When ex-Holland guitarist Michael Angelo Batio joined forces with newly liberated Tuff vocalist Jim Gillette to form Nitro in 1988, few could have accurately predicted the impact the group would have on the then surging Hair and Glam Metal sub-genres. Issuing their full-length debut O.F.R. in 1989 and it's awkwardly-titled follow-up (Nitro II: H.W.D.W.S.) in 1992, the group would ultimately epitomize the oft-hedonistic, over-the-top excess of the MTV era. Officially embarking on a solo career in 1994, the resulting rapid-fire barrage of releases (most notably Hands Without Shadows, 2005 and Intermezzo, 2013) would firmly entrench the lightning-fast Batio as an innovative--if not outright groundbreaking--creative force not to be ignored. Now, twenty-six years (!) later, Batio finds himself the focal point of the shred revolution with the issuance of More Machine Than Man (2020).
Todd: In comparison to your previous recordings, how did More Machine Than Man come together? Am I correct in understanding bassist Victor Wooten and drummer Chris Adler weren't scheduled to be 'extra' players?
Michael: “It actually started off as a new Nitro Record. I was talking to (former) singer (Jim Gillette) about how we were going to do it. We had a lot of interest and I knew I could have put together a big tour and a lot of other things. ...Chris Adler is a fan of mine. He actually had a copy of Planet Gemini (1997), which is one of my early solo albums. We hit it off really well and then he goes 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could get Victor Wooten?', so we called him and he said 'That's amazing. I'm a fan of yours, Michael' and says he's been wanting to do a Metal project. That's how it started, but then my mother passed away and Chris got into an accident where it looked like he might not ever play again. ...He's back playing now, but in the meantime, all these months started to go by and Victor had a new Jazz record to do that was waiting in the pipeline to release. The whole Nitro thing just really didn't happen. I'm still close friends with the singer, but it's hard to go back and just stay. It's not like we ever argued about it, but it the moral of the story is I took all those songs. I had already written a lot of material for the project and had gotten whatever Chris played on before he got hurt and I was able to use some things from Victor and I put the rest of the record together myself. ...Rat Pak Records really liked it, so we released it.”
Todd: As a long-time fan of the group's music, the failure of the reunion is disappointing, but understandable. For the sake of posterity, are there any additional unreleased or incomplete 'materials' that might later be issued?
Michael: “We really only had one called “It Won't Die”. And that was what I wanted it to sound like. I know it came out different than we all thought it would be and I think that was the beginning of us saying 'Maybe we need to re-think this'. But I'm still close friends with the singer. He's like a family member and we never argue. Besides, he's a huge guy and I wouldn't want to argue with him anyway. (laughs) He has a black belt in Brazilian Jujitsu and he'd kill me in five seconds, literally. We just realized we can't go back. He's successful in real estate and now and sometimes when you go back, you realize you remember the good times of some things from the past. Nitro has, for whatever people said, is still remembered. In fact, I got a document in the mail a couple of days ago about licensing (of the song) “Freight Train” (from O.F.R.). A lot of people have used that song and it just lives on, so we thought about it and said 'Why not just keep it where it is and not do something new that's so radically different?' ...Sometimes you just can't go back. It's like a Friends reunion. The show was extremely successful and they could certainly bring it back because everybody's still there. ...With Nitro, it's not the same band and it's not in that same style. ...All the new music just really wasn't in the style of the old Nitro.”
Todd: Am I correct in noticing an increased emphasis on the rhythm guitar aspect on More Machine Than Man?
Michael: “One of the things that I am known for is being a really good rhythm guitarist. I have a really good sense of time and a good feel for the pocket. I wanted to showcase this because on my other solo albums, if you really take the time and listen to one after another, they're all very different. They all sound like me, but they're stylistically different and the approach to the Production is always different. For this one, I really wanted to showcase my Metal rhythm guitar playing because I'd never really done anything like that before. The rhythms are really intricate. I thought when I tried putting keys over them because I am also a keyboard player, that it would wash it out and you wouldn't be able hear it. Some people love it and some people don't. But I told the Mixing Engineer that I wanted it dry. I wanted the rhythm so that she could hear every single note. They're all so in your face. ...That's a great observation because you are right. I purposely didn't add a lot of layering and all the different Productions that I've done in the past because I wanted to showcase all the rhythm guitar so much.”
Todd: There was a noticeable difference between the amount solos on Intermezzo and More Machine Than Man. Was this a conscious decision made prior to the start of the writing and recording processes or was natural flow?
