UCR Interview- Mike Peters of The Alarm
Interview by: Kevin Rolfe
If you were to write a screenplay using only actual events from the life of Mike Peters, a Hollywood exec would turn it down and say that it was too unbelievable. The man has had an amazing career with his band The Alarm, fought through the challenges of an aging band in a youth driven music industry, and most importantly, overcome cancer three times. Mike has co-founded the Love Hope Strength Foundation, the worlds leading rock and roll cancer foundation. They host bone marrow screening drives at concerts across the world hoping to “Save Lives, once concert at a time!”. Along with Jules, his wife/ bandmate and fellow cancer survivor, Mike joins forces with Robin Wilson of Gin Blossoms, and Billy Duffy of The Cult to climb to some of the highest peaks in the world to perform the world’s highest concerts on land. They are now taking their treks to the great canyons of the world. This past week they took part in Love Hope Strength Foundation’s Rock The Canyons fundraising event where they hiked through Sedona’s Red Rock State Park, along the famous Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail then continuing to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. I was able to catch up with Mike just after this event. We speak about his adventure in Southern Utah, and he shares many career spanning stories. Enjoy!
Utah Concert Review: From the looks of it, you’re just finishing up with a week of Rock the Canyons.
Mike Peters: That’s right. It was an amazing experience. I was down in Southern Utah. It was absolutely incredible. We’ve been doing concerts at the tops of mountains, and now we wanted to bring it to America. I’ve been wanting to go to this part of the country ever since the first time we came to America in ‘83. We played in Salt Lake City at our 2nd ever show in the states. We opened for U2. Utah has always been such a beautiful part of the world with the salt flats and the contrast of the canyons and Zions and then getting into the Grand Canyon in Arizona. It was a beautiful place to go to remember people that we’ve lost to the cancer disease, and also to do something interesting that could catch people’s imaginations and help us raise funds for our charitable ends and save lives one concert at a time through our bone marrow registry campaign throughout gigs and festivals throughout the US and UK.
UCR: I’d imagine being down in an area like that, with such a beautiful landscape, it helps to take away some of the noise, not only of city life but of what they’re going through in regards to their battle with cancer. It’s got to be a peaceful experience.
MP: It focuses people on a different element of the music that they know. I had Billy Duffy of The Cult beside me, and Robin Wilson of Gin Blossoms as well as other members of The Alarm. And to have each play their music in that environment with a small group of people, it can get really deep and emotional. Especially when people have made a massive effort to get into the heart of the particular canyon we were at. And to hear music in those surroundings, it’s not going to happen every day. The music takes on another sort of magnificence in those surroundings that are completely different than what you get in a rock concert environment with lights flashing and the audience is jumping around. You play music in absolute silence, and the lyrics make a massive connection to people who already have a huge connection to that music if you’re a fan of The Alarm. Then you trek down into the canyon and you’ve given your all to get there and you hear “Walk Forever By My Side” in the silence of a dried up river bed surrounded by Bryce Canyon it’s really powerful. Tears are shed and emotions are brought to the surface that are often buried down which is our natural way of living. We try to be stoic about the situation we find ourselves. Sometimes hearing the music in those situations is like a release valve where they can really let their feelings out. So it’s created some absolutely beautiful moments and that’s why we keep going back to these places, always looking for those unique moments that you’ll never have again. They’re once in a lifetime and they’re so special. You have to be there to experience it, and that’s why we’re seeing more and more people wanting to come on our treks to have those intimate experiences that are precious.
UCR: I’m just picturing that experience and it sounds incredible. Thank you for sharing that.
MP: You’ll have to come with us next time, Kevin.
UCR: I would love that! Now, this is the understatement of the year, but you’ve taken on so many challenges in your life. You’re a three time cancer survivor. You’ve faced adversity in your personal life. You’ve faced adversity in your career. But you’ve taken all of those head on, and you’ve persevered, pushed through, even thrived. How have you stayed positive and how have you continued to push forward? What would you tell people who might be going through their own adversity whether it be health, career, or in their personal life?
