MIKE BOTELLO: Is This The Last Hurrah?
If you've been paying attention, you'll know that Mike Botello (frontman for the '80s prog metal band Awake) has been working on what could possibly be his last metal album. The album, Indigenous, is finally finished and should release in January. We caught up with Mike to get the skinny on what's been going on with him the last couple of years as he put this masterpiece together.
What first got you into music?
I have always had an interest in music from as far back as I can remember. By the time I was able to hold something, I was making beats and rhythms. My father was a professional musician; very active in my early years. I remember being very young, standing with my mother, or her holding me, while I watched my father perform from back stage looking off from the side of the stage. At that time, my father was heavily affiliated with the Austin music scene, playing large events, opening up for artists like Sonny and Cher, Willie Nelson and many Latin artists. My father is a sax player and during the 50's through the 70's, horns were a big deal, and my father was primed for the job. He was very much in demand as he played with many groups and artists.
As time went on, I became very intrigued with the entire scene – the lights, the stage, the crowds, all the attention. It was great, being so young and exposed to behind-the-scenes and everything that made a gig, or show, I immediately took to the drums because, drumming was so very natural for me from as early as I can remember. I didn't wake up one day and decided that I wanted to play the drums, I already knew I could play. So, as early as 5 years of age, I was playing with the drummers my father played with and sitting in for segments at a time during rehearsals. This eventually led to me playing live and in front of an audience. I don't remember where I played live for the first time, but I do remember being extremely nervous and my mother was coaching and consoling me. So, around age 5, or so, I experienced what it was like to be the center of attention; and because I was so young, everyone marveled at me. I'm not so sure if that was a good thing, or not...
Give us a brief history of your musical career.
I would say my career started, professionally, around age 10. Some of the groups my father was affiliated with began asking if I could play with them. Now, to my amazement, my parents actually agreed and I began playing a couple of gigs here and there. I would get paid anything from $40 to $100 bucks a gig. Not bad for a tween (laughs). This went on for a few summers. I was young, so, I couldn't be full-time. By the time I was around 11 or 13, I was asked to play at the Silver Bird Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, NV. Now, this was, totally, a "right place at the right time" moment (laughs).
During this time, garage bands were huge and not all of them were good. (laughs) This is when I met my older brothers' childhood acquaintance Robert Moreno, a.k.a. Rob Battalion, drummer for Awake. I was an 11-year-old kid riding my bike around the neighborhood when I heard off to the distance, a band playing 'The Spirit of Radio' off Permanent Waves by Rush. You see, by this time, Moving Pictures was released and the whole Neil Peart saga had begun for me; so, to hear this coming from a garage caught my attention. This led to me forming my first group by age 14. We called ourselves Revelation. Eventually, this led me into the Austin metal scene, which, landed me my first “showcase” experience with a local band called Assalant, fronted by lead vocalist Mike Soliz. Assalant - it’s misspelled intentionally – recorded a demo with Jason McMaster – (of Watch Tower and Dangerous Toys – which eventually led us to Mike Soliz – lead vocalist for Austin-based prog metal band Militia. From there, this led me to forming a band where my heart truly was; this band was called Awake.
How did you come to Jesus?
When I was in Jr. High School, I had an English teacher who took an interest in me, and she began to mentor me. This English teacher led me to Christ. I was so lost and confused, as most adolescent children are. From not knowing; to, all of a sudden, I was on fire for the Lord! Thus, the reason I named my first band Revelation. Of course, growing up in a non-Christian environment led me back into the world after Jr. High, but, the Lord definitely had His hand on me because, I truly went to the extreme after my first experience with the Lord. After all this, coming to the Lord at age 14, getting involved in the local heavy metal scene – a polarity – you could say there was some “Spiritual Warfare” occurring… (laughs)
Long story short, I lost everything. My parents had divorced, we lost my childhood home. I was, literally, living in a storage shed and lo and behold, Jesus came to visit me... It wasn’t long after this I formed Awake, my first “true” Christian band. Awake also proved to be the most productive band I had been in; releasing my first album titled Spiritual Warfare.
