Drummer Matt Halpern reveals his rhythmic philosophy, gear choices and the unexpected influences that helped form his technique.
Prog rock drummer Matt Halpern talks about his approach to rhythm and the artists who have helped shape it.
Progressive drummer and educator Matt Halpern has made a career out of staying tastefully on the perimeter. When he joined progressive metal act Periphery in 2009, his urbane and complementary style laid a solid percussive foundation for the band while adding new layers of expression. Since joining, Periphery has recorded four studio albums and toured consistently. We sat down with Matt to discuss his rhythmic philosophy, unlikely influences and gear preferences…
MF: Can you tell us about how you started playing drums and what type of instruction you received?
MH: I started playing drums when I was very young, 4 or 5 years old. My father was a pharmacist who had some techs working for him that were drummers. One, in particular, took a liking to me, which eventually led to a couple years of drum lessons.
I started with basics, working out of books, learning rudiments, understanding different time signatures and how you can use quarter notes and eighth notes, and 16th notes. After an elementary foundation, I graduated to private teachers and started focusing on playing songs.
MF: Your style is really accent heavy and pocket-oriented. How did that develop?
MH: The style that I use for Periphery is very groovy, pocket-heavy, but I also adhere to the accents of the music, its two sides. The groovy, pocket side just comes from my background. I started off learning, initially, rock and progressive music, stuff you wouldn’t actually typically associate with pocket playing. But I eventually evolved into playing more funky stuff, getting into some James Brown, listening to The Police, Sting and getting a more raw understanding of groove and pocket.
I’ve played in a lot of different bands and my bandleaders taught me that it’s really about commanding the group. I’ve always played with as much emphasis on the pocket as I can, because I genuinely move to the music that I’m playing and I think that the way that we move creates our group. I always say this to my students: The more you move, the more you groove. If you can really get into it from that perspective, and let your body become the rhythm and the music, then what’s going to come out is going to be as groovy as it possibly can be.
When I joined Periphery, I’d been listening to the music of the band for a while. I was playing in bands that were similar, in regards to having very specific accents and syncopated parts that really, the guitars, the bass, everything was linked up with the drums, very rhythmically. The accents are extremely important. You can’t leave any out, you can’t add extra. It’s got to be right, because that’s what makes it into this cohesive sound that I think a lot of the bands that are in that progressive, metal genre sort of adhere to.
For me, I just looked at it as another form of fusion. I was really into playing different kinds of jazz fusion or funk fusion, and fusion’s all about accents. Some things may come back somewhere in the song, but for the most part it’s variations and almost like different takes on one idea, one sort of grouping of accents and how you can displace it with different sounds, but still keep the accents the same.
MF: You mentioned several artists that have influenced you. What is an unexpected stylistic influence that you find manifesting in your playing?
MH: A style that I see manifesting in my playing that people would probably not expect, and it’s something that I’m sort of rediscovering now is a hip-hop feel. When I was younger, I listened to a lot of hip-hop. I was into N.W.A. I love Dr. Dre, I love Snoop Dogg. I got into those artists from a very young age, but never really associated it with drumming. It was just more so that was what my friends were listening to, and that’s what I would listen to.
But I find myself, now, when I’ve driving in my car or when I’m doing stuff around the house when I have music on, when I’m not putting on metal or rock, I’m going back and I’m finding these artists that use words rhythmically. I try to always think about the music that I’m playing in that sense, from a melodic, rhythmic sense. It’s not just about the rhythms, it not just about the melodies. It’s how can I take the melodies and make them creative rhythmically.
I have a lot of respect for rappers, because they fit words and syllables into these rhythmic phrases that actually say something. There’s a message behind it. I think, at least over the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to really develop a message within my playing, and I think it stems from that.
MF: Some of my favorite drummers in the past have played to the vocal.
MH: I think you have to play to the vocal. I think it’s very important to know, as a drummer, or any instrumentalist in a band, you need to know what the lyrics are, you need to know what the melodies are. You need to understand what’s being said. You need to know when to support them with accenting, and when to pull back and leave space to let the words deliver the message by themselves.
