Mike Peters – Backstreets Interview

From an feature interview with Mike Peters in ‘Backstreets magazine’, and on backstreets.com, which has been covering the music of Bruce Springsteen for over 30 years.

Mike Peters: 30 Years Later, Still Marching On

– photograph by A.M. Saddler

Backstreets correspondent Gary Zoldos first met The Alarm’s Mike Peters in 1986, after a live radio broadcast from the RPM in Toronto. “I had seen the band twice previously and instantly became a fan — I told Mike that The Alarm, live, reminded me of a cross between Bob Dylan, the Clash and Creedence Clearwater Revival.” Gary also suggested that the Alarm “suffered from the Springsteen complex,” which really got Mike’s attention.
“His eyes widened and he asked me what I meant by that,” Zoldos recalls. And maybe “suffered” was the wrong word. “I told him that this was my third Alarm gig, and that every time that I came to see them I brought someone different, and that they all walked out of the show as fans for life. Just like Bruce built his legion of fans by constantly touring and delivering the best live shows in rock. It was at this point we began a lengthy discussion about our mutual admiration for Bruce Springsteen as an artist, songwriter, and performer.  At the end of the night Mike insisted that we exchange addresses, keep in touch, and that we become friends. He’s been my Welsh Brother ever since.”

Zoldos caught up with the Alarm frontman and founder in the midst of his Declaration 30th Anniversary Tour — he’s touring California this month — and hot on the heels of the Light of Day Performance in Asbury Park, where Peters played “One Guitar” with Springsteen and Willie Nile.

You’re currently touring to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first Alarm album, Declaration. For the uninitiated or for those out there that have lost track, how about giving us a brief history of the past 10 years?

Ten years ago I created the first new music in the name of The Alarm in over a decade — since 1991, in fact — and made a five-album set entitled In the Poppy Fields. It was a massive undertaking, especially as I set a target of one album a month to be released via thealarm.com. There was so much to look back on, so much to say that hadn’t been said, and a huge amount of unchecked emotions, falsehood, and truth to document, a single album was nowhere near enough to cover all the ground that needed making up. The sessions gave birth to a song called “45 RPM” that sounded really fresh and contemporary. I thought it would be a good idea to send it to some people I knew under a false name and see what they thought. They all came back with the same things: It’s great, who is it, and are you managing them?

It sowed the seed of an idea, and as I was the last man standing in the modern era of The Alarm, and not as young as I once was, I felt that the new media would not take The Alarm or my music seriously at that time. I thought some subterfuge was required. So I decided to carry the deceit further and release the record as if it were a brand new band called The Poppy Fields. The ruse worked even better than I could have dared imagine, and what was originally supposed to be a couple of weeks of “promotion” turned into a full blown release as the BBC, radio DJs and music press believed that “45 RPM” was in fact by a young 18-year-old group who they quickly dubbed “Best New Band in Britain Today.”

The wheels nearly fell off a few times, but our cover story never got blown until the song hit the Top 30 in the UK and I revealed (via Top of the Pops) that The Poppy Fields were in fact The Alarm in disguise.

It all blew up in the media instantly — the whole “45 RPM” saga even became a movie called Vinyl — and I was all over the press and TV, even so far as being on CBS news in America with Dan Rather. It catapulted myself and The Alarm right back into the spotlight. And just as we were about to tour and follow it all up, I got diagnosed with leukemia and had to rethink everything. I had a very precarious, life-threatening situation to deal with; but with the help of my family and doctors, I worked out that I could play a show a month in between chemo sessions.

While in hospital I vowed to climb the highest mountain in Wales to support the local cancer center and ended up starting a charity called the Love Hope Strength Foundation. We have since played gigs on Kilimanjaro, Mt. Everest and Mt. Fuji. Everest Rocks was filmed for a documentary that aired in the U.S.A. on Palladia, and we have now become a fairly large concern registering over 50,000 people to the bone marrow donor list to help find matches for people who, like me, need a stem cell transplant to stay alive. With the support of artists like Robert Plant, Kenny Chesney and others we have located over 800 potentially lifesaving matches at concerts across the U.S.A. and more recently in the U.K. It’s been an incredible turnaround for me, and although I have an incurable form of leukemia, I have it under control to a degree whereby I can now play shows and make music again. In fact, The Alarm did a “Springsteen” in January and played for four hours and ten minutes at our annual fan Gathering in Wales.