MP: I think it’s just to stay alive. It’s that simple. I think it’s just to stay alive in the moment. You know life is always going to present challenges. No one has a perfect life and walks through the corridors of the months and years without facing adversity. And to get to the best in life, you sometimes have to face up to the worst. The challenges that I’ve had to face have shown me how life awards perseverance and positivity. So we’re always going to be tested. And I think sometimes we think we live a year where everything is going great and then something comes on, you just have to accept that that’s going to happen. The boat is going to tip over in the water, there’s always going to be a wave that comes along to upset the balance. I think my life has always prepared me for challenges. I’ve always battled hard to stay young, to look after my voice, to be in a band, to not lose my energy for songs that I’ve written thirty years ago. To still play them as if they were written yesterday. To stay alive in the moment. And you know, I haven’t been able to do it alone. I have amazing fans. The Alarm audience has lifted me up every day. They come to our concerts and share in the experiences. And when they write to me and tell me how important music that I’ve been a part of creating has played in their lives and has got them through moments, that gets you through to the next concert, to the next album, or the next song. And by extension, we’ve carried our message of positivity that we’ve always tried to put into our music into the charity Love Hope Strength. We get so much back from that. So it’s about sticking together and being open and admitting when life gets tough. If you tell people how hard life can be, then people will respond and will do their best to help. We all face moments of loneliness and feel shut away and pinned in against the wall. But if you can reach out in those difficult times and find somebody, or play that great album you’ve always loved and let the music lift you up and inspire you. Or reach out to someone who has been a friend and reconnect and don’t be afraid to make big decisions. Sometimes you have to tear things down to make them good again. Always be looking around to make sure that your surroundings are vibrant and healthy and bubbling. Try to not become complacent because that’s what happens with cancer. It’s part of nature. It’s part of who we are. And it’s part of something that goes wrong. You feel like it’s almost waiting for us to go to sleep, for us to stop thinking, for us to stop challenging ourselves. To become silent. Then it comes to get you. I think if you can stay alive, keep livin’ keep going out. Don’t let a disease like cancer take one second of your normal life away from you, then life can be all the better. And that what drives me on, to make the most of life and enjoy every minute that I have been given.
UCR: I really appreciate those words, Mike. You’re a very inspiring man. You said something just now multiple times, “Stay Alive”. And that reminded me, you were on one of my favorite shows, which was on BYUTV of all places, “The Song That Changed My Life” where you stated that the song “In a Big Country” by the band Big Country was a song that inspired you. You later toured briefly with Big Country as their lead singer. What was that experience like singing with that band, and singing the song that was so meaningful to you?
MP: That show as a really amazing thing to be a part of with BYU. It was an honor to sing for Big Country. I had been really good friends with Stuart Adamson before he passed away. The band had really helped The Alarm in our time of need when needed friends to help us reconnect with our audiences in the year 2000. They took us under their wing and allowed us to share the stage. So to sing for the masses of passionate spirit was special for me because their music helped me to “Stay alive” as it sings “In a big country, dreams stay with you”. I was so honored to sing for them and help them get through their dark passage. A lot of Big Country fans come to see The Alarm play. And it was always felt like because of the tragedy of Stuart Adamson(Adamson sadly committed suicide in 2001) it felt like it was impossible to speak his name again or speak the name Big Country without this feeling of immense sadness. But I thought well that’s just one day in Stuart’s life. He was so much more than his passing. He left so many great lyrics behind, and he was such a great man and great family man. He was a great respecter of his audience. I thought I want them to see that side of Big Country and that side of Stuart Adamson’s work. So by allowing their fans the chance to come to a concert and buy a ticket and stand with their other Big Country friends and sing their songs at the top of their voice, OK Stuart wasn’t there, but he’ll always be there in spirit. He left us these great lyrics and the music and in there is the spirit of Stuart Adamson. So to sing for him was absolutely a beautiful time in my life. And it helped me reenergize The Alarm. And here we are today, Big Country are performing to this very day. They managed to find the strength to go forward themselves, and The Alarm is still as vibrant as ever!
UCR: Is there a song that when you see it’s next on the setlist, you’re always excited for it, no matter how many times you’ve played it?
MP: I’ve never tired of playing The Alarm’s music ever. It has always changed with me and the walk of life we’ve taken with our fans. Something like 68 Guns, we’ve played that at every Alarm gig we’ve ever been. I don’t think there’s ever been an Alarm concert where that hasn’t been played. It’s very rare. But when it came out, and it’s called “68 Guns” it was about the story of young people trying to create their own chances in life and trying to take the most of the opportunities that they did or didn’t have. And to create opportunities if they didn’t, for themselves. But now in light of what’s happened to me since that was written and the thirty years that I’ve stayed alive with these diseases that have been placed in my way. When I sing it now it’s not about “68 Guns”, it’s about “Never Die”. “68 Guns will never die!” When I sing that line is like “Stay Alive” in “In a Big Country”. They’re not the titles of the song, but they are what carry on to this very day. So when I sing that song I’m so proud to sing it live. It comes right through my core when I sing it. And hopefully, that’s how it will always be. I’m always looking for the way songs can reveal themselves to you in other ways. That’s what the mark good songs are. They’re the songs that change our lives. They don’t just change it once the first time we hear it. They as we get older, and as we have children, and as we face up to the responsibilities as we become adults. Those songs stay with us and they become powerful. I’m really proud to have some of those songs in our body of work.
