Mike Peters of The Alarm on Facing Death and Facing Forwards

Music Features The Alarm
Mike Peters of The Alarm on Facing Death and Facing Forwards

When Mike Peters sat down to play a Seventh Seal-serious game of chess with Death back in 1986, the Alarm singer imagined a clear winner standing up from the table at some point. But his bout with CLL (chronic lymphocytic leukemia) still drags on, his opponent more like William Sadler’s Bergman-spoofing Grim Reaper from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, who—after each embarrassing Clue, Twister, and Battleship loss to two stoners—keeps demanding “Best two out of three!,” then “Best three out of five!” So his decision was inevitable, really—why not make art out of the prolonged ordeal (which had been compounded by his wife Jules’s simultaneous breast cancer diagnosis last year), via The Alarm’s new Forwards volley, a mortality-minded concept album written—and even partially-recorded—during long life-saving leukemia treatments in a local Welsh hospital.

The set is a soul-stirring career high for Peters, who won this latest round and transmuted base-metal suffering into anthemic gold on the opening title track, which peals with The Alarm’s classic amplified-acoustic-guitar assault, and tumbles into a faith-centric “The Returning,” stadium-huge “Another Way,” a punky “Next” (with the telling admission, “Whatever’s trying to get me/ Makes me feel alive”), and a rose-windowed chiming cathedral, “Transition,” that’s something of a mission statement; Peters, in his charismatic vocal rasp, declare that he really wants to live, and he’ll do whatever’s necessary to achieve that goal. Two socio-political commentaries close out the disc—“New Standards” and “X”, but somehow, all 10 tracks together roil with the same fervent spirit as the band’s definitive 1984 debut on IRS Records, Declaration, and its signature hits “Marching On,” “Blaze of Glory,” and “Sixty Eight Guns.”

But for a while, once Peters’s condition recurred in September of last year, it looked like Death might wind up winning. But so far, knock wood, the 64-year old sighs, he’s in remission again and plotting the band’s next tour with velvet-glove care. “So at the moment, I’m mindful of what I can do, because I’m still having treatments every two weeks,” says the artist, who still plans to maintain Coloursound, his side project with Cult guitarist Billy Duffy; he also oversees his Love Hope Strength charity, and an annual Welsh music festival dubbed The Gathering that he first launched in 1993. “And they keep ‘em two weeks apart in case I react to one, so they’ll know which one is causing the reaction. So I’m hoping I can push those weeks apart, which would give me a three-week break, and I could come to America and play ten or twelve dates in that time and not tax myself too much.” But maybe it’s the karmic kickback from all of the man’s generous charity work that helped him and his wife overcome this latest close call.

Peters also leases a block of waterfall-adjacent apartments in his scenic hometown of Dyserth, alongside a restaurant, hotel, even a yoga studio, plus his own personal recording studio where he and Duffy are planning a dramatic change for the next Coloursound effort. “Maybe it’s time to go Goth, after all this life and death stuff I’ve been through,” he reveals. “And we could hire Sisters of Mercy’s drum machine, Doktor Avalanche!” And it certainly beats another chess match with Death….

Paste: You and I talked right at the beginning of the pandemic, and everything seemed fine. So which happened first after that—your being diagnosed with pneumonia, or the recurrence of your CLL?

Mike Peters: I think it all started going out of control during the pandemic, because of the isolation rules that were in place. I couldn’t go to the hospital, and I never got to see my doctor. I still haven’t seen my main hematologist for four years! And things went out of control, so obviously the stats weren’t quite revealing until I had a face-to-face meeting, and by then it was discovered that I had the pneumonia, and the pneumonia really kicked off the leukemia again, and my lungs filled with blood, and I ended up in a very critical position, really. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it out alive, but I did, so I’m grateful for that. But yeah—I think the pandemic really disrupted everything, in terms of my medical and health situation.

Paste: And from outside appearances, it seemed like you were staying busy.