Now I’m out on tour in the U.K. and U.S.A., having reworked our debut album of 30 years ago, Declaration, into a contemporary alt-folk / electro-acoustic protest record — which for Springsteen fans would probably sit somewhere between Nebraska and The Seeger Sessions.

Why did you decide to re-record Declaration?
I felt it was important to look back on the record and have it inform the present. I wanted to sing the songs with the heart, soul and spirit of the person the audience sees before them in 2014. In my mind, the original record is most definitely of its time — from 1984, like Born in the U.S.A. — but to me the songs have grown with me as an artist, a father, a cancer survivor, and all that I am now, and I thought it would be interesting to see how they stand up today. I treated them all as brand new songs and arranged them accordingly. It was a huge challenge but something that I am glad I was able to do, because I’ve learnt a lot through the process, and I think my audience has, too.

For your most ardent fans you may have been treading on hallowed ground doing so. Did that cross your mind?
I’m aware that it was like playing with fire… but I sang with Bob Dylan twice in the late ’80s, and he totally rearranged the song we performed from one night to the next! I recently saw him again at the Albert Hall in London, and he did an amazing “new” version of “Tangled Up in Blue” that brought the house down. I thought to myself, here is a guy who once stood on this stage and got called “Judas,” for going electric… and he’s still taking risks. When he could so easily just play “the hits.” It was really inspiring and gave me the courage to follow my heart and take a risk in the hope of being able to move forward.

The tour is getting rave reviews and is selling out everywhere. Do you attribute that to how much Declaration means to fans?
I’m really lucky to have an audience that knows what I’m like. I’ve been “at it” for a long time now, and they know I put all I have into everything I do. It’s not so muchDeclaration — which is still a great Alarm album, by the way — but the songs that mean so much. Some people have been coming to see me for over 30 years and have sung those songs in concerts, played them in their house or on their way to work, even at the birth of their children or when life has taken a wrong turn. It’s the songs and the lyrics as much as the recordings that have sustained them (and me), through those moments in life. I also have a new audience who were not there in 1984, so this is their chance to experience a release and a tour focused on songs they have probably discovered by going back through my songbook.

Your longtime fans have a certain affinity for that record, myself included… What does that record mean to you?
I’m still really proud of it, especially the songs, but at the time I didn’t understand the recording process like I do now. I fell ill during the original sessions at Abbey Road in London (my mother thinks it was the first signs of my present condition), and when I came back after two weeks, the album had become different from the way I thought it should sound.
I always felt there was a part of The Alarm that got lost in the drive to have us break America. In fact, “Sixty Eight Guns” was produced by Alan Shacklock to sound like “Born to Run” with horns and keyboards. It’s a great production in itself, which is part of the reason why the song became such a hit, but I would have preferred it to sound more organic, like our earlier single “The Stand.” So to be honest, I have mixed feelings about Declaration as an actual recording, although I recognize it’s still a great album for and of its time.

To what would you attribute the fact that these songs have held up so well 30 years later?
I think they are as real and as honest as we could get them, considering our background and what we had to do to get into the position to try and realize our dreams. The lyrics still stand up to scrutiny today — at least I think they do. I still view them as I do my children. They are a part of me, and I would never disown them or let go of them. I still play them with the same passion I had when writing them — that has never gone away, and I hope it never does.

How do the two versions differ? Did you discover anything that was previously overlooked in the process?
The new 2014 version is stripped back to the pre-Declaration sound of The Alarm when we first formed in a garage in Rhyl, North Wales. The sound is made up of the key elements I thought worked for the songs I was writing at the time, through the influences of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Joe Strummer and Dylan Thomas. I’d read a book by Dave Marsh about The Who called Before I Get Old;there was passage where Pete Townshend talked of young bands being influenced by The Who, and he thought they should go and listen to the influences that gave birth to the first generation of great British bands like The Beatles, Stones, Kinks and of course The Who. From an old folk shop called Cob Records in North Wales, I dug out some Woody Guthrie and early blues records. They were hard to listen to at first, but like Pete Townshend said in the book, “You have to listen as if it’s all that you have.”

