Wake Up: Despite Cancer Battles, Mike Peters and the Alarm Still Rock

Mike Peters
Mike Peters Courtesy of Mike Peters
Mike Peters recently did what many thought might not happen: He unleashed a Mike Peters & the Alarm album of all new material. That's not to say he hasn't been busy in the past several years. The revered Welsh rocker has been entrenched in solo tours, studio recording and other musical endeavors. He's also worked closely with the cancer-fighting nonprofit he co-founded, Denver-based Love Hope Strength.

The new disc was worth the seven-year wait. Blood Red flirts fantastically with classic sounds from the Alarm's early catalogue. It's perhaps the act's strongest effort since the original group folded and Peters soldiered on. Blood Red is also a testament to Peters's energy and drive, despite considerable challenges. He's been warring with cancer on and off since the mid-’90s, with wife Jules recently joining the fight with her own breast-cancer battle. The documentary Man in the Camo Jacket, released last month, provides an eye-opening view into his work ethic and competing health struggles.

We caught up with Peters prior to the Mike Peters & the Alarm show at the Soiled Dove Underground.

Westword: How are you feeling?

Mike Peters: I'm feeling great. [I'm] really excited to be coming back to America for such a massive tour. We'll be touring right across the states, coast to coast. It feels like a release for us all — and the Alarm family, that is — after the year we've had with Jules being diagnosed with breast cancer and all we've had to go through. We can't wait to let the shackles off and play some rock and roll across the U.S. of A.

How is Jules doing?

She's doing fantastic. She's in hospital right now having her final checkups after all the operations, the chemotherapy and radiotherapy. She met with the surgeon yesterday, and he's really pleased with the progress. He's just doing a belt-and-braces check to make sure everything's okay before Jules leaves on Wednesday for the U.S.A. with myself, the family and the band.

Is the band a three-piece right now?

It's an unusual way to describe the Alarm, because it's more than that [laughs]. There's sort of three main components: a bass, drums and guitar. But at certain shows, I'll get Jules to come up and play piano, organ or some synths — whatever is happening on the show that night. But the way I play guitar these days, I play with acoustic and electric. I've found a way to have the two guitars playing at once almost, so I kind of take a dual guitar role. Also, James (Stevenson) plays guitar, bass and piano during the show, and Smiley, our drummer, jumps off his drum kit and adds stuff as well where applicable. The band has grown out of its own skin, almost, in recent times. I think we've slimmed it down. It's become more effective; we certainly felt that on the British tour. There's a lot more space in the sound. We're really excited to bring it to the USA, because I think where we have it right now, it's a best-of-both-worlds situation. It means we can play everything that's modern about the band, because it's slightly stripped down. We can pare it right back, too, and it sounds like the earliest incarnation of the band, when we first came in ’83, so it can sound like that acoustic guitar amped up and drum-kit fury of the band that's been described as "Bob Dylan meets the Clash" in the past. But we can also bring all the modern elements of what the group has evolved into. We're really excited about how it is. We played some of our biggest shows ever in Britain this last year, so it seems to have become something that the fans have become excited about, as well.

Blood Red pays tribute to the old Alarm in many ways. It's a fantastic album. I hear a lot of influences from the original Alarm, such as Eye of the Hurricane, Strength, Change; all those albums work their way into it. You mentioned in one of your Internet films about the album that Blood Red was "inward-looking." What did you mean by that?

Well, quite literally that. It's only one part of the story. The second part, some people get to hear on some of the shows; there's an element called Viral Black (another new album) that comes to the fore in September. Blood Red is really looking inside to find that resolve to face up to the reality of what we were having to contend with as a family, as a band [and] as a community living in the year that we live in. I felt to be able to put it into some sort of context or to be able to come to terms with the world we're living in right now — especially someone who's lived on the planet for quite a long time — I felt I needed to look deep inside myself first, see where I stood to be able to contemplate the change that was going on all around me. I thought if I could get to grips with myself, then I could start to see the world through the person I am today. When I look back in songs, I see the younger Mike Peters on YouTube and videos; I hear him in the songs I sing, but I want to find out who the Mike Peters is today, and then you start from there. I thought, "Well, the Mike Peters today exists inside me. That's the melting pot of all the experiences." So I looked deep into my heart, into my own soul, to pull these songs out. That's where I started this journey. There's another set of songs where I really used that position I found myself in to look upon the world as I see it today, through the eyes I've been given and the experiences I've undertaken.

Blood Red is a very hopeful record — very honest — and there's also a sense of rest with it. I know there were a lot of things that influenced the lyrics. Do you have a favorite song on the record?