UCR: Do you remember the first concert you ever attended?
MP: I went to see Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne in 1973/74 on the Sabotage Tour. Not long after that, I saw the Sex Pistols with Johnny Rotten and that was life changing. So two immense characters to see in my first ever gigs.
UCR: If that didn’t give you the bug to get into this, I don’t know what would!
MP: Absolutely! To see these characters up close like I did, you know they’re all superstars now aren’t they, but to see them in the intimacy of a club, or a theater like I saw Ozzy, their stage presence alone is magnetic. It just pulls you in and makes you want to become like that if you can. Have that way of letting your feelings out, and having it reciprocated from an audience.
UCR: Do you remember the first time you performed?
MP: At my sister’s 21st birthday party. That would have been in about 1974. I had learned a couple of chords and we got our friends together who could play music from school, and we could all do a little bit from each song. We had two drummers. We would swap the drummers. One had learned one song and the other another. We pieced together a band that was probably terrible but it was great for us at the same time. And it was the first time I was able to see how nerves could contain people. I think I learned that I could stay calm in that sort of situation. Where one of our guys lost his nerve and turned his amp up so loud.
I’ve seen it in my own kids now. I’ve got two boys now, 11 and 14, and they’re in a band together. Seeing them get over their own nerves and shyness and ability to play their music and have adults stand there and here it or in front of an audience. It’s great! I see a lot through the eyes of my children. It connects you back to the innocents of those times for yourself. And again, you can learn a lot from watching your kids. And it reminds you how to cope with certain life situations.
If you can channel those nerves in the right way then that becomes incredible energy. That’s why with The Alarm, we’ve never been a band that has taken drugs or alcohol or taken all that on stage to numb the experience. We live for that moment so we can be at our best. I learned that from U2. I remember when we first came to America, and we played our first concert with them in San Francisco and we played to about 8,000 people. Then our second night was in Salt Lake City in a venue that I don’t think is there anymore, but if fit about 500 people I was like Wow, the contrast of seeing U2 in a big civic center playing to thousands of people then the next day scaling it down to play to 500 people and they gave everything to both performances. As soon as they walked off the stage in San Francisco they were focused ready to play the gig and looking forward to playing to Salt Lake City. I thought that application rang true with me. That’s how we’ve always been in The Alarm. We learned so much from them that they never ever took it for granted or got disillusioned and took it out on the audience if they went from a big show or a small show. They were just alive for the moment and grateful for the opportunity to be in a band, touring this great country of America and playing concerts. So we learned a lot from them and we’ve always carried that same torch forward into our concert play and our experiences we’ve been lucky to have by being in this band.
UCR: People notice when a band is mailing it in. That’s why it’s the best when a band gives their all no matter how big or small the show it.
MP: Being in a band is a mirror of life. It’s not a perfect line of straight to the top and keeps going. It’s a roller coaster that takes you up and down. You have to face challenges. You’ve got to be flexible. You can play a song that isn’t connecting with the audience and you worry that it’s going to affect the next six. So let’s change it, let’s move it, let’s do this instead. You can only do that if you’re alert and plugged in and in tune with what’s going on. I’ve always prided myself and The Alarm that we have that. Our antenna is always up at every show. We know how to go with the flow of the audience so that they can influence what we’re going to do as well. That way we can create this whirlpool of energy that we can build together to a climax. That’s why The Alarm is able to still play to this very day because we’ve got that connection to our audience. Big or small, we know how to play to them all.
UCR: Well, I know here in Salt Lake City we’re really looking forward to having you back!
MP: Ah, we are too! We remember last year was an amazing gig. It was a sold out show and one of the highlights of the entire tour. We’re excited to come back again. We’ve got friends in Provo. We made that show “The Song That Changed My Life” with our Utah family. So we’re really excited to be coming home in a way! So we can’t wait to get to Utah!