Matt Garstka 060 Playing right

On The Cover

Matt Gartska

The drummer with Animals as Leaders has gone about as deeply into the art as one man can, and he loves nothing more than sharing what he’s discovered. Here’s to the explorers!

Extreme progressive rock demands more from drummers today than ever before—more muscle, more technique, and more determination and understanding to play the music and make it their own. Often requiring drummers to track their contributions to a master recording set to either a click or preprogrammed drums, the prog overlords (disguised as producers, guitarists, bassists, and keyboard players) use us as tools to fulfill their mad metric fantasies. Their brand of rock views drummers as dream merchants, as man-machines to be challenged and confounded. Today’s timekeeper is expected to master exceedingly complex patterns, making music out of blitzkrieg notes often beat mapped in Pro Tools, created in Superior Drummer, or sonically affected to intimate unidentifiable sources, only increasing the complexity and intensity of these manic arrangements.

One person who’s more than able to complete such twenty-first-century tasks is Los Angeles transplant and Animals as Leaders drummer Matt Garstka, who hails from Westfield, Massachusetts. Revered by a legion of fans yet still enthusiastically underground, Animals as Leaders, from Washington, D.C., takes its cues from such prog stalwarts as King Crimson, Rush, and Meshuggah, then realigns and meshes the eclectic sounds within a turbulent sea of odd meters, cross-rhythms, savage turnarounds, confusing time cuts, and overboard, otherworldly arrangements.

The band, which also includes guitarists Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes, has counted among its ranks such master drummers as Matt Halpern (2009) and Navene Koperweis (2009–2012), but Garstka’s approach is very different, and the results are surprising. Benefitting from expert programming skills, profound technical and interpretive abilities, and unusual visualization techniques, Garstka brings together various disciplines in his highly motivated and creative playing.

AAL’s latest album, The Joy of Motion, is evidence of Garstka’s growing mastery. From the skull-cracking patterns and yawning guitar chasms of opener “Kascade” to the slip-sliding metric profundity of “Lippincott,” the majestically flowing head crunch of “Mind-Spun,” the string-slapping funk of “Physical Education,” and the hyper-explosive rhythms of “Tooth and Claw” and “The Woven Web,” Garstka acquits himself like the gifted musician he is. Perhaps most important, beyond the complex patterns, Garstka grooves—hard. With his Tama drums and Meinl cymbals his only friends amid an onslaught of layered melodies and spasmodically jerking rhythms, Matt comes up for air only long enough to re-submerge himself, holding nothing back in AAL’s ominous brew.

MD: You’re remarkably relaxed when you play. How do you stay that way while playing such extreme music?

Matt: For me it’s all about starting slow and building a solid foundation. A lot of this music is really difficult at first. I want to feel the music wherever I am playing it. To make it feel natural while learning the music, I slow down the beat rather than trying to maintain the tempo or play it a thousand times to become comfortable with the tempo. I want to feel natural playing the song as soon as possible, which means slowing it down. By doing that I’m feeling it, I’m grooving with it, and then I can free up some of the CPU part of my brain to think about dynamics, accuracy, groove, feel, or different embellishments or orchestrations. The more I do that, the more I’m building a strong foundation of groove, and I’m relaxed and comfortable. Then it’s effortless when I speed it up.

MD: How do you slow down a track? There are so many parts in some of these songs.

Matt: Some parts don’t require slowing down if it’s a similar groove to something else. Like “Air Chrysalis” or “The Future That Awaited Me”—both of those are based around a half-time shuffle or a 6/8. I’ve played enough of those that it was second nature. But in the breakdown to “The Woven Web,” or all of “Mind-Spun,” “Lippincott,” or “Kascade,” those are more difficult songs that I slowed down by playing to the guitar stems with a program called Amazing Slow Downer.

MD: This style of extreme prog is very intense, but it doesn’t often groove. Yet you always make it groove.

Matt: That’s one of the things that make Animals as Leaders different. Their music is not as rigid as a typical metal band’s. There’s more leeway and incentive to groove. But the weird time signatures and the cuts—like going from playing three bars of 4/4 into a bar of 7/8—are hard; they can feel and sound unnatural. The challenge is to make it all feel natural. I really had to have a solid understanding of what was happening with all the time cuts and time signatures. Only after really ingraining all of that on a crazy level was I able to free myself from counting and get more into feeling the groove and delivering the parts rather than just playing them.

MD: So a lot of repetition?

Matt: Yes. That was another challenging aspect. First it was understanding the parts, then it was about the individual arrangements. All these crazy AABA, CDAB forms—getting all that ingrained.

