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Mike Peters - Interview

  by Kimberly Bright

published: 22 / 12 / 2016

Mike Peters - Interview


While on his 'Spirit of ’86' anniversary tour in North America Alarm frontman Mike Peters discusses with Kimberly Bright his extensive career, punk, technology, his Love Hope Strength Foundation for cancer victims and his Welsh identity

Mike Peters recently extensively toured the U.S. with his retooled Alarm line-up, including guitarist James Stevenson, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the band’s historic 'Spirit of ’86; satellite-broadcasted concert in Los Angeles. The Alarm’s authentic, earnest, punk-inspired ‘80s rock, with hits like '68 Guns,' 'Rain in the Summertime,' 'Strength' and 'Rescue Me' has aged extremely well. To longtime fans’ delight, the band played the Glastonbury Festival this year for the first time. They might not have enjoyed the same level of commercial success as their friends and contemporaries U2, but they’ve also avoided the kind of backlash U2 has suffered in recent years. After the Alarm’s initial break-up in 1991, Mike has been consistently busy with solo work, his ongoing supergroup Dead Men Walking, his famous Poppy Fields hoax that resulted in the film 'Vinyl', and his cancer charity, the Love Hope Strength Foundation. He has also reimagined the Alarm and revisited their back catalog. He spoke to Pennyblackmusic in late September before returning to the UK, and was cheerful, chatty, and much more energetic than anyone has a right to be at that stage of a tour. PB: You’re finishing up an extensive North American tour, playing the Midwest last week and Denver tomorrow night. How’s the tour been going? MP: It’s been a fantastic tour, yeah. We’ve connected with a lot of bands from all eras of the band’s history. It’s a celebration of the 'Spirit of ’86' concert in LA from thirty years ago, our 'Spirit of ’86' broadcast concert [on MTV]. It’s been a historic tour for our band and also for the towns we’ve been playing. PB: With so much travelling, what books have you been reading on tour? MP: I’ve been reading 'Anger is an Energy' by Johnny Rotten, a book about the Replacements and 'Wild Tales' by Graham Nash. All rock and roll books, I’m afraid! PB: Why did you decide to support the Stranglers on their annual UK tour in March? MP: The Alarm began life in 1976 after seeing the Sex Pistols and the Clash and that’s always been what the band’s rooted in. Our relationship with the Stranglers goes back a long way. We’ve played with them on their anniversary tours and at the Albert Hall and they invited us to play with them this time round. So yeah, it's because they like playing gigs and going out. Because again, it was both of us playing together, it was all big venues, like the Electric Ballroom in London, historic venues that we played in our history as a band. We like to go out with a companion band sometimes. It breaks it up when you’re out on the road. It’s more fun. It’s not as lonely. PB: How easy was it balancing your work with Dead Men Walking with the Alarm and your solo career? MP: I think we refresh each other. You always come back to the band if you’ve been out on your own. It’s refreshing and it makes everyone be a little less myopic about life. You’re not just channeling all your energy into one outlet. It’s good for all the members of the band because everyone has their other outlets as well. In the ‘80s, that used to be difficult to convey. Any message was through third parties, magazines or a DJ. While now through the website, you can talk directly to your audience, so you can manage the expectations: this is a solo project, this is the Alarm, and people get it. In the 80s, you might do a solo album and everyone was saying, “Eee, they’re breaking up!” It was very hard to communicate. Everything had to be big at that point in time, but now you can do a soundtrack LP, write music for a play, and it’s not the next step in your career as an artist. It’s something that is just adding information to the big picture. PB: Are you dreading the difficulties Brexit is going to cause British musicians touring in Europe now? MP: Not really, because when I used to tour in the ‘80s with the Alarm, it was a difficult time. We’d have to change our money everywhere. Every time we woke up on the tour bus, you’d have to change your money. You know, I’m all for people keeping their identity. I come from Wales and we had to fight hard for our language and our culture to keep it alive. As things change, you’ve got to go with it. There are always opportunities that can happen when things break apart. You can build something new. PB: The Alarm albums 'Change' and 'Raw' had alternate Welsh language versions, and you’ve done Welsh versions of songs with the Alarm ('Sold Me Down the River') and on your own, like 'Back into the System' in ‘94. Would you consider doing another Welsh language album? MP: Yeah, it’s something we’ve been looking at recently because of television programming for Welsh TV. I’ve considered really going back into the history of the band, because some of the big songs in the '80s that don’t get played on Welsh language radio, because there’s no Welsh language version, obviously that can be played on Welsh language media. So yes, it’s something that I’ve definitely considered and am considering and embracing. We played on the National Welsh Youth Festival. My sons came and played guitar and I was singing in Welsh. They were very young, nine and twelve. Yeah, it’s always going to be part of what I do. PB: What do you think of the increase in bands over the last twenty or so years who have recorded Welsh-only albums, like Gryff Rhys and Super Furry Animals, Euros Childs, Gwenno Saunders and Cate LeBon? Do you have any