Friday, April 2, 2021
Mike Peters believes there is no time like the present to take on unprecedented battles as a rock ’n’ roll frontman. Yes, that sentence contains both “battles” and “rock ’n’ roll.” See, it’s like the founder-frontman of the Welsh post-punks The Alarm is still a kid at home with Dylan, P.F. Sloan and Clash sides, burning with desire to write and sing of the world around him.
That might be too easy. Remember, Peters so far has made a career of overcoming obstacles, both career-wise and the death-defying personal. For starters, he led his band to rise, fall hard and rise again. Alarm songs like “The Stand,” “Blaze of Glory,” “68 Guns” and “Spirit of 76” from the band’s initial line-up (1981-1991) are all fist-jacking sing-alongs with surprising songwriterly roots, easily traced back to the great folk-shouters. And, yes, Peters’ earnestness was all very Bono and Strummer, but his had the kid-like innocence of a schoolyard history nerd dressed up in cowboy boots, a bolo tie and rats-nest hair. The band got a pass because the anti-racist, pro-working-class songs were so damn good. (They even released one of the era’s most beautiful moments in “Rain in the Summertime.”)
That version of The Alarm nearly broke wide-open in America, and their albums all charted worldwide. But one night at UK’s Brixton Academy ’91, Peters up and left the band. This after recording the fifth album RAW, a lame-duck obligation with IRS Records. The foursome’s (Peters, bassist Eddie McDonald, guitarist Dave Sharp, drummer Nigel Twist) run to document topical and political events in pop songs, and the nurturing relationship with a re-energized Neil Young, had failed.
After some soul-searching and solo work, and, later, a stop in a reformed Big Country, Peters then rebuilt the band from scratch. The Alarm now contains former Gen X, The Cult and Kim Wilde guitar-hero James Stevenson, well-known U.K. drummer Steve “Smiley” Bernard, and Peters’ wife, keyboardist Jules Jones Peters.
In his life personal life, Peters, the father of two boys, had defeated non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1996, leukemia in 2005 and a relapse a decade later. His wife Jules beat breast cancer. From that, he and Jules created the worldwide Love Hope Strength Foundation, with partner/cancer survivor James Chippendale. In short, it is a charity to raise funds and awareness to benefit people with cancer and leukemia. The charity is successful, boasting a quarter-million registrants, and 4500 stem-cell donor matches. Peters’ motto? “Saving lives one concert at a time.”
The guy is one resilient dude, always has been, possessed of a never-say-die confidence, and more comebacks than The Italian Stallion. And here he goes again.
The Alarm’s new album, WAR (the band’s 18th!) was completely birthed in isolation — written, rehearsed, recorded (mostly remotely, files exchanged with other Alarm members), and distributed in 50 days during the quarantine-like state of the world, a timely response and calling to a world shuttered from disease.
COVID-19 wasn’t enough for Peters; his breaking point was ever-ugly Trump, and his coup attempt on American democracy in January. The album began the morning after the Capitol attack. (Peters had actually already written another album with sights on release once the world opened, but that was shelved for WAR.)
Get this: WAR (on Peters’ own Twenty First Century Recording Company) first arrived in blank CD-Rs (without the music) mailed to pre-orderers in advance. This allowed fans to burn the files that were soon sent them. The project is pretty unprecedented too. The band recorded each step of the project beginning January 7, starting with Zoom meetings with band members and producer George Williams. The daily video exchanges were viewed by fans all over the world via The Alarm website, essentially making them a piece of the album’s birth as well as studio spectators.
Peters and the band laid final WAR touches in the legendary Rockfield studios, and performed the 10-song album in its entirety, in customized safe social-distance work-arounds with see-through panels separating band members—even for the final vocals on the album’s sole cover (Massive Attack’s “Safe from Harm”), a duet with Welshman Benji Webbe of raga ragers Skindred.
The album is a tight, sonic stand against the handling of the pandemic and the U.S. Capitol riots. It’s like rock ’n’ roll never went anywhere, and this is its welcome, slogan-fortified protest music. Peters sounds as youthful as ever.
Opener “Protect and Survive” amps up on foreboding keys and drums, menacing guitars, and soaring Peters’ vocals that recall Neil Young in a fervor. Up-tempo anthem “We Got This” collides Zep with something like STP, and early Alarm; “Fail” finger-pistols the political divisiveness inspired by the Capitol attacks, a crafty reggae-lit verse and a pop chorus that’d do Mick Jones proud. “Warriors” is all four-on-the-floor pounding juxtaposed against heavy open-space guitars and a giant, key-change chorus emphasizing a “drone attack.’ Coup de gras, Massive Attacks “Safe from Harm” rocks and funks with all the grace of a ballad cranked out at 11, Webbe’s ominous growls underscore Peters' melodic cries of self-determination and autonomy like some late-night sonic noir, good versus evil.
The album is out now, streaming and physical. Peters also hand-painted a limited number of collectible WAR vinyl for purchase.
Tucson Weekly spoke with Peters via Zoom recently and discussed the pandemic, how Capitol riots influenced WAR’s creation, the video journal viewing of the entire process, the “Staycation” shows in Dyserth, where Peters and family reside, and putting out a social-distancing album by his 62nd birthday.
Tucson Weekly: When did the moment to record a new album really hit you?
Mike Peters: It literally happened straight away on the night the Capitol building was being occupied. I was actually on the phone with a friend of mine [D.C. lawyer and Love Hope Strength Foundation board member Elliot Berke]. He represents some pretty high-up politicians on both sides of the divide. And when people started storming the Capitol building it was happening in front of us. I kept seeing the headlines, “Alarming news, the Capitol is being occupied.”