Peters: I was! Until April of last year, it was The Alarm’s 40th anniversary, but it had gotten delayed because of the pandemic, so we did the tour in April and May, and it was amazing, it was fantastic, a full-on British tour, big shows every night, we were playing 32 songs in an hour and forty-five minutes, pretty intense. But during the day, I wasn’t well—I was coughing, I found it hard to sleep, I was having night sweats. But as soon as I stepped over the line and went onstage, I was fine—I could sing full-tilt. But obviously, everything was going out of control, and day by day, it was probably getting a little bit worse, but it wasn’t visible in the stats. It was nothing like that—it was just that everything was going out of whack, slightly, until when the tour finished, and then it really got bad, and I could hardly walk. When I got home, a few weeks after the tour, I couldn’t walk up the hill outside my house. I couldn’t walk up the field to see my son play football. And then I knew something really bad was up, so I went to the hospital, and when I was diagnosed with pneumonia, which is the worst thing that can happen to you when you’re a (CCL) survivor, so I knew then that that wasn’t going to be the end of it. So it was probably just the beginning of it.

Paste: So where was the hospital? There in Wales?

Peters: In Wales, yeah. But I went with my hematologist—he moved hospitals down the coast about 45 miles away, so I went in there because I’ve been with him a long time, and when it was kicking off, he advised me to go see a new doctor back in the hospital where I started from, and he said by going there I was allowed access to treatments he wasn’t allowed to prescribe under the regime he was working with at the new hospital. So I got lucky then, really. Because it was pretty groundbreaking treatment, and for a while I improved under it, but then it stopped working. And it never worked 100% for me—I think my blood count was always slightly out of whack, there was always something going on. But now my new doctor has prescribed a new treatment called Vanesoplax, and that treatment was something I had to get used to. I had to start with a ten milligram dosage and work my way up to a 400-milligram one a day. So that’s part of the reason I was in the hospital for such a long time—my body was being taught how to tolerate this drug. But since I’ve started taking it, there were a few collisions between the old regime and the new one, but eventually I was able to tolerate the full dose, and my doctor said I’d made a perfect transition from the old drug to the new one, and my blood count is absolutely normal. I mean, I’m going into hospital tomorrow for more treatment, and I have to be in hospital every two weeks for IV sessions and other treatments that back up the Vanesoplax, and go in intravenously and work on me. But yeah—I’m lucky to be alive! But my doctors have always said, “”Well, let’s not make the cure worse than the disease,” so they’ve always held off on going through bone marrow transplants with me, because that was far too heavy. So they’ve always sought other treatments and therapies. And it’s like a game of Donkey Kong—just when I get to the end of one level, he climbs up to another one.

Paste: All of which led to the new Forwards, one of your most inspired records, ever. When did these songs start occurring?

Peters: Well, most of them started in hospital, when I was there, usually for a long time, the long haul. I asked Jules if she’d bring my guitar in, to have by my bed, and most people there probably thought, “What’s he doingThe Old Grey Whistle Test, and they used to say there that if the people sweeping up the floors there started whistling your song, it was a good one. So there was something like that going on there—the nursing staff would come to clean in the morning, or it was the orderlies who would do the cleaning up, and I could see them lingering a little bit longer by my bed while I was working out a chord sequence In front of them. So I always had a little audience that started to become quite receptive to me, and it was quite nice for me—and for them, too—to have a bit of music and a bit of life going on around the whole situation.

Paste: Now are they all getting backstage passes to your upcoming Cardiff show?

Peters: Funnily enough, Yes! And we had The Gathering in January in North Wales, and loads of the NHS came to that show, and it was great. I was playing in the round on a Friday night, and I could see lots of them in their seats, singing along. And I was thinking, “Wow! They know more about the new music than the band!”

Paste: But you’ve always kept up with technology, too. I remember you playing solo at the Fillmore once, using a minidisc system in lieu of a backing band onstage, like Peaches used to do.

Peters: Yeah. That’s right. And I like all that stuff. And oddly enough, it started for me back when we nearly did our second album back in 1985 with Jimmy Iovine. We went to New York to play a concert, and we did a week of pre-production with Jimmy in a studio in New York, and he didn’t come all the time, but when he’d come in, he’d have insights into your music for you. And he said to me at the time, “Have you ever thought about writing with a drum machine? It would just give you something to play to while you’re strumming your guitar, and it could push you into different directions.” And I thought, “Okay,” so we got a drum machine and we started working with it, and I found it quite good, because you always had something to anchor you while you were playing. And from there, we got into playing with sequencers, like when The Who came along with “Baba O’Reilly,” so we started experimenting with new technology in The Alarm, and it’s never gone away completely. So in a way, The Alarm has always been an acoustic band, but we’ve always had technology at the center of it. When we had acoustic guitars, our technology was to put a Gibson amplifier pickup into an acoustic guitar, so you could hear it as loud as a Gibson. So technology has always been there, and I use it a lot, especially when I do my one-man shows—I play kick drum with my feet, and I loop it and play it back so I can move to another microphone. So yeah—you should use technology to your advantage.

