The Alarm: 'It’s A Very Fulfilling Time To Make A Record'

Mike Peters is a survivor in more than just one sense of the word. Since the early 1980s, he and his bandmates in The Alarm have managed to ride the tide of New Wave, Hair Metal, Grunge, and everything in between. For a band that was often compared to the likes of U2, The Alarm never quite obtained the notoriety or financial success that accompanied Bono. That being said, Peters and The Alarm have once again resurfaced with a fresh, more punk-oriented sound that is reminiscent at times of another 1980’s stronghold, The Clash.

Still making music after 30 years is in itself a feat, but Peters had a burden that most musicians don’t usually have to endure. After going into remission from lymphoma in the mid-1990s, Peters was once again diagnosed in 2006 with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. It was that diagnosis that inspired many of the songs on The Alarm’s latest release Guerilla Tactics. Peters found writing the album a personal, yet cathartic process, and thanks to ongoing treatments that keep his cancer in check, he’s excited to share his latest work with Alarm devotees and newer fans this summer.

UG: I’ve read that your previous album Under Attack was an extremely personal one. Because Guerilla Tactics was written during an even more strenuous time during your life, what was your mindset going into making the album?

Mike: With Under Attack, much of it was made before I realized I was unwell. Whereas this one was more in response to trying to get healthy again. It documents the recovery process really. When I play the songs, they’re quite personal to me. I felt a bit uneasy about sharing the songs with all my friends. I decided to do it anonymously at first. I actually got a couple of younger guys to come in and play in my rehearsal space with me. I would be, “I’m going to start playing this song in E. You’ve never heard it before, but join in and start playing along.” That gave me a lot of confidence. It worked out really well, and I recorded the sessions.

That was how I presented it to The Alarm today. They were songs that I had been playing with these kids. The band loved it and went, “Oh, that’s amazing!” It was great for all of us because I think we were all able to come up with music from quite different perspectives than we had previously done.

How are you feeling at this time?

Oh, I’m great! Really good. I still have treatments every few months to maintain the position that I’m in, and hopefully that will be how it will be and I’ll live my life out as a normal person. You never know. The ultimate cure might come along. I’m really optimistic that my situation will remain how it is. I’ve got great confidence.

That’s truly fantastic news. I know a lot of fans, both from earlier days and the newer ones, will be eager to hear you perform the new record live.

Absolutely, yeah.

The new album has more of an energetic, punk sound to it. I know you often play the acoustic, but did you write any of the new tracks on an electric?

I wrote a lot of them on the acoustic, but there are quite a lot of songs that I wrote in my rehearsal space. I’d have an idea and I would go in and plug in to complete the idea. We actually recorded over 50 songs to create the basis of Guerilla Tactics. I felt that the majority of the songs were really high energy that sort of summed up the situations and scenarios that I found myself in during the last few years. I thought it was good to make a record that had a high impact statement to it, to communicate to our fans in a real fast way what the songs were about in 2 ½ minutes. I thought it was important to make a statement that was very direct. It’s quite a departure from the way we’ve done it in the past. This record felt like it was the right one to make at this point.

Is it true that Gilby Clarke mixed the record?

Yeah, that’s right. We recorded it in Wales, and then we took the songs to California and mixed them with Gilby Clarke, who was in Guns N’ Roses. He’s someone I met over the years. Gilby has always mentioned how big of an Alarm fan he was. When I called him to see if we could use his studio he said, “Yeah, you can. But I’m mixing!” We admired his tenacity to want to do it. I thought, “Yeah, he’s a big fan. He gets his music and understands it.” He did a great job for us and was great to work with. He brought a lot of enthusiasm and was able to maintain the excitement that I thought was in the record from the word go.

The album does sound like it could come from a young, up-and-coming band.

Yeah, there’s that. There’s not that many groups from our era that are still playing. I thought it was important that we still try to maintain our relevance and vitality that we believe we have. It’s kind of all an adventure in life. It didn’t stop in the 80s when we all got blown out of the water by Nirvana and Grunge. We continued and went underground for a while. We used all of the innovations of the Internet and communication skills that go with that. For a band like The Alarm that is reconnecting with their audience – posting things on the Internet, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook and all that stuff – it’s like putting your band together, putting your posters around London. It’s the same means, and that is driven by the belief in the music. I really believe we’re making songs and Alarm music that was good as it ever was. You engage in that way with your audience.

Speaking of YouTube, there are some amazing videos of you doing a basically unplanned, unplugged performance at The Irish Pub in Atlantic City after another gig was canceled. That was truly an up-close-and-personal performance for the fans!

