The following is a taped conversation that took place between Neil Storey and Mike Peters at London’s Marcus Studios during the recording of the [Strength] album. Neil is now The Alarm’s Press Officer having met the band on an aeroplane to New York last December. At the time he was working at Island Records but now works freelance for The Alarm and Kid Creole along with his other main interest which is cycle racing. The topics of conversation are wide ranging, from talking about The Absolute Tour, the new album, to how Mike copes with his private life as a public person.
Q How crucial Was it to play almost written and new material live on the recently completed Absolute Tour?
A A number of reasons caused us to play our new material before we recorded it, some not planned for. Initially we would have had the album recorded and released by February of this year.
Q Because the tour was originally planned to coincide with the album, wasn’t it?
A That’s right, yes. A number of things happened. When we had finished recording Declaration and spent time doing all the various tours around the world, at the time we were really happy with the album but as we grew further away from it we realised there were aspects of it we weren’t really happy with, which we will go into later. Instead of committing to doing an album with Alan Shacklock, the producer of Declaration, which would have been normal for a band that was very happy with its record, we decided to do just two singles, The Chant and Absolute. This was a way for us to test whether we could take the relationship further. When we had completed these two tracks we felt that we had worked that relationship as far as it could go at that time. And so we began to look around for another producer.
Q And at the same time you were writing and writing and writing material?
Q No, what I am trying to get at is the conscious decision to actually play that tour the way you did. You were playing huge chunks of the album, and then carne back in to where we are now at Marcus to record the songs. How much has it changed?
A Well, the live stuff hasn’t changed at all from the end of the tour apart from the odd few notes here and there but the arrangements have stayed very solid to what we were doing live. It’s the most important thing we’ve done to date as a band, easily, because it was a challenge to us as a group. We played all the new songs in one section especially towards the end of the tour, so we were exposing people to songs they had never heard before. It meant we had to work twice as hard as a band, just as if we were starting out for the first time. It was not a question of standing back on our laurels playing hit after hit.
Q So it wasn’t what it could easily have been, The Alarm’s greatest hits tour?’
A lt wasn’t: That was what made it such an important experience for us all.
Q Usually after each show you would spend tirne talking to the kids. What was their reaction?
A Very positive. Also from the mail we have received. We wanted people to write to us to tell us what they thought and this was positive too. It was encouraging because there weren’t too many people who wanted to anchor us down to writing just fast numbers like “Marching On”, or to writing to a formula of fast songs. As long as there was a depth to the lyric and an integrity about it and it was a good melodic song then people were happy. The most important song that Eddie and I had heard from the band since the beginning was “One Step Closer to Home”. We first really heard that when we did a Radio 1 Session for Kid Jensen. This was approached by the band differently from the sessions we had done before. Instead of using all the instruments of the band turned up loud, we did this one acoustically with just one guitar. Eddie and l worked up “Walk Forever By My Side” and “Unbreak the Promise” while Dave played “One Step Closer to Home” which we’d never heard before. He recorded at the microphone in one take and we were swept away. Eddie was inspired to write several songs as a direct result of hearing it. I think the audience when we first put an acoustic section in the set were also blown away, so it took a while for people to get used to the song being played by the band. However it is now well established in the set and we get good mail on it. “Walk Forever”, “Dawn Chorus”, “Ravens”, “Knife Edge” – in fact we have had a great response to all these songs. We are pleased because also when we had finished the tour we felt the need to write a couple more songs.
Q Was that a conscious feeling of wanting to write more for the album?
Q In the sense that maybe there were some bits that weren’t good enough for the album?
A. Well you see…
Q Or Were you just in one of those frames of minds where the buzz, the adrenaline was just flowing?
A I think the thing was we have such high standards in the band that we didn’t want to come out of the tour thinking: right, we’ve got eight or nine songs which we’ve played live so they’ll be on the album. No song is ever that safe in The Alarm; if we can go in and write a better one then we will. We will now try and put only our best songs on the album. I think that’s probably one of the mistakes we made with Declaration. At the time we put the best songs that went down a storm live and got the most physical reaction from our audience.
