The Alarm’s Mike Peters: A Soul Survivor Among Equals

Photo: Andy Labrow

Mike Peters is a survivor, and a thriver. Okay, so perhaps I made up that last word to fit what I wanted to say there, but sometimes you have to compose something new to get across something that’s outside the realm of the norm.

Peters can relate. For one thing, the frontman of the ever-earnest Welsh alt-rock band The Alarm is someone who’s managed to see his free and uncrushable spirit thrive in the face of potentially debilitating cancer battles, something both he and his wife (Alarm keyboardist Jules Jones Peters) have grappled with together in recent years. And he’s been able to channel his personal pain into creative reward, as witnessed by the laid-bare nature of The Alarm’s latest album, Sigma (The Twenty First Century Recording Corporation). In addition to the rocking-heart-on-my-sleeve nature of tracks like “Brighter Than the Sun” and “Heroine,” Peters was also able to enlist original Alarm guitarist Dave Sharp to lay down his signature guitar tone on “Equals” as well as longtime collaborator Billy Duffy of The Cult, who pulls out all the guitar stops on the ferocious lead track, “Blood Red Viral Black.”

Initially conceived to be the second part of a double album dubbed Blood Red Viral Black, Peters broke the underlying BRVB concept into two halves, which now finds Sigma as the proper bookend follow-up to 2018’s Equals. “All of the music comes out of the same time, the same moments, and the same darknesses from such an intense period of time,” Peters (third from left in the above band photo) explains. “Not all of it was depressing — there were some incredible moments of euphoria and hope, but also times where it was challenging. I didn’t quite know how to break them down into songs at first. I had these books where I put some songs in black, the ones I thought were more outward and viral. They were about the world at large, and the uncertainties we see out there. I put others in red because they had a more internal feeling — blood, and looking inwards. I had to figure them out before I could talk about them, so it’s been a long birthing process. But they’ve all definitely come from the same spiritual place and time.”

Peters, 60, and I got on the line not too long before The Alarm were set to hit the road to commence their summer 2019 Sigma LXXXV Tour to discuss how the vinyl revival reconnects you with your music-seeking instincts, how a good producer acts as a creative compass, and how The Alarm’s approach to songwriting and song structure set them apart from the pack. We can wipe the slate clean where the two rivers meet. . .

Mike Mettler: You were always a pioneer in the digital universe in terms of giving people access to new music online and access to you more directly, as well as adding that personal touch which has since become more of a daily routine these days for so many artists. It’s a much different landscape you’re operating in today than when you started in the ’80s, isn’t it?
Mike Peters: It is. And the fans are driving it along as much as I do. They make just as much of a demand on it as I make of it. The social media that surrounds bands today do influence the way you move, how you think, and how you respond. It’s much more of a four-way street being in a band today than it ever was.

Mettler: One thing you said to me a couple of years ago, in relation to how people listen to Mike Peters music and Alarm music, was that the medium is the message. These days, vinyl is again a very important aspect of the listening experience, so I’m just wondering how your relationship to the that medium has changed over these past couple of decades.
Peters: It’s interesting. The resurgence of vinyl has been allowing people to sit down and listen to an artist’s work again in full, and hear it in context. I think that’s what disappeared in the years between the CD coming out and the streaming world taking over, where all our music was being fed to us digitally. The advent of the analog re-awakening through the return of vinyl allowed us to think we could get away with a double album with Equals and Sigma — but that we’d have to leave a gap of a year between one half and the other half! (chuckles)

For me, when I was younger, the best music was underground. The best music, you had to find. You had to search it out. When the late-’80s and ’90s came along, apparently the best music was the music that sold the most, according to the way of the world. But I never bought into that! I always looked for the underground bands you had to search out. I think the voice for that kind of audience is coming back — the surly element, the kind of bands that weren’t on the radio so much, or the darlings of the media. I think that’s the voice of the people buying the records and the LPs.

That’s changing the dynamic, and there are a lot more bands out there realizing that they don’t want fame anymore, or a certain level of “success” — they want longevity. They want to make music, and they don’t want to be retired or deleted because somebody decided they weren’t in favor anymore. More and more bands are deciding, through building deeper fanbases and deeper musical relationships, that they can have a longer life and make even more music — and have a louder voice while doing it.

Mettler: You wrote a song called “45 RPM” and released it as a single in 2003. For you personally, was there one 45 that you got as a kid on that hunt-and-gather mission that stood out the most to you and really spoke to you, and still resonates today?
Peters: Oh yeah! “Anarchy in the U.K.” is always a seminal piece of 7-inch vinyl for me. When I got that and put in on the turntable, I hadn’t heard it before. I’d seen the Sex Pistols once, before “Anarchy in the U.K.” came out [on November 26, 1976]. Nobody played it on the radio, and I didn’t buy it because I’d heard it — I took a chance. I went into the record shop, I knew the band and I knew they were great, and I thought, “This is going to be amazing!”