Tell me more about your conversion experience. How did Jesus visit you? One-on-one? How physical or mystical was it? What did you think? How hesitant were you to “throw in” and join the King?
Well, after losing everything, my friends, my parents divorcing, my home, I found myself alone one Saturday night, in a small apartment my father had provided for me temporarily, trying to figure out what I was going to do. I really was clueless. I had graduated from high school a few months back and I was trying to figure how I was going to overcome everything that had just happened to me. Not too long after this moment is when I wrote the song "Only the Strong Survive."
The only person I was acquainted with at the time, was an older guy by the name of Jesse Villegas. Jesse had been playing with one of my childhood friends; in a band that never really made it out of the garage. At first, we had become friends and, due to the fact that my childhood buddy decided to join the Navy, that left Jesse without anyone to jam with. I know this sounds rather depressing. Despite everything that had happened to me, I was determined to make it no matter what!
As time went on, Jesse began to witness to me. This was the guy who played with the mighty Militia, the local heavy metal band that grew to be very popular – them, along with another local group called Watch Tower. I never expected Jesse, of all people, to be a Christian, but he was and thank the Lord for that. This leads us back to being alone in my apartment one Saturday night.
I was sitting alone on the floor. I was, let’s just say, broken. I couldn’t bare it any longer. The witnessing Jesse was doing brought me back to when I was 14 years old getting baptized at Allendale Baptist church in North Austin, reminiscing and pondering of that time and everything my English teacher, Ms. Martinez, had told me. I really believed and gave my heart to Jesus then, and my childhood buddy that I referred to earlier, was with me at the time. We both received the Lord together.
The TV was on flickering in the background with no channel tuned in, just white static. Then, out of nowhere, a preacher by the name of R.W. Schambach came on the screen! He just popped on after nothing but white fuzz was on the screen; and this so happened to be the preacher Jesse had told me about – This ‘old school’ preacher came on the screen and was shouting, “Are you alone? Have all your friends abandoned you? Does your bank account show double zero? JESUS IS YOUR ANSWER!!!" At that moment I collapsed and Jesus touched me! There was no physical appearance of the sort, but I knew He was there and, my tears of sorrow, was like taking an ‘Alka-Seltzer’ after having really bad indigestion. Relief. Ahhh! (laughs). Yes, in all seriousness, the Lord had come to comfort me and to let me know that everything was going to be alright…
How did you grow in Christ? What were your next several steps? How did that go?
After this experience, I knew the Lord had called Jesse and I together. I shared this with Jesse, his mother prayed over us and we were off to the races. Jesse began working with me and we were on our way to recording my first ‘solo’ demo project. I no longer had a band that I was playing with, so I decided to become a solo artist. As we began working together, my relationship with Jesse grew strong. We grew together and for the first time in my life, I truly began walking with the Lord.
Ruby was your girlfriend in high school, right? She was your girlfriend BC (before Christ). How did you lead her to Christ? How did that go?
Ruby and I went to school together since the 6th grade, but we never knew each other. We shared a lot of the same friends, but we never crossed paths. It wasn’t until I was coming to the end of my demo project that this occurred. I was temporarily, staying with a friend whose girlfriend was friends with a friend of Ruby – as I was moving from place to place because I literally was homeless. I remember waking up and stumbling into the kitchen one Saturday morning, when I saw my friend’s girlfriend with two of her friends. This is when we met for the first time. You could say I wasn’t at my best, but we connected. After this, Ruby had asked my friend’s girlfriend about me and she said, “You don’t want to have anything to do with that guy,” and her other friend agreed! (laughs) Needless to say, neither of us reached out to each other after that incident; until about, a few months later, we crossed paths again. This time it was through a mutual friend. Long story short, we hooked up and we started dating. As we were dating, I began to witness to Ruby and the rest was history. Thirty years later, we have 3 children and 1 grandchild together…
You formed Awake shortly after your conversion. How did you recruit the other guys? Tell me about Jesse and Rob.
