Mike Peters of The Alarm Always Faces Forwards
Welsh rock ‘n’ roll band The Alarm are celebrating over 40 years together, and while that’s a truly impressive milestone for any musical group, their output in recent years has continued to be high and highly original, and their frontman, Mike Peters, has consistently beaten the odds in many years of struggling with leukemia. Now, their latest album, Forwards, is arriving on June 16th, 2023, and when we realize that Mike Peters spent much of last year in treatment for pneumonia and a very serious relapse of his leukemia, it’s hard to fathom where he and the band found the time to excavate these new tunes. The surprising answer is that Peters continued to write while in hospital and has followed that period with a run of acoustic shows to help him ease back into live shows and gauge how much playing he can do while he continues receiving treatment and medical support. There is even a two-night full band appearance planned for The Gramercy Theatre in New York planned for June 23rd and 24th, 2023.
If you weren’t aware of the conditions in which Mike Peters wrote the new songs for Forwards, you might still be aware of their restless and hopeful energy as well as their reflection on memories of moments of joy. Knowing that he expresses his ongoing journey into wellness in these songs does bring an extra layer of meaning to their encouraging ideas, turning them into a determined affirmation rather than a dreamy approach to better times. The song “Whatever,” for instance, is part of Peters’ active imagination of climbing a mountain towards recovery, as the accompanying video helps express, and the anthemic title track “Forwards” sprang from his missive to fans wishing him well. I spoke with Mike Peters about his decision to play acoustic shows and the “mineshaft of creativity” he found during his hospital stay that resulted in Forwards.
Americana Highways: I see you’ve got a run of acoustic shows in the UK coming up. What made you take that approach this time?
Mike Peters: The reason for me doing the acoustic tour in May is because I had such a long time in hospital last year. It was touch and go whether I’d come out of it and I didn’t want to over-commit to too many band shows without knowing if I could stand up to the rigors of the road first, never mind dragging the band and the road crew as well as all the facilities that make up a band tour. I wanted to see if I could play back-to-back shows. I’m still on a very new drug that’s still being worked out in humans. Luckily, I’ve been able to take a considerable dose and it doesn’t seem to affect me too much. I also have to have hospitalization treatment every two weeks in two different hospitals that are kept apart. It’s something I have to live with, really, so I can’t tour like a band normally would. It would be quite challenging to break the tour every two weeks. In a way, I’m looking forward to just coming out and playing one-off events and making them really special. They will just have to be spread out over a longer period of time.
AH: Needless to say, a lot of people would not even play with all this going on, but given your history, I’m not surprised.
MP: [Laughs] That’s what my doctor says to me! He says, “You’re mad!”
AH: I think that’s well established at this point. But I can see how doing the acoustic tour in the UK keeps things close to home.
MP: It’s designed to build up from one or two shows to give at the end. I’m certainly looking forward to it. The thing about going up on my own is that I can also listen to my body with the songs that I do. If I encounter any resistance, I can play a quieter song while I regain my strength. It’s a little more difficult when you’ve got a full band with you. We’re good at that in The Alarm, always playing different songs from night to night and mixing things up. Sometimes we go on without a setlist! But I didn’t want to create that kind of pressure.
AH: Objectively speaking, a lot of your songs are very high energy. When doing it acoustic, is it just you on acoustic guitar?
MP: I have a bit of an arsenal of musical instruments to raise it above just being a singer/songwriter night. I have a bass drum that I play with my feet. I have some loops. I have a guitar that’s acoustic and electric, and it can be a bass if I want, all at the same time. I make quite a lot of noise for just one person. But at an Alarm event, whether it’s with me or with the band, when the fans are present, it takes on a whole other level. An Alarm concert wouldn’t be the same if the fans didn’t sing along, and that’s what happens. It’s an amazing experience to be standing on the stage and start singing, “The Spirit of ‘76” and think, “Is that me singing?” I almost have to step back off the mic to make sure that I’m still in the mix.
There’s a certain element of stripping the band out of the songs that elevates them a little, too, because the people focus on the lyrics more rather than the energy of the bass, drums, and guitars. It takes on a different power. From my point of view, both ways of presenting The Alarm’s music are relevant. An acoustic tour can refresh everyone’s appetite for an electric tour and vice versa. You have to remember that when we first started, our singles didn’t have A-sides and B-sides, they had electric sides and acoustic sides. There’s always been that duality from the band. My benchmark for songs has always been that they have to be able to be performed on an acoustic guitar, on their own. Otherwise I don’t consider that to be a song!
AH: I’ve heard some opinions lately that rock music is a little in danger of dying out in favor of other genres. Do you think that’s possible?