Learning With Leaders

MD: What was your process?

Matt: For the older material I wrote some charts, but for The Joy of Motion it was all by ear. Programming all the drums before recording them was a challenge. They’re used to working with Superior Drummer—that’s how they like to audition the part. I could have played it for them myself, but they wanted to hear what a recorded version would sound like.

MD: You must be a great programmer.

Matt: I’ve been working with Superior Drummer for a while, and that was one of the most challenging aspects of this, programming every note, including ghost notes. And trying to program the songs at the right velocity, when, for instance, you have 8th notes and the quarters are accented—getting the notes accented accurately to where it sounds natural. But it helped me to ultimately be aware of every note. I really had to question the validity of every note I played on the record.

MD: The demand for you to program the drums first almost sounds like a whim.

Matt: It was a battle getting them to record real drums, because they are so comfortable with Superior Drummer. But it’s actually more cost-efficient. When you already have the drums programmed, the band can take its time and they don’t have to hire an engineer or a studio. I’m glad I did it—but I don’t want to do it again! And I don’t think we’ll work that way again.

MD: Did you record drums to their tracks? Did you punch in parts as well?

Matt: I recorded to their two eight-string guitar tracks. Synth bass too. I played to their final rhythm tracks, which they were able to record because they had my programmed drums. We definitely punched in some drums, but I recorded the twelve songs in four and a half days, so there wasn’t a lot of time for punching in. But some parts I wanted perfect, with less quantizing to my drums. I prefer that the quantizing be minimal, and there was less of it than on past AAL albums. It was more organic. But a bit of groove was lost with the quantizing on a couple songs.

MD: When creating a part with AAL, how do you decide what to follow, synth bass or guitars?

Matt: I follow the music as a whole. I try to hear the parts all at once. It’s easier in this case, because the ideas are pretty solidified and coming from one or two people. I think a drummer’s job is to accentuate the phrase and glue the music together. Pick which notes are most important, accent those, then glue it all together.

MD: Which track from The Joy of Motion was the hardest to master? To a listener they sound equally difficult.

Matt: The most challenging track was “Mind-Spun,” because it’s so techy and subdivided, but I’m not hitting every subdivision. There’s a lot of upbeats on the 16th notes, and missing downbeats, which makes it challenging because I have to subdivide in my head. And there’s a couple parts that I wrote on the computer for “Mind-Spun.” I programmed it before playing it, thinking, This’ll sound sick. I was just following my ear, which is one benefit to Superior Drummer—it’s based off your ear and what you know you’re playing on the drums or what it’s sounding like. I wrote the part for “Mind-Spun” before trying to play it. Then, when I tried to play it, I thought, What have I done! I’ve set myself up for destruction. But with some time I got the part; it just took a lot of slowing it down and feeling natural with it. That particular part was in 11/8, 13/8, 11/8, 10/8, back to back.

MD: Are you displacing beats as well as playing odd meters on the album?

Matt: I wouldn’t call it a displacement, just a part that sounds odd. A funny little tail on this animal! [laughs]

MD: Can you break down the two tracks you played for our online video?

Matt: The main groove in “The Future That Awaited Me” is a triplet groove that resembles a half-time shuffle in the way it’s swung and the backbeat on 3. The backbeats ground the groove, and the kicks with cymbals on “a” lift the groove. I fill in the rest with ghost notes and cymbal work.

For the “Nephele” intro, the feels switch from half time in triplets to backbeats on 2 and 4. Kicks are accenting guitar chugs. I tried to keep the patterns and phrasing of the fills simple but strong, even though they are subdivided in sextuplets/16th-note triplets.

Gartksa Strip

From Berklee to Africa and Back Again

MD: You attended Berklee College of Music from 2007 to 2011. What was your focus?

Matt: I was a performance major, but I only received a diploma because I didn’t do the liberal arts courses. During Berklee I went on the road with a hip-hop/reggae band from Senegal, Gokh-Bi System. They mix contemporary hip-hop with traditional Senegalese music.

MD: What was that experience like?

Matt: It was incredible. They embody music—it’s just in them. The band’s name means “neighborhood system.” My mentor, bassist Jo Sallins, had visited Africa and met them in Senegal. He recommended me for a one-off fill-in gig. Jo later told me they said, “Man, we need a guy who can really play drums,” and he said, “Trust me.” Once I played with them they told Jo, “He’s great!” That one gig led to more work with them, and that’s how it’s been with most of the opportunities I’ve had. Somebody else doesn’t show up and I get the call, and then I’m the new guy. That’s a good lesson to drummers: Don’t miss your gig.