I guess it’s not a secret anymore! I think there were problems in the venue in Atlantic City, and they closed a lot of shows as well in the aftermath of our show. So the place got shut down and I thought, “Well, as good as the Internet is, it’s still not going to be able to communicate to all those people that were fans and were coming down from Boston. People from the local end read about the show and then arrive that night to buy a ticket to get in. They’re not going to get an email.

I thought, “Well, let’s all go up there and find a venue to play in and see what we can do to ease the disappointment for those who waited a long time to see The Alarm.” I went up to put posters up by the venue, The Irish Pub on the boardwalk there in Atlantic City. They were amazingly accommodating and it was an incredible night. It probably turned out better than the normal show would be at the House of Blues!

There were a lot fans that knew all the songs. We only had a tiny little PA in the club. I did one song on that and realized it wasn’t loud enough for that amount of people. So I went in and sang amongst the tables. The audience joined in and sang every word with me! It was a fantastic night and very memorable!

Was the entire performance acoustic?

Oh, yeah. We couldn’t find a space that would accommodate the band. So it was like a mariachi band!

Do you have one specific acoustic that you prefer to use onstage?

I use a Gibson J-200. I’ve got two of them, and I use those mainly. I used to use Takamines in the 80’s, but I’ve gone for more traditional-looking rock and roll guitars of late and for most of this decade. Gibson recently made a J-200 for me. It was a 6-string guitar, but with a 12-string width neck. My first guitar was a 12-string with 6 on it. I’ve always gone for the wider neck. I’m quite a heavy hitter with the right hand! I like the extra space. It allows the vibrations to have a little bit more space when you hammer the strings.

During the 1980s I recall seeing you play an acoustic for the majority of your shows. More recently I’ve noticed that you tend to favor the electric.

Yes. When Dave Sharp joined The Alarm, he mainly used a Gibson Les Paul in the 80s. Then he started using a combination of Telecasters with humbuckers put in, or he used a 1972 Strat. I think that James thought there was power lacking in some of the songs, that the Strat might be a bit too clean. He thought The Alarm should be played on a Les Paul more so than a Strat. I think he’s right. It’s a much more complimentary sound.

There’s a classic sound combination of the Les Paul and the Telecaster. I play the Telecaster, and that has sort of a rhythm element that suits my playing. That and the Les Paul just makes a better live band now than we were in the 80s. I think we’ve been able to update the sound and learn from what we did. I think it makes it relevant without losing what we had in the 80s.

It’s what we always aspired to do in the 80s. Dave would get frustrated with the acoustic. He always felt the clarity kicks back. That led him more into a Strat, making the sound of The Alarm that we have now. It’s a band that is a lot harder than they were back in the day.

You’ve been able to perform in a variety of places over the last few decades. Can you recall one or two moments that were particularly memorable?

In October I went to perform at the highest concert in the world at 90,000 feet. I was at Mount Everest, and that will always stay with me. It was the ultimate means of communication via guitar. I was able to backpack my guitar up there. On the event I had an Epiphone model that Gibson made for us that had an Everest Rocks logo on the body. It was the ultimate communication. It was captured live and went all around the world on the Internet. I think it’s ultimately what you want as a musician.

Tell us a little about the Love Hope Strength Foundation that you founded.

It was done in the aftermath of my treatment. I felt compelled to give back to the health care system that gave me my life back. I started the Love Hope Strength Foundation to support cancer victims around the world that aren’t as fortunate as we are here in the West. We have different health care systems in Britain and America, but it works. People do get healed every day. There are other places in the world that don’t have that, so we’re doing more concerts around the world that can help spread the message to support people outside of our own culture that need help more than we do.

How has the tour with the English Beat and The Fixx been going?

It’s been fantastic. We’ve been having some great concerts, really great crowds. I’ve really enjoyed it. There’s been a lot of reconnecting going on, but also there are a lot of young people who are finding out about the music on the online communities that are out there.

Do you love the fact that music is so easily accessible now via the Internet?

Absolutely. The fans have a big part in spreading that message. You can hear music through social networking, and it’s an exciting time. I think the playing field is a lot more level than it ever was. I enjoyed in the 80s when we were younger. We had a voice and were be able to be heard around the world. In the 90s, we lost that. So the Internet has helped us regain that means of communication with our audience. It’s a very fulfilling time to make a record, and now people can hear it, download it, and experience the music.

Interview by Amy Kelly