current favourites? MP: I’ve always liked Gryff’s work and the Super Furries. There are always good bands coming out of Wales, and that was part of what’s inspired me speaking Welsh, because I was first brought up English speaking. I’ve always considered myself Welsh first and foremost, but I couldn’t speak the language. I’m now at that journey, almost like a salmon going back up the river. It’s nice to see artists like Gryff. They go out and make a name for themselves in the world. Speaking in the Welsh language, it’s a challenge for a lot of bands, like Stereophonics and Manic Street Preachers, who’ve recorded a few lines here and there with other artists on their records. I think all Welsh artists should record in Welsh at some point in their life if they can. PB: In the lyrics to the Alarm song 'Spirit of ’76' why did you set the song in Liverpool? MP: Well, I used to go to a club called Eric’s on Mathew Street, which is where I saw the Clash and other punk bands, and that’s where a lot of my musical education came from. Eric’s is opposite where the Cavern used to be, and the sign above the door at Eric’s Club was “The Beatles – Four Lads Who Shook the World.” That’s where I came of age. I was thinking about going down there and experiencing the thrill of music, and how life changing it can be when you’re young. But also, how the force of rock and roll can take advantage of young people and pull them into different directions because there aren’t just managers and agents trying to pick you up in these clubs, there are people trying to sell you drugs and lead you down dark paths. Some of my friends, and I lost a lot of friends to that direction. I was thinking about that time when we were first aware of the world - we had just started channeling our energy - and just how life can take you in different directions even though you come from the same background and start life in the same point in time. PB: Were you aware of the American connotation of the term (the American Revolution in 1776) or the Archibald Willard painting of the wounded revolutionaries called 'Spirit of ‘76' that was used everywhere in 1976? MP: I’m aware of the phrase, because I saw a lot of art pieces associated with it, but I didn’t know there was a specific one. I think when we came to America in 1983, and it wasn’t that far away from the bicentennial, and there was a lot of 'Spirit of ‘76' plates and lots of memorial artifacts had been left over from the bicentennial year. As a punk rocker who’d seen the Sex Pistols almost forty years ago in 1976, I just saw the connotations of my life, really, straight away and my generation particularly coming of age with the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the punk movement and so stole the idea of the 'Spirit of ’76'; and America and applied it to punk rock. PB: Have you seen any of the 40th anniversary of punk celebration events or exhibitions in London? MP: I wanted to go see the bands when they played the Albert Hall Festival celebration. I know the Buzzcocks were out there and all the bands that are still alive and making music, and, as I am talking about my coming of age and the 'Spirit of ‘76'...I think it’s a timely reminder of how still relevant that whole thing was, but so was the civil rights music from the ‘60s, which is celebrated at times. Punk gave voice to a lot of people, so it’s only right that it should be remembered and looked at in a historical context. PB: Your Poppy Fields hoax (in which the Alarm pretended to be a new, younger band in order to get airplay) was one of the most magnificent hoaxes of all time. If you did it for the first time now, how would you do it differently? MP: (Laughs) Obviously there was no blueprint to it. We just tried it out, and it was an illustrative act. I wouldn’t say it was frustrating, but a wall kept coming up because you’d hit a certain age. With a lot of the new music that had come around since we started, it felt like nobody was listening to music the same way outside of their own circle. So we just came up with the idea of pretending to be someone else so we could be heard. It’s something that we had to do in the early stage of the band to get a gig at the Marquee Club in London. Before the Alarm the guy knew us and said, “Oh, I don’t like them. They were called Seventeen once. I don’t like them.” So we had to pretend we were called the Black Sheep to get a gig at the Marquee. The guy who was booking the show said, “Oh, this band, we’re going to make a lot of money.” Our manager had to say, “Look, that’s the band you wouldn’t book! They used to be Seventeen, now they’re the Alarm. They haven’t changed.” We were sort of used to doing it. Ironically at the same time we did the Poppy Fields hoax, I heard a story that Madonna was planning a similar thing the week after, and another band called Del Amitri in Scotland were planning the same thing the week after us as well. It just goes to show that these ideas come around because of who you are and the life you’ve lived, and quite a few people often arrive at the same point in time and have similar thinking. Luckily we got in there first and kicked the doors open for ourselves. PB: Have things changed in the music business for the better or worse for an older musician since then? MP: I think a lot of things have changed, of course they have -the spirit of making music and exchanging it with other people, that idea hasn’t necessarily changed. I suppose the medium of expression itself has changed. You know, kids are still making music like I was when I started out in 1976. I started with very limited musical skills and knowledge. I couldn’t play chords on the guitar, but I could write lyrics and shout them over a microphone. Nowadays young people, like my own boys, are exchanging music on