MF: Take a minute to walk us through your setup.
MH: My setup has changed fairly drastically over the past year or two. I used to play a Mapex Saturn IV kit using just two floor toms, kick and snare. The reason was, playing with Periphery in the early years, we were a lot of times an opening band, and I would have to get the drums on and off stage quickly. The less I had, the less dirty looks I got from other bands, sound guys and the stage crew. So that was a good thing for reputation, I think.
But within the past two years, when we were working on our newest records, which were Juggernaut: Alpha and Juggernaut: Omega, I wanted to have as many tonal options as I could to really reflect and deliver the message behind the music.
So this setup is the Saturn V. These drums offer maple, walnut shells, so you get nice resonance, but with a dark attack. This tom is a 10” x 8”. This one is a 12” x 9”. Here is a 14” x 14”, and this one is a 16” x 16”. When it comes to the floor toms, I like them big and boomy. I’m all about very dark, punchy sound. I like them to fill the space. The kick is a 22” x 18” kick. Every time I play a new Mapex kick drum, it blows my mind and, obviously, the Saturn V is no different.
What’s cool about the Saturn V is that the drum head will sit completely flat around the edge–that’s the SONIClear bearing edge. It takes a whole bunch of variables out of the tuning process. It is important to have a good-sounding head, but when you put a head on a drum, if it doesn’t sit completely flat it doesn’t matter if it’s a good head or a bad head. With SONIClear, because it is completely flat, you get nice, round contact around the drum head. It’s just an even starting point.
The tom mounts on the Saturn V series are free-floating and once you connect it to the drum to the stand, it becomes one piece. So it’s all solid. It’s metal, so even when I flick it, you can kind of hear there’s tone, and you can hear the tone of the drum. So the whole system needs to have more resonance, and that’s been created with these new SONIClear clamps, to go along with the SONIClear edge.
As far as heads, I have been playing Evans drum heads for a long time. I absolutely love them, especially since they developed the Level 360 technology. They are so consistent and responsive in both the studio and a live setting. For me, the Evans Clear G2, on the tops for the batters on the toms. They’re durable, they sound great, they’re easy to tune. As far as the reso side, I use a single-ply G1 clear, just to get that nice resonate sound that I want. Given that it is a one-ply head, it’s a little bit more focused on getting the tone from this side versus the attack from the top side. So if I’m in a certain studio setting where I need it to be a little bit more muffled, I can just throw, you know, some kind of muffling on the bottom, here, or a little bit of tape and I can get exactly what I want really quickly.
As far as my kick, I’ve always used the EMAD. It’s a single-ply head with a dampening ring around the outside. I’ve yet to break one. I’ve used the same drum head for multiple tours. So from a durability standpoint, you get exactly what you need with these Evans heads. And I hit hard, so I can tell you that for sure.
As far as drum sticks, I’ve been playing ProMark for as long as I can remember. I used to play primarily 5Bs with the wood tip, but I’ve finally settled on the 2Bs. They’re perfect, as far as the diameter. They’re, 16 inches and I have long arms, so I don’t need a really long stick. But I do get the weight. These are balanced and weighted the right way. I want a little bit of movement so that the stick reacts the right way, and gets the sound naturally out of the drum. The weight of these sticks is perfect for that. When I hit the tom, I don’t have to put a lot of motion into it, but it’s going to get a perfect sort of attack.
As far as hardware goes, I use the Mapex Falcon hardware, mainly because it’s extremely durable. The cymbal stands have notches so I can know exactly where to set my cymbal heights and positions. I don’t have to mark anything. The hardware is consistent. It holds up. When you’re touring as much as I do, the wear and tear that the hardware takes can sometimes be really rough.
MF: Can you tell us a little bit more about the design process for the Wraith Matt Halpern Black Panther Snare?
