Interview with Nitro guitarist and solo artist Michael Angelo Batio
INTERVIEW WITH NITRO GUITARIST AND SOLO ARTIST MICHAEL ANGELO BATIO
Date: June 13, 2020
Interviewer: Ruben Mosqueda
Photos: Christopher Carroll ROCK Photography (first, fourth, fifth and sixth photos)
Artist Website: Hands Without Shadows
Guitarist Michael Angelo Batio has made a name for himself as part of the ‘Metal Method’ guitar instruction series, as a guitar instructor and of course as the guitarist for Nitro. Batio just released his second album for Rat Pak Records, ‘More Machine Than Man’, the follow up to 2015s ‘Shred Force 1.’ Check out ‘Shred Force 1,’ and ‘More Machine Than Man’ and look into ‘No Boundaries,’ ‘Hands Without Shadows,’ and ‘Hands Without Shadows II.’
“I don’t want to talk too much about Nitro, because that was a long, long time ago. I’m more about now and the new record and the present,” Batio told Sleaze Roxx at the beginning or our conversation when asked about Nitro’s ‘over the top’ sound, look and execution. Oftentimes, musicians shy away from answering questions, because they don’t know the interviewer and they don’t know what the intentions are. For all they know, the person on the other end could be looking for a ‘gotcha’ moment. Anyway, as you will see Batio touched on Nitro, when he got the sense that the question was genuine and without any kind of malice. Check out the new record ‘More Machine Than Man,’ on Rat Pak Records. It’s fantastic and I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I enjoyed speaking with Batio.
Sleaze Roxx: You issued ‘Shred Force 1’ in 2015 on Rat Pak Records and that was a collection of the best of the best from the solo back catalog.
Michael Angelo Batio: This album has been billed as my 13th solo release, but it’s actually been my 15th! There have been a few other albums that I have done for other artists that I have worked and toured with overseas. Yeah, when we were putting that one together, the label owner Joe O’Brien was looking at the numbers and what the most popular songs were and what songs that he personally liked. Once we had the track listing, we added some bonus songs. I got Todd La Torre from Queensrÿche on there and some of the guys from Metal Church. I had something like two dozen guests on that album. That was so cool.
Sleaze Roxx: ‘Shred Force’ could be a series where you could do parts two and three. Was that ever considered?
Michael Angelo Batio: No, there were no serious discussions about it. I’m very busy, I’m always touring consistently. In fact, prior to Covid-19 hitting, I had already been touring January through early March of this year. So to answer your question, we hadn’t talked about it, because Joe wanted new material. I actually had the idea of doing two albums, one being heavier like what you hear on ‘More Machine Than Man,’ and one that was an acoustic album. Ultimately, we went with releasing the heavier album, so you have ‘More Machine Than Man.’
Sleaze Roxx: The songs on ‘More Machine Than Man,’ they’re all newly composed songs for this album?
Michael Angelo Batio: Oh, it’s all new. I started it at the end of 2017. It’s all new, though I have written new stuff since then. There’s a couple of riffs on the album from an album that I did called ‘Intermezzo’ that [drummer] Chris Adler and [producer] Josh Wilbur were fans of so we added them into one of the songs. I wrote 30-40 songs for this album. I picked the ones that fit together the best stylistically, except for the stuff that has acoustic guitar on it. This album was actually done in September of 2019, because of this Covid thing. It got pushed back close to three months. We initially wanted this released the first of the year, but we couldn’t.
Sleaze Roxx: You mentioned you wrote in the area of 30-40 songs for the album. You have a lot of stuff in the archives then?
Michael Angelo Batio: Not necessarily. If I’m writing for an album, I only have like a couple of ‘throwaways.’ It’s really rare that I ‘rehash’ it. I don’t get writer’s block. I’m always coming up with ideas. I come up with a concept and go with it, like with this album, I wanted a heavy album with a lot of great rhythm guitar. Chris is a ‘thrash’ metal drummer. He’s done great work with Megadeth and Lamb of God. Having said that, it is an instrumental album and the lead guitar rippin’ and yet very melodic in spots. With me, the demos that I record usually become the album.
Sleaze Roxx: I’m totally geeked to get my Rat Pak pre-order. I love what they do with all the bonus stuff they add and the various different bundles that they offer customers.
