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MIKE PETERS OF THE ALARM TALKS NEW ALBUM ‘HURRICANE OF CHANGE’, FIGHTING CANCER, WEBCASTING AND MORE (INTERVIEW)
Mike Peters is the lead singer of The Alarm, a band that released its first EP in 1983 and its first full-length album, Declaration, in 1984. Throughout its history, the band has consistently landed on the UK singles chart. The band first toured the U.S. with a band you may have heard of: U2. However, there is far more to Mike Peters than just The Alarm. On the new album Hurricane of Change, he has re-arranged (for acoustic guitar) and re-recorded some classic songs of The Alarm and interspersed them with a sort of spoken-word epic tale. Think of it as musical literature without the paper cuts.
By phone, he discussed his new album, his fight against cancer, and his weekly webcast called Big Night In.
What was the impetus for the double album?
Historically, the albums (Eye of the Hurricane, Electric Folklore, and Change) were released around 30 years ago. It was coming up to that anniversary time. We reissued the albums in 2000, remastered, with sleeve notes, and gave all the background about the albums. I thought, what more could I add to the story? There’s not a lot to be added after all that. I felt interested in the parallels between then and now. At the time, massive changes were happening in the world. The Berlin Wall was coming down. Here in Wales where I live, the old government was being put forward as a way of having more say in your day-to-day life in the outer regions of Britain. There was a lot of optimism in the air in the writing of those original records. Thirty years later, I thought “Here we are now.” We’ve almost come full circle. It’s a different kind of Europe. Brexit was the dominant force of all the headlines. There was a new kind of presidency in America. What would those songs be like if they were just written today? They address issues, and they’re still relevant. That was where I began.
I thought, I’ll eventually go on tour and play these songs in an acoustic format. I stripped the songs down to the bare bones and re-arranged them as modern songs – as if I’d just written them this week. I thought how am I going to put this all together and make sense of it? It’s about 40 songs. So I went back to the original lyrics, the origination of where it all began. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the first song written was “A New South Wales”, written in 1986. It was the last song to be released. It came out in 1990. I thought, that’s interesting. Then I thought, “Let me start there.” I read the lyrics. It’s about a character. It’s the end of an era. He’s walking home alone past a church in the morning. I thought “Well, where’s he going?” I looked through the lyrics, and he’s going to a town called Newtown Jericho. Once we started that, we went from one place to the next. A story started to reveal itself to me – quite an autobiographical story. I realized how difficult the album was to make in the original era. We’d gone through quite a time. We were all changing, growing up, going in different directions as a band. I was still trying to piece it all together, charging and leading from the front like I had in previous years. I felt quite distracted making the record, maybe not as focused as I should have been or could have been. Seeing it again in a new light, I had a greater realization of the value of what we created back then, and tried to understand it a bit more. I felt like taking it out on the road, re-recording it, and shining another light on the songs. I wanted to understand the records from the 80s from a new perspective. Across time, the three pieces of work can now live beside each other and inform each other, and I can take it out on the road in the context that it doesn’t sound like it’s a retro tour. We live in a time that we can’t go back to, but it brings the past into line with the future. It shows how relevant the songs written 30 years ago are to the time we live in today.
Why was it important to weave the spoken-word aspect of the album?
When we toured in ‘87, it was the Electric Folklore tour in the UK. It brought us all together again after this burst we had. We’re just releasing a companion album to Electric Folklore, which we released in 1988. It’s called Celtic Folklore. It’s coming out on Record Store Day in September. It makes the 1988 release a double album. You can hear a little intro on this new record. You can hear a little bit of Dylan Thomas’s voice at the start of the record. Dylan Thomas wrote throughout his whole life. I’ve always loved his spoken-word record Under Milk Wood. When I started putting the songs together on this new record to reveal another layer in the music, I started to see there was a story coming out. I thought, I’ll write it because that will help me communicate how I feel these songs ebb and flow, it follows the arc of the storyline. Once I’d written the story, I thought I could read this between the songs. It will be a really great mix of some of the influences our art is built on: Dylan Thomas, spoken word, and Welsh poetry. It will help take the music into another context altogether the likes of which we haven’t experimented with in our long history.
It ends up feeling like a sort of musical audiobook.
That’s one way of looking at it. I always thought of it as being more of a radio play with music tracks to it. I was trying to create it so I could play it on my own as a one-man show – like theater if you like. When I came out to tour, I wasn’t quite sure how it would be received. I went on stage and I started with the dialog. I didn’t say anything to them. I just started speaking, “It was a new day.” Off I went into the dialog. I stayed in character to be able to speak between the songs all the way through the whole performance. It wasn’t until we got to the third act with the encore that we took requests. Everyone went mad, standing up and cheering. I realized that I created something that is quite the opposite of a typical Alarm show where everyone sings every single word from the moment the gig starts until it closes. Here I was coming on almost not as Mike Peters, but another person and the era I’d come from. I was speaking in a voice they weren’t used to. They actually sat and listened. There was silence until I reached certain endings when there was polite applause. Then it would get quiet again to listen to the dialog and experience the music. I found it an incredible gift to play music in silence and know the room is actually listening to the chords you’re strumming, to the words your singing, to the sense you’re trying to convey. It created a really beautiful atmosphere. I found that when I spoke to fans after the show, everyone was transfixed by it. It opened up a new chapter for all of us to be able to experience The Alarm’s music in a way that we’d never been able to before.
