Matt Garstka



By age 14, Garstka already had six years of drumming under his belt, playing with his father (guitarist and owner of Performance Music in Westfield, Mass.) and encouraged by his multi-instrumentalist music mentor. “I had my mentor, Jo Sallins, who had [seen] some potential in me,” says Garstka. “[He said to me], ‘You have something here. And now’s the time to try to make that a reality, if that’s really what you want. So I think you should decide that for yourself.’ And then I was, like, trying to imagine myself in any other job, and I was like, ‘Uh-oh,’” he laughs. “I got scared, I was like, ‘I’m not trying to be behind a desk … I better get this drum thing happening, ’cause I really love this. And if I don’t, then I’m gonna end up getting caught up in … some dream that’s not mine.”

Garstka unquestionably got the “drum thing” going in a big way, getting accepted into Berklee College of Music a short four years later. His time there allowed Garstka to fully immerse himself in the world of music education, studying a variety of genres and styles. “It’s just awareness, and knowing where you come from, and I was always—I had older cats around me, always trying to help me understand that, and exposing me to the lineage of things … how genres of music were created … how Vinnie Colaiuta wouldn’t be Vinnie Colaiuta without Tony Williams. And I’ve always gotten a lot of use out of that, you know? And I think nowadays that’s less common because it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the fun and the ‘just right now’ stuff … the history is pretty interesting as well, once you start diving into it.”

Studying the history of the art form and applying that knowledge to modern playing is particularly important to Garstka, who draws inspiration from a wide variety of artists. “Many more people inspire me these days,” he says. “A lot of my peers inspire me. Cats coming up in my age, or even younger, that are smashin’ … when I first started, it was the greats that inspired me, you know, Tony Williams, Dennis Chambers, Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, Gary Novak, Steve Gadd—all those guys that everybody name drops, but … there’s some young cats that I think I get more inspiration from … Moritz Müller, Chris Paprota, Brian Evans, Nick Smith, Fred Boswell [Jr.], Gergo Borlai— he’s an older dude—Mike Mitchell, Chris Coleman, Dana Hawkins … Jamal Moore, these are all cats—just the other day, this cat CJ Thompson, I was watching some of his videos and I was like, ‘Uh-oh. Matt’s gotta go drum,’” he laughs.

For anyone who’s heard Animals As Leaders, it’s easy to hear those various influences and styles that come together to create their unique sound. It’s a type of music that Garstka has described as “honest,” and something he wants to continue to strive toward. “Anyone could look at my music and judge whether it’s honest or not, so I guess that has to do with me. It has to do with me feeling right about what I’m creating, musically, and how I’m creating it,” he says. “You know, I think if we all did that, then … there’s no room to complain about the music business, because everybody’s doing really what they wanna be doing.”

Certainly that business side of the music industry that Garstka is referencing has an impact on any artist lucky enough to make a career out of doing what he or she loves. “I can tell you, off the bat, what’s stayed the same is my passion for the instrument—that’s unchanging. Whether or not I’m successful, I’m always gonna find a reason to be driven … that’s just a part of me, that I want to further the craft … it’s just fascinating to me to be a part of that, you know? A part of this whole movement of drummers and music.” Garstka goes on to say, “What has changed … I’d say my appreciation. I’m very appreciative of where I’m at right now. And that I have a lot of people’s respect and that drives me further to earn that respect and feel as if I’m deserving of that … that thing that’s kinda been bestowed upon me. And, in a way, it was definitely earned, but it’s not something that I think anyone owns or is entitled to.”

As a near-20-year player with a music-store-owning father, it’s safe to say that Garstka has played his fair share of kits, and he chooses Tama above all others. “To be honest, at first, I played Tama drums because of Ronald Bruner [Jr.] … I loved the way his kit sounded—of course that has a lot to do with him—but I noticed that they had these Hyper-Drive toms, and those were such a necessity for me at the time, and still to this day, because I’m short, and a regular depth of eight inches and then nine inches on the rack toms makes my toms have to be at really weird angles—and I sit high, too … so that was part of the intrigue for me … and once I tried out the bubinga, once I heard it in person … fat, bottom-end punch … along with the finish, I had idolized that for years before I was endorsed,” he says. “I had a page written out, an Excel sheet, of how much an eight-inch tom would cost, how much the list [price] was, and how much I [thought] I could get it at a discount … I bought the 14-inch floor tom for, like, $680, with tax and everything … I was gonna piece it together,” he laughs. “Then I got endorsed, and it started opening up my eyes to the birch/bubinga kit, and that was a nice combination of a maple sound and a bubinga sound, even though it’s birch/bubinga, I had always played a maple kit before that … the birch/bubinga had the low end of the bubinga and the nice vibrance of the birch.”

Most recently, Garstka has opted for the Tama Silverstar Mirage acrylic kit over a traditional maple or birch/bubinga configuration. “I guess, coming full circle now, with the acrylic kit, that’s even more punchy and attacky, but also round, somehow. Like, the roll-off is round, there’s still body there … I think another part of it is how percussive the sound is, you know? Like … when I sit down on it and play, it’s like another level of cleanness to my playing, you know? Like, almost like getting on a marching snare drum, you realize how dirty your hands are ’cause it’s that clean … getting on the acrylic kit has that definition … that clarity … that’s pretty intriguing and I think it lends itself well to aggressive music, like Animals As Leaders.”

And when it comes to Garstka’s cymbal collection, he relies on MEINL—specifically, their Byzance series—to deliver a sound that can span across Animals As Leaders’ wide sonic palette. “For me, it’s all about a shimmering cymbal, a cymbal that I can roll on, like, do a crescendo on, from super-soft—almost inaudible—to really loud,” he says. “And I feel like a lot of aggressive music doesn’t have that. So, I think that’s probably something that’s unique about my approach … I look for earthiness in my cymbals nowadays. And it seems like I just wanna get more and more raw, and dark, and low-pitched, but still cutting somehow. And I think MEINL is kind of leading that movement right now.”

As one of only three members of Animals As Leaders—a vocal-less trio that consists of two eight-string guitar players and a drummer—Garstka finds a certain freedom in the band’s distinctive setup. “In the end, [it] actually seems the ideal situation for an instrumental band, because [there are] only two [guitar] parts that are really core to the sound, so then I actually have a lot of room to kind of fill in and play around those ideas, whereas if it’s a four or five-piece band, there’s less sonic room to do that, you know? And because the bass player’s not a person, and the electronics are not a person, we can kind of treat them as supplementary … I’m definitely phrasing around the guitar parts when I’m playing with Animals, that’s like my [starting] point to go off of.”

That phrasing is certainly a major contribution to Garstka’s unique sound, not to mention, what has helped establish him as one of today’s most proficient players, lauded by drummers the world over. And for anyone inspired by his playing, who may want to follow in his footsteps, Garstka offers a bit of advice. “Don’t do it,” he laughs. “I would say take out the best parts of [my playing], you know? That’s what I used to do with Dennis Chambers, Vinnie Colaiuta—I wouldn’t say I want to be all of Dennis Chambers or all of Vinnie Colaiuta. I tried to pinpoint what it was about them I really dug … there’s no such thing as too many influences. There is such a thing as too little influences.”

Written by Brian Ruppenkamp / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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