It's hard to say a favorite song, because these pieces that you hear on Blood Red really started with lyrics, and I see them in that glass. To be honest, that's why I haven't released the records on the Internet yet, on streaming services or to be consumed in that way, because to me the lyrics are very important. So I'm not going to say I'll choose a song as my favorite off the album; I could never do that, but I'd say lyrically, it's right up there with what I think is the best work I've done. I feel like I was able to get at the core of what I was trying to express with the record. To do that, I didn't just create songs with a guitar or write lyrics with a pen; they were conceived out in the world, where I'd tap them into my phone on planes. I did a lot of performances with Big Country a couple of years ago. I felt uncomfortable playing guitar or playing music in their dressing-room environments that I knew wasn't for Big Country; I knew that it was music that was going to relate to my own life outside of that entity. So I started working at it a lot just on paper, with words and putting things down without any music at all. That's what led me to the starting point of what became Blood Red. I think, with this record — personally talking — I was able to strip away a layer of allowing people to "see the real me," to quote Pete Townshend from Quadrophenia [laughs].

When you look back at the lyrics, did you ever feel like maybe you were revealing a little bit too much?

Possibly, but I thought, "Well, this is who I am now. This is what I feel about the people most dear to me, about my children, about Jules." I felt I didn't have to write to justify the past of where I've come from or to add to something that has been handed down as part of my legacy, if you like. I felt I wanted a fresh start with the record, the lyrics and the music. That's why I looked inside to find the person that I am today and release that person to be not tied to history to make a record that sounds like it's in the modern era, it's all this 2017. It's always going to have some tie to where I've come from, because that's in the DNA of the structure. But I really wanted it to be a fresh beginning and a new direction right from the outset. It's probably a bit late in the day to say it, but I felt like I could write about love for the first time, my love for a woman, which I've never really been able to do in the past, as such. So I felt quite released on this record to be able to express myself, what I truly felt.

This is going to be a long, hopefully not grueling, tour. How are you preparing for that? Are there things you take into consideration with your health? I know that you exercise regularly. How do you prepare for something like this? I don't think you've done anything like it for a while.

[Laughs.] Well, I've just walked for 150 miles over ten days and hiked the biggest mountain Wales and England can throw at me, so I'm in pretty good shape; that part's helped me prepare for the tour. [Peters had recently finished the By Your Side Walk — a 150-mile fundraiser.] But to be honest, now we've stripped the band back to the real core elements. We're a fantastically tight-knit unit; we're like one little family out on the road. Jules will be at every show; my boys are going to be there. We're making the tour work for us today. We're not in that bubble that sort of destroyed the band in the ’80s, where you're cooped up in a bus with no contact with the outside world. Those pressures are off now. Now we can go out there, we can express ourselves musically how we want to at night in the shows, and we can have a great time during the day, and the children are there; well, I say they're children. They're boys now. They're both in bands themselves, so they'll be a part of the team, and that's how we like it to be. Our fans are a part of that. We are going out to play to audiences; we know a lot of the people out there. There's that famous quote from Charlie Watts and the Stones, and they say, 'How long have you been playing rock and roll?,' and he says, '25 years; five years of playing and twenty years of hanging about.'" Well I've been in rock and roll a lot longer than that, and I've been playing; add up the gigs and it's probably ten years worth of gigs and fifty years of hanging around at the stage door, chatting to the fans, getting to know them [laughs]. Again, that comes with us when we go on the road. We have an event called The Gathering in Wales every year; fans travel to us to experience the music in the home environment that it's created and where the Alarm was born, and Mike Peters lives, and the music comes alive for the first time. We have this relationship with our audience that's a little bit like a family reunion when we get to these shows. Loads of people come back to say hello; we say hello after the show; we've got the Love Hope Strength booth at the shows. We're all actively involved together as a music community, especially those who've been through the years when I've played some shows, and they were small, and now they're coming back to being bigger shows again. We've got those roots into the audience, so we look forward to every night. The tour could be longer if we had our own way, but we've got to come back and do a British tour [laughs].

I don't think you ever forget somebody's name or where he or she is from. How do you do that?