Michael: “There really were quite a few guests solos on Intermezzo. This one has a lot less and there's a good reason for it. What I've come to the conclusion over the years unless they're name players, I don't kind of want to deal with it because there's no benefit. Even if an unknown person is really good, they don't draw in people and so it doesn't draw in people at a solo show. ...Because I am the main songwriter, I made all the rhythms so intense. If it really would have been a full album of me, Victor, and Chris, I have a feeling there would've been a lot more open spaces for grooves that I soloed over. But in this case, that wasn't part of the equation, which made it easier for me to do. I've had so many guest stars over the years. I've had the cream of the crop play on my albums, but for this one, I really had something to say and I was the guy to say it. That's how I felt about it. I really wanted to limit the guest stars even though I could have gotten some really great players to play on it. If you notice, the songs are much shorter. Intermezzo was the most layered and detailed record I've ever done. I'm the most proud of it because there's so much going on. It is just so intricate and this was a one-eighty from that as far as Production is concerned. It's sparse, but the parts hold up. I really wanted to play most of it by myself.”
Todd: What made now an ideal time to transition a self-owned indie (i.e., M.A.C.E. Music) to Rat Pak Records?
Michael: “It seemed like the right time to make a change because physical CDs weren't selling like they once were. Plus, they offer these awesome bundles and I just love them. ...And everything has changed so drastically. The music industry has changed so drastically, but I still thought it was worth doing. I'd definitely do it again, but this album needed somebody to promote it and they especially needed to be fans of mine that know what I do. The intricacy in this music is that there's things flying in and out almost like it's being scored. It's like a symphony of guitars and really layered keyboards. ...There's a counterpoint between the bass guitar and a piano that's two-part writing like Bach, but it's not in a Baroque style. I don't need to sound Neo-Classical to do two-part writing, but with this album, the rhythms are so intricate they're almost like an exercise in themselves. And I really wanted to keep that. I wanted to get that word out that this is what I'm doing now. And now it's up to people to like it or not. ...I obviously have no control over it, but I'm really happy with the way it all turned out.”
Todd: I was initially surprised you'd chosen to release More Machine Than Man via an outside label. Am I correct in understanding that M.A.C.E. Music has essentially ceased to exist? Can we expect more in the future?
Michael: “My mom actually ran the M.A.C.E. brand. She was on the payroll. Who can you trust more than your own mom, ya know? ...My mom ran the company for a very, very long time. She was an office manager for a big petroleum company when she was younger, so she really knew what was going on. But when she started to get older and got sick, I realized had to start moving things to third party outside companies. I realized that this record really needed a label and I'd worked with (founder) Joe (O'Brien) and Rat Pak on a record called Shred Force 1: The Essential MAB (2015). He likes those wild titles, where I'm more into things like Lucid Intervals And Moments Of Clarity (2000). He likes to take a more light-hearted approach to it and I enjoy the cover art for More Machine Than Man. That was my idea for the cover, but I didn't know it was going to look like that. I just think it was important for me to do it with a record company this time. It will get a lot further, promotional-wise, in this day and age. If I still had my label, M.A.C.E., I'd know what to do, I'd know how to promote it and I could have done a really good job, but I don't have that same level of support when that I don't have my label.”
Todd: At this particular stage in your career, do you feel a relationship with a 'major' label is entirely necessary?
Michael: “I don't think so. I was signed to two major labels early in my career. Once with Atlantic Records (Holland) and once with Warner Brothers through Rampage Records (Nitro). It was like being in Major League Baseball or the NFL. ...But I I like Rat Pak records a lot and I like their owner. I would love to be able to do it again, but it would have to be the right situation. ...Right now on YouTube, people have been laying claims to the copyrights on my own songs. Other people are monetizing my music and it's really something because there's a blur between who holds the copyright and who is the publisher. It'll say 'This song is authored by Michael Angelo Batio, but then somebody else is making all the money. We're going down that road right now, so I don't know what the future is going to hold, but I know there's going to be a lot of music. ...And at this stage of my career, I've got a lot of different options available to me, knock on wood. I've never taken any of this for granted, however I'm also stupid crazy busy and there are a lot of different plays on the table right now.”
Todd: What are your current touring plans? I'm assuming you'll be out on the road as much as humanly possible.
