By Tom Murphy
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A few months before the Alarm was to hit America for the first time as the opening act on U2's War tour in 1983, singer Mike Peters met Big Country frontman Stuart Adamson when they joined U2 for a cover of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" at the Hammersmith Palais in London.
Adamson had been part of the crowd watching the show, and members of the audience passed him over their heads until Peters, who was already on stage, took his hand and helped him up. Over the next two decades, Peters says, fate kept bringing them together, until Adamson's last gig with Big Country, in 2000. It was the year before Adamson, who reportedly had struggled with alcoholism for a number of years, committed suicide.
During the tour following the release of Big Country's Driving to Damascus, in 1999, Peters was on the road with the band, opening as a solo act. He recalls conversations with Adamson, who had been living in Nashville since the mid-1990s, in which the latter talked about how he wanted a complete break from it all and wanted to do something different.
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"He saw his future in country music," Peters recalls. "That was something that Big Country wasn't all about. The rest of the band didn't want to go down that route. Stuart was saying to me, 'Look, Mike, I don't want to put the band in a position of making music they don't want to make, so I'll make the sacrifice, and I'm going to do something different. But they want to carry on as Big Country, and I think you'd be brilliant in that role. You could fill my role fantastically well.' I just thought, well, you don't mean that. I don't know if he really meant it or not, but he did say it on a number of occasions. He came out in public saying it in Big Country fan forums at the time."
In 2007, Big Country's founding members — guitarist Bruce Watson, bassist Tony Butler, drummer Mark Brzezicki — reunited for a tour, with Butler handling lead vocals. They released a live album, Twenty Five Live, before going on hiatus the following year. But in 2010, Peters was climbing Mount Snowdon in Wales for Love Hope Strength, a charity he co-founded, and halfway up the mountain he got a call from Watson, who asked if he'd sing with Big Country to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the band and play a charity event. Naturally, Peters says, he agreed.
"By the time he called me back to firm it up — it was a couple of weeks later — I thought it was strange," he remembers. "It had gone from being two songs to a whole British tour. I couldn't get out of it at that point. It was an incredible baptism." The first night of the tour (with Jamie Watson, Bruce's son, added to the lineup) was in Glasgow on New Year's Eve 2010, and the second night was in the band's home town of Dunfermline, Scotland, with Adamson's sister and his family in attendance. Although Adamson was not at the gigs physically, he's always present in the band.
"We always say, 'You might see five people on stage in Big Country, but there's always six.' Stuart is always going to be part of it. He'll never be gone or forgotten," Peters says. "The only thing now that's different is that no one stands in his place on stage. His place is always vacant in the center of the stage because there are five members, and when you spread four across the front, the center position is left open. So that's always his space, in a way. It always gets occupied by his presence, because his presence over Big Country is pretty massive."
Adamson's presence is also felt on The Journey, the band's first studio effort in fourteen years, which was released earlier this year and features Peters on vocals and former Simple Minds bassist Derek Forbes. (Forbes replaced Butler, who left the band last year.) Peters says the whole album is about the way the band has come to terms with the loss of Adamson.
"They know me, and they might respect me because we had a shared history in some ways," says Peters of Big Country fans. "It's still a very difficult journey for people to make. So we just felt that we needed to make a soundtrack for that journey that could help people through that time. We wanted that opportunity to come and hear the band again."
Peters says he penned 99 percent of the lyrics for The Journey but stayed out of the music-writing process. "I tried to write in the same way that Stuart wrote for the band," Peters says. "Big Country's music was always created as an instrumental first, with Stuart playing guitar, and then he would take a tape away of the instrumental and write the lyrics without his guitar. That's what I tried to do as the lyric-writer of the band. I just tried to work with what was being suggested."
That process is completely different from how Peters says he writes for the Alarm. With that band, he writes all of his songs on guitar and then comes to the band with lyrics and music already written out. "With Big Country, I worked at it from a completely different angle," he explains. "I didn't want Big Country to record a Mike Peters song, because that would sound like Big Country plays the Alarm. I thought it was very important that I stay out of the creative process as much as possible and then contribute when needed, so it sounded like a Big Country record from the ground up."
When Peters e-mailed the lyrics to Watson for The Journey's liner notes, the guitarist said he felt that the words represented three acts of the bandmembers' journey: redemption, healing, and the ability to move forward.
Over the past two decades, Peters himself has been on a fairly personal journey. In 1995, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, from which he's since recovered, and in 2005, he was diagnosed with leukemia. While at the cancer center in Wales where he was being treated for leukemia, he could see Mount Snowdon, and he thought, "When I get through this, I'm going to take all the Alarm fans, and we're going to go to the top of the mountain and we're going to sing a concert, and all the money raised will support the local cancer center."
While in Texas for a solo show at South by Southwest, Peters met Dallas-based CSI Entertainment Insurance founder and CEO James Chippendale, who was a fellow leukemia survivor. In 2007, the two co-founded Love Hope Strength, an international, music-centric cancer charity with its headquarters in Denver and chapters in Dallas, Peru, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Through bone-marrow drives at concerts, music festivals and events in the United States and the U.K., the organization has signed over 35,000 people to the national marrow database in the last few years and has found more than 500 matches for people who needed donors. Peters says the initial aim of Love Hope Strength was to "think big, climb mountains and support local cancer centers," as he puts it, and the organization has done that, as well as helping build cancer centers in places like Kathmandu and Tanzania.
"It's not just about the fight against cancer," Peters points out. "It's about the preparation for the fight against cancer and making people realize it is a unique battle — that the outcome isn't always going to be determined by someone else. You can have a part to play in the outcome. If you can stay strong and resolve to be strong, having a strong mental approach to it is an incredible weapon.
"We're not saying that everybody's going to win," he goes on, "but with a positive mental approach to cancer, it can buy you time, and having time to spend with your loved ones — you just can't put a price on that. That's the most valuable thing you can have in the world.
"It's about fighting against cancer," he concludes, "but it's also about the love, hope and the strength that goes with it, and you're getting that from the fans, from your family, from your community and your friends all around you, and working together. It's a massive battle, and if we can play a part in it, then we can win."