Michael Angelo Batio: I love it! They also have vinyl and they even pressed some cassettes! I love ‘tangible’ things. So much music these days is digital. It’s listenable. Nothing wrong with that but there’s just something about looking at the physical package. I love looking through the photos and the credits.
Sleaze Roxx: In terms of selecting ‘the’ song that launched the record, what was that process like? Ultimately, you went with “The Badlands,” which is a great tune.
Michael Angelo Batio: We didn’t know! We just picked one… Hindsight being 20/20, we could have picked something else. I think right now, we’re thinking we’ll probably wind up doing videos for most of them. I’m out in California a lot and all the companies that I work with are out in LA. We’ll probably pick another two-three and shoot videos for them.
Michael Angelo Batio‘s “The Badlands” video:
Sleaze Roxx: Rat Pak includes bonus cuts on all of the releases by their artists. On ‘More Machine Than Man’, the three bonus tracks I consider part of the album. They’re that good.
Michael Angelo Batio: I know! It’s a funny thing, when you think in terms of an album, you think of the continuity and flow of the album. Then you end the thing with a bang so to speak. I want the album to get out there and see what people say about what songs are their favorites. Then we’ll go back and film some more videos. One thing that I was conscious about was trying to keep the songs shorter and no more than four minutes or so, instead of the seven-eight minute epic songs. Don’t get me wrong, I love those, but I wanted to shorten things up for this album. Ironically, the two longer songs on this album are the two songs that Josh Wilbur arranged for me on this album.
Sleaze Roxx: People who listen to instrumental albums are a different breed than the average fan would you agree?
Michael Angelo Batio: Oh, absolutely! Gene Simmons said it best to me. He said “If you don’t know who you are, no one is going to know who you are.” This was back in the ’80s when I was still this [an] up and coming musician, well before Nitro. He said, “Your guitar playing is light years beyond the rest. I like your look, I like your style and I think you have everything that you need.” He went on to tell me that KISS was KISS before they had a deal. He was telling me that they had a good sense of self. I have a good sense of self and he saw that back then. I have worked with different singers, but when I do my instrumental albums, I try to make them different from my last one. Ultimately, I need to make it me. When I perform I do ‘master classes’ before the show and I’m grateful that I’m doing really, really well. This is working a lot better for me than touring, sitting on a bus and going on to the next show. I’ve already done that. I like this!
Sleaze Roxx: How much interest would you have if let’s say Rat Pak approached you about cutting an album with 10 tracks with different singers?
Michael Angelo Batio: Oh, yeah! Nitro was my second band. I was in a band before that called Holland. Both bands were signed, because the singers were great. They had something that the label liked and I wrote all of the music. So much stuff has changed in the industry since that time. I mean KNAC was ‘the’ station to listen to. I’m just glad that has carried on. A lot of things have changed, but I have to say that era was just so great. I’m open to a lot of things. It just has to be a really good project. I think the sky’s the limit. My skills are still very sharp and I’m in great shape. I’m looking forward to what’s ahead.
Sleaze Roxx: I’ll throw out some song titles and you tell me the backstory behind the song. What can you tell me about “The Badlands,” the song that has launched the album.
Michael Angelo Batio: I have done a lot of shows in the Montana [state] area. I know it’s a huge state but the place is called Glendive, Montana. They have the ‘badlands’ there. That’s some serious wilderness. It was a prehistoric ocean. It really does look like you’re on a different planet. That was the inspiration for that song and we filmed the video about 70 miles outside of LA. It was actually at an old abandoned mine. It was a very cool experience. We shot it in January of this year. It wasn’t super warm out either. People that have watched the video ask, “Michael, you don’t look like you’re sweating. You’re in the desert and you’re not sweating!” Well, it’s not always warm in the desert [laughs]! We filmed two videos that day, “The Badlands” and “More Machine Than Man.”
Sleaze Roxx: That’s a great lead in to that song, but first I was curious how much a video like “The Badlands” would have cost back in the ’80s?
Michael Angelo Batio: Oh, it wouldn’t have been uncommon for us to spend a million dollars on a music video. That’s an insane amount of money. I mean even when we were in Nitro, we had a budget of a couple hundred grand for our first video and the second was low-budget and it still cost us 50 grand.