MD: Were you playing Tony Allen–style Afrobeat rhythms with them?

Matt: It was a mix of soca, bembe, reggae, and hip-hop. I’d learned bembe and other African rhythms, but music is about the ear. I think it’s important to learn the traditional rhythms, but from that you create new ideas. I don’t try to put it into a box before I even play it.

MD: So is Animals as Leaders your second professional gig?

Matt: No, definitely not my second gig. I’ve been gigging since I was twelve years old, with my dad [Greg Garstka] and Jo Sallins and other local Massachusetts musicians. Nothing on the level of Animals, but I’ve played reggae music, rock with guitarist Desiree Bassett, punk for a couple years. I paid my dues in club bands and bar bands all over New England. I’ve played rock, punk, reggae, Latin, country, and metal, and in a trio with my dad and Jo Sallins.

I’ve been lucky enough to make a living doing this since I was twelve. I never worked another job. Avoiding having to work another job was a big motivator for me. And I’ve been teaching drums since I was fourteen at my dad’s music store [Performance Music] and privately. I also recorded the album Defense Mechanisms with French bassist Louis de Mieulle. I’m really proud of that. His music is the perfect meld of improvisatory jazz and classical counterpoint. Those dualities are there with polyrhythms as well.

Matt Garstka Lead 048

Teaching Tykes, Visualizing Vistas

MD: What was your teaching method at fourteen?

Matt: I was teaching kids my age. I’ve been taking lessons since I was eight. I started playing drums in my dad’s store, and he saw some potential and I started taking lessons. I’ve gone through Stick Control, The Drummer’s Bible, The Encyclopedia of Double Bass Drumming, and all the grooves and rudiments. Sometimes I taught people older than me. From seventeen to entering college I taught thirty- to forty-year-olds. Like Mike Johnston said, “We’re all at a different point in the journey.”

MD: Did you play in school bands as well?

Matt: I did, but it wasn’t a huge help. By then I was already ahead of the curve. Working with my dad got me into visualizing what I would play rather than playing this beat to that type of music. My dad taught me to be more creative and to visualize ideas, like “trudging through a grassy knoll with the wind at our backs.” At first I didn’t understand. But that’s what happens when you listen to music. It takes you somewhere else.

MD: So your dad would present a song to you and then tell you to visualize an idea from which to create your drumming?

Matt: Yes. For instance, if I thought of trudging through a grassy knoll, the trudging was the floor tom and the bass drum. The color of the grassy knoll, green, would be the cymbals. That would give the green texture and invoke that thought. At first I didn’t understand, and I sucked at it. Why can’t I just play the beat that I want to play? Over time, what he was saying clicked, but it took time.

MD: That must have helped your overall interpretive skills.

Matt: Oh, yeah, and I still do that. Often it’s the harmonies that spark that way of thinking; the drums can do that too. It’s not an attribute exclusive to harmonic instruments.

MD: Did anything else happen during your formative years that helped propel or drive you?

Matt: There’s no sacred secret, unfortunately. It’s all these pixels that make the big picture. All these different aspects: the visualization, learning the beats for the various styles, the coordination, the feel and groove aspects, the aspect of being professional and being reliable, the aspect of being an artist and choosing who to work with, the aspect of being a scientist where you’re analyzing and dissecting and trying to create much like a chemist would, the time management of practice—all these aspects that come together into one discipline. It’s many things, and I was lucky enough to be around it so much that I learned many of these aspects early on.

The Real Matt Garstka

MD: At your site,, your videos and lessons give as much weight to ghost notes as to the other elements of a beat. Many drummers look at ghost notes as almost an aftereffect of the main beat, not central to it. But you give every part of a rhythm equal weight.

Matt: I think that approach to ghost notes is becoming more standard. It’s a powerful effect. I think of it like a shaker giving a 16th-note subdivision to the beat. The ghost notes give you that effect. They’re not doing that exactly, but they are filling in. Where there’s a bass drum in the bar, your left hand can rest. Where there’s a hi-hat in the groove, your left hand could probably rest. But anytime between that, your left hand can subdivide, playing ghost notes on the snare drum. Part of the allure is the challenge of making ghost notes sound really steady, as if they’re a shaker, yet it’s a very syncopated rhythm. Ghost notes can act as a counter-rhythm to the [main] beat, almost like a mirror image of the main phrase. Yes, it can be an afterthought, but it can also be a forethought, an anticipation.

MD: You programmed the ghost notes with AAL using Superior Drummer?