MH: I convinced them to develop this drum called the Wraith. It is a 1.2-millimeter brass shell drum with nine small vents around the diameter of the drum, in the shell. The venting holes are actually positioned, funnily enough, like part of my band’s logo. That’s a little thing that Periphery fans will appreciate.
The vents help make the drum drier, because as you hit it, there are more vents around the drum for the air to exit. So that resonance that would normally stay there with just one or two ports, that doesn’t happen with this. It creates a dryer, more controllable sound.
The drum is a 14” x 6”, as far as dimensions. I’ve always felt that when you get past the 6-inch point, as far as depth, it’s a bit harder to position on the snare stands. It’s almost too deep for the sound that I was going for. So I wanted something that could be deeper in sound, or it can be tuned up for a really high and dry sound.
It’s also very loud. Part of the reason why I went for a brass drum over any other type of drum, is because brass really cuts through the music. There’s a lot of times when I’ll be playing with Periphery, we’ll be in a big room and my front of house engineer doesn’t even really need to mic the thing, because it just cuts so nicely in the room through all the music.
I was lucky enough to have our first prototype of the drum for the recording process of our most recent records, so it became sort of a staple to the Periphery sound. We recorded, I want to say, 14 out of 16 songs on our record, with this snare.
I should also point out that this drum ships with Evans Heavyweight Snare batter heads. This is, to my knowledge, the only one that does.
MF: You have affection for effects cymbals. They add a vital element to what you do with Periphery. What do you look for, specifically, tonally, in effects cymbals?
MH: In Periphery, in a lot of the early-on demos that the band wrote, the stack, the effects cymbal was a really staple sound that you would hear from the drums. It started off with a pretty simple setup, as far as my stack goes. I started off with an 18-inch china with a 16-inch crash. I just sort of messed with different ways to lay them on top of each other, and couldn’t figure out which sounds worked best. This is a Meinl Byzance 18-inch dark china. It’s dark in sound. It’s very dry. It decays fairly quickly. This was actually the base that I started with when I started working on developing my sound as far as an effects cymbal goes.
What I did first was I took a crash cymbal, and I laid it inside, it didn’t have the best sound. But when you tighten it down, you get this abrasive sound. And when you put it in the context of the music, it cuts. It really cuts through the music and you get this, like, really strong attack, almost like this china cymbal that is way louder than a china cymbal and without the ring and the sustain that you get from a big china cymbal. You get that initial attack from it, and that sort of friction that you want, but it really just cuts. I don't know how else to explain it, except where it just worked perfectly for the sound. That’s what I was always hearing in those early Periphery demos.
I just think you can do so much with these sounds. Cymbals, to me, are the colors on the drum set. The drums definitely create the rhythms and they hit you right in the chest and you feel them. The cymbals are the colors that compliment that. I don’t want to generalize, but I think a lot of drummers are very traditional and a little bit apprehensive to try new combinations with their cymbals. You should try things. Even if it doesn’t sound good, just try it.
To round this point out, I think the effects cymbals, the stacks that I use, I think they’re simply a product of experimentation with sound. It’s just a natural evolution of, hey, here’s these cymbals. They make sounds. What happens if you put them together? Individually, they’re great. Can we make them sound together?
MF: Some readers are familiar with the Entertainment Institute. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
MH: I started The Entertainment Institute with two music industry veterans with the aim to connect industry professionals with up-and-comers. This could mean connecting music business professionals with people that want to work in the business part of the industry, or connecting artists and performers with their fans, or with people that want to play their instruments better, or want to start a band, or they want to figure out how to go from point A to point B.
So with the business side, you’re creating a shortcut and getting real, experienced knowledge delivered from the people that work in the industry to the people that want to work in the industry, you’re also giving those people that work in the industry a nice glimpse at who might be coming next. So the person that’s taking the class might be the next intern at the booking agency. They might be the next intern at the record label. They may actually get a job with the person that’s teaching the class.
