The Alarm's Mike Peters on life, luck, and a long-running career
By Mark C. Horn
From its earliest utterances, rock 'n' roll was the music parents hated and the music that gave hope to many wayward teenagers in search of identity, and an out from the repression of adult authority. Much has changed, as it has also spawned rallies and even, fundraising.
For lead singer-guitarist of the legendary 1980s veteran Wales band The Alarm, Mike Peters, it is at the center of his musical and physical existence. There is no art here imitating life. Peters has always written about taking the fight to the battle for his beliefs. But beyond the music, he has won in his battles with cancer, not once, not twice, but three times over the past 25 years.
His experiences with cancer inspired his charity Love, Hope and Strength, which is now the world's leading music-centric cancer organization. It got its name from the title track of The Alarm’s second album Strength made it 1985. Peters lyrics prophetic lyrics, “Who will light the fire that I need to survive? Who will be the lifeblood coursing through my veins?”
His story is a thing of
Mike Peters first hit the world music scene with his Welsh rock band The Alarm back in the early 1980s with dramatic and anthemic gritty country-punk battle anthems like “68 Guns”, The Spirit of 76” “Blaze of Glory” and “The Stand.”
He and his bandmates from a neighborhood in the seaside resort and factory town of Rhyl Wales, bass guitarist Eddie MacDonald, drummer Nigel Twist and guitarist Dave Sharp fought hard to differentiate their sound from the sea of U2 sound-alikes of the time, and to create their own signature style. They did just that, and between 1981 and 1991 the quartet amassed 17 UK Top 50 hits and sold more than five million records, including, “Rain in the Summer Time” “Sold Me Down the River” and “Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke?”
After five successful albums and 10 years together, a fissure began to split the band’s members over songwriting leadership and music direction. The culmination of this tug-of-war would come when Peters would announce on the Brixton Academy concert stage in 1991 unbeknownst to the band and fans alike, that he was leaving the band after that show.
Four years later while reconstructing his career on a solo front, and in between his first two solo albums Breathe in ’95 and Feel Free in ’96, Peters was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in while preparing a US solo tour. He would somehow survive the scare.
Peters was finding it hard to gain favor with radio stations, who were looking for the next young and brash punk band. So, Peters gave them what they wanted, or so they thought.
Under the band alias the Poppy Fields, Peters’ new Alarm incantation released a new super-charged single “45 RPM” in 2004. A young band the Chesters were hired to play on the single’s official video, only they lip-synched. The hoax was to prove that an old group could create a fresh punk single, and it did just that by peaking at No. 28 on the UK singles chart.
The true identity of The Alarm was then revealed on Top of The Pops which led to a media frenzy worldwide, including a TV appearance on CBS Headline News with Dan Rather. The hoax was made into a movie called Vinyl created by fellow Welsh native and longtime Alarm fan, film writer-director Sara Sugarman in 2013.
In 2005, after being then diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocyte Leukemia (CLL), he would survive again, somehow. Good fortune and well-timed fate would come calling a year later for Peters when longtime Alarm fan and US entrepreneur and CSI Entertainment president James Chippendale, a fellow leukemia survivor and successful bone marrow transplant recipient, formed a charitable partnership with Peters. The two survivors created a cancer awareness and bone marrow transplant registry awareness with Love, Hope and Strength.
After going into remission, cancer came back in 2015 and the next year, his battled widened when his wife of now 30 years, Jules, mother of their two teen sons Dylan and Evan, came down with breast cancer. She made her story bravely visual and public to break the stigma that can dehumanize those stricken with cancer and was praised in the world media.
Each time the grim reaper had knocked on their door, he Peters have stared it down and fought on and lived on. In fact, their epic struggles and journey were recorded on The Man in The Camo Jacket, filmed over eight years by noted film-maker Russ Kendall. The film landed on several award stages including Best Music Documentary at the Arizona International Film Festival in 2017.
The film tells the story of Peters’ ups and with cancer, and chronicles his unlikely trek 18,536 feet trip up a venerable Mount Everest’s base camp, to raise awareness and funds for the cancer charity, Peters and Chippendale were graced with the accompaniment of Slim Jim Phantom of the Stray Cats, Glen Tilbrook of Squeeze and Cy Curnin of The Fixx. Besides raising awareness for cancer causes, the concert performed made it the highest elevation concert ever recorded in the world, and the event was covered on MTV and in a documentary, Everest Rocks.
Peters and Chippendale’s LHS have since staged UK fundraising treks including the summit of Mount Snowdon (outside of Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor, North Wales) where Peters was treated and inspired, Mount Kilimanjaro, and Mount Fuji, Japan. Funds raised have enabled LHS to fund the installation of the first-ever mammography machine at Bhaktapur Cancer Center in Kathmandu, build a Children’s Cancer Unit in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and has funded a multitude of other cancer projects within the UK.
Last October, LHS took their cancer-fighting caravan into the depths of the Grand Canyon on a journey called Rock the Canyon. The hike and concert trip culminated with a finale concert with The Alarm in Las Vegas.
Amid all the fight for life and charitable work, Peters and band, now consisting of multi-talented guitarist and bassist James Stevenson (The Cult, Gene Loves Jezebel), Steve ‘Smiley” Barnard (Robby Williams and Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros) on drums and Jules on keyboards, have not forgotten the vehicle that connects them with fans: the music. In fact, the band’s latest effort, Sigma, was released this summer was produced by George Williams, who first worked with The Alarm on Under Attack in 2005. The album is sonic and anthemic and has received a wellspring of positive reviews. Having Sharp and semi-regular guest Billy Duffy of The Cult record with them, added extra guitar virtuosity and verve.
