Animals As Leaders' Matt Garstka on his journey to being the band's first live drummer on record

"I programmed every note that I was to play on the record, every ghost note, and made it sound like I was playing it, which is pretty impossible with very dynamic playing"
"I programmed every note that I was to play on the record, every ghost note, and made it sound like I was playing it, which is pretty impossible with very dynamic playing"

Every so often, there are shifts in the paradigms that populate the landscape of popular culture and the arts.

Certain changes in approach and technique that warrant closer inspection by the learned and casual observer/listener. In the case of music, sometimes the listener is challenged as much as the musicians.

Animals As Leaders and their drummer, Matt Garstka, are currently creating one of those shifts. Guitarists Tosin Abasi and Javier Reyes' unique, twin eight-string guitar approach allows Matt a lot of space to work with.

In the context of all those notes though lies not just an exceptional drummer but a skilled listener as well. Matt's introduction to music and drums at an early age, coupled with his guitarist father Greg's musical influence, formed a solid foundation for Matt. Now, with Animals As Leaders, Matt continues pushing the percussive envelope.

After using deftly programmed drums on their previous recordings, Matt found himself being Animals' first live drummer on record. The challenge has yielded amazing results on Joy of Motion, an exploration into experimental instrumental music that finds Matt in the centre, holding it all down.

He manages to instil a groove while playing ear-bending phrases and fills. Having been listening to music since literally before birth, Matt fills us in on his journey so far.

Tell us about that early attraction to the drums and what led to it.

"From the time I was in the womb, my parents were playing Mozart, Van Halen and Bob Marley into my mom's stomach. Putting the speaker up to it. I grew up with my dad [Greg Garstka] being a professional musician and going to his gigs.

"When I was five, they tried to get me to take piano lessons, but I wasn't focused, I was just a kid. At seven, I tried out guitar, because my dad is a guitar player. I learned a couple of things but found I was getting in this rut, playing the same thing. I had to be taught anything to be able to play it.

"Then when I was eight, they bought Performance Music in Westfield, Massachusetts. I went over to the Drum Jungle, which was a different part of the store. I started playing this beat. Nobody showed me.

"When I was eight ... I started playing this beat. Nobody showed me. I felt good about figuring that out myself"

"I felt good about figuring that out myself. I started getting ideas immediately, like, 'What if I do the snare with all the bass drum hits?' or, 'I'll only do the hi-hat when I'm hitting the bass or the snare.'

"I started making alterations already. They saw that I was attracted to this instrument. I had some natural talent. I could keep a beat. They got me lessons right away.

"My dad started jamming with me and got me playing gigs at a young age."

What impact did your private lessons have?

"Clark Siebold was my teacher from age eight to 12, He wrote a lot of grooves out. Instantly got me reading notation. Got me working on paradiddles, learning rudiments.

"He would teach me things by showing me as well. Not only was I learning from a page, but I was learning from seeing it as well. Learning from auditory was harder.

"Eventually I started taking lessons with John Adams. He showed me all types of rudiments, working out of books, showed me grooves, how to work with a drum machine and metronome.

"He showed me stick tricks. Fun stuff. He had a wealth of knowledge and was able to keep me intrigued."

What were your listening habits like in your formative years?

"I was always listening to music as a kid. I used to have a Walkman or Discman and carry that around everywhere. It was always different too. My dad exposed me to rock stuff like Van Halen and David Lee Roth.

"My dad's band was blues, rock and reggae. I grew up on Bob Marley. My brother, 10 years older than me, was listening to rap.

"As a teenager, I was listening to all the rap, rock and pop stuff that all my friends were listening to, but I was also listening to stuff that my dad was listening to, like Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Ravi Shankar. Diverse stuff. He was showing me Steve Vai. All the rock guitar dudes. So, I had a lot of variety in my musical diet.

"At age 14 I met Joe Sallins. He took me under his wing and showed me Chick Corea, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Michel Camillo, all this fusion, jazz and Latin stuff. Opening my mind to this total other side.

"I was one of those rock dudes and then I was exposed to this funk, Latin, R&B, jazz fusion style."

How did you end up going to Berklee?

"I found out that Al Dimeola was picked up by Chick Corea at Berklee. My teacher, Bob Gullotti, went to Berklee. That and the Al Dimeola thing was enough to motivate me to go there. I visited the school. They're not just a jazz program with a little bit of Latin or Classical, which is what most college programs are.

"Berklee had that, plus a very contemporary element. R&B, Country, Pop, Latin. I ended up being in the first metal ensemble in Berklee. I busted my ass to get myself as well-rounded and as prepared as I could to get into this school. To go to Berklee I needed to get a scholarship."

Have you been able to apply your schooling to real world scenarios?

