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Hello My Name is…Mike Peters of The Alarm

| July 3, 2020 | 0 Comments

by Tom Lanham

You can hand Mike Peters the sourest, acrid batch of lemons ever harvested and the scrappy Alarm bandleader will make a refreshing, ice-cold pitcher of tasty lemonade with it every single time. This Welshman has often endured more hardships in a single month than most so-called rock survivors endure in a lifetime, so many that even he was moved to comment — upon viewing Russ Kendall’s recent biopic Man in the Camo Jacket, covering his three successful battles with cancer and resulting Love Hope Strength Foundation cancer charity — “It feels like I’ve literally come back from the dead quite a few times to be here, I’m lucky to be alive!” Indeed. So when fate threw another major obstacle in his path via the deadly coronavirus, which shut down his planned spring tour promoting Hurricane of Change, the new two-disc, narration-linked reimagining of three lesser-known Alarm albums — ’87’s Eye of the Hurricane, ’88’s Electric Folklore, and Change in ’89 — he practically shrugged it off as a minor annoyance. “All of these things are sent so you can master a life lesson,” he reckons of what led to his weekly “Big Night In” broadcasts that he and his wife Jules started putting together from vintage Alarm footage and recordings they’d compiled over the years. “And now we’ve had all sorts of people dropping in — it’s been incredible, and we’ve really learned a lot from it. We’ve been getting 70,000 views and 5,000 messages posted, and when you read those messages it’s just incredible what people are going through in their lives during this lockdown. And it’s turned into a remarkable resource, in a way.” Peters discussed his recipe for metaphorical lemonade from his homestead in Wales. 

IE: You’ve been in quite a reflective mood lately. Especially in revisiting your old material.

MIKE PETERS: Well, a lot it was because it was coming up to the 30th anniversary of those recordings, and they all rolled into each other from the creative point of view. So when it came to the anniversary of playing those songs, I thought, “Well, I’ve done all the backstory — I’ve done the reissues and the remasters, I wrote the sleeve notes and put out all the demos and outtakes. So there’s not a lot more to be said, I would think.” So then I thought I would just go out and play them as if they were songs that I had written now and see how they sound, just play them on acoustic guitar and maybe tell some stories. And I took them all into my studio and started working them up as if they were songs that I had written that day. And they came out quite different, so then I started to look at it historically, look at these 39 or 40 tracks and wonder what was the first one that was missing. And it was the last one that came out, “A New South Wales,” from Hurricane back in ’86. I read the lyrics and thought, “Well, who is this guy? Who am I singing about here? It’s obviously the end of an era, and he’s walking home alone, but where is he going?” So I looked at the other songs and thought, “Maybe he’s going to “New Town Jericho” — that’s his destination.”

And then I started to realize that it was more of an autobiographical story weaving into it than I had planned for or realized at the time. And I always thought that in that time, back in ’86,’ The Alarm was hitting the skids a little bit — it was a time of real turmoil, internally, and band members were changing, and new people who entered into the ranks questioned who should be writing the songs and singing them and stuff. Everything was being undermined, and it was affecting my creative process, and I felt like I’d lost a little bit of myself in the process, or that I gave up a lot of myself. So I always thought they were quite dark records from that point of view. So to go back to them with an open mind and see a new creative path through? It really felt like I was meant to do this. So we recorded “A New South Wales” and then “New Town Jericho,” and everybody was like, “What’s next?” So I carried on the dialogue with “Rebecca,” and it was all arranged and recorded in real-time. So we all got into the whole story, and everyone couldn’t wait to hear what was happening next. And I was told that I had to tell this story and put it in the record, and I’d always loved the Dylan Thomas spoken-word stuff on a record, and funnily enough, we released a live concert from that era called Electric Folklore on record store day, and that began with a bit of Dylan Thomas on the intro, as we all came on stage, so that brought it all full circle. And initially, I wanted to do sound effects and have more dialogue. But the producer really liked the sound just my voice— he said we didn’t need a rock opera, and that this way would make it more personal. So we took it out on the road, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I assumed the character in that monologue, and just walked out and started speaking, as the main character who was singing the song. And at the end of it, everybody stood up and gave me this massive standing ovation. I was really taken aback. And the whole show just developed from one town to the next, until we had a Shakespearean actor in the role of the narrator, and we had global climate-change activists going through the audience while we were playing certain songs. And then the lockdown happened. It was absolutely incredible, and I was hoping to play it at the Fringe Festival this year, but that got shut down. But we might be able to stage it here in Wales with social distancing being applied. 

IE: What did you discover about yourself in the process?

MP: It reaffirmed my commitment to making my own music and staying strong when there might be doubt. It just made me proud to have written the songs that I did. When I came back off the tour in ’86, I didn’t go on holiday — I stayed home, and I took out a video camera and set it up and wrote what I could see, just writing about the town below, where you could see all these mining cottages and terraced houses, row after row. And I’d see two people walking along, holding hands, and I’d think, “Where are they going? What’s their future?” And that was part of rediscovering the music again for me — realizing that these songs were part of my family. They go away to the outer reaches of your thoughts, but when they come back, they can actually be more powerful than they were 30 years ago and even capture what’s happening now. The world was going through massive changes back then — the Berlin Wall was coming down, free movement was happening, borders were opening up. And now with Covid-19, it’s almost like the polar opposite — walls are going back up, there’s a strange new politics going on in America, and people are being restricted again. So these songs are eerily relevant again, and I felt reaffirmed, reassured by that. A song like “World on Fire” is probably more relevant now than it ever was. 

IE: Your “Big Night Ins” are very reflective, too.

MP: Yeah. We’re showing a lot of photography that captured the moment, and we’ve got this massive archive of material — we’ve recorded everything and kept all the tapes and videos. The band even used to do on-the-road diaries in 1987, and we filled them all. So people don’t realize just how vast our archive is. And it’s been quite revealing, these Big Night Ins, because we’d never really started looking at all this old stuff — I wouldn’t do it, I was always fast-forwarding into the future, going on to the next project, so I never had the time to stop and look back. The Alarm wasn’t just this music centered around playing stadiums and arenas. I’ve been able to go out with just an acoustic guitar and play little folk clubs, and then get back together with The Alarm and rip it apart as only we can. It’s the rich tapestry of life. And now to be able to go back like I just did and rewrite the past in a whole new light, through the prism of time? It really gives you a sense of closure. 

IE: In the early days, you learned new ways of miking your acoustic guitars to sound cathedral-bell huge.

MP: Hey — you adapt to survive. Or necessity is the mother of invention. When you’re put in a position where to survive, you have to be creative, that’s a whole different kind of creativity. That really takes you into the moment. So this feels almost like our first album (Declaration, 1984) again. It wasn’t our most successful album — our most massive albums were four or five years down the line. But the music that really stays with people comes from that period where you’re trying to make your mark on the planet, and you’re trying to write the song that you think is going to do it. And you can’t get to that point without necessity.

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Category: Cover Story, Featured, Features

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