Animals as Leaders' Matt Garstka: "I can't stop, and I won't stop trying to push forward”

Matt Garstka
(Image credit: DW Drums)

“Still anxious! I still can't wait for people to hear the entire thing!” Matt Garstka tells us when we ask him how he’s feeling about Parrhesia - Animals as Leaders’ first new album since 2016’s, The Madness of Many.

It might seem strange to hear a drummer of Matt’s magnitude admit to anxiety - Berklee alumni, founder of his own educational courses, Meinl signature artist and recently-announced DW endorsee. 

That’s before you consider that alongside pioneering guitarists, Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes, he forms one third of one of the best-loved technical bands this century has produced.

Parrhesia is a nine-track triumph, which spans the technical prowess that the band has become known for, while simultaneously making instrumental, polyrhythmic, odd-timed instrumental rock somehow accessible. 

There are more “What the hell was that?!” moments than we can count, the result of Matt’s uncompromising drive to better himself as not only a drummer, but a musician.

Join us as we take a deep dive into the mind of the man who you voted Best Progressive Drummer 2021.

Parrhesia is your first new album in six years, how does it feel to finally be releasing it?

"I'm just excited. I've got some play-throughs I'm doing tomorrow actually, of the rest of the four songs. So every song on the record will have a drum play-through. 

"So I'm excited for people to see that and for them to see us on tour. But yeah, it's long awaited, definitely some bumps in the road with with COVID and such. This is the fun part where you get to see people's reactions, and people get to enjoy the music. 

"Recording and writing is its own thing, but sometimes as you're working on it, it can feel like it's gonna be forever until you release the material, you start to question things. I take usually like four to six weeks before a recording session, which typically has like three songs in it, and I just really hone in on those three. 

"Usually, there's probably a few challenging parts that are really kicking my ass. So I have to get in full focus mode, and I just become obsessed. I'm kind of a one-track mind kind of guy. So if you put one thing in front of me, I will demolish that one thing, but I'm not so good with 10 or 20 projects at the same time. I'm not that guy."

And Animals as Leaders isn’t exactly simple music…

"Yeah, I think because it's typically in the complex realm, it requires a bit more work to fine tune it so that it doesn't become unmusical and dry, and strictly technical. So for that to happen, on my part, I have to learn every part from a variety of angles, so that I feel that part in my bones and hear that part deeply. 

"Not just what I'm playing, but that it sits and melds with whatever else is going on. So it definitely does require are a bit more than just like a punk record. I sometimes fantasise what my life could be like now that I live in Nashville - the home of country - if I just started doing country sessions all the time and never had to practice again!"

How are you finding living in one of the most musical cities in the world?

"The biggest one for me is having my drums in the place that I live, and not having to drive 30 or 40 minutes to practice my drums. Los Angeles does not have affordable housing, you’ll never be in a house unless you have millions. 

"That's something that Nashville has in spades, houses where you can make noise. I've got my drums in the basement, and I've never been happier."

Animals as Leaders

(Image credit: Animals as Leaders)

So being in a city surrounded with studios and musical heritage, is there a view for you to do more session stuff?

"Yeah, I'm definitely thinking about it. But at the same time, I have so many requests for people's projects, and I have a few projects of my own, like Cosmic Liberty with Casimir Liberski. the project and with Joshua De La Victoria, the Victoria project. Victoria is overdue for a release. 

"So that's kind of a big focus for me. Like I said, I'm one-track mind. So if I start doing those gigs, I'm gonna zero in on that. So I think before that happens, you have to give the people what they want with a Victoria album! I figure they want that before they want Matt Drumming Live To Country!"

To someone on the outside of your band, it’s hard to imagine the music as something that developed from a small idea, where do you even start when it comes to writing an Animals as Leaders song?

"Well, so on every album, I think there's the typical process. The majority of the process is Tosin has these patterns and pieces that he's been working through for years, really, before they get on an album. A lot of times, that's the starting point. 

"Sometimes he has the full piece already mapped out. That's the case for this next release, Micro-Aggressions. He had that entire thing mapped out and came to us with it. Any changes that were made were very minor, the arrangement basically stayed the same. 