The other side of it is just connecting the artists with their fans through education. There’s usually this sort of pedestal that fans put their favorite artists on. It allows the artist to be larger than life in some way, and of course that’s great from the marketing perspective. You want to be larger than life; you want to draw attention to the band, to the artist. But at the same time, when you have younger fans or younger people that really want to do this for a living, there’s no other way to learn, other than the people that are doing it.
The minute that the person that’s on that pedestal speaks frankly and in a real way to that fan, that whole pedestal just goes away and the relationship actually becomes stronger because that person in that job and that sort of lifestyle doesn’t seem so out of reach anymore. It seems attainable. The artists are able to share the practical steps that they took, and talk about their experience with the people that really care.
I think for the artist, too, it truly allows that artist to understand their fans better. Are my fans, just, they like me because I look a certain way, or I say a certain lyric, or is it because they really care about me as a person and they support me as a person. I think the most successful bands out there, at least in this day and age, have found a way to really build a strong foundation and relationship with their fans.
And from my own experience as a teacher, the best way to do that is through sharing. Share knowledge. Share what you know. Don’t covet it, and hide it and let other people wonder how you got there, because you’re actually doing yourself and your fans, and the whole industry a disservice. If you can show people the right way to do it, they’re not going to take your gig. They’re not going to come steal your, your thunder. They’re just going to have a better understanding and maybe they’ll be more successful and they’ll contribute to a much more productive and positive environment that we all hopefully want to be a part of this crazy business.
If we can connect the next generation with the people that are really doing this now, that knowledge sharing that takes place in that setting becomes super-valuable. It hopefully makes for a much better industry. Why not. So that’s the idea behind the Entertainment Institute.
MF: Now, as a polished, working musician, what was the best piece of professional advice you received in your early career?
MH: I think saying that there’s just one of them would not be fair, because I think there are cornerstones to different aspects.
From a business perspective, when you’re in a band, when you’re an artist, you have to look at it like a business. One of the things I learned very early is that you have to be okay with being patient. You have to be patient and you have to be persistent. You really do.
You have to be okay with working with other people. You can make so much happen by yourself, but when you’re in a band and when you have band mates, you have to be patient with each other, you have to work together. As a whole, you have to be persistent in delivering your message. You don’t always make quick jumps. A lot of times, being in a band takes time to get from one level to the next. Be happy. Understand that what you’re doing is much better than what a lot of people get to do with their lives. You get to play music. You get to be an artist. You can be creative. You get to see new places. But know what you’re signing up for.
Then, from a musical perspective, I think one of the best pieces of advice that I ever received was to play through your mistakes. Don’t stop. Anything can happen. I performed at [Passaic] this past year and the tracks stopped working for one of my songs. If I had stopped when the track stopped, it would have been a big spectacle. That’s not good. Play through it. It’s always good to acknowledge that afterwards and say, you know what, there’s a great lesson for you guys. Play through your mistakes.
And most of the time, when you do play through it, when you do play through your mistakes, most people don’t even notice it happened, except for you. So the trick is to learn how to play through your mistakes, make another mistake to hide that first mistake. And if it’s two mistakes in a row, then it’s not really a mistake. You meant to do it. That’s kind of the idea.
Lastly, just in life, I think it’s very important to be honest with yourself. Like I said, I teach a lot, and I’m happy when my student comes to me and say, “I just sat down and I played the groove that we worked on, and I nailed it.” But I’d also be happy if a student came to me and said, “You know what? I had a realization. Drumming isn’t for me. I’m really passionate about swimming,” or passionate about being a lawyer. I would be stoked for them, because they’re being true to themselves. That’s very hard to do.
The last thing, I say this all the time, it’s a Shakespeare quote that I try to apply to my life and I try to instill in my students or anybody who is a little bit weary is, “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.” Which basically means don’t let your doubts rule your life. Everybody has doubts. If you feel passionate about something, go. If you don’t do it, then your doubts are winning, and what good could come out of not trying. That’s the idea.