Cognitive Contortions: An Interview with ANIMALS AS LEADERS' Matt Garstka
Founded by guitarist Tosin Abasi, American trio Animals as Leaders currently ranks as one of the premier forces in instrumental progressive metal. With four stellar studio albums under their belt—including 2016’s superlative The Madness of Many—it’s easy to hear why.
This summer, the band is embarking on an international tour in support of their 10th anniversary, and I recently spoke with drummer Matt Garstka about his history with the group, the logistics of the upcoming shows, plans for the future, and much more.
Before we get into the upcoming tour and all, I wanted to start with your history with Animals as Leaders. You became a member in 2012, after replacing Navene Koperweis. How did you initially feel joining the band, and how long did it take you to feel welcomed and established as a natural part of the trio?
It took some time, for sure. When we did The Joy of Motion in 2014, I said to myself, “Okay, I got this” [laughs]. I was a fan beforehand, of course, and that’s why I joined. It’s a dream gig.
I bet. How has your involvement in the writing process changed over the years?
The Joy of Motion was primarily done by Tosin and Misha [Mansoor, producer, co-writer, and player] of Periphery. It’s the first album with real drums on it and I did a few patterns for it. The Madness of Many is when I really contributed a great deal because we were all in the same room, writing all of the tunes at once. Every song was like that.
It’s good that you finally had that one wholly organic outing. Looking back over the course of the last decade—even before you joined—how do you feel about the influence of Animals as Leaders?
The band has changed the genre, for sure. We’re always trying to explore new territory, you know? We’re definitely doing that and setting trends. You see a lot of instrumental bands coming out with similar vibes. We’ve certainly been a part of that resurgence and helped make it more mainstream.
Absolutely. I’ve always thought that you guys are the best at your style of progressive metal, kind of like how Between the Buried and Me and Opeth are the best at what they do. In all those cases, a lot of worthwhile followers have emerged.
Yeah, it’s a good feeling. Also, we have great fans who are loyal and just want us to do our thing and hear our identity. They’re open to us exploring new territory. It’s liberating to have that support.
Of course. If you want to say, what are you three working on now? How does it compare to The Madness of Many?
We’ve started a few tunes, but it’s still in the early phases. Right now, we’re focusing on the upcoming tour. It’ll be around sixty shows within a hundred days. We probably won’t’ resuming the writing process until after that, but we’re still trying to push the boundaries and be inventive and innovative.
The key is to stay true to your vision as a collective unit. I wonder, then, if you feel any pressure to live up to certain fan expectations as you’re sticking to what you want to do next? You know, like if people go with it, great, but if not, oh well.
We’d like to make the fans happy, but it’s a dangerous game to play because you could be sacrificing what your art would be for your perception of what people want. We’re more into the headspace of creating honestly and exploring what we want to do.
That reminds me of the debate people are having now about what makes something “progressive.” A lot of fans of the genre feel that it means being really lengthy and complex, but if you’re sticking to a safe recipe, that’s kind of the antithesis of it being progressive. You have to try new things and go outside of your comfort zone to a certain extent.
There’s totally an element of people creating their own formula; that’s part of what makes a band’s identity, sure, but it can also leave compositions and approaches stagnant. It’s a hard line to tow. We try to give fans something heavy and aggressive, but also inject other styles into it. That’s always been a pinnacle part of Animals as Leaders’ sound. It’s diverse and not one-dimensional.
A lot of instrumental bands fall into that pit of technique over melody and variety. You all don’t have that problem. I remember seeing Animals as Leaders open for Devin Townsend in Philadelphia a few years ago and being really blown away by the melodic nature of the pieces. That’s what makes you stand out.
Sure. Do you have any favorite songs from the catalog (even ones you didn’t play on)?
That’s a tough one. It’s kind of like with music I listen to: I’ll get obsessed with certain albums and artists but then I’ll move on, cycle back, and find that it’s changed. Sometimes my favorite one is “Physical Education” or “Ectogenesis” but then it’ll be “Cognitive Contortions” or “Arithmophobia.” Right now, “Thoroughly at Home” from the first album (2009’s self-titled) is my nemesis. It has these intricate and irregular double bass parts happening over sporadic hands over the top. It was originally programmed, so I gotta try to fucking sound as accurate as a drum machine but make it feel natural [laughs].
I can’t imagine how much time that takes in terms of rehearsing, especially since you’re probably spanning the whole discography on the tour since it is a 10th anniversary celebration.