It had a profound effect on me, and I started to write more and more songs using the acoustic guitar only. The Alarm formed with the idea of being a sort of punk skiffle band, and for Declaration 2014 I took all the songs back to their beginnings when we put electric pickups in our acoustics to amplify the way we played and sang. At the time, we were a prototype of the White Stripes / Mumford and Sons / Black Keys, all acoustic guitars, drum kit and no bass. Nobody got it when we first started playing in London in 1981/82, so we had to become a more traditional-sounding band with bass and electric guitars but in 2014, I felt I could go back to that sound and make it work. I had a demo of The Alarm recording from 1982 without bass, and playing it now — it was a 7-inch vinyl bootleg — I thought it really sounded contemporary, and it became my blueprint.

There were other things that I was able to put right, if you like, principally with “Sixty Eight Guns.” The original lyric started as a narrative based on a book I had read called A Glasgow Street Gang Observed, which is about how people react when they are forced to the bottom of the ladder. When turning it into a song for The Alarm I had to edit down the text, and years after it had been released, it came to me that I had taken out the lines that give the song its full meaning: “If they take our chances, we’ll create our own.” I recorded the song for the new version of the album with the complete lyrics, and now the song feels complete. To me, it now works as both a song and a narrative with extended verses and an explosive ending.
I’ve always felt that Declaration needed to be listened to in its entirety and not taken out of sequence. Would you agree with that?
Not really — I think the album recording works well like that, but… On the newDeclaration I have sequenced the songs in a way that works for them in their modern context. A bit like the sequence they were played on tour during the Sound And Fury of 1984. It starts with the first song we ever played live, “Shout to The Devil,” and ends with “We Are the Light” like we closed most shows back then.

What’s been your favorite part of this tour so far?
It’s been quite a learning curve as I have been attempting to play as a “one-man band” using acoustic guitar, harmonica and a bass drum. The show in Edinburgh was the high point so far, when it all came together sonically and spiritually. I’ve been mixing some modern instruments in to help me present the album, so I’m running a loop station with my feet.

And I have a new guitar called “The Deceiver” that is the ultimate Alarm instrument. It’s totally acoustic but goes completely electric with the flick of a switch. It was made for me by Doug Sparkes at Auden Guitars, who is a fan who followed us around in the ’80s and now runs a guitar company. He made contact, and we sat down and did what we attempted to do all those years ago with some solder, sticky tape and pickups ripped out of electrics and make the ultimate electro-acoustic instrument. In 1981 there were no acoustic guitars that you could play through an amplifier — except for those round back Ovation instruments which have to be marked down as Guitar Crime of the Century.

Looking at the current state of the industry, you seem to have been well ahead of the curve if not amongst the first to start your own label. What tipped you off?  Did you see this coming?
I didn’t really see “this” coming, but I always had an instinct. I’d been a computer operator from 1974 to 1977. I hated it when I heard the fans were getting turned away from our record company in the old days because they had the nerve to call up and ask when a new album was coming or something. I always felt that was disrespectful to the people who actually make it all possible. Once I had the chance to run things my way in 1992, I opened the fan club up with an open phone line and then website and email. It’s helped create a relationship which is far healthier than it was in the ’80s, when pretty much everything got communicated via the music press and third parties. The website and internet in general allows for much clearer two-way communication, and because of it, I like to think that I have learned as much from, and about, my audience as I hope they have from me.

What’s the best advice that you can give to anybody who is forming a band now or is currently in one?
Just to enjoy the simple pleasure of making music. Music will take you wherever it is meant to go, and you can still enjoy it if it only leads as far as the garage or, as John Lennon and the Beatles used to say, “To the toppermost of the poppermost.”

You co-wrote “American Ride” with Willie Nile — how did that come about?
I adore Willie Nile. He is one of the unsung music writers of our time. In spirit, he reminds me of Woody Guthrie, but a Woody Guthrie who lives in this moment. He came over to open for The Alarm on our Direct Action tour and traveled from show to show on our bus as if he was part of the band. He was blowing our audience away every night, and we were always talking about music, music and more music. One day he played me a new song that was almost Chuck Berry-like, both lyrically and musically. I asked him if I could have a go at writing a new tune to his words. I suppose because I was British and have my own visions of the “American Ride” that Willie had written about, I was able to take the song in a different direction, like a fork in the road. It was a beautiful lyric, and it practically wrote itself. The tune was all wrapped up waiting to be revealed in Willie’s words — it was a great moment for me to help create something with a writer who is as good as anyone I know or have heard.