The previous question explains how Jesse and I met. I knew Rob growing up. Rob was close to my older brother’s age; they were in marching band together and I would always hear Rob, down the street, practicing. I knew he was good just by hearing him. When Jesse and I recorded my demo, I was doing everything except for lead guitar. I knew I couldn’t just find any drummer to do what we were doing.
I was hanging out one night, at the Back Room, a rock club in Austin, and it was there that I ran into Rob. When we recognized each other, we began to talk and he was telling me about a band he was playing with that had a female vocalist. I knew Rob would be perfect for what we were doing, but selling Rob … I knew would be a challenge. Rob had a lot of pride, and rightfully so, the dude was good! After a few back and fourths, I finally got Rob to agree to, ‘just’ come jam with us. When the band he was playing with found out he was doing this, they got upset with him and Rob decided to play with us, something along those lines anyway (laughs).
What were the early days of Awake like? Tell me about your career with Awake (list highlights, challenges, etc.)
Once Rob came into the scene, we needed a bass player, and so the saga continues. We went through bass player after bass player after bass player after bass player. You get the picture. During all this, we managed to get accepted into the 2nd SXSW showcase in 1989. We found a bass player just in time and we were ready for the debut of “Botello." Well, the showcase was a disaster. The bass player we had was a guy from New York with a serious ‘New York’ attitude. He and the sound guy had it out and, let’s just say, we didn’t have any record label interest afterwards. After all this, it was back to the drawing board.
The three of us realized that it was ‘us’ and it was going to be just ‘us,’ but we still needed a bass player. Hmmm... After trying to figure out ways to play without a bassist, I woke up one day and decided that I was going to take on the role of the bass. Since I wasn’t going to be ‘a front man who just sings,’ we decided to ‘band' together and become a group; Thus, Awake was formed. During all this, my demo was seriously being considered by a South Texas independent label in the ‘Latin’ genre, wanting to expand to the ‘English’ speaking market.
What happened next? How/why did Awake dissolve? Where did music take you next?
In the fall of '89 we began the process of recording our first album. We were playing shows at the local rock club, The Back Room and managed to open up for a few road acts. In 1990, we released our first and only album as a group, Spiritual Warfare. Prior to the release when we became a ‘band,’ things began to change. I seemed to have lost the original vision I had and felt like I was losing control of what I was called to do. I found myself in the role of ‘compromise’ and it seemed I was going one direction and Jesse and Rob were going another; Actually, we were each going in our own direction. The fact that we were a “Christian Band” and the pressures that came with it, seemed to divide us and allowed us to lose sight of what we were trying to accomplish. When I got engaged to my wife, this is when it really began to shift.
During the mastering phase of the album, the Lord spoke to me and began to challenge me. “You cannot serve two masters,” the Lord would tell me. It came down to a very serious choice between the Lord and the ‘idol’ known as ‘music’. So, I decided to take a ‘sabbatical’ – a ‘recharge’ if you will. I never intended for ‘Awake’ to permanently dissolve, but when I decided to do this, Rob Battalion, evidently, saw this as permanent and had no plans of ever reuniting. It’s sad in a way because, the album had gained much momentum. We were getting letters from people all over the world, and even to this day, Spiritual Warfare remains my biggest selling album to date; and, to think we never toured, or promoted this album with a live act. I can only imagine what it would have been like had we kept it going; probably for the worse, because we definitely would have been out of the Lord’s will, had I not listened to Him.
Let’s deviate for a minute. What are your musical influences? How influential was the band Rush? Why? What about them intrigued you? What other bands were big in influencing you artistically?