I know when you asked me earlier about who made the call to make Nitro so ‘outrageous?’ It was the label. We actually started out much ‘tamer’ than that, so go figure? Jim [Gillette] was young when we got signed. He was 19. He could sing really high and he was really good looking. The label felt they had a selling point. If you listen to my playing in Holland, the band I was in before Nitro, I didn’t play like that. I didn’t alway play that fast, but I was capable of it. So the label took what we did and made it extreme. I will give you a quote from our label president when we were recording a song called “Shot Heard Around The World.” I had this really good ‘tasteful’ solo. We were in the studio and our label president Bob Cahill says, “ Angelo, I want you to overplay ALL the time! I thought you were fast? Make it fast [laughs]!” That’s what they wanted and that’s what we gave to them. We did it live too! We did a tour that went on for six months, with two-three month breaks. Jim never lost his voice. He was an athlete living out of a tour bus. He was in great shape and took care of himself even back then. All of those experiences have brought me to the present and I loved the ride and I love the ride I’m on now.
Sleaze Roxx: What’s the story behind “More Machine Than Man?”
Michael Angelo Batio: I had a lot of material written. I feel that I’m a major label composer. I’ve been signed twice [to a major label]. I’ve had songs in movies. I think I am a really good song arranger. It’s always come naturally to me and I’m good at it, even when I do medleys of other people’s music. They call that a ‘mash-up’ now. I’m just good at weaving in and out parts and putting in obscure parts in that only a fan of the band might know. On “More Machine Than Man”, I had all of these parts together. I had them arranged in a different way and Josh Wilbur came in. We were listening to these songs and he picked a couple of them. Chris [Adler] was supposed to play on more of the album, but he was in a terrible motorcycle accident. Chris’ accident was another of the reasons that delayed the album. Josh came into the studio with a laptop with every plug-in known to man. He rearranged it and actually sped it up! Not much, but the whole feel of the song was slower in its original incarnation. So he was playing the original song and he asked, “Can you speed this up? Can you play this fast?” So I’m playing it at a faster pace. We did it that way. He set the click track and then when Chris played his drums, he played along to that only with a scratch guitar that provided a guideline. Once he was doing [that], I went back and re-recorded my guitar. I’m really happy with that song. It’s got this ‘stop-start’ thing to it and I love Chris’ drumming on that.
Michael Angelo Batio‘s”More Machine Than Man” video:
Sleaze Roxx: Sounds like you’d love to work with Chris some more?
Michael Angelo Batio: You know I’d like to. I don’t need to do one thing. I think if a really great band opportunity came up, once this Covid thing clears, I’d definitely look into it. I’ve also got vehicles to tour behind this album in place. I’m set to start on July 31st in Milwaukee [Wisconsin]. It’s not as many gigs as I typically have because of Covid, but I’m going to be out the entire month of September, October, November through December 18th, if everything goes according to plan.
Sleaze Roxx: Another favorite of mine is “Dreaming of 1986.”
Michael Angelo Batio: Thank you. I used to live in Woodland Hills and I also lived in the Wilshire District, in LA. When I lived in the Wilshire District, I would bring my guitar to Griffith Park and would play my acoustic there all the time. When I lived in Woodland Hills, we’d go to a place in the foothills of Topanga Canyon. I was in my studio. It was like three in the morning and I played this riff that reminded me of that time sitting up in Topanga Canyon, in the foothills, playing acoustic guitar. I wrote that one on the fly. I had some of the ideas that I was jamming away at and that’s the song.
Sleaze Roxx: What’s the story behind “AVTD?”
Michael Angelo Batio: Yeah, I love that! We have Victor Wooten playing bass guitar on that one. Another thing that happened that also delayed the album, of course Chris was hurt, then Victor released a jazz record that he went out and toured behind. My mother passed away, Covid, all of these things… I had all these tracks done, then Victor was on the road. He had this really cool bass solo and we used it. I asked him if we could use that on the song. We actually built the song around the bass solo. I really love that song. It’s groovin’ and it’s my oldest riff and then the “Audio…video…” vocal part is just so catchy. Then at the end, the closing riff and the vocal part is “Batio…Batio…” I love that.
Sleaze Roxx: That can become your theme song.
Michael Angelo Batio: I think so [laughs]! I want to shoot a video for that. My videographer has some ideas for that one. While “AVTD” is a departure from the rest of the album, it’s catchy and I think if that gets heard, it will connect with a totally new audience.
Sleaze Roxx: I’ll skip over to one of the bonus tracks, which is a familiar song featured here as “Charlie Went Down To Chicago.”
Michael Angelo Batio: That’s “The Devil Went Down To Georgia!”