Paste: So how did you keep the rhythm in the hospital, then? With spoons clickety-clacking?

Peters: Ha! Well, with the click-click-click of, you can call ‘em killing or living machines, whichever way you look at it. Because there was a lot of that going on, like someone’s heart monitor, going beep-beep-beep. And it’s going all night, so I’d wake up with those notes in my head, but I don’t know if that recorded through the album too much or not, or if I only sang songs in that key.

Paste: Were there some songs that were just too dark for the album?

Peters: Yeah, probably a few. There was one song called “Passover” that didn’t make the album, and it was quite dark, like with “Heaven’s rain is falling down” or something like that in the chorus. I mean, it had optimism, but it was dark, like “These are Biblical times.” And there was another one I had called “The Last Words of Johnny Rotten” that didn’t make it, that had the chorus line of “Ever get the feeling that you’ve been cheated,” which were the last words of Johnny Rotten when he left the stage in San Francisco that fateful night. So not everything was derived from being in hospital, but the core of the record was, that’s for sure.

Paste: In “Next,” you sing “Whatever’s trying to get me/ Makes me feel alive.”

Peters: Yeah. Well that’s it—that’s what it felt like. I was in hospital, and my glands were so swollen, it was like I had tennis balls in my neck. It was so bad, I didn’t want to look in the mirror because I couldn’t even recognize myself. It was scary, and I thought, “The only way I can get through this is, I’ve got to respect what I’m up against and allow it to be—I can’t pretend it’s not happening and wish it away. I have to embrace, so I’m gonna let this come to me, and I’m gonna take it on, and I’m gonna relish the game, I’m gonna relish the battle. I’m gonna try and be the winner here, and the only way to do that is by respecting the opponent.” Which were the drugs, because they come into you and they are killing part of you that you’ve created within yourself, in the biology of your humanity. You’ve created these things that are trying to kill you this time, so my way to combat them was to recognize them, give some respect, and say, “But you’re not gonna get the best of me—I’m gonna fight back with all I’ve got.” And that’s been my mindset all along, ever since I first heard the word ‘cancer’ applied to my life back in 1995.

Paste: I talked to Ian Astbury a few months ago, and he listed all the crazy times he nearly died, like almost freezing to death in a poorly-chosen windbreaker on a Himalayan mountaintop. He’s probably had even more close-call squeakers than you.

Peters: Yeah, maybe. But I’m lucky—I haven’t been in that kind of a situation. Although the whole of The Alarm were involved in a car crash the night after we played Top of the Pops in 1983. We’d come home from America, and we went on Top of the Pops, and flew straight back to America and then came home. And we came back to start playing a tour, and our first show was at a university in Wales. But while we were there, my 12-string guitar with pickups on it got stolen after the gig, and the tour manager, Simon Watson—who is now the manager of the Human League—he was so angry that I’d lost the guitar that he drove like a crazed person across North Wales that night, and we were all trying to get him to slow down, but he was getting angrier, and we came to this corner turn in a place called Bala, and we went ‘round the corner and the car lost control and we went straight through the hedges and into the fields. We all came around, but the car was upside down and we all had to crawl out of the vehicle, all of us. And a little old lady came up to us from nearby and said, “Come in and have a cup of tea! Our house is called Car Crash Cottage, and it looks like we’ve had another one!” It was a famous house, but Simon wouldn’t have known it because it was pitch-black that night. So our career almost ended before it began—we were lucky to come out alive.

Paste: In “The Returning,” you sing about the afterlife. Have you had any glimpses of it? And in “Forwards,” you talk about being “In the church of nonbelievers,” so what part does faith play in it all?