[Laughs.] Of course, I'm human like everyone else, and I don't remember everybody. I think it comes from somewhere along the line my parents gave me an appreciation for life from a very early age. [They] taught me to cherish experiences when they come along and to take them for what they are and to digest them and enjoy them. I think I carried that all the way through when I first came to America by working with U2 and Bono and the agent that we had, Frank Barsalona at Premier Talent. He was a big influence on Bono; he was a big influence on me. He's the guy who brought Led Zeppelin and the Who into America for the first time. He used to say, "Look, Mike. Take note of everywhere you are, because if you're the band they kind of think you're going to be, you'll be coming to America for a long time and people are going to stick with you. You're going to meet them on the journey countless times. It will behoove you well to remember who they are, because in America it's a joint effort: We work together to create the bands, we work together to create the songs that live long on the radio. He taught me a lot of lessons, and same with Bono from U2. [U2] were always, and still are to this day —they welcome all their friends back to say hello. They've never forgotten where they've come from. The guy who played their record on the radio first, he always gets invited back to the show and gets to meet the band. It's about sharing in that whole experience. I've seen a lot of bands from Britain come over, and they're big shots in Britain. They think they don't need to say thank you to a radio DJ who's playing their music on the radio or to a journalist who is writing about their upcoming show. I think, again, partly the first time we ever came to America in 1983, as guests of U2, we were unknown in Britain — pretty much — and we were very unknown in America. I think that helped to really appreciate it and to grow naturally in the relationship with our audiences or all of the people who were supporting our music. That's never changed.

There was a television program — I think it was your birthday — and Bono gave a tribute to you. What was it like for you to be recognized?

Forget someone like Bono, who's got an incredibly — his lifestyle is all-consuming. He never has a minute to himself, I shouldn't imagine, without people wanting something from him or him to recognize causes or to speak on people's behalf. It was actually the anniversary of Declaration (the Alarm's 1984 debut full-length), the thirtieth anniversary of that album. I was performing it for the BBC with an orchestra and choir; it was BBC Music Day in the U.K. Bono and all of U2 surprised me. The BBC asked them if they'd make a comment, and they said, "Yeah." And the next minute, they took time out from recording Songs of Innocence, as they were in the studio. I knew which studio they were in [because] I recognized the wall, back where they were doing it. They sang "Blaze of Glory" [an Alarm staple], and Bono made a tribute [and] wished me well with my health. They don't have to do that kind of thing. It just shows you the measure of the man. He just spoke on the BBC documentary [Mike and Jules: While We Still Have Time] about my wife, Jules, as well. They live up to everything I ever thought they were when I first met them. It's not just Bono; it's the whole band. They are still, to this day, the nicest guys you could wish to meet.

I know that you've had a lot of experiences in Colorado, and Love, Hope, Strength has its U.S. office here. What's your most fond memory of Colorado?

Almost getting to play at Red Rocks with U2 [laughs]. We were there for Under a Blood Red Sky; that was amazing. Then I was there with Jules. We hiked out to Colorado Springs, and we walked across the highest — that footbridge that goes across the canyons and that stuff there. We had an amazing time and always love coming back to Colorado. We're mountain people, Jules and I. We live in Snowdonia in North Wales, so to come to a city that's high up in the mountains always makes us feel like we're back where we belong, to a certain degree. We've got a lot of great memories of being in Denver hiking at Red Rocks. We've done Red Rocks a couple of times and hiked through the canyon lands around the concert venue. It's a spectacular place, and it's certainly a growing city, isn't it? It's really changed since I first came in 1983. I think I talked to you once about going to see Return of the Jedi in Denver. [Peters was actually referring to an interview he did with Jon Solomon for a February 16, 2016, Westword piece.] A Denver family took us in, looked after us for the night and made us breakfast. [We] said, "Wow, this is real America. This is amazing!" Denver opened its door to the Alarm, and we never left [laughs].

You told me a story years ago about touring with the Pretenders. You got up on stage in California, said, "Good evening..." and used the wrong city name. I'm guessing that won't happen on this tour.

[Laughs.] Yeah, let's hope so. No, I don't think that will happen. That was going from San Diego to Santa Barbara. I got it right at first, but I blew it the second time. But, hey, it happens. I've been really thinking forward [laughs].

You mentioned that you had to leave the stage pretty quickly that night.

I did, yeah [laughs]. I saved Chrissie Hynde's life, because she got it wrong completely. I got it wrong, and then she comes on and goes, "Hello, San Diego" and everyone laughed. They carried on with the gig. When she got off at the end of the set, she was like, "Well, why was everyone laughing?" "’Cause you're in Santa Barbara, Chrissie."  She'd done the same three nights in San Diego as us, so she got it wrong. Unfortunately, I got it wrong first [laughs].

Mike Peters & the Alarm, 8 p.m. Tuesday, August 22, Soiled Dove Underground, 7401 East 1st Avenue, $20-$30, 303-830-9214.
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Chris Callaway