That has to be refreshing knowing that the audience is listening as opposed to everyone having their own conversation while the band plays.
With us it’s all people that really know the lyrics. This is a really great experience for everyone. It’s very refreshing. Sometimes people are looking at the movement rather than the music. I think this show really focused on the music. One thing I’m really proud of is how solid our records were. Everything was built on the cornerstone of just playing the acoustic guitar. The truth of The Alarm exists. The recordings are the arrangements of the songs we’ve written. The songs themselves is in the nakedness of the acoustic guitar. That’s really what The Alarm is built on for all of its existence.
When did you start the Love Hope Strength Foundation?
In 2007. I’d been diagnosed with leukemia a second time. I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 1995. In 2005, almost 10 years later, I was diagnosed for a second time. When I came out I met a guy called James Chippendale in Dallas at South By Southwest. He was a leukemia survivor. I realized how different our healthcare systems were after talking to him. We both talked about how we could harness the power of our music. James is in the music industry rather than a musician. Since he represents both sides of the stage, so to speak, we could create something that could make a difference. We were willing to host concerts around the world to raise for people less fortunate than us to have access to the same kind of treatments that kept James alive and gave me a second chance at life. We did gigs at wild places like Everest and Kilimanjaro, Wales, and Colorado. We did a concert in the Grand Canyon two years ago. We went to Iceland last year. We’ve got a trek planned in the Sahara Desert later this year. I’ve spoken at World Cancer Congresses, places I never thought I’d go to in my rock and roll life. Last year I was presented with an MBE from Prince Charles and The Queen at Buckingham Palace in recognition of what we’ve done. We’ve raised millions of pounds for National Health Services in Wales and other camps around the world at the same time.
You set up the registration at your shows for people to donate bone marrow. What does it mean to you that so many matches have been found through that program?
It means a shot in the arm for people who love music. It turns these events into life-saving concerts, and not just The Alarm gigs. We’ve done them with all kinds of artists and all the musical walks of life out there. We’ve registered more than 250,000 people to the bone marrow donor registry. We’ve found more than four and a half thousand life-saving matches in that time. It’s a lot of challenges to it as we develop the program. We’re doing it more and more as online registration services. How the pandemic is going to effect our ability to do donor drives at music venues in the future is all under review at the moment. Cancer isn’t going away, so we’re still going to find ways to combat the disease and tell people that we come into contact with to give them love, hope, and strength to face their own experiences and come to the other side with a second chance at life.
What is the most important thing people need to know about donating bone marrow?
Most importantly is that it’s painless now. It’s an outpatient procedure. There’s still a lot of misconceptions of a bone-marrow transplant donor. For the donor, the whole dynamic has changed now. At first if you sign up online, you can be sent a swab kit in the post so you can do your cheek swab, and they will add your name to the registry. If you match someone who needs your immune system to live, in most cases now, it’s just an outpatient blood donation type of process. It’s very simple and effective. We need more people than ever before. Everybody who needs a bone-marrow transplant or a stem-cell transplant, there’s a match, but there’s not enough people on the registry. The more people join the registry, the more people like me with leukemia can get that second chance at life.
Tell me about the Big Night In.
It’s really off the cuff. We were supposed to be doing a show in Manchester on the night the lockdown began in Britain. We decided to go online and have an evening with our families. It was a Saturday night concert. We decided to create a fake television show if you like, where we could play music videos, and stream some videos from the album that no one had seen. And I could play some songs at home, and we could just hang out with all the families. We got something like 60,000 people on that very first night. We’ve gone from there. Now we get 250,000 views. People are coming in from all over the planet. It’s become a show where we bring on people as guests that have been a part of our history, like Bruce Watson from Big Country or guys in Spandau Ballet. We’ve had the original lineup of The Alarm come on. It’s great how it wraps around our social media presence. It’s given us a shot as The Alarm to know that our fans are still out there rooting for us and come to our shows. We knew that when the lockdown came, everyone’s going to be coming to see The Alarm play. We can’t wait to go out and play for them. That whole thing came together, and we made a a hole show about our music and the relationship that binds us all together. For 28 years now, we’ve run an event in Wales called The Gathering, bringing our fans together from all over the world to our hometown to experience the music we’ve created. We can share stories with them, talk with them, walk on the beach with them. It’s really bonded us, and the band, and the fans together because it’s a very unique situation. The Gathering has spilled into the Big Night In. Every weekend it’s people sharing comments, saying hello to each other talking about gigs they’ve been to. It’s a great forum. One of the lucky things is I have an intensive archive of all things Alarm in a little scrapbook I’ve kept. There’s lots to delve into and share with people.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
That’s a big question. Quite interesting really. Before music I was into computers. That was 1974-75. Then in 1976, I saw The Sex Pistols live. It shook me to the core. It made me give up the computer keyboard for a guitar. I seem to be on the computer most of the time these days, editing films. Everything comes full circle. I do like being on the computer. I like being creative in that environment.
Hurricane of Change will be available everywhere on June 12. A new episode of Big Night In airs every Saturday on YouTube. If you want to register to donate bone marrow, visit https://www.dkms.org/en.