You’re two brilliant songwriters. Is there any chance that you’d be writing some more together?
I certainly hope we will. We have talked about a future collaboration, and I for one will be pushing to make it happen. I’ve just had a musical commissioned in the U.K. that will stage next spring, and I’ve talked with Willie about doing something along those lines in the U.S.A., so who knows.

You recently appeared onstage with Willie and Bruce Springsteen at Light of Day. How did that come about?
By accident. Actually, I have played at the Light Of Day shows in Wales with Willie Nile, Joe D’Urso and Jesse Malin  for the last five years, and it was there that I first heard “One Guitar” when Willie Nile had just written the song. I was so taken with it that I played it with The Alarm a couple of weeks later, but with my own lyrics made up from memory. I even recorded it on the Direct Action album before Willie had put it out himself, and it all went viral on the internet.

I had done something similar once before when Neil Young’s manager — Elliot Roberts let me have a sneak preview of the Freedom album in 1989. I heard “Rocking in the Free World” twice on the cassette tape, and by the time I’d listened to the whole album through, I had learnt the song and played it with The Alarm during the encore that night. Elliot freaked out when he heard The Alarm play it live, but when Neil Young found out we were playing his song before he had released it, he was intrigued and came to see us in New York and jammed with us.

Willie has similar qualities to Neil in that he is a very real musician, and so when I was invited by Joe D’Urso and Bob Benjamin to come to New Jersey for 2014, Willie said to me that I must play with him during his set. It was only when I got to the venue and saw all of Bruce’s guitars on the side of the stage did I think something was afoot. It was then I sat in the dressing room and Bruce walked by and stuck his head in the room and said something like, “Hi Mike, good to see you, and I look forward to playing with you during Willie’s set on ‘One Guitar’.” I can’t remember exactly what I said, because I was in shock.

Had you met Bruce before?
Yes, I met Bruce once before at a Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul concert at the Ritz in New York back in the ’80s, around the time of the “Sun City” single. At that time, The Alarm were on Premier Talent, which was the same booking agency as Bruce Springsteen, and [agent] Barry Bell invited me back to say hello to Little Steven. I had no idea Bruce was there until I walked into the dressing room. I was in awe, I have to admit, but Bruce totally put me at ease and was very complimentary about my band and in particular the song we had on the radio then, which was “Rain in the Summertime.”  He was very interested in what I had to say and made me feel comfortable in his company. I’m always nervous about meeting people who I place in the “hero” category, but Bruce was everything you hoped he would be and more.

What did that mean to you and why?
I have to admit that when I first heard Bruce’s records, I was not that taken with them. I knew the song “Born to Run” from the jukebox in the local pub where I lived, but that was about it. When The Alarm signed to IRS Records, the A&R man Steve Tannett kept saying he’d signed us because he thought we had an element of “Springsteen” in our own music. I spent many hours at Steve’s house listening to The River while he did his best to convert me, but apart from “Point Blank,” I couldn’t quite get it. He even made me a tape to play in the vehicle on our first American tour with U2 in 1983. He thought that if I listened to Bruce in the U.S. it would make the difference. It was the Live in the Promised Landbootleg, and I do remember a version of “Something in the Night” that I thought sounded incredible as I drove through an overnight thunderstorm on our way from San Francisco to Salt Lake City. It was all starting to make sense.

In the summer of 1984, The Alarm played at the Pier in New York. Our manager Ian Wilson had seen Bruce in New Jersey and was raving about the show and took us to Philadelphia to see him. It was the most amazing show I had ever seen. I’d seen the Sex Pistols in 1976, The Clash in 1977 and 1982, those were life changing — but seeing Bruce was something else. There was so much to take in. It was simple and effective, it made you laugh and cry. It was rock ‘n’ roll on a level like nothing I had seen before, and all totally positive, inspiring, and thought-provoking. I bought every Springsteen album I could get my hands on after that and have loved his music ever since. I think people discover The Alarm a little like I discovered Bruce. You have to see it live, and then it all makes sense.