Matt: Yes, I did. I don’t say that it’s equal, though. There’s a line of division. What can you take out first [to make the beat stronger]? Probably the ghost notes. Snare hits that aren’t on the backbeat, after that. Then you could remove bass drum notes that are anticipating the snare drum. There’s a hierarchy of what’s most important [to stress]. Ghost notes do fall on the lower end of importance. You just need to know how to build the part, what comes first and is most important, and that’s typically the pulse, which is usually assigned to the right hand.

MD: Are your drum fills predetermined or improvised?

Matt: Ninety percent of the time they’re improvised. That’s a bit of fun for me. I’m still playing to the phrase. The fill isn’t separate for me. It’s the fill that preps the transition, like a conductor would. Or it accentuates the ending of a part. I have a lot of fun trying out different sticking patterns while adhering to the phrase.

MD: Your list of influential records contains primarily old-school guys: Steve Gadd, Tony Williams, David Garibaldi, Dave Weckl, along with Dafnis Prieto and Ronald Bruner.

Matt: They gave me the most! I like their musicality. With all those guys you get dynamics and clarity while retaining good feel, groove, spontaneity, and the organization of planned parts. They are so full of music. If I can get ten hours of music in ten minutes, I will do it, and with those drummers that’s what I get.

MD: When playing solos, are you thinking of the form or playing free?

Matt: I think of a solo as a journey, taking an idea and transforming it. If I’m soloing to a vamp, I’m playing around that phrase and twisting it in as many ways as possible, bending the listener’s ear and altering the perception of time. It depends on the situation. If I’m at [Los Angeles club] the Baked Potato, I’ll stick to the song form, unless it’s a vamp. The majority of my solos are over a vamp. If it’s just me alone, then it’s wherever my mind takes me. Often when practicing I’ll start out like I’m playing a drum solo, then if I hit a trouble spot I’ll stop and specifically practice what is giving me trouble. I look as that like I’m traveling on this road and I’ve hit a pothole. I won’t just keep going. I’ll stop and fill in the pothole. The next time I travel that road
it’ll be smooth.

Flip, Flop, and Fly!

MD: How else do you practice?

Matt: I like to balance my practice: about half technical focus and the other half playing creatively—the fun part. But the line is getting blurred more and more. I’m feeling more musical now than in the past. Technically, I have this thing I call the Universal Function. It’s a coordination routine, but it’s very applicable to music. Often, coordination routines are not applicable to anything unless you’re playing Afro-Cuban. But I’ve devised a typical right-hand pattern, with rudiments between bass drum and snare. Really homing in on the kick/snare relationship, playing rudiments that are useful, like inverted doubles or inverted paradiddles or inverted paradiddle-diddles, and combinations of those or groups of five and groups of seven. Or I do typical broken-up and accented 16th-note patterns between the snare and bass drum. It’s a system—different right-hand patterns and different kick/snare patterns. It’s like Gary Chester’s New Breed. Taking patterns and flipping them.

MD: What do you mean by flipping them?

Matt: It could be playing a pattern backwards, starting it in a different place in the bar, playing it with different orchestration around the kit, displacing it, or adding a note to the phrase. There are endless ways to flip a pattern. You’re creating new ways to improvise with patterns you know well.

MD: I’ve read on your website that you practice polyrhythms over a 4/4 beat to master them. Why do that?

Matt: I do that because music is usually subdivided in groups or two or three—16th notes, triplets, 8th notes, 16th-note triplets…. I use that as the rate, in 4/4 common time. That allows me to play over the beat and open up my phrasing so I’m not limited by the barlines.

MD: There’s an older video online of you playing with other drummers at Berklee. You play with such articulation and strength; it’s seamless. What tips can you give for strength and articulation?

Matt: Practice slowly. That is much like zooming in on something. Naturally, after you zoom in and work on it, when you zoom out it will sound more defined, articulate, and graphic. People focus a lot on the exact sticking, but it’s more important how you’re doing it, and what you’re thinking about. Whatever you’re practicing, do it slowly and clearly. Begin slowly, and as you play faster there will be more music in your playing.

MD: Did you go through a period of practicing many hours a day?

Matt: Oh, yeah, for sure. When I was fourteen I practiced four hours a day. At sixteen I practiced six hours a day. The summer before attending Berklee I prepared by doing marathon practice sessions, eight hours a day. I would wake up at six o’clock to practice my forty essential rudiments before school, practice on the bus to school, practice at lunch. I was obsessive. But I was also trying to make good use of the time. I practiced eight hours a day during my first two years at Berklee. Some people criticized me: “Man, you’re going to hurt yourself.” But I was good. I did yoga, and if my left hand hurt I worked with my right hand. Some guys said, “You’re just beating a dead horse. You’re not learning anything new.” I never believed that. To this day I’m so glad I didn’t listen to them.

