August Burns Red 2020

Guardians of the Galaxy

"I hope it encourages you to look around and see the massive needs in the world today. Step in and reach out. Assist those who really can’t do what needs to be done for themselves. There’s so much reward in that." Nao Lewandowski talks to August Burns Red drummer Matt Greiner about the band's eighth studio album and how to find fulfillment in creativity and selflessness.


The world feels uncertain, and when the music industry is put on hold and when people need to connect to their humanity more than ever, the artists’ role ground us. Musicians we’ve depended on anchor us to our inner self and to each other. Even before a global pandemic stopped the world from spinning, we would turn to the music when we couldn’t go at it alone – and it is by what you might call divine providence that August Burns Red’s latest album, Guardians, was released at the pandemic’s genesis to serve that very purpose.

Guardians is a timely cry for humanity, compassion, vulnerability, and perspective. Between the band’s collective talent, the seamless meshing of individual characters, meticulously written lyrics, undeniable purpose, and hard-hitting edge, the entire work is a full breath that bolsters the belief that for those who are weary from the battle, it is the guardians who remind them of life, who choose to love at a cost, and who choose to protect when it’s undoubtedly easier to stand by.

This piece is a companion to our interview with August Burns Red vocalist Jake Luhrs on mental health, HeartSupport, and how to stay grounded when every day looks exactly like the last which you can read here on HM.

Matt Greiner, drummer and songwriter for the band, addresses the songs – and music as a whole – at the most granular level, and you can’t help but admire his respect for his own guardians: the family that has stood by him over the years; the bandmates who have become family; the musicians in his history who paved the way for their band’s ability to speak freely the fans that guide their path. In the midst of the music, there’s a sense of true gratitude and responsibility to use the gift he’s been given in ABR, a quality that is easy to fake and easier to sniff out.

As ABR’s eighth full-length album, Guardians is a humble reflection of their past and a ready nod to their future, and, as is true of the seven albums before it, it is packed with a timely dose of hope for a world smothered in fear and the same magnanimous musical artistry that reinforces their place of respect in the inner circle of modern metal.

This record is a heavy hitter, which will be no surprise to anyone, I’m sure. If you didn’t play metal, what do you think you’d play?
If I didn’t play drums in a metal band, I would play for my church, and I would play a variety of different genres but just for fun. The reason I love metal is because I love the challenge – it’s the hardest I’ve ever heard. The reason I’m still playing drums today is because of ABR. I don’t think I’d be playing at this capacity without this being my job.

Do you think there’s a song that encompasses the album best? I know that’s a really unfair question.
That’s a really good question and a totally legitimate question. I think the song “Defender” does, both musically and lyrically. Actually, when we come up with a name of a record, we always struggle. Song titles aren’t as hard, but naming an album is really important, obviously, so it’s always a hard task to feel like you’ve completed well and you’ve done the entire album due diligence in naming it. What typically happens is – this happened with Thrill Seeker and it happened with Leveler – there will be a song written with a title that we all like and we’ll steal it and make it the album title. In this case, we really liked the title “Defender,” and we picked a synonym of “defender,” which is “Guardians.”

Guardians is really just this idea of someone protecting you and taking care of you. Someone in your court. And I wrote the song “Defender” about a difficult experience I had two years ago where I really needed someone to support me. Up until then, I had only ever realized love as something that’s a hug and a kiss. Something that’s warm. For the first time in my life, sitting down with my dad at one of the lowest moments of my life going through name defamation and people very critical of me, unable to defend myself – I saw my dad get mad for me, in my defense. So I wrote that song. And in it, you see the lyric, “Righteous wrath wrapped in empathy / like a hurricane passing over a calming sea / We all need someone to bend so we don’t break.”

This idea, in some way, really does blanket quite a few songs on the record. We need someone to stand up for us when we can’t stand up for ourselves, and subsequently, we need to stand up for other people. We need to reach out to other people when they’re in need. I wrote the song “Lighthouse,” which is also about that, and it’s pretty evident that it’s about the Good Samaritan. I actually researched that 17-mile road that the Good Samaritan was on, and it was very skinny. I wanted to look it up to see if it was at all possible that a religious leader could have been walking down that road and not seen the man in need. And actually, it would have been nearly impossible. The road was so skinny, it’s actually argued that he would have actually had to step over him. So the Good Samaritan becomes even greater because here’s someone who is willing to help someone in need and it usually costs you to help someone in need. It’s not just throwing money at them. It takes more than that.