Yeah, we’re making it diverse. We’re trying to give everybody a little taste of everything. Let’s leave the extra details unsaid, though, so it’s all a surprise.
I get that.
The North American tour runs from May 1st to the 25th; in June, we’re going to Europe and playing a bunch of festivals. We’re playing Download Fest and Radar Fest in the UK, plus a show in Sweden with Dream Theater. There are also a few others, and then we’re coming home for a few weeks before heading back out to Europe again. It’s festival season over there, so we’re hitting as many as we can.
Are there any venues or cities you’re looking forward to playing in America?
The hometown show in Los Angeles is big since we’re based there now. Also, the Boston stop will be awesome since I’m from Massachusetts. There are things that each place has to offer. In general, Texas can be pretty lit, so we like that.
And you’re coming back to the Theatre of Living Arts in Philly, where I am. That’s a great place.
We usually play at the Trocadero when we’re in Philadelphia.
Ah, okay. That place closed within the last month or two, actually.
Oh, damn. That explains why we’re not playing it. I’m looking forward to the TLA, though.
Joining you on every show is The Contortionist, and then the third band slot will vary between Moon Tooth, Buke and Gase, and other acts. How did these artists come to join the tour and what makes them a good fit for the bill?
We always pick who comes on tour with us; it’s people we feel fit within our genre or people that we want to expose to the crowd. We’ve played with The Contortionist before and it was really successful. They grew a lot from that. The reason why we have different openers depending on the area is because we each had picks. Like, Evan Marien & Dana Hawkins was my pick, whereas Moon Tooth was chosen by Javier [Reyes, guitar] and Tosin’s was Buke and Gase. We figured why not have them all come on for different parts of the tour?
That makes sense. I like that you’re exposing the audience to bands they may like even if the band doesn’t necessarily fit within the style. They may not expect to see the band there, but once they do, they’re into it.
That’s part of the beauty of going to live shows. You can check out new stuff.
Exactly. When I saw BTBAM and Leprous last year, the middle act was a group I’m always trying to help out: The Dear Hunter. They’re not metal at all, but the audience seemed to dig them.
About a year ago, you guys released Live 2017 and more or less took each track from a different city. What led to that decision? Any plans to do an official release for this tour at some point?
There’s no plan to put it out as of now, but who knows? It could happen. For Live 2017, we tried to record every night but there were issues sometimes. That was a deciding factor. Actually, our sound guy chose the tunes; he was mixing part of it while we were on the tour and showing us what he was coming up with. We thought we should finally put out a live album since we’d been talking about it for a while.
It seems like there’s an expectation for every group to do it eventually.
That’s true. I guess the next step would be doing a live Blu-ray of some sort, or a documentary series.
That’d be cool. In July, you’re doing something that seems to be relatively popular these days: a camping retreat for fans. It’s called “Camping with Animals” and it runs July 16 – 19 at Full Moon Resort in Big Indian, New York. You’ll also have some guests: Wes Hauch, Andre Nieri, Dave Davidson, JP Bouvet, and Evan Brewer. How did all of that come about?
We tried to pick guests that a good amount of people within the scene know. They’re also highly qualified players and educators, of course. We’ve done a camp at that place before, back in 2014 or 2015, I think. It’s good to have that seclusion and not having distractions; it gives us time to immerse ourselves in the teaching and interactions with the campers. It’s friendlier and more informal, like a little community.
I’m sure. In general, what are you listening to these days? Any specific artists that you wish would get more exposure?
One band I’ve been listening to a lot is called Strobes. They’re virtually unknown yet they have some really cool concepts and instrumental music. I often listen to people we’ve toured with, like The Contortionist or Plini or Chon. Meshuggah, too.
Those are good choices. Within the industry, we know about them but they’re not household names yet.
True. Maybe Tigran Hamasyan, too. He has some incredible compositions.
Awesome pick. You’ve played with so many amazing people, so I wonder who’s still left in terms of your bucket list for recording and/or playing live with other musicians.
Oh, let’s see. As far as recording goes, I don’t want to give too much away because we’re looking to have our next project be an array of different collaborations. Stay tuned for that. I mean, we’ve always wanted to play with Dream Theater, so it’s super cool that we are. I’d love to tour with Meshuggah again. We’ve done it a few times already, but it’s always a great time. The same goes for Periphery and TesseracT.
It sounds like you’ve already scratched all the names off of your list, then.
Yeah, it’s been really cool.
Thanks for taking some time to speak with me, Matt, and good luck on the tour. I’ll see you on the 19th in Philly.
Sweet, man. Looking forward to it.