MD: How did you tend to organize those practice sessions?

Matt: If I went in there without a plan I could go two hours strong. But I needed a plan to go longer. I would do an hour of double bass work, an hour with Syncopation working on jazz patterns, an hour of classical reading or marching snare drum, then big band reading. Afro-Cuban stuff, an hour of pure chops, an hour of simple groove pocket. I have lots of lists from over the years, some from working with my teacher Bob Gullotti. I practiced on pad and drumset. Many times we’re forced to practice on a pad. Maybe visualize the kit as you play the pad.

MD: How else have you used visualization?

Matt: I would visualize myself playing at events too, like playing at the Modern Drummer Festival or at PASIC or at the Guitar Center Drum-Off competition, as a guest. I’ve envisioned myself playing at the Meinl Drum Festival. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve envisioned myself playing with Chick Corea. Thousands of times. It helps me so that when that opportunity comes I’ll be prepared and it won’t be so intimidating. It’s a motivator.

MD: All of this speaks to your high level of motivation. Where does that come from?

Matt: I want to take over the world! [laughs] I just want to be better than Vinnie [Colaiuta]! [laughs] Being the best for the best’s sake will not last. What lasts is passion and love for the craft. And being able to see it in many different ways. I see drumming as an art, as a sport, as an escape, as a source of knowledge, as a science. There are so many different things that I get from it. The love for it propels me forward, and I try to put that in my practice.

Seeing it in these different ways keeps it interesting. It’s not like going to the gym for eight hours a day. You’re doing this thing that has so many intricate parts that there are so many ways you can be entertained. Groove is one aspect, then the technical side, then the sport side, like attaining speed. If it interests you, it’s easier to fixate and focus. Often it relates—it’s like life. It can tell me things about myself or how I’m feeling. It’s like a source of knowledge. I can meditate on the drums. I can space out. Or I can be really focused.

MD: In one of your blogs on your site you write that “an interesting phrase often has a twist. Before you can throw in the twist you must establish the basis for the twist.”

Matt: The phrase is a riddle! I compare it to a movie or a play. The characters and the setting are established first. Then they can throw in the plot twist. I think of a drumming phrase in the same way. You establish the time and the feel, then you can play with the phrasing. I also think of a phrase as a smaller version of an arrangement. Like if you were to take a simple rhythm and make that A. Then you modify it and that is B, then modify it again to C. You apply any song structure to those three versions and it will sound as a phrase, another way of looking at it.

MD: In one of your online lessons, you talk about achieving “maximum output with minimum input.”

Matt: That pertains to the phrase “It ain’t what you got, it’s what you do with it.” Something crucial is taking one idea and developing it in a variety of ways. You can have a hundred ideas, but you want to take the listener on a journey. You do that by developing that idea.

Future Tense

MD: You’ve been working on solo material. Where are you with that?

Matt: I’ve written a few songs—a rap song, odd-metered guitar songs, reggae songs. I like the idea of a cohesive album, and I’m trying to figure out my sound and concept. I’m playing all the instruments, including keyboard, bass, and guitar, but mostly programmed piano and bass.

MD: You’re unlike a lot of drummers in the progressive world in that you know the history, not just metal.

Matt: That’s sad to me. In the metal scene they’re diehard fans of metal. Often they know everything on the metal front but they don’t know enough of the history. That’s why there’s so much [imitates burning double bass pattern], but there’s not a lot of vocabulary in there. But that’s why I love Vinnie [Colaiuta] and Dave [Weckl] and [David] Garibaldi: They’re really saying something. Yeah, I love those guys.

Gartska Kit Setup


Dave Weckl Synergy, Master Plan, Perpetual Motion (Dave Weckl) /// Allan Holdsworth Secrets (Vinnie Colaiuta, Chad Wackerman) /// Tony Williams Life Time (Tony Williams) /// Chick Corea Elektric Band II Paint the World (Gary Novak) /// Dafnis Prieto About the Monks (Dafnis Prieto) /// Billy Cobham Rudiments: The Billy Cobham Anthology (Billy Cobham) /// Chick Corea My Spanish Heart (Steve Gadd) /// David Lee Roth DLR Band (Ray Luzier) /// Tony Grey Chasing Shadows (Chris Dave, Ronald Bruner Jr., Martin Valihora) /// Tower of Power What Is Hip? The Tower of Power Anthology (David Garibaldi, Russ McKinnon, Herman Matthews, David Bartlett, Mick Mestek)

Story by Ken Micallef

Photos by Alex Solca