Q That’s a natural thing in the sense of the saying that you have your whole life to make your first album and nine months to make the second, except you’ve taken eighteen months to do the second.
A I’ve thought in some ways that Declaration could have been better if we had included songs that we put out as B sides which didn’t really work on record like “Pavilion Steps” and “2nd Generation”, which would have given the album greater depth. But those things you learn. I think if we had been rushed and recorded our second album last summer or last autumn I think it could have been a disappointment and have let our people down.
Q Would you have let yourselves down?
A We wouldn’t have done looking at it at that time because we were caught up in a whirlpool: I don’t know what it was. I think we were just excited to be in a band achieving things and perhaps weren’t quite objective enough.
Q Do you still get that same buzz from being in a band?
A Oh yes.
Q It is very noticeable being around you all that it is the most important thing in your lives. It is not only that but there is a tremendous comradeship which I don’t think you’ll lose.
A No, I don’t think so either. Nothing that we could go through outside the band could equal the experiences we have inside the band. But I don’t think we would have made as good an album as we are now without learning what we’ve learnt. Like Springsteen, he doesn’t release anything unless it is great.
Q In the sense that he won’t release anything unless he himself gets a buzz out of it himself?
A That’s right. He won’t release a record just because it’s the right time for the record company or it’s in time for Christmas. We couldn’t afford to spend two years in the studio writing songs. But we were a good enough live band and we had the confidence to go out and play to an audience who we had faith would turn out to see us, so we thought let’s try our songs out on the road. To some extent we were forced into this situation because the record producer we had started with. Jimmy lovine, had to pull out for personal reasons. His father died, and this stopped him working at the critical moment. But the tour booked to go with the album that was not yet recorded became the chance to go out and work on songs on the road. It was exciting because we wrote a new song called “Strength”. We kept playing it in the sound checks and got a great buzz from it. In fact it’s likely to be the new single from the album. We had a show in Newcastle which was a fantastic experience. We were all so high after that show. I went back to the hotel but I couldn’t sleep for this song going through my head. I crept down to the tour bus in the middle of the night and got my guitar, wrote the chorus and we worked it out the next day in Manchester. When we got home after the tour we added some more until it was finished. This will be a fantastic number in the set. All through the tour we were trying out songs on sound check that we weren’t making for the set because they weren’t quite ready, but we achieved a great deal
Q How critical of yourselves are you?
A In the past we haven’t been as critical as we should have been.
Q When you say “should have been” what do you mean?
A Well it goes back to the excitement of being in a band. You think that when you hear stuff back through speakers that it’s all so exciting; it’s so great to be here. You see, we come from a backwater and we feel privileged to be here – we don’t want to take it for granted. But now we have learnt that enthusiasm is not enough, we have to have the highest standards. We have learnt to pace ourselves. We have never really been happy with our records.
Q Don’t you think that every band that reaches the stage that you have reached can actually do that? Are you looking at things in too hypercritical a light.
A Possibly. We are not in any way unhappy with the songs or the lyrics we have written.
Q Sure. But what I am saying is that it’s rather like being an author. When you get to your tenth book you look back and think; well it’s rather like wishing you knew then what you know now. One can be hypercritical.
A l think so. What we’ve done on this album is not listen to any other music as an influence as we did when we first started the band. At first we would listen to all the new sounds around.
Q Yes. but also at that time there were Dylan influences too.
A What we’ve done now is to draw on our own experience and music. Although we’ve only released one LP we have made a lot of music. Some 14 songs have been released as singles or B sides that are not on Declaration.
Q You say there is little that is musically influencing you at the moment. But there must be something?
A Oh yes. The Springsteen gigs have been amazing.
Q But I don’t mean necessarily musically.
A Yes, what has been getting to me is something that Eddie said. He said, instead of writing songs about the whole world, why don’t you write about your own world, because everything that happens in the world happens in your little corner of it too.
Q Do you feel isolated from reality at all?
