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Raising the alarm - why the remarkable Mike Peters is more than just a musician
Martin Neal meets The Alarm's frontman who's also a charity champion, cancer survivor and much, much more
WHEN Mike Peters speaks, you know he’s going to be worth listening to.
Passionate, honest, articulate and driven, you couldn’t wish for a better person to be stuck in a lift with for a couple of hours.
Our conversation took place not in a lift but on the phone – me in my office in Chelmsford and Mike in his North Wales home, fresh from playing his first and most recent albums back to back for a select audience to celebrate National Album Day.
Some will know him as the frontman of cowboy punks The Alarm who, with improbably tall spiky hair, had a string of hits in the 1980s.
But as a cancer survivor, husband of a cancer survivor, tireless charity worker and assiduous recording artist who still tours on both sides of the Atlantic regularly with the current, more modestly coiffured, incarnation of The Alarm, he has plenty to bring to the table,
“I played Declaration, the first Alarm album (released in 1984), and Equals (released in June), our latest album, back to back,” explained Mike of the National Album Day event at Liverpool’s Parr Street Studios last week.
“It was a really interesting event for me because I asked the audience to be silent throughout the event.
“Normally everyone is singling along at full voice and that changes the whole dynamics of it. So it was a rare opportunity to play a silent gig and be able to hear the acoustics of each song. You could hear a pin drop.
“It was also interesting to hear the songs played in that sequence because they don’t get played in that sequence usually.
“To feel that live, you can feel that the DNA of this band in the early albums is still there in the modern day, and the songs on the latest album sound as good as the songs on the first one.”
When The Alarm disbanded in 1991 you could have been forgiven for thinking that would be the last you’d heard of the band.
But with a renewed vigour and a new line-up, he revived The Alarm in 1999 and, using inspirational optimism as a weapon against whatever life chooses to throw at him, he’s still at it nearly 20 years later.
“I met Billy Duffy, who plays on a couple of tracks on Equals by the way, when he was out of The Cult and I was out of The Alarm,” recalled Mike.
“We put together a short-lived band called Coloursound. We also spent some time hiking in the mountains. There was no personal agenda and I learnt a lot from him about the guitarist’s role in a band and he learnt a lot from me as a singer.
“We played a gig in London and Eddie McDonald from The Alarm was in the audience and so was Ian Astbury from The Cult, and people were saying ‘why don’t you get The Alarm back together, why don’t you get The Cult back together?’
“Sometimes you have to hold up a mirror and say ‘I like that reflection. That is who I am’. As Gandhi said ‘sometimes you have to go away to come back stronger’.”
Equals is The Alarm’s 16th studio album (including all four that made up the Poppyfields bond) and what makes Mike prouder than anything in his career is that the early songs still stand up today.
“Those songs still have a lot of relevance, and that’s what we aspire to,” explained Mike. “I didn’t form a band to have hit singles, I did it because I wanted to write songs that resonated with people and I am proud that exists.”
The Alarm’s biggest hit was 1983’s 68 Guns, it’s rousing chorus “68 guns will never die, 68 guns our battle cry” typical of the passionate flame than burns so brightly in Mike Peters’ creative soul.
“I sing ‘never die’ when I sing 68 Guns,” said Mike. “When I walk past a building site people will shout ’68 Guns’ but there is a hidden depth inside our songs. It’s the aftermath that carries us into the future.”
The Alarm famously passed themselves off as a precocious young up-and-coming group of bright young things called The Poppyfields to have a hit with 45RPM after the press and radio stations decided The Alarm were too old to be worthy of any attention or airplay.
But since then they’ve gone on to attract a new, younger audience without even a hint of subterfuge. Three of their songs featured on tween Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why (“the next morning we had a 1.5 million new listeners on Spotify”) and they appeared on last year’s Vans Warped Tour in the US.
They’re back off to the States later this month before embarking on a winter UK tour (which begins at London’s ULU on November 28) while plans for The Gathering, the band’s annual festival of all things Alarm, its sister event Gathering NY across the Pond and a whole bunch of other stuff is already being planned for next year.
So it’s easy to forget that while his musical career continues at full pelt, after beating leukaemia three times he heads up the Live Hope Strength Foundation, which promotes innovative, music related, outreach and awareness programmes for leukaemia and cancer sufferers, survivors and their families, while wife Jules was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017.
“Being breast cancer, her treatment was more savage,” explained Mike. “It required radiotherapy, surgery and a change in body shape. It meant I was thrown into a carer role. They were filming us for a BBC documentary at the time and I thought I was coping well, but when I watched it I seemed to be in pieces every five minutes!
“I’m not one to bury my head in the sand and I thought ‘I’m going to negotiate these choppy waters’.
“I wrote a lot and when Jules said ‘how do you feel?’ I showed her what I’d written and she said ‘I think you’ve got your next album there’.
“I went into the recording studio and spread these pieces of paper all out on the floor and looked for the music in the words. Some of them were dark and some of them were defiant and optimistic.
“I’d usually head into the studio with a melody but this time I just had these words. There is a lot of feeling in the songs which might not have otherwise have been put into music if it hadn’t been for my experiences.”
Anyone who has ever been touched by cancer will understand how even if Mike hadn’t been the passionate, caring and determined man he is, he’d want to join the fight against fight against this insidious disease.
Typically Mike does it with gusto. As a precursor to the US tour, the band is leading a group of 50 fundraisers including Billy Duffy from The Cult and Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms on the start of a five-day trek through the Grand Canyon for Live Hope Strength.
The charity which raises funds for cancer treatment, promotes awareness and early detection, and advocates for bone marrow registration, also organises the annual Snowdon Rocks hike in Mike’s Native North Wales.