Peters: Yeah. “Forwards” was really my place where I could ‘Save my sanity,’ if you like, while I was in hospital. In between the IV sessions, I would be disconnected, and I could wander down the corridors and walk, and kind of save my muscle strength a little bit, because you really need to keep moving, and not just be in hospital, lying there all the time. So they said, “You can go, but just don’t go too far,” so my hospital walk was just up and down the corridors, but it was at night, and you’d see people at their loneliest in that time, when there no visitors and people had masks on, and I could see some people crying sometimes, and you’d wonder, “Wow. What’s going on there?” But if you kept walking, you’d pass by the natal clinic, where people are giving birth, with absolute joy on their faces. And then I’d meet some people on the ward who virtually gave up. You could tell that they’d given up, and they didn’t seem to want to communicate. And to me, they were in the church of the non-believers, those people I saw in the hospital, in the streets of emptiness and the city’s all deserted. So my little ward became my world, and I would wander through it at night, and in my mind, I would keep looking for the way out. I wanted that way forward, I was looking for that sign that I was gonna come out alive. I wasn’t sure if I was, at first, but I didn’t wanna become a disbeliever, either. I wanted to hang on and will the drugs to work, will the doctors to do their best, sing for the nurses so they could give me their best, and I could give my best to what they were trying to do, as well. So I tried to always think about that. But it’s a sad state of affairs when you’re in health care in the UK—and it’s free, and it’s brilliant—but doctors and the staff are briefed to not give any false hope, not really allowed to say to you, “Hey, we think you’re gonna make it!” Because if you don’t make it, somebody out there will sue them, and say, “You said he was going to get well, and he didn’t—he died, and it’s your fault!” So they won’t give you any of that false hope at all, so that was probably my walk through the afterlife—realizing that I might be transforming into a more dangerous disease, which people who’ve been suffering Leukemia for a long time can. So the doctors were worried about that, too, and they kept giving me this test and that test. And it was all trying to rule things out, but they didn’t want to frighten me or frighten my family, or give me false hope or any misinformation that could backfire on them. So I’m grateful for what I received from the NHS.

Paste: Did you get to talk to any of those lost-cause patients and maybe help bring them back to optimism?

Peters: Well, I got moved around a bit after I arrived. But yeah, I think just by playing music, with some people, it put a little bit of energy into the room, shall we say? It wasn’t a thing where people could ignore me, being in a hospital playing a guitar, because I’ve done it a lot with my charity Love Hope Strength—we’ve hosted a few things at Christmas time called The Big Busk, and I’d go and sing in all the hospitals, across them all, and sing in the corridors and sing for the surgeons, and go ‘round the wards. And it always had a massively powerful effect—I know that, and I could tell this time when I had my guitar, that this could really lift us all, and I think it gave some of the patients a lift, as well. And I wasn’t looking for that kind of feedback myself—I was just looking to stay alive, to be honest!

Paste: “Love disappearing” has some of your most fervent vocals ever, I think.

Peters: Well, I think I probably pitched it a bit too high. But I had to really push myself. And I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to sing that one, but what happened was, as soon as I got out of hospital, I put some demos down as fast as I could, and I took the demos to our producer George, but I started having all this other kind of treatment, and it was really impacting on my voice, and I wasn’t sure if my voice was gonna come back. So I’d say to George, “Look—we might have to treat this record posthumously, even though I’m still, because maybe Mike Peters, the singer, isn’t around so much. So you might have to just work with the demos.” But he liked the demos as they were, and said, “Let’s just keep on working—you’ve got the tempos worked out right, and there’s a spirit to them that I think has to remain. That sort of moment of creation has to remain.” So we just built on top of them, and then luckily, I got my voice back, so I just got in and sang them over a couple of days. So we recorded the album, start to finish, in literally two weeks, with only a couple of days off.

Paste: And you finally wade into politics on the two closing cuts, “New Standards” and “X.” Three years since lockdown, and we’ve learned nothing.

Peters: Yeah. And the whole Ukraine thing happened, and social media is out of control—people are still learning how to use it, because there are so many new things about it that we’re still coming to terms with. I kind of feel like going underground, and coming back again at another time, when everyone’s learned how to get along again. But there’s a lot of disruption in people’s lives, with the economy and wars all over the world, so it’s hard to know what to put your faith in these days.