"For Monomyth - there's usually one song on every album, where I come up with all these crazy rhythms, and the guys write to it, and that's that was Monomyth this time. 

"Then there'll usually be a tune that that Javier writes. Other times what's happening in the writing process is that Tosin has these these parts and it's not a complete song. Then we'll start to write to it and ponder ‘What if it did this? What if we took this pattern and did this with it?’ or go down some offshoot that way, and it can lead to a totally different sounding song. 

"Like in Asahi. That song started out with this stuff that Tosin had, and then I was like, 'What if we did this with fives?' and all of a sudden, we went down this rabbit hole, that would never have happened if I if I wasn't there. 

"Then with another song that we have, Gestaltzerfall, we were writing with Misha Mansoor. He was helping produce and arrange the the tune. I was sitting there and Tosin started to play fives. 

"He likes to play groups of fives, but I said, 'That's nice. But what if it was in quintuplets? He said, 'In quintuplets, man, what do you mean? No!' Then Misha's like, 'Hold on, hold on!' He backed me up. And now it's quintuplets in three and it sounds pretty fucking cool!

There’s a brilliant stack-accented fill in Gestaltzerfall, what’s happening there?

"That was that was me. I was like, 'I have an idea for accents that we could put in this arrangement where there's bars of 4/4 one bar of two for and bars of 4/4. I was hearing something over it.  

"I would say there's a lot of metal bands out there today that claim to be a band, but there's really just one person that is a dictator. With our group, we're each actually contributing our ideas. I think that's what a band should be, and I think some of the best works-of-art are created that way, because it gives your art multi-dimensions. 

"It also makes it more interesting for me, if I get to hear other people's ideas in the song and rediscover them. It makes it more intriguing. And I would argue the same that for them it probably makes it more interesting than drums programmed by Misha or something." 

How does it work if you’re presented with something Misha or Tosin have programmed? Is it harder to interpret parts in that way, or are they programmed how a drummer might play it?

"I think a lot of times they do, actually. And a lot of times if there's a Misha part that he had programmed, that I'm not changing, it's not because anyone's told me I had to, it's because I'm a mature enough musician to understand that this is the part that should be played there. 

"Like that straight groove that that was playing before this kind of fill break [in Gestaltzerfall]. For the majority he came up with that  groove. And maybe I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll add a double kick -  ‘one-E’ instead of just a ‘one'. 

"But yeah, I came up with the fill section, but that is only effective because it's deviating from the main part, and it makes it feel better returning to that main part. So it was able to serve a purpose. 

"To me, it's not about [apologetically] 'Do I have to play this verbatim, guys?'. It's more like, what does the music call for? But I would say, for Joy of Motion, Tosin had programmed all this stuff, and there was some friction there afterwards, when I had some ideas about how things should be changed. 

"But this time around I was present during the writing process, which enabled us to both play off each other and he'd be like, 'What if you did a blastbeat here, man?' He was saying it kind of jokingly, like, 'I know, you're not a big blast guy'. I actually have worked on blast beats in the closet for about, 15 years now. So actually, I thought that would be sick."

When it comes to writing do you guys kind of trade ideas back and forth online and then get in a room and flesh it out, or is it a bit of both?

"It's funny, you say that, because we kind of tried throwing some ideas back and forth during the height of the pandemic and it didn't really work that well for us. In terms of collaborating, it didn't work. 

"So, as soon as we could get back together and start writing together, that was really an important turning point, realising 'Yeah, this is not productive for us'. 

"It works for some people, but it's kind of like having a conversation via text, texting back and forth or through email. It's never going to be the same level of engagement and excitement as being in person and having an enthralling conversation."

What about when it comes to recording?

"We've never all gotten together and played together to make a recording of an album. It's not the way this style of music really works, and things get edited anyways. 

"So, if you're going to play together like a band like Stone Sour does you've got to keep those same takes. Otherwise they don't line up the same. Even if you played to a click, you could put different takes on top of each other. 

"There's something special about playing with each other in the same room, but for us, it's about playing as accurately as possible. This time around, I had pretty much all the final guitars to play to, so that definitely helps. 