Sleaze Roxx: Yeah, but how did that get on the album? Like you said, you’ve paid tribute to artists via your covers and medleys. I was actually listening to your “EVH” medley earlier today.
Michael Angelo Batio: Oh, “EVH.” That’s fun, isn’t it? You can blame Chris Adler for “Devil.” When a guy of Chris Adler’s stature says something, you have to listen. So I took the idea and put a different arrangement to it. If you listen to the part where the devil is about to duel, I added an even more sinister sound to it. Aside from the main riff there’s not a lot that has to do with the original version of that song. I did a ‘tongue in cheek’ thing where I added Chicago, instead of Georgia because I’m from Chicago. It was Chris, but I like some of these off the wall ideas that he gets, because they work [laughs]! I was like this is ‘Mr. Thrash’ saying this? Is this the guy from Lamb of God? He’s brilliant! I wasn’t going to release it, but the more I listened back to it, the more brilliant I thought it was and I loved my playing on it. That was a six-seven minute song that we edited out these extra parts that I didn’t think had a lot to do with the song.
Michael Angelo Batio‘s “EVH” guitar play through video:
Sleaze Roxx: You’re part of the ‘Metal Method’ family and it wasn’t that long ago that we spoke with Doug Marks. He’s a super nice guy, I felt for him at the time we spoke. He was in the middle of a fire zone and was afraid that he’d have to evacuate. He lost power when we were on the phone. How much does Michael Angelo Batio practice to keep his skills on point?
Michael Angelo Batio: Marks is a great guy. He’s in the Simi Valley area. I remember him going through that. Excellent question. This [is] another good question. I’ve been really busy. My livelihood isn’t dependent on touring like a lot of guitarists, because I have this educational background. In fact, when I was in Nitro, our manager once said to me, “Hey man, don’t tell anybody you have a degree man! That could be bad bro [laughs]!” So, he didn’t want me to let anyone know that I was educated and an education doesn’t make someone any smarter. There’s people that are good at education and some are good at life. Well, I think there’s people that are good at both!
What I do to practice… I’m a loyal person, I don’t like to switch companies, if I don’t have to. I like to think that business is people first. Doug and I are like brothers. I have done so much for ‘Metal Method’ in the past. We’re doing great business right now, because we have a great product. I practice what I preach, so anyone I teach something, I do myself. It’s not a do as I say, not as I do type of thing. I have an online clinic next Thursday. I will do half acoustic and half electric. I do the Mark Tremonti approach when he does shows. He and I are good friends. He woodsheds the songs in the set and he plays them over and over again. The other thing I do is a 20-30 minute warm up before the show or clinic. It’s a quick warm up because I have found if you warm up too quickly, you’ll play your best stuff before you hit the stage.
Right now with the Coronavirus, I might be so busy doing something else that I might not practice, but then there’s days when I have the time, I might practice eight, nine, ten, up to 12 hours sometimes. I have found that I have to practice for a reason, like working on records, upcoming shows, relearning material… Like I will be doing songs on the new album so I will have to study those and practice. That’s a great question, because if you don’t practice for the right reason, that’s how you could wind-up hurting yourself. I was reading something on hand injuries. I’ve never had one, but one thing that I have learned over the years is when not to play.
Sleaze Roxx: You were just talking about going back to relearn some of the stuff you’ve recorded. When’s the last time you went back and relearned a song and you had trouble figuring out what you did on it?
Michael Angelo Batio: That’s a very good question. Ritchie Kotzen says every time he releases a new record and he prepares to go on tour, he has to relearn all of the songs [laughs]! I have written so much music over the years, there’s so much to relearn. On the new album, I focused a lot on the rhythm guitar. I switched guitar companies and they’re coming out with the seven string guitars right now. I played a lot of seven string on this album. I just try to relearn some of what I did. If I played it once, I can play it again. It comes to me. It’s like refreshing my memory.
Sleaze Roxx: Whether or not the winter NAMM show happens in 2021, what’s your stance in terms of do you show up or not due to risk of Covid-19?