How does getting up onstage with Willie and Bruce differ from the times that you’ve shared the stage with Bob Dylan and Neil Young?
There is a presence about Bruce that is so strong and assured. He is in total command of everything on the stage. Time seems to stand still when he’s playing, a bit like how the best sports stars make space for themselves to be able to play when surrounded by opposition. When he looked over at me and called me to share the mic it was a great moment and one I will never forget. Bruce seemed to embrace every musician who was on the stage and somehow bring us all together as if we had been a band forever. It’s like he is directing everyone’s energy positively, like a conductor with an orchestra or a lighting rod. Everything on the stage seems to go through him, and he has a way of communicating just by looking at you that says, “All lright everyone — time to raise your game”… and you do. He is unquestionably one of the all-time greats and in my book, certainly the greatest live rock music performer there has ever been.

How long have you been involved with Light of Day, and how did that start?
I became involved with Light Of Day through the local Welsh representative Simon Humphreys, and the first one I took part in was with Joe D’Urso, Willie Nile, and Jesse Malin, who are all great performers and talents. I loved the interaction and the chemistry of musicians playing together and coming together through sharing songs and stories in front of a real audience. I was just coming back from my leukemia treatment, and we partnered the event to not only fight Parkinsons but also cancer through my own charity, Love Hope Strength.

What can you tell us about the Love Hope Strength Foundation?
I started the charity after meeting an amazing man named James Chippendale from Texas, who was both a leukemia and bone marrow transplant survivor. James helped me out when I went to SXSW in Austin to play while in the middle of a chemotherapy regime. I couldn’t get insured for the trip, and through the internet I met James who offered to help in case I had a reaction. Once we met, we traded our various medical experiences and realized how different medicare was applied in the U.S.A. and the U.K. And so together, we decided to form a charity that would try and help others less fortunate than ourselves to win. We also came to the realization that had James’ donor (who was a 42-year-old male from Germany) been born in the U.K.. he would have been considered to old to be on the list and James would not have survived. So we set up Love Hope Strength to try and unify the way donor lists are run, and we have just been successful (after much lobbying in Parliament) in raising the age of donors in Britain from 30 to 55. We try and spread the word that being a donor in this day and age is very simple and only involves an outpatient procedure. We run donor drives at gigs and have signed up thousands of people and located hundreds of potentially life-saving matches for people like myself who suffer from blood cancer.

Bruce Springsteen lightning round: How long would you say you’ve been a fan?
Since the Born in the U.S.A. tour of 1984. I still have the poster on the wall in my Chapel Studio in Wales.

Can you describe your first Springsteen moment?
The first time it really came home to me how great Bruce was in a professional capacity was the time I saw him with the E Street band at Wembley Stadium in 1985. Garry Tallent was a big Alarm fan, and he came by the studio while we were recording the Strength album and invited me to sit in the royal box for the show. At the interval, Garry came up to find me and showed me the setlist for the second half. When they came back out they only played the first song, and then it all got changed around with some songs dropped and others that were not on the list being performed.

After the show I asked Garry what had happened, and he said that Bruce had felt a shift in the mood of the crowd and decided to go with the flow and started shouting out songs he wanted to play, and the band followed his lead. It was an incredible show, and to be that spontaneous in front of 75,000 people with a huge band and road crew that need to be in sync, takes some doing. It shows a real mark of the man, and leader, to have the courage, drive, and determination to command the trust and dedication of all around him in order to make the concert special for everyone who was there. I saw all three shows at Wembley, and apart from the opening “Born in the U.S.A.” they each had something different and unpredictable, which is what great rock ‘n’ roll is all about.

How many times have you seen Bruce live?
Fifteen times now. Last summer I got to play at both the Isle of Wight Festival and Hyde Park with my band on the same days that Bruce played with the E Street Band, so it was a real bonus.

Favorite Springsteen song?
“Point Blank” — still sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it.
You seem to be a renaissance man who has done it all and has succeeded at everything he’s ever tried — what’s next? What does the immediate future hold?
To stay alive! To keep playing rock ‘n’ roll, and to be with my family as much as possible during and in between. Basically, to make life work for me and my tribe.

How can any fans who’ve lost touch with you get reconnected and how would they go about getting a copy of this updated version of Declaration?
Thealarm.com is the place for everything to do with myself and the band. We have been online since 1992 and have a great network of communication, direct or indirect — you can even call up the office and speak to a real live person if you so wish. We have a physical celebration of our community at The Gathering every year in North Wales an event that has been running for 22 years now.

Thanks for your time, Mike — we all wish you Love, Hope and Strength for the future!

– interview by Gary Zoldos – photographs by A.M. Saddler

Taken from an interview published on backstreets.com