Oh my, yes. Rush! This band touched me at a very young age. In the beginning, when I started to play drums along to my records in my room at my parents’ home, I was playing along to bands like Kiss, Queen, Heart, Chicago, AC-DC, The Scorpions and then came Phil Collins and Genesis. Then, came Rush! This changed my perspective completely! Nobody was doing what Rush was doing! After hearing and learning Rush, I realized there was no other band like them. They were so high on the scale of awesome, that I wanted to be like them.
There is no other rock band that has influenced me like Rush. To be honest, most “Rock” bands were not really that good. Of course, there was Iron Maiden, but not even them, as great as they are, enters the sole realm of greatness known as RUSH! I knew and believed, that if you wanted to be respected as a musician, you needed to go above and beyond the mainstream – coming from a musician’s perspective that is and not from the average music lover. Gene Simmons of Kiss, said it best, “What kind of a band is Rush? It’s RUSH!” You just cannot compare them to anyone else. I don’t go to concerts, but I have been to at least 1 to 12 shows of every tour they’ve had since Signals in 1982, up to their last tour, R-40, in 2015; totaling to at least, 75 plus shows since 1982. I haven’t counted, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I have been to 100 shows. No other band is worthy… 😊
My other musical influences would have to fall in the category of Jazz/Fusion. I’m really into Chic Corea, Bela Fleck and The Flecktones. Victor Wooten, Steve Smith and Vital Information, and Michael Brecker, just to name a few. I find myself listening to this more than anything these days. I am truly into the ‘art’ and ‘craftiness’ of music; total skill and creativity…
If you haven’t done so already in previous questions, tell us about moving to Nashville, attempting to make something bigger with your music. How’d that go? Tell us about your friendships there and your ongoing friendships.
Yes. I moved to Nashville in 1999. Since the end of Awake in '92, I had decided to focus on being a husband and raising a family. I hadn’t really done much musically during this time. I was doing some studio work and was a ‘hired gun’ for the group my father was working with, along with several others. This, after all, was what the Lord had told me to do… My oldest son was born in ’93, then came my second son in '97.
By this time, I had developed a fairly successful lawn care business; and, as the years went by, I felt like I was losing time. My good friend and, semi business partner, Philip Owens, had done some things with a band known as One Bad Pig. We worked together regularly and he would tell me about the things happening with him. I was really happy for him and their success. I began to wonder if I was ever going to do anything. It was at this point I remembered, that a mutual friend of ours had moved to Nashville around the time my oldest son was born. Most of my ‘circle of musical acquaintances’ were connected to “the music city” in one way, shape, or form; and I knew, that if I was going to become something ‘somewhat’ significant, it wasn’t going to happen in Austin.
After deciding to move to Nashville in '99, I met the most important musician in my career. He was a young lad fresh out of high school (sound familiar?) who was clueless and trying to find himself. He was a young guitarist by the name of Jason Barrett. Since we’ve met, Jason has been a very pivotal and an extremely important part of my music career and musical direction/influence. We now have a total of 7 albums combined together; along with a few demo projects and several live gigs. We were busy boys from 1999 – 2006! This was definitely a positive shift 'musically' for me. I was away from the ‘dreaded’ Texas heat of never-ending summers, arid dry landscapes and I actually got to experience what it was like to live in an environment that actually had a ‘real’ winter! I have never been fond of the hot weather in Texas (laughs). To this day, Jason and I still work together, as he is in more of a 'management/executive' role and promotion for me. I really couldn't have done it without him, not at this level, at least...
Tell us about all your albums. Describe each one, where it fits in your canon of music. How you feel about each one, stories while making it, etc.
My first was Awake – Spiritual Warfare. the second was my first debut ‘solo’ release, A Timeless State. This album, I would say, is the one album that is closest to ‘left field’ in genre, compared to the others. This one is more acoustic-based borderline folk, and, you can definitely hear the “Nashville” influence on this one; a good album nonetheless, just not what you would necessarily, expect from me.