Michael: “I am going to be touring. As far as the United States is concerned, we're not sure how many shows we'll do. It's not going to be like the normal tours I did, but I was lucky before COVID-19 hit because I was able to play at least forty shows in January, February March before everything hit the fan. I'll be touring in Europe again later this year since Europe has pretty much opened back up now. And we're expecting a big tour, so I'm just grateful. ...I'm also going to be touring Europe with a three-piece band. The drummer and bass are really good, but they have to be really good to play this stuff. ...I do a lot of solo shows and the irony of this is that sometimes you get people that say 'Well, it's not with the band'. People want to hear me play guitar, and I am really good public speaker and funny, so when I play in the United States, I can use backing tracks. The thing is, we did really well on these tours, so it's going to be pretty easy to go back on the road. I should be able to tour pretty consistently given the size of the venues and the solo sets I'm going to playing. It's just going to be good.”
Todd: At this point, do you have any idea what type of set list you'll be working with? I would imagine it would be hard to assemble something that fully represents your career when you've got so much material to work with.
Michael: “From my solo albums, I'm actually going to be playing “More Machine Than Man” with Chris Adler on drums, so my fans are going to be able to hear Adler play. He actually did a series of parts where he played drums, they recorded him and then converted them all to MIDI files, so it's actually Chris playing the parts he'd actually recorded. The technology is there to do it and it's really cool. And people understand now that I'm not cheating on guitars. They're not hearing super fast pre-recorded pieces. ...When touring, I put the parts together and a lot of the playing is in the style of Chris, but it's difficult to find the right musicians because pretty much only the top caliber ones can really pull it off. It's also all about it making financial sense, too because they have to be named players so they can draw a lot more people. In Europe, there's a pretty well known drummer named Roberto Pirami. He's not very well-known over here, but he does a lot of really cool things. He's got enough of a name because he's done a lot of touring with a lot of named artists. He's one of the drummers on call for really good musicians to use when they go to tour with. He's based out of Rome and is a cool-looking, young, great guy that's super easy to work with, so if I give him my songs, I know he's going to have it. And that's not arrogance. I hope you don't think I'm arrogant (laughs). It's a business and it's what it takes to play all this stuff.”
Todd: How do you deal with the time restraints of a typical set list? Again, you have a lot of material to work with and not everyone attending one of your shows is going to be well-versed in the 'finer points' of your career.
Michael: “It can be hard because you do only have so much time. It's really only an hour, an hour and fifteen minutes or maybe an hour and a half. I pick some of the most well-known songs that I see getting played on Spotify along with some of the covers like “Tribute To Randy” (from Hands Without Shadows), which have become really popular. I know I'm definitely going to do that. And I also have a brand new double guitar, which is really incredible. It's a one up to my old one. And I'm going to do several songs from this new album. I know these songs are going to go over great live because I wrote them that way. I'm going to do the songs “Charlie Comes To Chicago”, which is my take on (The Charlie Daniels Band chestnut) “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”, “Dreamin' Of '86”, “More Machine Than Man” and “The Badlands”. And then I also might do a medley of some of my other songs. ...I am really good at writing arrangements for mashups, so I might do a mashup of some of my own stuff. Obviously, I know all the material, so it's not like I have to rehearse it too much. But it's a good question, ya know? It's a really good question because I'm going to do what I like to do, but I'm going to limit the cover songs and mostly play my own material. I'm going to try at least to get four from the new album and they're all of the shorter songs, so it means I can play more of the songs from my past.”
Todd: What led you to begin exclusively using Sawtooth guitars and amplifiers? That was a very 'major' change.
Michael: “The owner of my former company Dean (Guitars) died three years ago. ...I was really close to him. His son took over the company, but his son does not play guitar. In fact, he doesn't play music at all. He's not even into music that's created by a real person. He is so completely the opposite of his father and I know that he wasn't at all groomed to run the family business because his father was extremely healthy. This guy did Pilates, played tennis and could do fifty mile bike marathons. He was tall, lean and was in fantastic shape, but cancer does not discriminate. It just doesn't care. ...And it all happened so fast. With the former company, I used to get along with the father, but I just don't know this guy. The company is falling apart and everybody's leaving. It's just not happening. It's like the Titanic over there. I had several options, so as soon as the old owner died in the beginning of 2017, I was contacted by several major companies because they know what I can do as far as sales are concerned. ...I'd already built up a track record of loyalty because I don't company hop and I've been stable.”
More Machine Than Man (2020)
Soul In Sight (2016)
Shred Force 1: The Essential MAB (2015)
Backing Tracks (2010)
Hands Without Shadows 2 – Voices (2009)
2 X Again (2007)
Hands Without Shadows (2005)
Lucid Intervals And Moments Of Clarity Part 2 (2004)
Lucid Intervals And Moments Of Clarity (2000)
Gunnin' For Glory (1999)
Planet Gemini (1997)
Holiday Strings (1996)
No Boundaries (1995)
Nitro II: H.W.D.W.S. (1992)
Little Monsters (1985)
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