And when I put the record on, it was a shock! It didn’t quite add up to what I had seen, because it had a bit more production on it. I flipped over to the B-side [“I Wanna Be Me”], and that was a bit more raw. But I fell in love with that record, and devoured it and pored over every second so I could play it inside out and hear it inside out. I could sing along to every word — and decide what every word was because I couldn’t quite make out some of them, and that was the beauty of it.

Nowadays, with a lot of the music being so clear-cut and safe, nobody takes a risk anymore. Nobody goes out and buys a record because they like the cover, or they like the name of the band. They want to make sure they’ve seen it and checked it out 20 times on YouTube, heard it validated a million times, or seen it’s got a five-star review, or something like that. I think vinyl allows you to make a statement these days — and that’s how I was brought up to like bands. As soon as they sold loads of records, to me, that was it. It was all over then.

Mettler: Back in the ’80s era The Alarm was coming up in, I remember buying the Cactus World News record Urban Beaches in 1986 only because I liked the cover, and it seemed like the sensibility conveyed by the cover shot came through and fit into the same vibe bands like The Alarm and U2 had. I had never heard one song off it before I bought it. I just had an instinct it was a record that was going to speak to me — and it did.
Peters: Yeah, and they were a great band, you know? [U2 lead singer] Bono used to talk about them, and support them. And give credit to Bono, because a lot of the bands that came forth in the times after U2 would all open for U2 — Simple Minds, Cactus World News, and even The Alarm. When U2 walked through that door and joined the bands who had made it before them, they’d leave it open for others to follow — and I think that’s such a great testament to that band.

Mettler: Agreed! You and your wife have gone through such incredibly tough times. You’re probably two of the most resilient people I know, and that spirit comes through in the music that you play.
Peters: Mike, what’s unusual about us is, not that we’ve stood up to the cancer situations we had to face — and yes, I thought I was the one who was carrying the bullet for our family, but we know masses of people have gone through what we had to endure — but they’re not keyboard players and singers in bands. They’re the unsung heroes. In some ways, we carry the black for those people to lend them strength, and that’s been highlighted in the mountain of adventures we’ve been on.

And that does affect our music, I would say that. When we first came to America [in June 1983], people related to us breaking out of the confines of our community, trying to find our voice in the world and figure out who we were. People relate to that now because we’re older, and we’re wiser — at least I hope they think we’re wiser! (chuckles)

But our stories have come full circle. We’ve all been on these journeys away from each other in some ways, but we’ve collided back in the same world again. You can’t just walk through life untouched, and just have the highlights. Life touches you in good and bad ways. And now we’re at the point where, yeah, we’ve had our fair share of good and bad, and we can relate to that in ways we couldn’t when we were younger. And that comes through in the music we play as well — certainly it does when we play it live. It’s amazing.

Mettler: There’s a cleansing, cathartic thing the audience feels at the shows you play. “Strength” is a key word from all throughout your career, not only from an album that still resonates today, but with the charity element that will be part of the Sigma LXXXV Tour. It’s something that makes sense in a 2019 world.
Peters: Yeah, I think so. I didn’t know how those three words — Love Hope Strength — would be following me around as intrinsically as they have. When I put that down to tape in 1985, they were just three words that appeared in a few songs on the album. But there was a subconscious connection between the three of them. Maybe not as much as I feel it now, when I see it not as much musically but through the charity and the stories from the fans and the lives they’ve led as well — that all defines what Love Hope Strength is. It’s quite humbling to sit back and see what’s come of all this great liberty The Alarm has been a part of.

Photo: Stuart Ling

I think that allows us to be a key part of the conversation today. We’re just keeping the conversation about The Alarm alive as long as we can in this world of mass information — this huge conversation going on back and forth between thousands of subjects every single day. We felt if we redesigned the way we put our music out that it would benefit interest in the story and keep the conversation about The Alarm alive for a long time. We toured America and the U.K. last year, and we’re doing it again this year. It’s very hard for bands that tour so much on one record to come back and be seen as “new” again.

Doing it like this is a little bit like when we first came here in [July] 1983. In 1983, we did The Alarm EP, and then by February [1984], we were back with Declaration. And then in 1985 came Strength, and it was fast and furious! That’s how the times are now — and we’re loving it! We’re a part of it.

Mettler: With an ear to how the two albums Equals and Sigma have been produced, was there a specific style and sound for how you wanted them to come across?
Peters: When we first sat down to talk about it, I thought that, because the music comes from such an internal part of my life, I wanted somebody outside of the band to help me sift through it and say, “Okay Mike, this is the focus, and that’s not the focus. That’s the song to do.” I would always have an aversion to certain songs because they were a little too difficult for me to sing, or I didn’t think enough of them. I think you need a producer to see what you’ve created, someone who can see the perspective on the horizon that you’ve set down.

So we got George Williams to produce it, and he said to me, “Mike, we’re making an Alarm album, but we’ve got a Mike Peters record here. There’s a lot that’s personal to you with it.” I said to him, “We’re in the middle of making it. Once we’re finished with it, then we’ll decide who it’s going to be by, if it’s going to be The Alarm or Mike Peters.” I just didn’t know. I had a load of songs, and I wasn’t sure they should be an Alarm record or whether it should be a very personal Mike Peters kind of record, a solo outpouring.