"For the most part, Javier and Tosin will show up and just let me do my thing. I don't change things radically from the demo. The skeleton remains but the details in between those change, and usually it's quite an improvement from how programmed drums sound. So, you know, there's no complaints.

"But yeah, in prog-metal, pretty much no one plays in the same room at the same time and if they do It's it's a very old school band. Unfortunately, it's just become the status quo to hyper-edit everything, which loses a lot of natural feel. 

"Honestly, that's part of why I do the play-throughs, because I want people to be able to hear this music as well, with my natural feel that's not been hyper edited."

Your dynamics and feel do still come through on the recordings though…

"Yeah, well, there are samples on the record, so it's not all organic. But yeah, when it comes to cymbals, there absolutely is no sample replacing those. 

"Anyone who's programmed drums knows that they're the hardest part to programme because they are so sensitive to different motions and angles of attack. That makes it very hard to recreate what a drummer feels plays as a result of that feeling."

Animals as Leaders

(Image credit: Animals as Leaders)

You mentioned Monomyth, and regardless of editing, the precision between yourself, Tosin and Javier is clear. Do you ever create those types of parts and then have to go back to re-learn them before you play live?

"Yeah, I think when there's a danger in writing 'in the box', which I've experienced almost every record, which is, you will write something that's just out of reach of what you can actually play. And that definitely happened with Monomyth. 

"I had these parts that I had programmed in these patterns that I had been working on. And, you know, they threw them in the box. Some were just way too fast, so then they slowed it down and the tempo they chose was 150bpm. 

"I was like, 'Yeah, this sounds good. This is gonna be tough, but it sounds good'. Well, it was a little tougher than just tough! Even though I had been fiddling with that pattern - and patterns like it that are clusters of three - for a year or two, it still posed this this great challenge. 

"There are a couple parts on the record one's in Thoughts and Prayers, one in Red Miso and another in Micro-Aggressions that are just this one little part. But you have to reach this crazy speed with insane clarity, you know? 

"So, most times, I'm aware of what I'm capable of and it doesn't happen very often. But I'd say, yeah, there's about two or three moments on every record where I say, 'Oh, no, what have I done? I've created a monster!’"

Did it take a while to get to grips with playing alternating patterns like that with your feet?

"Well…yes. I was originally taught with double bass, that the right foot always leads. And as I started about 15 years ago, doing more double bass and almost Djent-like, patterns, I've found that it wasn't always best to lead with the right. 

"So I started to make exceptions for certain parts. As that went on, it was expanded upon. I started to then realise this is something that I need to be able to do very cleanly. 

"So I started coming up with all sorts of exercises and patterns exploring this concept. This particular concept was based off of that, and one component of it was that if I'm able to alternate these then it will be more economic. And, you know, my right foot won't explode because the load will be shared!"

Did you ever go down the route of applying rudiments to the bass drums?

"When I was a teenager, I would play all sorts of rudiments on my feet, but I found that it's very impractical. One thing that my hands did teach my feet, is that singles are very powerful and effective! 

"The kick drum doesn't have a lot of dynamics, and isn't really supposed to. So singles make the most sense in terms of power and keeping that power. It also makes the most sense to use singles in terms of coordination. It's less impeding on the what your hands are doing. 

"There's one pattern on Gestaltzerfall that's based off of a five pattern and seven pattern that I had come up with, with these alternating accents. I presented that and Misha was like, 'Oh, this is cool. This kind of like a reverse gallop or something'. 

"Usually gallops have the accent on the starting note. But this one, I was accenting with the stack on the ending note of the gallop, which is the three note cluster." 

Do you put pressure on yourself to provide technical moments that you know the fans are looking out for?

"I honestly don't try super hard to come up with very complex stuff for Animals. With Animals, we're trying to ride this line, essentially that, yes, we play some incredibly complex stuff, but nothing that's outside of the realm of being felt and absorbed, and not just by musicians. So we're trying to expand the minds of the masses too. 

"I don't think there's a real pressure to deliver, I think we're pretty confident in our abilities and that sort of mentality can honestly impede making good music. There’s so many more things you should be thinking about in terms of composition in terms of harmonic textures. So we try to focus on those. 