MP: My kid is 16, and he’s in a rock band, and they’re giving it all they have in rehearsal. It’s great seeing that energy. They’re actually really good and have a lot of attitude. Music is so accessible now, I think some of our greatest songs have had way too much exposure now, so that we’re almost tired of them. Not long ago, before streaming services, you had to dig a song out. If it came on the radio, you could hear it, but you had to go and get the record out. Now there’s classic rock radio and everything is siphoned out into these categories. If you turn on rock radio, you’re not going to get exposed to new singles or some unknown artist.
Music was at its most potent, I felt, when it was diverse. I grew up on BBC’s Top of the Pops. The Alarm’s first ever television appearance was on American Bandstand, and we were on with a disco group! Everyone was dancing. When I first saw The Smiths on the TV, there was something horrible on right after them, and it didn’t detract from The Smiths, it made them more powerful, because you had something to contrast their energy with. We don’t have that now.
If The Smiths came along now, they’d be put in a studio with about five other bands who sound like The Smiths, and the energy is dissipated then. It’s not the same. I think musicians are still out there to make great music, but they are not really supported. Bands that have some kind of heritage actually don’t get accepted onto TV anymore here in the UK. A lot of bands just have one single, one hit, and then they are done. But bands that have been around a while and are selling thousands of tickets to support one CD aren’t allowed on. You need to trust in good songs, not just the new.
AH: How did you approach songwriting for the new album Forwards? Did you take an intentional approach? I’m not sure even when you found time to do it given your level of activity in the past couple of years.
MP: I’m always looking for a song. I always have a recorder handy. I don’t sit down to write songs. They arrive, as long as I’m open and able to receive them. When I was in hospital last year, I didn’t think about writing songs. I knew that I was going to be there for a long time having the treatments and getting over the situations with pneumonia and then leukemia again. It was just post-pandemic so there were a lot of protocols in place and people weren’t allowed to visit. It was a lot of time to kill on my own, just being wired onto machines.
I would have 20-minute breaks, so I thought I’d just play my guitar quietly, so I wouldn’t disturb the guy in the next bed. Then I’d start playing and he’d say, “Play a bit louder!” I was on a critical ward for quite a long time and I think the nurses were glad to have the guitar there. It brightened up their day a little bit. At night, you can’t really sleep in hospitals, and there were people passing away. It was tough. I brought the guitar for a bit of comfort. But I’d be playing and suddenly songs would arrive, and melodies.
I wondered if I was in a mineshaft of creativity that no one has really been in before. I got as many songs as I could while I was there. Even when I had to go public story with the story that I was back in the cancer unit, I signed off the letter to my fans, “Forwards.” Then I thought, “Wow! That’s a song!” That was a title. The next minute, the song appeared. I almost didn’t have to write it, just pull it out of the sky.
AH: That’s a really powerful song. That’s one of your high-energy songs!
MP: I wanted that energy. There’s a lot of determination and will to get through. When you’re in the ward and the cancer is swirling around, you have to respect it. You can’t pretend it’s not there. My feeling was, “Okay, I’m going to deal with you. But I’m not going to let you take anything.” I was trying to think about where I was before I was diagnosed. Even if I had been at home, I would have tried to climb that mountain every day. That’s always been my way. I didn’t want the cancer to take anything off me. I try to make sure that I do all the things that I intend to do and I’ll also take my drugs on a daily basis and keep a positive mental attitude. That weighs in your favor in the long term.
AH: Given your history, if you didn’t take all that seriously, you wouldn’t be here right now. You’ve made a place for treatment in your life as well as a place for the music.
MP: I’ve been very lucky. I must have had almost more chemotherapy than anyone in the world at this point, since I’ve been having it since 2005 and I was diagnosed ten years before that with no treatment as such. Here I am. I’ve been the recipient of some amazing science and some amazing breakthroughs. I’ve been lucky enough to hang around to be on new drugs that are keeping me alive.
AH: Does playing live music contribute to your ability to stay positive?
MP: I’ve stared into the abyss and luckily, was able to get away from it, just by believing in music. The show must go on. I’m that kind of guy. [Laughs] No shows are ever the same. Jules, my wife, asks if I’m going to practice or do a setlist, and I say, “Let’s just see what happens.” The night is alive with feeling and the energy that people bring into the room. If you can be part of that energy and the way the room is moving, the music interacts with those people. Maybe they hear something in a song that they haven’t heard before. You can feel it coming back at the stage.
Our last shows before the pandemic were also an immersive, rock ‘n roll, theatrical experience. I had a group of people, including a narrator for the story, actors running through the audience at various points, with their banners and protest marches, while we were playing the songs. It was amazing. The audience came dressed for the occasion, in suits and dresses, as if dressed for the theatre. But now that we’ve passed our 40th anniversary, we’ll let the music do the talking.
Thanks very much for talking with us, Mike Peters! Discover more about the Alarm’s forthcoming album, due to be released on June 2, right here: https://thealarm.com/