A I think so, yes. I don’t think I’ve had much responsibility until now for the first time in my life l am having to face responsibility. When I first saw punk rock I turned my back on everything and went hell for leather, busking a living on the dole, getting whatever I could. I’ve never been one to want lots of money but just enough to get by. As long as I had good friends around me I was OK. I have started to reflect that in the lyrics to my music now.
Q Do you read much?
A At the moment I have been doing. I read an awful lot in the first part of last year and then seemed to stop, but I’ve started again recently. Stuff like Richard Llewelyn and Alexander Cordel, Welsh writers, you know, “How Green Was My Valley”. It was interesting that the guy from “The Men They Couldn’t Hang”, the IronMaster single, should refer to Alexander Cordel, the same one I’m reading called “Land Of My Fathers” – a really good book. I’m trying to rediscover my roots, if you like.
Q Yes, I was going to ask you, do you think that by reading that, shall we say that the inherent Welshness is coming through more now?
A I want it to. Reading these books has awoken an interest in the history of Wales.
Q Which wasn’t there before?
A It definitely wasn’t there before. I was certainly a very rootless person.
Q Does that come from hearing the whole punk explosion and saying “right, screw it, I don’t want any roots at all”?
Q So it’s almost Iike a 360 degrees turn?
A I’ve been round the world in that time. With punk rock I decided there was nothing for me where I lived. The first place I ever tried to get anything going was in Liverpool at Eric’s Club. That’s where I met Pete Wylie. Everyone in Rhyl tended to head to Liverpool. Eddie, myself and Twist would go there – there was a scene. Dave would go when he was home from the navy. And then Eddie, myself, and my friend Red Eye tried to create the same scene in Rhyl which we called The Gallery but that was destroyed by violence. That was the spur that told us we’ve got to get out of this place, and so we moved to London. We never went round saying, “Oh, we’re from Wales”. We were just a London band as far as anyone was concerned.
Q But now I detect there is more of a proudness of “We are Welsh”?
A When you go to America and the Mayor of New York introduces you as from England, you think, “hang on, we’re from Wales”. And also it’s another way of identifying the group. We are a band that has been compared to so many other groups and it really hurts.
Q But thankfully you are now losing that tag of the band that supported U2.
A Yes, the band that sounds like Bob Dylan. You know that classic quote from Gary Bushell in Sounds. “Born of Janice Joplin and Bruce Springsteen, Bono was the Preacher, Bob Dylan christened them” you know. It’s very difficult to emerge from this. It hurts me and especially Eddie. He is the musical form in the band. He really pushes us to get original ideas in our arrangements.
Q Theres a conscious decision to lose that tag in a way?
A Yes. lt’s not that we think we mustn’t do that because it’s going to get compared to this or that. That’s why in a way we have not really been listening to any records other than our own. We have just been going on our own feelings.
Q How important are the politics of today inasmuch as unemployment and lack of money are a feature of Britain today? Do you see this as a class problem? Do you see yourself as having an important role?
A I don’t know because I’ve been in the position of having no money, but I come from quite a good background. My Mum and Dad are not rich but they own a shop and get by. I had a good job in computers – this was in 1975 – and I could have stuck at it and been part of what is the boom industry of today. I didn’t want it though, and went to having nothing because I was happier that way. l wanted to be in a band and be a “rock’n roller”. I refuse to believe that young people cannot rise above their station in life. I believe if you want something badly enough you can get it, because I’ve done it. I think there’s a place for everybody in this world and there’s somewhere for everyone to go. Most people are sold the dream that getting to the top is the be all and end all of life. But it isn’t. I’m not blinded by the desire to be the biggest rock star in the history of the world. I am more concerned to nurture friendships outside the band. I am ambitious to improve the songwriting and performance of the band because of the personal pride in doing something well. In answer to your question, I think the morality of brotherly love is more valuable than the immorality of class war. This is not a hippie ideal, and I don’t necessarily mean a Christian ideal. It’s just common sense.
Q What do you see as the stage the band has now reached in its slow but sure climb up the ladder of success?