"Any technical idea that is being utilised is usually a result of one of us thinking of something that we've done in the past, that we can apply in this situation, or having a completely new idea, because of what we're hearing at the time. 

"There is like, 'Hey, this would be clever, this would be this would be cool'.  But it's not a result of trying to appease everyone and prove ourselves, in essence. Although I will say there is an immense amount of pressure for me to show everyone I'm capable of playing this stuff live and in play throughs and doing it with perfection and class."

It's interesting that you say that. Does that pressure come internally, from yourself?

"Yeah, of course. Internal. I think it's, for me, it's because I'm incredibly hard on myself. I'm trying to prove it to myself, as well. It's not just a proving thing, actually, I would say it's really about me having a curiosity of how clean and, and musical and organic I can get this piece to sound while still being technically precise. 

"That's open ended. Because I could just say, 'Oh, it's good enough' at any point. But what's always intrigued me is what happens if I put everything I have into this? That question excites me. 

"I think that's part of why I have gotten so far on this instrument is because I was told I had an amazing potential, but I would have to do everything in my power to unlock that. Once I started to do everything in my power, I eventually saw that I'd become a totally different player, a totally different beast, and I liked it!"

There’s a big difference between being told that and actually working towards realising it too

"Well, that's the that's the power of devoting yourself entirely to a single-minded cause, because most likely, you will achieve what you're trying to achieve. But it's not without great sacrifice. Because you have to sacrifice everything before the altar of what you've set out to do. 

"Maybe that's why I have this one-track mind is because I've conditioned myself to focus entirely and intimately at one thing at a time."

You’ve also been busy with the educational side of things online

"Yeah, since 2014 2015, I've been doing these educational lessons on my website. I was lucky enough to start educating around 14, I had a couple mentors and my dad owned a music store that did lessons so I had some some opportunities to start teaching and ever since then, I've loved sharing knowledge. 

"I was always around teachers that loved to share what they knew. So I'm always trying to put up something new on my website. But the focus of my site is really giving people long lasting, lifelong material that will change them and morph them into very capable players. 

"I'm not one of these guys that will teach you the basics and make you feel like, you're, great because you can play a paradiddle. I'm the guy that will give you the material that may make you suicidal."

Obviously, you studied at Berklee, how do you think that kind of doing that has helped shaped your approach to being a teacher and kind of the way you do it.

"I think Berklee helped me realise what really high quality material was and what it looked like. During my time there, I didn't party at all, I basically stayed in the practice room all day. 

"I got six to eight hours of practice every day, and along with acing my classes about harmony and ear training, which is quite challenging for drummers. Because melody is not our forte! Pitched notes are not our forte. 

"So being immersed entirely, and just being a sponge really helped me to realise what my path was, later on. So, now I've kind of taken all that I learned before and at Berklee, and devised all these exercises. 

"You learn how to build exercises with purpose. In doing that, I've kind of moulded my own style. So that's also a feature of the material is that it has the buildings of me in there."

There are some great videos on your channel, with you building on some concepts from heavyweight players like Weckl and Vinnie 

"It's the logical next step, right? I mean, if we want to keep building, you know, we've got to change things. And hopefully, with some ingenuity it's changing things for the better. 

"So that definitely makes me feel good, but also scares me because I know some young guy’s looking at my stuff and thinking, ‘How do we take this to the next level?’ It's a never ending cycle. But you know, if it pushes the drum community forward, and the music community, then I've got no qualms with it."

How do you think having access to so much material is shaping the next generation of drummers?

"Well, there are upsides and downsides. The upside is they have ready access to high quality information. The downside is everyone and their mother is trying to put out information. Even those that are nowhere near qualified to. So that's where it really helps to have a human being, and not the internet.

"A good human being who is an aficionado in that realm can really help you to sift through, or to pinpoint the great works of the past. And that is, I think the the biggest leg-up that someone could have - having the internet, along with a person that knows what they're talking about. 

"There's definitely a problem with piecing your own curriculum together as a beginner and that's that you don't yet have the knowledge to know what is required to build a foundation. So that's one thing that kids are losing today and not having one teacher they're sticking with for multiple years. 