So I would say “Defender” because lyrically, it accomplishes that, and musically, it’s us. It’s heavy. It’s not the most technical song, but it’s heavy. It’s safe – which is why we released it first – and it represents us pretty well.

Do you have a favorite moment on the record, personally? Something that translated exactly how you hoped it would, or better?
Yeah, I think “Defender” again. There’s a line in that song where Jake (Luhrs, vocalist) screams, “I would do anything to make it through / but it takes two / one is me and one is you.” And it was cool that that lyric was screamed over a part that wasn’t super techy and fast or mad. It’s more of an emotional part, musically, which really makes me happy. That part of the song, lyrically, is about my marriage coming to an end and how I would have done anything to make it through.

It’s hard to have a lot of control over where these lyrics go and how the songs are going to turn out. When we write the lyrics, we aren’t listening to music while writing them. It’s very much like writing a poem. You’re writing something that sounds good, that’s relatable and that tells a story, and then once a song requires lyrics, we look through everything we have and find the lyrics that fit the song. It just really clicked on that song that the words aligned with the music.

You mentioned “Lighthouse.” I loved how that song and the last song, “Three Fountains,” let the album breathe a little bit.
Yeah, me too.

But they’re super intense still – like you’re saying – super emotional and meaningful. Overall, dynamically, I was drawn to those more than any of the others, even the heavy stuff. Was there a strategy behind where you placed those breathing moments in the album, sonically or lyrically?
Absolutely. The four guys I’m in a band with are the four best people I could ever imagine being in a band with. In every facet of that statement, they are the best. Everyone is very intentional, business-minded, and hardworking.

When we go to layout a record, we go back and forth a lot in deciding what song should go where. We like to put the epic song at the end. In Thrill Seeker it was “Seventh Trumpet,” which is more drawn out. On Constellations, it was “Crusades,” which has this sort of triumphant ending. And on this record, it became pretty evident that “Three Fountains” was the right song to have at the end.

I was reading about Paul and when he was martyred, and when he was decapitated, his head bounced three times. It’s written, actually, that from those three bounces of his head, three fountains arose from the earth. The song is about something coming to an end and it feeling like it really, truly is the end of the world. But in all actuality – and in Paul’s case – his life had to come to an end in order for new and unparalleled things to begin. That is the meaning of that song.

The industry standard for the sound of a metal record is higher than it’s ever been. We couldn’t come out with an album that sounds like Thrill Seeker and impress anybody. That was 2005. It sounded pretty good at the time, but now there’s a higher standard.

That’s really interesting how that works with all the other themes.
Yeah, it’s funny because it’s the last song on the record, and it’s detailing that the end is not the end.

Did you all do anything differently this time in the writing or in the studio? I know you had more time in between tracking than you typically do.
Mhmm. Yeah, I think we did, actually. Everyone was more collaborative on this record. Everyone was more invested as a whole. And part of that is because we’ve never gotten along so well, at least not since the beginning. It’s hard to write a record together when you don’t like each other (laughs).

We all really like each other and respect each other and actually enjoy working together, so our mentality has always been: if you have the best idea for something – regardless if it’s the instrument you play – then go for it. But that only works if you’re really getting along well outside of the studio on a personal level. And because we are, that transcends and makes its way into the studio. Dustin (Davidson, bassist) can come up to me and say, “Dude, I don’t really like that drum part. Can you do this instead?” And I’m like, “Yeah! That sounds way better.” And then I’ll track it that way.

Everyone contributed and had more to offer on this record. And then I guess, subsequently, Dustin wrote more songs on the guitar, which is nice for JB (Brubaker, guitarist): He didn’t have to write as many songs. As you said, we tracked guitars back in the spring and then did our Constellations world tour and kind of recorded during breaks. It was a busy year, but we got it done.

Do you think every band should take their time like you did for at least one album?
You know, it seems like whenever you go into the studio, there’s never enough time (laughs). It also seems like every record takes us longer to record. A week longer – we were just talking about that. Thrill Seeker took us three and a half weeks and, since then, it seems like we keep adding on a week. There’s some logic to that. You want to do a better job than you did on the last record. You may have more of a budget. The industry standard for the sound of a metal record is higher than it’s ever been. We couldn’t come out with an album that sounds like Thrill Seeker and impress anybody. That was 2005. It sounded pretty good at the time, but now there’s a higher standard.