"Yes, of course. I learned so much at Berklee. But having the knowledge is not enough on its own. It's not just having the information, it's practising the application of that information.

"That's really what made Berklee a success for me. The practice facilities allowed me to put that knowledge that I just acquired to use and apply that in ensembles and my gigging life back home.

"I could have ended up with a gig where I'm not applying it. I feel like I don't care if I get to use this stuff or not. I'm just so interested in this material. It entrances me and it furthers my craft and my knowledge.

"You will rarely get a gig that will really utilise every skill of yours. To me, I always want to be over-qualified. I want to see more than what I'm doing. Or see what I'm doing from many aspects. I would never trade my education in, even if it's never applied or utilised."

"I learned so much at Berklee. But having the knowledge is not enough on its own. It's not just having the information, it's practising the application of that information"

What led up to you getting the gig with Animals As Leaders?

"I graduated from Berklee in 2011. Six months after that, I moved out to Los Angeles. I was doing church gigs out there. I had a couple of opportunities to play for some pop artists.

"Then, this opportunity came up to audition for Animals. My friend from Berklee, Ivan Chopik, recommended me to Tosin Abasi [guitarist for Animals As Leaders].

"It was one of my dream gigs. I had made a list. I make lists of stuff I have to practise, to envision this goal. Rather than just whatever happens to me happens, I want to have a vision.

"On this sheet, I had Animals As Leaders, Periphery, Dave Mathews Band, Chick Corea, Victor Wooten, Stanley Clark, those were my top things. I think I might have had Meshuggah on there [laughs]!

"So, it was one of the gigs on the top list. I started busting my ass and that was really what I wanted to happen. I was more invested in that than anything else. It started off like rehearsals, going through the tunes. Playing them together. Them helping me to tweak the parts.

"A month later, from when I started to learn the material and play with them, we did a UK run with Meshuggah, then headlined in Europe. Right after, we did a support for Thrice's farewell tour."

What was the recording process for the new Animals album?

"Tosin had some riffs and Misha [Periphery guitarist] had programmed drums to it and he had referenced some patterns that I jammed on with Tosin. We made some videos when we were jamming some of the material. Just parts.

"They're used to writing parts and piecing them together. I would like it to be more organic, where we work together to tweak parts and feel the arrangement out before putting it into a computer and writing the whole song, then going to play it live after it's been released and being like, 'Oh this part feels weird,' and, 'Why is that part so hard and unnatural?'

"Misha did a great job at making the arrangements smooth. I eventually got the guitar tracks without the drums that Misha had written so I could rewrite the drum parts. Even if a part was already good, I wanted to have another idea just in case.

"It ended up that a few ideas Misha had, I was like, 'That's the part that's supposed to be there.' Any other idea that I'm coming up with is just to have another idea. But then, a lot of it I rewrote and they wanted me to program the drums out.

"So, I programmed every note that I was to play on the record, every ghost note, and make it sound like I was playing it, which is pretty impossible with very dynamic playing, very feel-oriented playing that I think I have. That was a huge challenge."

Did you use any samples?

"It's all acoustic drums except some sampling on the kick and snare. Most of the acoustic sound was retained. I really smashed it and they were able to get some high volume kicks even through the overheads. They didn't need to do a lot of sampling."

Did you use a click?

"Yes. Always."

Do you have any side projects or something on a list that you're working on?

"I just finished a project with Louie de Mieulle, a French bassist and composer. His stuff is really interesting because he's utilising polyrhythms and counterpoint with those rhythms.

"He uses counterpoint, that very fixed element, but there's an element of jazz, where it's the freedom, the improvisation and communicating. I think it's a great balance between composed and improvised."

Is there space open for improv with Animals As Leaders?

"Live, there is. There's Weightless, which at the end I go bananas. This new medley that we have, The Price Of Everything, The Value Of Nothing mixed with Behaving Badly and I do a solo over the Behaving Badly intro part. The seven part. That's like 32 bars long. Hopefully the next album we have a drum solo section, you know [laughs]?"

A drum song maybe?

"Yeah! Why not? We are an instrumental band. A solo is one musical being carrying the music forward. It doesn't have to be a guitar or a voice. Why not the drums?"

You're big on education, not just for yourself, but teaching also. Tell us about your interest in that area.

"I love teaching. Part of what's fun for me is each student is a new person. I don't treat everyone like they're the same person walking through the door.

"I like figuring out somebody's strengths and weaknesses and helping fill that void or musical deficiency they might have, like a nutritionist or something. I have a few lessons up on my website [] that I feel are pretty crucial for development. They're pretty progressive as well. It's not for beginners.

"I feel like there's a lot of people doing the beginner material out there and not a lot of people focusing on the more challenging but rewarding material. That's what I'm looking to put out there.

"There are more videos on the way. I'll be deconstructing some Animals songs as well."