My third album is The Rule of Law. This one leans more towards my heavier influence, as I wanted to return to my ‘foundation’ of hard rock. This was a fun one; you can hear how both Jason and I had developed and grew together as musicians and in production. I seemed to be getting back to who I was as an artist. Jason and I both have fond memories doing this one; and the many winter days and nights with snow falling looking out the window as we were recording. Kind of reminiscent of RUSH Moving Pictures in ‘Le Studio’ with the snow in the back ground. ("Tom Sawyer" and "Red Barchetta" music videos)
My fourth album is A Botello Christmas. This one includes my father and my brother, both on the saxophone. (This one is not a ‘ROCK’ album by any means. My father and my brother are ‘Jazz/Latin and Contemporary players) I wanted them to experience what I had in Nashville, and I was able to have them come to Nashville and record an album together. All my albums, except Spiritual Warfare were recorded in Nashville. This would had never of happened had I remained in Austin. Nor would I have met Jason Barrett. Definitely a true highlight in my musical career.
Tell us about this new one. How are you making it? What is influencing it (musically – and lyrically)?
Yes. The new album will be called Indigenous. I would say, that this is the most powerful album I have ever done. When I say ‘powerful,’ I mean not just in musical style, this includes the subject matter, ‘spiritually’ and, this has been the most difficult and the most amount of time it took in making it. This album was very ‘pain staking’ in the process. Yes, we had our ‘fun’ moments, but for the most part, it was a very ‘lonely’ album. Personally, many trials and ‘tribulations’ took place when I moved back to Texas in '06. I had allowed myself to ‘fall off track,’ if you will. Thus, the ‘heaviness’ in nature. It truly took an ‘intervention’ of the Lord to get me to where I am today. I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to record again after moving back to Texas.
I began writing this album shortly before moving back to Texas. The preliminary stages were done in Nashville, but the rest was done in my home studio in Texas. At the time of its inception, I was dealing with some heavy personal issues. My close childhood friend, which I referred to back when I was talking about how I met Jesse Villegas, had committed suicide, my mother was dealing with an illness that took her life in 2013 and I lost Jesse Villegas in 2016. This led me to question many of the things I was doing and why I should continue doing them.
I received a vision, along with several dreams, revealing the current state of affairs – both personally and at a national and global level. Let’s just say, I was given a deeper sense of what is to come, which came with a warning. “Now is the time to prepare and get right with the Lord. It is time for the church to wake up, repent and stop being lukewarm.” The Laodicean Church age from Revelation, Chapter 3:19. I created a story, a parable of sorts, piecing everything together as it was revealed to me, only not in a direct manner, but fictional in character. I have always been intrigued with ‘end time’ ministry and the book of Revelation, along with the prophets of the bible and now, the book of Enoch. Let’s just say I have been ‘enlightened.’
With this came what is now quoted at the end of this album; a ‘completion’ if you will, of a chapter, linking all the album titles together that has been created through me. (This quote was divinely given to me. This is not something I made up.)
Here it is: “Time is but a measure, the beginning and the end, a context of life; A “Spiritual Warfare” that is bound to “A Timeless State,” never governed by “The Rule of Law,” ever focused on the “Indigenous” inhabitants of the earth, the spiritual battle ground; Time is for Mankind…”
You mentioned that this might be it for you. This is your last hoorah. Why? What are your thoughts on that?
Well, it is definitely the end of a chapter. The style, or genre of music that is to come? I don’t know. I just know that what started 30 years ago has now come to an end. I do plan to make another album with my father and my brother; It’ll be a jazz/fusion album and after that, a possible ‘worship’ album with hints of the hard rocker in me. I just know that I will not make another album in the style of the previous, at least, not in that direct style ‘end of the age’ subject matter. Indigenous was a difficult album; it took a lot out of me. I just know I’m ready to take it easy for a while. Whatever the Lord has in store is what I will do; Not my will, but Thy will be done...
Anything else you want to share?
Thank you for being you and a big thank you to Heaven’s Metal Magazine! HM was pivotal in launching my career 30 years ago; and, for that I am grateful…