"So I see a lot of young players who are capable of kind of getting through an Animals as Leaders song, but have nowhere near the foundation that is actually required from the piece. Some kid's gonna figure it out, though, some kid will understand that if they work very hard to do all the stuff that the greats did in the past, you know…they can be saved [laughs]. 

"That's kind of the realisation that I had, honestly. I was told that by my teachers that if I do all the things that the great's did, like, read, play jazz, practice like crazy and listen to all styles of music, then, you know, I had a real shot."

With that in mind, who is your tuition content aimed at?

"Well, I would say it’s aimed at intermediate and advanced players. But there are a couple lessons that can benefit everyone. Like the single pedal lesson and the ghost note lesson. It's ala carte, so it does give people the opportunity to choose what they want and a direction that they want to go in. 

"Not everybody is going to want to learn double bass. You know, so, people have that choice because it's not subscription based. I do feel it's important for people to pursue their natural inclinations. 

"But I'm thinking about putting together something that would be foundational for beginners and kind of a checklist for people to go through to poke at their foundation."

It definitely seems like you really put a lot into into the lessons and non-lesson content that you create. Is that something that has become more and more important to you, or has that always been there?

"It’s always kind of been important to me. I love pretty much every project that I'm a part of, and because of that, I want to share it with as many people as possible. 

"Usually, these projects are challenges to me to record in the first place, but then also another challenge to go on video and be able to ace it all the way through, with perfection. So, yeah, it's, it's partly for people, and it's partly selfishness as a challenge for myself."

Do you think that mindset also came from your time at Berklee? It’s viewed as a mythical place where you enrol as a human and come out as a world-class musician

"I'll be honest. Berklee is not everything it's cracked up to be because you can go into Berklee, and be lazy and come out a terrible musician. It happens, people do it. So, you know, I'll say this.

"I had the mentality that I had. I was practising six to eight hours a day, years before I attended Berklee. Berklee merely provided all the inspiration that I could need to keep that going. It wasn't just the professors, but the other students. 

"There were so many different types of players that inspired me in different ways. I've always been very interested in all styles of music, Latin, jazz, funk, neo-soul, gospel, metal…so having access to specialists in each of these areas that are hungry and curious in the same way that I am, that sort of environment was definitely helpful to continue to just be a sponge. 

"That's really where Berklee shines - having that community, it's not necessarily the curriculum. That's kind of what concerns me about all this Covid stuff and people staying home to learn music remotely. 

"It's actually not where the artists or the music thrives the most. As musicians we're communal. I'm a pretty introverted person, but the community of musicians that I'm that I'm around has always played a very important role. 

"So, I hate to see that sort of thing happen to these students that are supposed to be in the most social, focused and inspired time of their lives."

You started playing DW drums in 2021, how did that come about?

"I was recording in the studio at Sphere quite a bit over the last six or seven years and I was constantly hearing DW drums. One thing I found is that they're sort of pre-EQ'd, they sound good, just mic'd up with with no processing. Eventually, I heard Francesco Cameli’s kit that he had ordered from from DW. 

"He's an engineer and he was the guy that was kind of telling me, 'Hey, just just give these DWs a listen'. He was always kind of in my ear. 

"I'm a very loyal person, and I hate to leave a company. But I'm also very loyal to this craft. I've been at DW for six months. I honestly couldn't be happier. I have zero complaints.  

"You have to remember this is coming from me - a guy that wants the Number One drum set in the world. But every company has great drums, and the difference between the Tama kit that I had and this DW kit is not miles, it's a it's a small amount. But the more you tune your ears, and train your ears to hear those small amounts, the bigger they become, or the bigger they feel."

What shells did you choose?

"It’s a Collectors Series [two  22”x16” bass drums/10”x8”/12”x8” rack toms, 14”x14”/16x16” floor toms]. I have oak rack toms, I have cherry/mahogany hybrid floor toms, and the kicks are actually Santa Monica classic shell kicks. 