But do you know how you hear people say that if you have a small house, you’ll find a way to make it work, and if you have a big house, you’ll find a way to fill every room?
That’s the way time works in the studio. If you have two weeks, you’ll get the job done because you have to. If you have two months, you’ll somehow find a way to fill every day.

That’s so true. If you have all that access to the studio, I feel like it’s easy to never be completely satisfied with it; you can keep tweaking things if you have all that time. I wonder if that’s part of it, too. Just being musicians, always coming up with more and different things.
(Laughs) Absolutely.

What made you all decide to record at Think Loud Studios this time around?
Think Loud is a perfect studio – a multi-million dollar studio that’s about 45 minutes from us. We all live pretty close with the exception of Dustin. He lives about an hour away. We recorded a few records there, and the primary reason is because of Grant MacFarland and Carson Slovak. They’re the producer and engineer. There’s no one better than them, in my opinion. They just keep getting better. I really like the way they record metal bands, and it’s just so nice that they live and work so close to us.

It contrasts our experience with the first couple records we did, where we had to travel out of state, get hotel rooms or sleep on the studio floor. Those additional expenses come out of the recording budget, which isn’t beneficial to anyone, so the fact that we can go to the studio and drive home – especially with a few of the guys having families – it’s the only way to do it. Once we started to record locally, I don’t think we could go any other direction.

At this point, it’s a career that not only affects us but also affects a lot of other people who are depending on us to be successful.

You guys have done quite a few records, so in the studio, on the road, wherever, how do you guys go about embracing change while still staying true to your sound and your identity as a band?
I think in the same way that when we’re on tour and someone’s acting like a jerk, everyone else is going to say, “Dude, you’re acting like a jerk. Stop it.” When we write a record, you know if you’re writing a song that sounds different, you’re going to be told it sounds different. If it stinks, you’re going to be told that it stinks and it’s not going to make the cut. There’s this invisible accountability that’s upheld by our band as a whole. Everyone has a similar idea of what our sound is, even when that sound expands.

For instance, the song “Lighthouse” has some “singing” in a way – pitched shouting. There’s definitely a chorus theme in that song. When we started to do that kind of stuff, it was tough. Jake was a little more ambitious about it, and it’s frustrating when you have an idea and everyone else has a hard time seeing it the same way you do. But it really teaches you how to work together and respect each other and find a common theme that works for everybody.

We’ve somehow managed to do that with each record, and that does two things: One, we’re able to maintain our sound, because we’re not going to deviate too far; and two, because our standard is higher for ourselves than other peoples’ standards for us – in other words, we’re more critical of our music than other people are – we’re not just going to write the same record over and over again. It’s not easy. I mean, I remember back when we wrote Messengers and we were going to record Constellations, I was talking to a friend who plays drums in Between the Buried and Me and I was like, “Dude, I’m so nervous. I don’t know how to do this because I feel like there’s so much hype around this right now. How do you top that hype?”

We’ve been a band for so long, now that it feels like there’s maybe less pressure (laughs). Because our fans are so incredible and loyal, we can write a band record and there’s still going to be some loyal fans following along. In the beginning, you just don’t have that luxury because you’re trying to build that fan base. The problem is, if you write a bad record, it could be the end of your band, so there’s always that idea living in your head.

As long as we put out a record that we’re happy with and as long as we’re performing in a way that we know we’ve given it everything, we’re okay with what critics have to say. We know we left it all on the stage or all in the studio, and there’s nothing more we could have done.

Yeah. I was just thinking, the longer you’re in the scene as a veteran band, I imagine there’s a growing pressure to stand still and remain what fans come to expect while still having a fresh edge with each new record. An impossible balance, it seems. And I always thought that’s a really almost inhuman way to view a band – any band consists of people whose lives grow and change, just like their fans. Do you feel that pressure or that tension?
Yes, I think we probably feel that more than ever. At this point, it’s a career that not only affects us but also affects a lot of other people who are depending on us to be successful so that they keep money flowing in. In the beginning, it’s just the five of you. Now there’s booking agents, promoters, any variety of people in the industry working for this so the pressure just keeps compounding. Plus, some of the guys have families to support. There’s probably more pressure on one hand, and, on the other, I think because we get along so well as a band, we really trust each other to keep doing our best.

As long as we put out a record that we’re happy with and as long as we’re performing in a way that we know we’ve given it everything, we’re okay with what critics have to say. We know we left it all on the stage or all in the studio, and there’s nothing more we could have done.

I guess that’s what got you where you are in the first place.
It really is.