Paste: I would be remiss not to ask how [your wife] Jules is. That was another spanner in the works, as Kate Bush would say, that you didn’t see coming.

Peters: Oh, man. When I was in hospital, we had the Love Hope Strength festival in the Sahara Desert, and at first we had a conflict because I couldn’t go, obviously. So Jules said, “No, I’ll go! And everyone’s gonna love it.” So she went and raised over 100,000 pounds, some serious money raised. We raised money for cancer care in Africa, where Jules was trekking, and I was able to speak to them from my hospital bed, by Zoom, and it was amazing. So I was kind of there, but not there, so Jules really picked up the mantle, and she’s changed as a result—she didn’t like to speak in public before, but she can do now and she’s really inspiring, because a lot of women really connect with her. And now she mentors a lot of women who suffer from breast cancer, so she does a lot of unseen work helping other women through the disease. And we’ve taken over my old studio in a chapel, and cancer patients can now stay there as a retreat. So it’s all amazing, really, and we’ve got an Alarm Staycation there this weekend, and in the pandemic, Jules worked out that we could do gigs with thirty people—that’s what we were allowed. And they could all stay in their apartments. And so we started doing internet broadcasts, and I’d play songs on a Saturday night that the fans wanted to hear and take requests.

Paste: So what are these Alarm Apartments by the Dysertal Waterfalls in Wales? And how do they work?

Peters: They’re built into the congregation area of the chapel, and were used mainly as storage. There are two on the ground floor, two on the first floor, and then a huge penthouse—they’re pretty spectacular, and we use them as holiday lets, and at the back end of the chapel’s where my studio was, but now we have a lot of yoga retreats there, and now we’ve bought the hotel next door, so we’ll keep it family owned—it’s a Victorian hotel called The Red.

Paste: Have you ever had a glimpse of the fabled Other Side?

Peters: No, but I’ve definitely faded out one time, and that was strange. I was in a hospital, and my blood count was half a million at the time, and I was having a treatment called leukapheresis, and I had needles sticking out of both arms, trying to get the bad white blood out of my system. And everything started going gray, and I was slipping down the bed. And luckily, the nurse had put a cardboard TV box at the top of the bed, and that kept me from slipping down the bed and out of reality. So the box kind of pulled me back, and Jules put some music on for me, and ironically I heard Big Country, and Stuart Adamson singing, “Like a lover’s voice on the mountainside…Stay alive!” And I thought, “Yes! I’m gonna stay alive!” And I pulled myself back out of it.

Paste: Which is a perfect example. A great song like “In a Big Country” or The Alarm’s “Blaze of Glory” can truly save your life.

Peters: It can definitely help you stay alive, without a doubt. Having a great song in your heart is a wonderful feeling. When their kids are being born, people have music, and at their funerals or at their weddings—it’s a big part of the biggest occasions in their lives, so when you’re struggling, I think you need an appropriate piece of music. And we’ve all done it—you come out of a bad day at work, and your boss has been on your back and you feel threatened. But you put that song on that you particularly like, and there’s no feeling like it. Like when that song gets a hold of you, and you hear Bruce singing “Roll back the window and let the wind blow back your hair” in “Thunder Road.” You only do that when a really great song gets a hold of you.

Paste: Call me curious, but have you actually planned your own future funeral yet?

Peters: I haven’t made any specific plans, but I think I wouldn’t mind being buried near the waterfalls, because there’s been a lot of our lives lived in this village, and there are a lot of people who come to this waterfalls, and they bring their family ashes to scatter there. And they do it secretly, but I know that it’s been done, and I think that’s kind of cool, going back to the water. But I’m sure I’ll be under pressure to have “(Going out in a) Blaze of Glory” played at my funeral, I think.

Paste: Call me ghoulish, but I can imagine the pallbearers lowering your casket into the ground and the lid popping open with you suddenly shouting, “Waidaminnut! I’ve got One! More! Song!”

Peters: Ha! I’ll take that! And I could imagine that happening! Brilliant! Now that would be a real blaze of glory!

Listen to an exclusive performance by The Alarm from June 29, 1983—40 years ago this month!

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