"The snare I have that matches the kit is purple heart. So it's really a hybrid-wood kit. that's kind of pieced together. That's ultimately what I've found that I wanted. With this kit, taking different woods for the different drums, it's a bit of a nod to the Pearl Reference series. 

"What's amazing about DW is that they have so many different ways to construct the same wood but get a completely different tone out of it by changing the orientation of the grain pattern. That to me is like, beyond my pay grade, but it's awesome!"

Do you tune to the recommended shell pitch?

"No, I've always tuned my drums to have a sort of character to them. Like for floor toms, I want a lot of beef and bottom end punch. Then for rack toms, I want a good amount of beef, but enough resonance where it's not dead like a floor tom can sound. 

"So for me, it's more feel. Perhaps where I have it is where the note is. But, in my experience the best sounding toms dip a bit in pitch, which requires a differentiation in the heads are tuned from each other.  Given the intensity of some of your parts, having long sustain to the toms might not be ideal Yeah, that's definitely one of the reasons. 

"There are three things: I like it to have enough body that it feels like I'm playing heavy music. Then dipping enough and short enough of a note that it gets out of the way quickly so I can move around efficiently. Then three, is that I don't want them so loose, that there's no action present. 

"Believe me, it would be a lot easier if my drums were tuned very high, it would give me all this rebound and I would be able to play so much faster. But that's not the sound that I want. I grew up listening to fusion guys and I love that sound. You know, but I just have too much rocker in my blood. I'm a jazz guy in my mind. My mind is jazz and my heart is rock!"

Meinl new for 2022

(Image credit: Meinl)

Can you tell us about your Meinl signature stacks?

"Yeah, they took some time to craft because there were so many variations I had to go through to get the sort of splat and smack that I was looking for. But alas, now I have three signature stacks. which some may consider to be extreme. But, um…I don't give a shit!"

You've proved that they're not just there for fun too 

“Oh, well, that's actually…they started out just for fun! I said, 'Hey, what if I got a little stack. Oh, that's fun.' And then I said 'Well, what if I put another over here because I want to hit it over here too.' 

"I couldn't stop playing them and coming up with ideas. Then I was like, 'Okay, let's talk to Meinl about getting something really pinpointed and going through that process'. Then it was on all the songs. So, no choice now. I'm committed!

People may see pre-configured stacks as a luxury, but there's actually more to it than using disparate cymbals. It can be hit and miss as to what works.

"Yeah, I don't want to disparage putting old cymbals, or cracked cymbals together, because those are some of the best stacks that I've ever had. The problem is because they're cracked, they hardly last. 

"They go through this great period where they sound amazing, and it's usually the period where they're cracking. Every time you hit them, that's the sound of a cymbal cracking. 

"So eventually, you're left with a handful of shards and no stack. So I kind of thought, 'What, if I could get that that moment in time?’ Where that stack is falling apart in sounds incredible, right before it dies. Like, if I could get that boxed, to where you pull it out new and it sounds like that."

Effects-type cymbals are really popular again now, and stacks seem to have taken the place of the splash a little bit in that regard.

"Yeah, I've always loved Dave Weckl's use of splashes and different sized cymbals and Stewart Copeland. Gavin Harrison has these really cool toned splashes, these these sort of things - yes, they're additive to the traditional kit, but a lot of times they can really bring out some unique character in a song."

Finally, you won the MusicRadar Best Progressive Drummer 2021, voted for by readers of the site. How does that sort of recognition from fans feel?

I feel honoured and, you know, I do consider myself a progressive drummer. And you know, I'm other things too, but definitely, that's where my heart is right now. It feels good, but I won't let it go to my head. I can't stop, and I won't stop trying to push forward. I'm glad to have had that sort of impact on other people. That's all I hope for that I can just continue to push things forward, push drumming forward and push other drummers to push it forward too.

Parrhesia by Animals as Leaders is out now physically, and available to stream.

Stuart Williams

I'm a freelance member of the MusicRadar team, specialising in drum news, interviews and reviews. I formerly edited Rhythm and Total Guitar here in the UK and have been playing drums for more than 25 years (my arms are very tired). When I'm not working on the site, I can be found on my electronic kit at home, or gigging and depping in function bands and the odd original project.