I just thought, “Wow, we’ve got to write now. I’ve got to write a record that captures what’s going on at this very, very moment, and release it while it’s happening. If we do it retrospectively, it might not have the same impact.” I wanted a record people could put on the turntable, listen headphones, but we’re still in lockdown, or still facing the challenges that the pandemic has brought into all our lives.
TW: The Clash recorded “White Riot” to bring attention to race riots and police brutality, and the 1979 overtaking of the Nicaraguan dictatorship-run government, inspired The Clash’s Sandinista. Why is it important to get this album out in the here-and-now with that same mindset?
Peters: When the Sex Pistols released “God Save the Queen,” it was the Queen’s (Silver) Jubilee year; it wouldn’t have been the same a year later.
When the Clash put out “White Riot” the race riots were happening in the streets, all around London. It was in Notting Hill, and it was immediate music, and Jules had bought me the John Lennon “Give Me Some Truth” compilation of remixes, when you can really hear his voice in the foreground. And I was reading about “Instant Karma,” which Lennon said he’d written for breakfast, recorded for lunch and released it for dinner. And I said, we need to make a record with that kind of spirit behind it, and that’s what led to this whole project.
TW: Can you walk us through the process of this unique, yet time-sensitive process?
Peters: To get the record out on my birthday, Thursday, February 25th, at midnight on the 26th, to get it round the world on Spotify and iTunes and all the digitals, I had to have the record done by Monday morning. I could also then on Monday morning give it to the guy who was hand-cutting all the vinyl LPs, to get a head start. And get the CDs loaded for people because we sent a lot of CDRs out to America and Australia for people who wanted to have a physical copy of the album the day it came out, so we digitally sent them all the tracks, so it’s been quite a project. A lot of outside-the-box thinking.
TW: The ’91 Alarm album RAW was more or less the fulfilling of your IRS contract. Was this the bucket-list opportunity the alluded the band in 1991?
Peters: I always felt in ’91 we missed an opportunity to re-define the band’s stance and platform to face the future. Nirvana had come along, Pearl Jam; it was a whole new musical landscape. That was one of the trigger points.
So, we ended up making a lot of compromises on RAW with who sang, and who wrote, in rather than just writing about the Gulf War and the change of the times. So, I always felt we missed an opportunity, and I saw the Capitol building being occupied, I thought, “here’s the moment I can take that opportunity and do something with it.”
TW: What was the impetus behind journaling the process for fans and public consumption, and when did that come about?
Peters: What actually happened was as soon as I woke up in the morning [after seeing the Capitol riots] I didn’t even speak to anybody in the band. I didn’t speak to Jules. If I speak to people about this notion of making an album starting today, that I’m gonna put out on my birthday, everyone will talk me out of it. So, I literally when onto The Alarm website; I wrote my letter to everyone: “It’s time to make a record,” and that was it.
Jules saw it pop up on The Alarm website and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “We’re gonna make a record. We can’t let what just happened go by without documenting it in real time and responding to it as a musicians and songwriters. And so, we’re going to make a record now.” So I picked up the phone and called the band, and Jules got her phone out and started filming it straight away. Jules said, “I’m going to keep going. If you’re going to make a record and I’m going to record, and the band is going to see how you come up with these mad schemes of yours.” When I sat down and thought about it actually, I could have very easily fallen flat on my face if the songs hadn’t come in the way I had hoped. At the same time, there was so much going on in the world, if you can’t write a song now, then there’s no hope. There’s so much sing about, let’s do it.
TW: How different has it been being home with the boys and Jules for all this time, when normally you would be touring?
Peters: The thing I found the most frustrating at first when the lockdown happened was the bombardment of 24-hour news. I knew it was there, it was always in the background. But it wasn’t really until the pandemic hit, the lockdown started to be mentally disturbing; this 24-hour news. We’re going to tune into the main headline news on the BBC at 10 o’clock at night, but that is it. We’re going to disassociate ourselves from it, live in our own little world at home, go for our walks, live in nature and that’s what we are going to immerse ourselves in. And it became beautiful in its own way. We started walking in the woods with our kids, we’d see the flowers come out.
TW: Talk about working with Benji Webbe on Massive Attack’s “Safe from Harm.”
Peters: When I was having our vinyl 24-hour sessions when the lockdown was happening, that song came up and I thought, lyrically, this song is now. “Serious infections and dangerous ...” It’s all there. Benji Webbe popped into my mind. Opposite ends of the racial spectrum, opposite ends of the country. Benji’s from the south (Newport) and I’m from North (Prestatyn). I said, “I love this man, and he sang the whole song, which I wasn’t expecting, and he absolutely killed it, and the harmony was amazing.”
TW: You have always been on the cutting edge of new trends in music, digitally recording and editing, now video-journaling the recording process, you have also made the ultimate in connectivity to fans with Alarm Central found at the Alarm website. Can you expound on this all-encompassing social outlet?
Peters: Alarm Central is a platform that allows me to interact with the fans. We’ve come up to our 40th anniversary, so I’ve got a lot to share. I’ve got a scrapbook form 1974 about my journey to music but it’s gone all the way up to this very day, so, I’ve got a lot to share. It gives me a voice to share a lot about our history. It’s a one-stop website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Spotify, all in one and its free, or pay a premium for some exclusives.
TW: As I know you miss touring, but what is your outlook on getting back on the road, and even a return to the U.S.?
Peters: When something’s come around that changes the whole life dynamic like the pandemic has, you just have to look for different solutions. And you know I’m fearful that when touring does come back, the infrastructure’s going to be damaged, and damaged quite severely. It might be difficult for a band like The Alarm to come and play 50 dates across America, ’cause maybe only 20 (venues) survived. It’s going to be quite difficult at first to plan a tour, plan for tour buses, hotels. And venues might not have the same capital to take the risk.