Michael Angelo Batio: I’m not a political person. I make a point to not talk about politics and religion. I feel that is it overblown? Yes. In that same regard, is it a concern? Yes. My take is that I have no control over it. I’ve toured 58 countries. I’m a friend of China. I’ve been there 15 times. Three years ago, I was in Beijing and the air pollution was horrific. You can picture the smoggiest day in the valley… That would have been clean air compared to Beijing! I picked up these super heavy duty 3M masks and I only used a couple of them while there. I’ve got those and I have been using them. Interesting you brought this up because we have even been talking about how we’d handle meet and greets if these shows happen in 2020. I think I’m just going to go with it, because you can’t be afraid to live. I have learned about Covid-19 because my ex-fiance is a doctor and I have offered Skype lessons to a doctor that has treated people with Covid. Anyway there’s a 99.99% of survival if you don’t have any pre-existing conditions and if you’re healthy [laughs]! I think I’ll take my chances. I live alone. I don’t leave the house and when I do, I wear a mask. When I’m told I don’t need to wear a mask, I’ll stop wearing the mask. So that’s my take. I’m kind of worried and I’m kinda of not worried. I’m down the middle. Sure I’m older but I don’t have any health issues and I take care of myself.
Sleaze Roxx: What’s the strangest place that you’re written a song and what song was it?
Michael Angelo Batio: [Pause] You know one of the reasons that I don’t get writer’s block is because there’s so many ways to write a song. I’ll tell you one of the wildest ones and I will answer your Nitro question.* Jim Gillette was a prolific songwriter like me and so was the singer in the band Holland. When you’re around with really creative people like them or like Chris Adler and my producer Josh Wilbur, things just seem to move along. I have learned to pace myself and can work as fast as the people that I’m working with. When we were working on the second Nitro record, the first one was successful and the label loved us. We would write and write. We have over 30 songs for the second album. We lost our key man at the label and on the second album, we didn’t have the level of support that we had on the first album. So these people had all of these accolades from the success of Nitro and other things that they had done at the time, so our support moved on to another major label.
Jim had this song called “Crazy Love” so what he did was that he sang it into his answering machine. He was staying with some friends in Texas or something. So he called me and he sang into his answering machine! So I’m like “Shoot Jim! How am I supposed to play this? So I was like call me back and sing what you did into my answering machine!” So what he did is he took his recording and put it up to his phone and it was recorded into my answering machine and it sounded like a third or fourth generation analog recording [laughs]! I wrote the music to it by listening to that demo! Even though it was all muffled, it turned out to be a really cool song. That’s probably the weirdest way that I have written a song, it turned out great and we kept it on the record.
* [Interviewer’s note: Batio is referring to the first question he was asked if Nitro was asked by the label to tone down the sound?]
Michael Angelo Batio: I want to answer your Nitro question. Listen, I love my past. I embrace my past, but you asked a great question about us ‘toning it down.’ This was the mindset of the label at the time in 1988 when we started working on our first album. “O.F.R.” came out in January of 1989. We were actually paid to stay in the studio. They were paying for our apartment. They loved us. Jim was driven. I was older than him but I was right there with him. We had a young band but the core was Jim and I. We were hanging out with people like Allan Holdworth and people like that. We even had Donny Osmond in the studio if you can believe that. It felt like we were the wonder kids in town. Even Gene Simmons wanted to sign us to Simmons Records at one point.
The first version of “Freight Train”, I had my guitar making this train sound. It sounded really cool. I used to write out all of my solos, which is one thing I learned from my time in California. The thing I loved about L.A., the most at that time was that it was the ‘music mecca’ of the world. I remember going to Chicago to visit my parents and I remember I looked like an alien compared to what I looked like before I left for LA. So to answer your question, the label took us to the extreme. They wanted it higher. They wanted it faster. They even made the record sound sonically abrasive. The mid-range was taken out of our sound and it ruined my rhythm guitar sound. All you hear on the album [is] kick drum and high end. They wanted it “sonically abrasive to piss off parents.” It was all geared at pissing off the PMRC, so it was in a sense, a marketing campaign.
The label wanted people to either love us or hate us and it worked. They told us that if we did what they said, we’d ship 100,000 copies and they’d give tour support and we did everything they said [laughs]! And it worked [laughs]! The amazing thing is that we were very capable of doing what we did on the album live. We used a click track and were able to pull it all off. I was amazed that I was able to do the solos exactly how you heard them on the album because I had them written all out. Even to this day when I do stuff from the record, it’s still close to what you hear on the record. So the label didn’t tell us to tone it down, it was the complete opposite. They wanted us to ramp it up, speed it up and be more outrageous. Everything was calculated from the look, the sound, everything about the band.
Nitro‘s “Freight Train” video: