Friday, April 18, 2008

A chat with Mike Peters of The Alarm

By George A. Paul

Mike Peters is one of the friendliest musicians I've ever had the pleasure of talking with. He is a true inspiration, having battled cancer twice and survived. The singer/guitarist/songwriter for The Alarm plays Riverside on Saturday and Temecula on Sunday.

Q: I read that the infamous 1986 Alarm gig at UCLA is now readily available to fans.
A: [The MTV film] was reissued and just came out on DVD. We restored all the footage, re-edited it to fit the modern 16x9 wide screen format and remixed the audio from scratch, which is great. Back in the day, we all remember it sounded terrible. I hadn’t even listened to it or watched it in 20-odd years, other than except for glimpses. It’s quite a thing to watch it all the way through. It now sounds like we all remember it.

Q: I’ve caught you play acoustic shows a few times over the years. In fact at one of the Coach House, you played like a man possessed. It kind of reminded me of Bruce Springsteen. You had so much energy live.
A: That sounds like me [laughs]. I saw Springsteen in 1984 and loved the way he packed so much into his shows; so much electricity, mixing it up with fast and slow and acoustic and full-on rock. I was always thought he was the consummate live performer. I took a lot from seeing him and sort of added it to the punk rock energy that I was inspired with to start music.

Q: Will these acoustic shows run the gamut of your material, from solo to the Alarm?
A: Yeah. You’ve seen what I do. I always play it by ear.

Q: In preparation for the interview, I was re-listening to the blue and red acoustic CDs. Something you said in the liner notes about acoustic performance stuck with me: that your whole approach is like a one man band, you throw your entire being into every syllable, word, melody, etc.
A: I think you have to make the most of all the elements you go up there with, which are the acoustic guitar, the lyrics and then the timing. You can leave pauses in songs to accentuate a lyric. And you’re thinking about what you’re singing far more when you’re playing an acoustic than when you’re driving the band forward...When you’re on your own, you emulate it in a completely different way. You really have to bring out everything that you’ve got into those songs. All the emotions. I try to connect with what inspired me to write it and look for the things in the song I didn’t realize were there...Some of the songs from our ‘Strength’ album from ’85 were far more mature than we realized when they were written in the first place. We were young, gung ho and excited about rock ‘n’ roll. There was a depth to it that passed us by at the time. I discovered it a lot more when I started playing it acoustically. Going through life, some of the things loomed much larger for me in recent times that it ever did when it was first conceived in 1985.

Q: The Alarm had several memorable gigs in Orange County during the mid-'80s.
A: We played Cal State Fullerton around that time and I remember that as being one of the greatest gigs we ever played. Some of it was filmed for MTV’s “The Cutting Edge” [a precursor to “120 Minutes”]. I just remember it being a fantastic night.

Q: What initially prompted you to resurrect the Alarm around 2000?
A: Eddie MacDonald and I reconnected as old friends, nothing to do with music. I thought it would be nice to get some string arrangements on the soundtrack and asked Eddie if he’d like to get involved in the project. And he did. We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be good to play some Alarm gigs again?’ We put the word out to Nigel [Twist] and Dave [Sharp]. They didn’t want to do it. So Eddie and I went forward. Everyone was cool with it as long as we put the suffix after it of the year. We went out on tour and played a set of shows with Big Country in the UK. It was fantastic. We really enjoyed it. We went out and played the best of the Alarm stuff. It was great fun. We went to do more and Eddie decided he didn’t want to go on tour. He enjoyed it for that moment, but didn’t want to give up his life again to go on the road…it ended up being me and the new guys, well we’ve been playing for [nearly] 10 years.

Q: All the current Alarm members' musical resumes (Generation X, Gene Loves Jezebel, The Mission, Sisters of Mercy, Stiff Little Fingers) are impressive to say the least.
A: In some ways, The Alarm is a better band now because of that. The energy is still really strong. It’s a different energy. It’ll never be the camaraderie of the original four guys who’d grown up and gone through success. There’s a new, fresh energy to it...We do have a real chemistry. I always say, ‘wow, lightning definitely struck twice on the Alarm.’ We had an amazing chemistry the first time and we have an incredible chemistry now. OK, there’s a lot of barriers to overcome when it’s not the original lineup. People are very purist about that. I understand that. I think the challenge for me as an artist is how you take that on. A lot of people won’t even go there. They would say, ‘you’ll never repeat it again.’ I love a challenge and think we have taken the Alarm on a notch. The new music we’re making has proven it.

Q: You did get back together with the other three guys briefly a few years ago for VH1’s “Bands Reunited.” Was that a good way to sort of tie up loose ends with everyone?
A: Absolutely...Everyone’s walked away from it with good memories. You can’t be in a band for 10 years and not have an argument, fight and fallout. Bands are always trying to cover that up. You want to present a united front to your fans at all times. It’s like a family thing – you do the fighting indoors. You stand there and put on a brave face. There was a lot of that going on in the latter days of the Alarm. We were all putting a big brave face on it, but underneath we were all hurting. Now we’ve been able to deal with that. Everyone has walked away with a great feeling in their heart about how good it was. None of us have any illusions that we could get the original four back together and conquer the world again. We know that is unrealistic. But we always leave the door open for the opportunity to play again at some point. It might well happen. The Alarm MMVI did a tour last summer with Psychedelic Furs and Twist came onstage in San Francisco and got on the drum kit and played with us. Eddie always pops up and plays; so does Dave. We have a great relationship. Everyone is happy with the way I’ve taken it forward and know it’s done respectfully to the past and we’re carrying on the lineage in a good way. We’re not trying to pretend what went on before didn’t happen.

Q: Now that your latest studio CD “Under Attack” has been out for a couple years are you happy with how it turned out and was perceived by the public?
A: Definitely. It wouldn’t be an Alarm gig without some of those songs now. They’re a massive part of the gig. That’s always what you’re looking for in any album. When we play live, there’s four songs on ‘Declaration’ you have to do if it’s to be an Alarm gig. The same on ‘Strength.’ I think ‘Under Attack’ is one of those records for the Alarm. There’s key songs we have to live whether we like it or not.

Q: Some of the faster ones, like "Cease & Desist," "Superchannel" almost have a punk edge. It’s like getting back to the early days of the Alarm in a way.
A: That’s right. That’s what we’ve been able to do with this band is reconnect with the original energy that kicked the band off. In the ‘80s, because of circumstance and the way things went, we got lugged into being compared to U2 more often than not. We got thrown in with that U2/Simple Minds/Big Country thing. Really, the Alarm’s roots were much more of a punk rock band. When we first came out, we were seen as a punk rock band with acoustic guitars that sounded like The Clash meets Bob Dylan. Being led by me solely these days that comes out more in the music than the echo-drenched sound we ended up with in the mid-80s. Dave’s guitar style with the delay unit. Also U2 started to play harmonicas and acoustic guitars and wear cowboy hats. There were a lot of things incestuous from the days of us playing a lot of shows together. U2 brought us to America, so we were always grateful for that. They’re an amazing band, but I never understood why we got compared to them.

Q: People looked at you both on a surface level, but really didn’t dig deep enough to see the differences.
A: The songs that fitted that sound at the time – U2/Simple Minds/Big Country/The Fixx – they’re the songs people would pick out of the Alarm’s work to put on the radio. That became our signature sound by default…that’s one of the things that creates a lot of frustration in bands making music: they don’t get the change to have it heard anymore because they’re frightened to move beyond the realm of what they can get played on the radio. With the Internet, there’s a great sense of freedom I feel as an artist. You’ve got the world at your feet now. If you write good stuff and keep putting out quality music, eventually it’s going to get across and people will discover what you’re doing. It’s much more of a level playing field than there ever was before...I understand with our audience, some people are out there having children, building their careers and don’t have time for rock ‘n’ roll anymore. As long as we’re here, doing what we do, they’ll come back to it at some point and rediscover it all over again. It’s amazing how many times we see fans getting back into it. They’ve dusted down an album they found in the loft, got on the Internet to find out ‘where’s the Alarm there days?’ It’s like a second coming and it’s great to be there for them in that way. They can find I’m as committed as I ever was and doing things exciting.

Q: Were you satisfied with how the whole "45 RPM" single experiment went with using The Poppyfields pseudonym, young stand-ins for the music video and watching it race onto the British Top 40 chart?
A: It just shows you what we’ve always known that if the music of the Alarm today was being made by the Alarm of 1983, we’d have eclipsed most bands on the planet. It’s so valuable to have youth on your side in today’s modern music world. The music industry that [still] exists is obsessed with youth and newness. We’ll never be that ever again. But our music will always be fresh and exciting. We proved it by putting out ’45 RPM’ under the guise of a different name and video. The industry in Britain fell for it hook line and sinker. All the DJs who were saying it was the greatest record of the last 10 years, stopped playing it the instant they found out it was the Alarm. It was a huge thing for us, but also like cutting our own throats. It proved a point and we’ll always know that.

Q: How is your health these days?
A: I’m not cured by any means, but it’s under control and as long as I stay on the right side of response rates to the drugs, I’m going to be good. At least it’s something I’ll die with rather than of. That’s all you can ever ask for.

Q: Your Love Hope Strength Foundation has raised $250,000 in America so far. Do you think you've got the word out now through your high profile climbs up Mount Everest, Snowdon in Wales, etc.?
A: Now people see what we’re doing, a lot more want to get involved. I can only see it growing from here on in. We can do a lot of good. As well as raising money, I want to spread the good news that there is a chance to survive cancer. There are ways to overcome it now and people have made huge breakthroughs. It’s not the death sentence it used to be. We want to get that message across. Nobody thinks about cancer until it walks thru your front door. Nobody’s ever prepared. Nobody has a cancer survival pack tucked away in the back of the house. We’re trying to prepare people. It is going to affect 1 in 3 people.

The Alarm is expected to tour the U.S. again in late summer/early fall with a new studio expected in 2008.

Says Peters: We’re just stepping it up again. We really believe in what we’re doing and all is good in the world.


doogemeister said...

Great interview with one of the finest musicians of our day. Mike Peters has a great passion for making music and backed by Craig, James and Steve they are still one of the most exciting bands to see live.

music4me said...

Great interview.

Question for Mike, or someone "in the know"...Just saw something on a different web site about a "Rockin' the Colonies" tour. Didn't see it on the Alarm web site. It shows the Alarm playing in Portsmouth, VA on July 12, 2008. It this true, and if so, are you also coming back to NYC this summer?? I hope so! Hopefully you don't come here while I'm away on vacation !! I try never to miss a gig! Thanks.

music4me said...

Ahh, ignore my comment above. Just found the tour info on the forum pages. See ya in July!