their computers. They’re cutting out things with their computer laptops, and they’re bringing in words that a friend is emailing them and adding them while they’re playing a FIFA Live soccer game over the internet. Music can be made with people who aren’t in the same room, and I think that’s the difference. To make music in 1977 when I started, you wanted to be in the same room as people, but now you don’t have to be. We do that in the Alarm when we share: I write a song and send it to the bass player, who lives in America, and he sends me the bass line back. That happens. Young kids, they’re faster and more furious than we do it. They can really live in that atmosphere. It’s alien to us in our fifties or whatever. In my case, with young lads about to be teenagers, they can really live in that, and they don’t have anything else before that. They don’t need to be in the same room, because they never had to do that. They aspire to be in the same room. My kids were on the phone saying, “Dad, we’ve written a song. When you get back can we record it in your studio? Can we have a backdrop when we play at your next gig?” and all this stuff. They were designing T-shirts at the age of eight. I said, “Wow, you haven’t even made an album yet, but good on you!” PB: It has been thirty-three years since '68 Guns' first thrust the Alarm into the public eye. Are you at all surprised at the longevity of the Alarm’s music, your career as an artist, and your ability to negotiate all these changes? MP: No, I think it’s exciting. You know, I’m always saying to people when they ask me “How did you make it in music?” or “What do I need to do?” and I say, don’t do anything different from what you’re doing. Write your songs, play music, and if it’s meant to take you to the Super Bowl and play at halftime, then that’s where it’ll take you. But if it’s just meant to be played once a weekend when you get together with your friends after work, then enjoy that too. It’s all valid, and it’s as important as each other. It’s making music that’s what important, and then enjoying the journey you’re on, not forcing it. If you make music good enough, it’ll bring the world to see you. We’re not all that. That’s someone else’s position in life, maybe. Some of us are just meant to play and enjoy the thrill of hearing chords and lyrics and exchanging with other people the music that we’re capable of making. It’s there to be enjoyed, not to become embittered about, become angry about, become frustrated with. That can threaten your life, as it has done with a lot of musicians. It’s a tragedy when it becomes that, when it stops being fun. PB: What do you like about (Alarm guitarist) James Stevenson’s guitar playing? Are your influences similar? Mike Peters: We both come from a same background from starting out life as young punk rockers. James is a very versatile guitarist. He plays in a lot of other bands as well as the Alarm, so he has much more versatility and other skills he can go right across the board. Some guitarists I’ve played with have got a very definitive sound and can only just do that one thing, but James can come in and play music from all eras of the band’s history. He doesn’t sound like just one part of the life of the band. He’s got a good array of sounds he can play and a massive pedal collection, and he’s got a lot of ability, and he’s a great presence onstage. PB: As someone who has had a lot of experience dealing with the health care industry as a cancer survivor, and who has helped a lot of other people through your Love Hope Strength Foundation, are you proud of the NHS? What’s your opinion of it and the ongoing attempts to dismantle it? MP: I’m alive because of the NHS, so I can only say good things about the NHS. They’ve been amazing with me and my family. You take life as you find it. I’ve only had great experiences with the NHS, but I appreciate that it is a partnership, and you get out of it what you put into it as well. It’s not a free ride to a good, healthy life. If you want to be healthy, you have to work at it outside of hospital as well. The NHS is a human institution. It starts with the nurses, then it’s got doctors, and it’s got porters. It’s got the people who make cups of tea, people who clean and volunteer to man the reception areas and sell the newspapers, and are doing it all for free. It’s a real partnership between the whole community working together to keep all of us healthy, and sometimes that gets taken for granted and it gets lost that it’s only funded by the government, but it is funded actually by so many people who come through the healthcare system and the NHS. I’m so grateful for the people who cycle their bikes. They run the roads, make the cakes, and raise the funds, thousands and thousands and millions of pounds to keep it going. You can’t just take away from the NHS, and that’s its burden. A lot of people just take from it, and that’s great, but you have to put back in, and that’s what we try to do with our [Love Hope Strength Foundation] appeal by inviting and appealing to people to put back into the NHS. You can’t just rely on the government to come up with all the funding, not with the way we’re all being diagnosed a lot earlier now. We’re all more aware. People are changing because of all the chemicals in food and the access to fast foods, foods that aren’t good, so we have to meet that demand together to protect the NHS, because it is a beautiful organization. PB: Wonderful. That’s great. I really appreciate your sharing your insight on that. MP: Thanks very much. PB: I hope the rest of the tour in the UK goes well too. MP: Absolutely. Thanks for all the questions. Brilliant!

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Mike Peters - Interview

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