Echo Magazine caught up with Mike as he and the band are preparing for the second leg of the band’s 2019 US tour of 39 dates with Modern English and Gene Loves Jezebel, which includes The Celebrity Theatre, July 31. Peters talked about the new album, the fight against cancer, the Love, Hope and Strength Foundation, and his real rock and roll journey to salvation.
Echo: Sigma is the 18th letter of the Greek alphabet and in definition, is the symbol of mathematical sum or conclusion. You recently released the 18th album (if you include your eponymous EP The Alarm in 1983) by the same name. What does Sigma mean to you?
Wow, I didn’t realize that. To me it means it was the conclusion of a really
challenging period, but not just for me and Jules, but for the whole band, and
the fans, all our extended family, of people who have been caught up in our
story these last few years, not just the band, but our charity Love, Strength
Echo: It isn’t every day a rock 'n' roller such as yourself has his story gets told through his music.
Peters: And we’ve all
lived this story to a degree, it’s been a very public story, my leukemia
relapse, and Jules getting diagnosed with breast cancer on top of it, and with
the story being captured on film (The Man in the Camo Jacket documentary
that came out in 2017 directed by American filmmaker and musician Russ
Echo: You have mentioned that Sigma and Equals (released last year) were written in the lyrics and music as if they simply worked through you, almost like a conduit. Can you explain?
Peters: You couldn’t
conceive Equals and Sigma. You have to just respond to the
predicaments life throws you in, and the songs that it sends you into these
situations. The songs arrive at this conclusion for Sigma. I didn’t generate
them necessarily, I just helped give birth to them; the midwife. That’s my role
in this whole birthing process.
never really seems to be done with cancer. It is either lingering in the back
of your mind, or it rears its ugly head, as it has done for you, Mike. So how
are you and Jules doing?
Peters: We’re both
fantastic. We’ve come through the worst of times. I think the biggest indicator
for me is when is that when this whole journey started, I relapsed with
Leukemia and had to go through an uncertain period, and luckily got accepted
onto a clinical trial for a brand new drug that was described as oral
chemotherapy. And, I have been taking that for the last three years now, and
it’s helped me stay alive through this whole period to create this music.
Echo: Your relationship with Jules, not only as your spouse, and mother of your two boys but a primary band member, is a unique one. Can you quantify her influence and inspiration?
Peters: It reinforces why I fell in love with her in the first place. When you make a commitment to somebody based on the fact that you love each other, you really don’t know how deep that well is til it’s truly tested, and that’s what cancer does. It tests everything about your relationship. We’ve come through stronger, brighter, more in love than ever before. I think for The Alarm to have a female presence on stage, it keeps us in step with modern times where women are increasingly taking the lead in society. I’m so proud of her.
hit a big milestone this past February, turning 60. Can you put in perspective
what that means to you after all you’ve been through?
Peters: I’m just grateful to be here. I’m really lucky to have survived so long. I had moments where I didn’t think I was gonna make it, but music has kept me going and the fans. That’s why I want to play as many gigs as I can.
Echo: Mike, I know you never expected to be acknowledged for your efforts with Love, Hope and Strength Foundation., but it is not every day a persevering punk rocker gets honored by receiving MBE (Most Excellent Order Of The British Empire from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace for services to charity. How grateful are you for your efforts and all those who back you?
Peters: It was truly amazing. That’s for all the
people who walked on our Love, Hope and Strength hikes and went on all those
hikes and climbed the mountains, and that man the booth (bone marrow registry
table) at the gigs and swabbed checks and raised funds and give their commitment
to our cause. And so, to receive the award, it’s a great award not just for me
and my family, but our expanded family too.
band travels economically with just four band members. What makes this quartet
Peters: James has taken on the role of a multi-instrumentalist in The Alarm. He plays bass, guitar, bass pedals like The Doors; I think that’s broadened our horizons. Smiley, he’s an incredible player. He’s the best-ever drummer I have played with, in my whole life. And Jules, she is a classically-trained pianist. She bonds it all together with the keys. And the great thing about the four of us, we harmonize brilliantly.
Echo: While you have had stops and starts former members Sharp, McDonald, and Twist., how are those relationships now?
Peters: We are still mates, you know. We’re still friends. We all respect each other and look out for each other. James says in the film, “The Alarm’s like one big, massive family, everyone who’s been in the band, is always going to be a part of it."
Echo: Speaking of the long-ago days, you had to reassess your music goals once you left the Alarm in 1991, you had to rebuild yourself as a solo act. In that time, you played solo gigs in Phoenix and Tucson. How difficult was that time?
Peters: I played at the Mason Jar (now The Rebel Lounge). That would have been way back in 1995, but at that time nobody really knew who Mike Peters really was. And, it was a different time then. Our generation has had to learn to go underground and it was a good breeding ground to have that challenge.
Echo: You always seem to be one step ahead of the challenges that have come out of nowhere, and as you have often said about out-running cancer, you seem to have the future set. What is next?
Peters: I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I go home from the studio tonight; who knows where I’ll be tomorrow and what I’ll wake up to. I’m lucky enough to have Jules along the ride. My kids are coming on tour with us this summer. We’re in control of our lives that we can dictate how we want to live, and I think that’s success.
Echo: Is it weird or ironic that without cancer, you may not have accomplished as much off the concert stage and as much or more on a much bigger world stage?
Peters: No, it’s not because I was trying to say, my life has been blessed by cancer in a strange way, but I would never wish it on anybody for one second. But, because it’s happened to me, it’s taken me to places in life I would never have walked into, taken me down some corridors I would have never ventured into. Look, I’ve been very, very lucky. I have been in opposite beds with people getting the same treatments with the same diseases, and they’re not here anymore, and I’m still here. So, I count my blessings every single day, and I am very lucky to be alive. I seem to have been able to just keep running out faster than the disease. So, here I am.