So with that, and with all of the collaborative stuff that comes with writing a new album, I’m sure you know that people view you as one of those drummers that has such a distinct sonic identity in the metal world. How do you go about putting your own identity on your parts, even if someone else helped write it or put it together?
That’s a great question. I have a lot of people to thank for where I am. There’s a drummer that no one’s ever heard of named Joe Walmer. He’s from here in PA. He was in a metal band, and I used to go to his house every Sunday and watch him play. When his band would leave, him and I would stay and talk. Because of him, I became interested in certain sounds and different nuances in metal drumming that I still, to this day, keep very close to my writing and creativity on the kit.

I would say, besides the people I have to thank for my style, the main ingredient is time. Putting in the work. For example, today, I ran the Killswitch Engage tour setlist twice all the way through – about two and a half to three hours. I don’t feel great about myself at the end of the day unless I’ve put in the time because I have so much to improve on and get better at.

It’s awesome that I get the chance to write drum parts that are too hard for me to play. And I get to work on them and challenge myself over the next year or two during the album cycle to perfect them. I don’t know where else it would have come from, but it being put in my DNA when I was born that drumming is just a part of who I am. When I sit at a kit, I have ideas, and, even though I can’t play them, I know how they should go. Or, when I hear someone playing, I might not be able to play it, but I know exactly what they’re playing and why they’re playing it.

My sound is a product of both that creativity and also putting in the work to push the bar higher and higher.

Is there an album that made all the difference to you as a musician?
Yeah. There’s a band called Extol. They were on Solid State Records and have an album called Undeceived. That album was instrumental in the way that I drum. Time signatures. Effects cymbals. Fills. Beats. It just lit me up when I heard that record for the first time.

The irony is, here we are, all these years later – that album would have been 2002 – 18 years ago, and I got an email last week from their drummer, David. We’ve become friends and I’ve seen them a few times while we’ve been in Sweden and Norway. He lives over in Scandinavia. And the email was like, “Hey Matt, hope you’re doing well. I have a new band and we’d love to support you guys on a tour if you have any openings in Europe.” I’m replying to this, you know, “Sorry, I don’t think we do, but your music sounds great…” And I just stop typing and think to myself, “Oh my gosh…” (Laughs) I can’t imagine telling my 20-year-old self that the drummer for this band would be writing to me, asking if there’s anything they can do to get on one of our tours.

It just goes to show that anything’s possible. Maybe not anything at the very highest levels, but if you want to play drums, you can sit down and put in the time and you’ll be able to play drums. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or any trade and it looks so overwhelmingly large and insurmountable, it’s really just a matter of taking it a day at a time. Those days turn into months and into years. If you’re consistently working toward it, you can actually achieve it.

Ten thousand hours, right?
Ten thousand hours. Which, of course, everybody knows. But if you add up the hours that you put into something, you’re always surprised at how far you have to go. I think I’m only around 6,000 or 7,000 hours. Ten thousand hours is an enormous amount of time, and yet, if you get even halfway there, you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve come at achieving what you set out to do in the first place.

What do you want fans to get out of this record?
I hope, one, that people enjoy listening to it, banging their head, hitting the steering wheel when they’re driving – hopefully not too hard that it’s a hazard on the road (laughs). I hope it’s a record that makes you want to come out and see us live and have a good time.

Also, and probably more importantly, number two, that it encourages you to look around and see the massive needs in the world today. Kids, young adults, adults, the elderly. Step in and reach out. Assist those who really can’t do what needs to be done for themselves. There’s so much reward in that, especially when it’s done in private, when it’s really done for that person and not for the sake of the reward you’ll get in return.

What piece of advice would you give any musician, any band, like, “You have to try this at least once?
I think, for me, what’s really worked is consistency. It’s consistency in the sense of you’re consistently working at your craft or your instrument. For yourself. Because you love it. That means you’re at home with the door closed. No one’s watching or listening. You’re not going to post it online. You’re playing for an hour and a half, you walk away sweating, knowing that you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. And then the next day, you’re right back at it.

If you can approach your band or your instrument with that sort of mentality – where it means something to you on a personal level when no one’s watching then when you’re out there on a stage playing for 500 people – regardless of the response or how much or little success you have, you walk away with a sense of satisfaction because you were happy with what you were doing when no one was watching. The fact that anyone is watching is a bonus.

And then, subsequently, most times will yield results that actually surprise you because you don’t have unrealistic expectations. You’re just happy to be doing it.

August Burns Red was posted on April 24, 2020 for HM Magazine and authored by .