4-, 4-, and 5-note figures. I displaced it in seven, and furthermore I took the riff that goes over the seven quarter notes and put that under 4/4. The phrase in seven repeats four times to resolve under 4/4. That gives it an even cooler, longer resolve time.

MD: Do “4, 4, 4, 4, and 5” represent bars of those lengths?

Matt: Those are the subdivisions. So if you’re playing triplets in 7/4 and you play [groupings of] 4, 4, 4, 4, and 5, there are twenty-one notes. Triplets in seven: seven times three. I displaced that pattern and furthermore put the pattern that occurs over seven quarter notes under 4/4. It repeats four times before it resolves.

MD: Do the group discussions become technically granular, or is it more about the ideas?

Matt: In this particular section of “Cognitive Contortions” I took their prerecorded guitars, chopped them up, and made these thumping riffs. No discussion. Then they recorded their own guitars. They’re both as conversant in odd times as I am, but I’m the expert! [laughs] They want to push the boundaries.

MD: When playing these intense metric modulations, is it about ignoring one thing and focusing on another?

Matt: Metric modulation is typically a transition from one meter to another. It’s shifting. You keep a consistent rate so as not to interrupt the flow. For instance, the rate remains the same, and you’re playing 16th notes in 3/4, and then at the same rate you’re playing triplets in 4/4. It takes the same amount of time for a measure to pass. You essentially play the same phrase over a different pulse.

MD: You play a complex double bass drum part in “Backpfeifengesicht.”

Matt: I wrote that in the box and realized later it was a bit fast. It’s a tricky seven pattern that happens under 4/4. It’s based on a single-stroke, alternating four-stroke ruff on the bass drums. It’s like a six-stroke roll in a hairta that makes the seven pattern.

MD: In “Transcentience,” are those bars of seven and eight in the groove sections?

Matt: That song has the most meter changes of the entire record. It felt better to cut a beat or add a beat here or there—then it sounds like music.

MD: You wrote to me, “In ‘Brain Dance’ at 2:23 there’s a part in five based off quintuplets.” So songs are often inspired by patterns developed during a practice session?

Matt: A lot of the patterns I wrote on this record came from trying to do something differently. One of those is playing patterns in quintuplets. I’d come up with a variety of ways to break up quintuplets that were interesting and challenging. I’d program a pattern and the guys wrote to that specific pattern. In “Brain Dance” [the groupings are] 3-4, 3-3-3-4, 3-3-3-4, and 3-4.

MD: At 4:43 in “Brain Dance” you’re playing triplets within groups of seven?

Matt: Yep. That’s actually the same pattern that I play at the end of “Cognitive Contortions,” but it’s not displaced. It’s groupings of 4, 4, 4, 5, and 4 instead of 4, 4, 4, 4, and 5. Both are in triplets—twenty-one notes, so that bar of seven takes four times to resolve in 4/4.

Inspiration, Education, Perspiration

MD: Who are some current drummers you enjoy?

Matt: Aside from myself? No one! I’m the greatest! Damn, I’m good! [laughs] Moritz Mueller is one. He’s incredible. Gavin Harrison. Mark Guiliana. Damien Schmitt. I try to find current badass drummers, but I have more luck listening to old records. Compiling a list of my favorite solos for this interview—which I’ve known for the longest time—made me realize how much I love sick drumming. And they reinspired me. In my search for amazing solos I was looking for Ronald Bruner. He does solo on record, but it’s nothing compared to what he does live and how he can speak. He pulls off such crazy shit. I’m envious.

MD: What happens in one of your clinics?

Matt: I just blow everyone’s mind! That’s all I do the whole time. It’s all about me! [laughs] I do a few things, some open drum solos, or I solo over specific metronome patterns. I take questions. I do a bunch of AAL tunes. I take time to answer questions. Someone will ask a question, and then I’ll go on a rant and get deep into it. I want to show them stuff, and answers take time. I have material on my website that explains a lot. I will probably release five of the AAL tracks on a DVD. I give full transcriptions of the tune, an explanation, and a play-through.

MD: What’s made the biggest difference in your drumming to date?

Matt: The band. They’re a huge help, because this music isn’t easy to play. It represents a challenge for me. I will always develop my own concepts in my own time, and that also allows me to write with the band. That’s my main musical outlet. And my passion. When I come off tour playing Animals music, I work on my own concepts.

MD: What are your practice regimen and warm-up routines like?

Matt: My practice is constantly changing, because it’s dependent on my weaknesses and creative goals. On the road with Animals, there are various stickings and odd patterns that I like to work on before a show, but I’m usually trying to improve some weakness or trying to develop an idea. But I’m always thinking of the kit when I’m on a pad, and how everything translates.

Right now I’m practicing playing everything cleanly. After a while on tour your chops degrade, so you have to be overprepared at the start of a tour to still be playing cleanly at the end. The road can wear away at your calibration. I have time to work on extra things now; the luxury of practicing is not available on the road. Neither is an abundance of free playing. It’s about giving all for the performance. After a month certain parts of your playing can degrade. Road chops can be great. My endurance and strength go up after a tour, but being able to whip out creative ideas or be super-calibrated to where I have more control over smaller amounts of time—that stuff is less abundant.

MD: When can we expect the Matt Garstka solo album?

Matt: Damn, this is it! This is keeping me busy for now. I’m developing my own music in my own time, but my ideas are all over this new album. It’s awesome. So I don’t feel a need to do that now, which is how it should be in whatever band you’re part of.

Matt’s 10 Favorite Drum Solos

Gary Novak on “Tumba Island,” from the Chick Corea Elektric Band II’s Paint the World

Dave Weckl on “7th Sense,” from the Dave Weckl Band’s Perpetual Motion

Tony Williams on “Proto-Cosmos,” from the New Tony Williams Lifetime’s Believe It

Steve Gadd on “Nite Sprite,” from Chick Corea’s The Leprechaun

Dafnis Prieto on “Ironico Arlequin,” from About the Monks

Dennis Chambers on “Elroy,” from Planet Earth

Thomas Pridgen on “Wax Simulacra,” from the Mars Volta’s The Bedlam in Goliath

Billy Cobham on “The Pleasant Pheasant,” from Crosswinds

Brian Blade on “Jazz Crimes,” from Joshua Redman’s Elastic

Mark Guiliana on “Abraham’s New Gift,” from Phronesis’s Alive

Go to Modern Drummer’s Spotify page to hear the tracks.

Matt’s Setup

Drums: Tama Starclassic Maple/Bubinga (custom) with cordia wrap
6.5×14 snare
7×8 tom
7×10 tom
8×12 tom
12×14 floor tom
14×16 floor tom
16×22 bass drum

Heads: Remo, including Coated Powerstroke 77 snare batter and Ambassador snare-side, Coated Vintage Emperor tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms, and Coated Powerstroke 4 bass drum batter

Cymbals: Meinl
14″ Sands Hats or 13″ Extra Dry Hats
18″ Extra Thin Jazz Byzance crash (or 18″ Dual Byzance crash)
6″ (or 8″) Traditional Byzance splash
18″ Extra Thin Hammered Byzance (or 20″ Dual Byzance) crash
22″ Vintage Pure Byzance ride
18″ Extra Dry Byzance (or 18″ MB20) China
Matt Garstka Signature Phat Stack (18″ crash over 16″ China)

Sticks: Vic Firth 55A

Continue to analysis article on Matt’s use of quintuplets on Animals as Leaders’ “The Brain Dance.”