A I see us as having reached that stage that many bands reach where we either go on to really achieve some form of greatness or to slide into oblivion. Obviously I hope it’s the former. We are on our own now, we’re not part of a movement nor are we a band that will turn round and have an out-and-out pop career. We don’t write music for the sake of it. I like to think we write because we’ve got something to say.
Q Can I take it from that that the idea of a hit single doesn’t obsess you?
A No, not at all. But it is important for us to maintain our standards and make good records. We don’t put out records to be unsuccessful. l know at the heart of the group there’s an identity that makes us different from any other group. That’s important. I feel we will achieve it with this album. Hopefully we will surprise a few people.
Q Looking back over the past three years, you’ve travelled more or less round the world. How much as a person have you changed?
A Quite a lot really. I have been through a heck of a lot of things. We’ve stepped into a whole new world – the world of the music industry. This is a world of big money and I’ve seen this influence the friendship of the band. We’ve survived this; we now control the system – the system does not control us. I’ve had spiritual upheavals and so has the band, and we learn from this each time – but of course in learning, you change. I have learnt a lot about girls. I was the classic “love them and leave them” character and hurt people by being that way. I am trying to settle myself down and get some regularity into my life, to try and understand why I do what I do and to learn what drives me to do what I do on the stage. I used to be totally different on stage to off, and I couldn’t believe the things I could do on stage. When l hit the songs and launched myself at them I knew that was the real me coming out – like I really wanted to be. Much of the time I felt the pressure to write songs for the band and that’s why I would always say it’s “we” this and “we” that, when really, and I have to thank Eddie for this, I could better say what I really felt. lt’s been so important to write down on paper and admit that I’m a lonely sort of person. It was such a relief to write “Dawn Chorus” – you know, I lived that song to write it – and to get up on stage and sing it really helped me relax as a person, on stage as well. So the person on stage is much closer to me now. I think many people were confused by this difference. lt was difficult, with the press for example, the business of politics and The Alarm I found confusing, and belief in God. Now I am coming to terms with it and starting to take a responsibility because it is easy to run away from things, and that I can’t do.
Q Do you find it difficult to have your own world within your public persona?
A No, because I keep close contact with my friends. There are times when I go out and people come up to me that I would rather not have to deal with. So I always stick with friends who treat me as an equal. I’m not really that recognised yet, but I do tend to go into situations that people don’t expect, like sneaking into Springsteen as a steward with the big orange bib on. L.oads of people would come up and say, “Is it? No, couldn’t be – not a steward”. Then they leave you alone.
Q Although you have toured extensively and travelled a lot, is there anywhere you really want to play?
A Yes, in Wales at Cardiff Arms Park. Having played on big festivals in Europe, I know we can do it. I wouldn’t want it to just be a rock concert, rather a Welsh event with male voice choirs, Max Boyce – the lot. [N.B. Max Boyce is a famous Welsh comedian]
Q How important a gig was Crowe Park, Dublin, to you? You played to 60,000 people and the vibe was extraordinary. In Tua Nua came, and did well; then REM, who didn’t die but didn’t do justice to their worth on record; and then you. You didn’t just go the whole way to the back but you went up both sides of the stadium. You exploded; the whole place just went mad. What did it fee! Like? How important was it?
A It’s just incredible. You can’t just do it without the back-up of great songs. We are capable of writing more songs that can come to life in the big gigs. The show just sent shivers down my spine. For me the day was encapsulated in what I said from the stage, ‘cos two years previously I had been in Dublin at Phoenix Park pogoing at the front to U2, and here today I’m on U2’s stage playing. You see, everybody really wants to be in the band, and the better the band are the better it is for the crowd. It’s the best feeling I have ever had at a gig. It’s hard to say what goes through your mind, but the feeling of peace of mind is incredible.
Q What song rneans most to you that you have written?
A At the moment I would take “A Dawn Chorus”. lt means a lot, not because I like the sound of my own voice, but because it is the best song I’ve written so far. I’m looking forward to bettering it.