As the music came of age and started to be shaped from my acoustic works and demos, the band started to have input, and I said, “This is an Alarm record. There is no line here between The Alarm and Mike Peters. This is one and the same thing. This is a real-life record and a real-life situation, and it has to be released under The Alarm brand and banner.” And that’s how we arrived at it. At the beginning, we didn’t have a conception about it. When you’re making it, you let the record decide where it’s taking you to the conclusion.

Mettler: Ultimately, you’re touching on universal topics from a very personal viewpoint. We should all be able to share in that — that you give us a take on something you experienced, and then we can add our own personal element to it to relate it to our own lives while we’re listening to it.
Peters: When we were going through the most intense period of it, and when the diagnosis of [his wife, and Alarm pianist] Jules’ cancer went public, then we started getting messages from all of the people who had been in The Alarm family — not just people who are in the band today, but people who were in the band in the past, reaching out and sending their love. It’s really brought the whole family of The Alarm together, through Equals and Sigma — great side benefits that none of us thought would happen when we started making the record.

Mettler: I like that the guitar is still an important element to the music you’re working on. And you now have a custom Alarm guitar with a special pickup on it, right?
Peters: Yeah, the electro-acoustic guitar you see in the “Blood Red Viral Black” video is an acoustic guitar with electric pickups on it, with the hollowbody of an electric guitar. It’s not unlike the Gretsch Billy Duffy plays in The Cult, or what Brian Setzer plays in the Stray Cats.

There’s something you can do with an acoustic guitar that creates a mindset that you don’t get with playing an electric guitar. It’s got the cutaways on it and all the things an electric guitar has and an acoustic guitar hasn’t. When you add an electric pickup to that, you’re still playing like an acoustic guitarist, but at electric guitar volume levels.

That brings out a different element in your playing style, which is something I’d like to think is unique to The Alarm. We have a uniqueness to the band, and it leads to a certain discipline in the band in that the main focus is the songs. The Alarm has always been a band that started with the songs, from Day 1. We weren’t a band who’d step out to jam in a rehearsal to come up with a vocal line over the drummer’s beat, or anything like that. It was, “Here’s the song — let’s arrange it for the band.”

It’s the complete opposite of a band like U2, who would walk into a room with a bass line or a guitar riff or a vocal chorus or a drum beat to start the song from together, where they would forge it into being music, into something that could be called a song. But The Alarm started with a song, and had to find the music to go with the song, and that made us different from a lot of other bands. That’s like how The Beatles and The Stones worked — with a song, and then they progressed from there. Other bands came around that couldn’t play that way, really, so they had to come up with a riff and come up with a great track at the end of the day — four and five hours of playing around with it, no doubt, to make the pieces of music they became known for. We’ve always worked at the opposite end of the spectrum of the more traditional way that the modern bands do.

Mettler: That makes me think of songs like “Knife-Edge” from Strength, or “The White Count” from Sigma. If you don’t have that bed and song structure there to begin with, the songs will fall apart.
Peters: That’s right. The chords and lyrics are always there from the beginning. And then it’s coming up with an arrangement, almost like we’re doing “covers” of our own songs like the way other bands did to better understand them — like The Beatles did with Lennon-McCartney songs, The Stones with Jagger-Richards songs, and even Bob Dylan with Dylan songs. That’s why these songs live on, because they can be played by any band in any style. The song is great at the core, and you can hear anybody play it — reggae, jazz, funk, do what you want with it! But the song stays the same.

Mettler: That’s especially true when we see you do your one-man band shows. You start a riff that you turn into a loop that goes on while you play something else. I also feel like you’re the Welsh Woody Guthrie — your guitar should be killing fascists out there, or something like that. Do you feel that, to some degree?
Peters: (chuckles) That’s an honorable thing to aspire to be. Woody Guthrie was never prone to fascists, and he was great throughout his career. He wrote songs he believed in, songs that he could sing in his voice — and that’s all I’m doing. I’m never in it to have a hit, or anything like that. I always wanted to have a life in music.

The first part of my life had some myths and I become less mysterious as I get older, and I’ve been able to expand on certain things and develop certain ideas you don’t get to when you’re young. You lay the first foundation stones, but you don’t see the house until the roof goes on. I think we’re at the point now where we’re putting the roof on The Alarm. We’re starting to make more sense of the subdivision that was laid out at the beginning, and people can relate to it a little bit more and understand it a little bit more for what it actually is.

When I get on tour now, it’s like the last life. To me, this is it. I don’t know how many tours or shows we can actually play — we’re getting to the point where we have to think about that. I’m not sixteen anymore; I’m six-zero, so that’s going to affect the music and the way we play it. But right now, we’re going to give it all we got and we’re going to celebrate life and be thankful for who we are and who we have to be with. We love being The Alarm, and we can’t wait to see everyone when we go on tour.