Mike Peters of The Alarm talks about the making of “Forwards”

Last year, Mike Peters’s leukemia relapse and bout of pneumonia caused The Alarm’s 40th Anniversary world tour to be cut short. But he continued to write new music while in the hospital, and upon his release, he had an album’s worth of material. Recordings came together very quickly once Peters entered the studio, and the resulting album, Forwards, is now out.

Peters has been battling leukemia on and off since receiving the diagnosis in 2005. He has been working actively on projects to help others with cancer.  With his wife, Jules (who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016), he set up The Chapel, a free wellness retreat for those with cancer. His Love Hope Strength Foundation strives to expand the bone marrow registry through its “Get on the List” campaign and raises funds to purchase medical equipment and supplies, to raise awareness, and to help build cancer centers.

With his leukemia back in remission, Peters has been out performing with The Alarm again.  He returned with his annual The Gathering event in Wales earlier this year. The companion NYC Gathering dates are June 23 and 24.  In the following interview, Peters discussed the process of making Forwards.

Let’s start off by talking about the new album. It seems that making it was an interesting process, as you were writing it while in the hospital.

Mike Peters: Yeah, interesting’s a good word. <laugh> I was taken into the hospital with pneumonia and had a relapse of leukemia while I was in the hospital as well. Blood filled my lungs, and they had to drain five liters of blood from my lungs. So I was in a precarious position. I wasn’t sure what was gonna happen. And I couldn’t get any reassurance from the doctors really, because they didn’t know. We live in such litigious times, and people in the hospital don’t give you false hope anymore. They just deal with the facts and you have to generate your own optimism. And so, once I knew I had all the blood in my lungs and I was gonna be in the hospital for a long time, I asked my wife to bring the guitar into the hospital.

And it was really just to keep the calluses on my fingers strong, because I knew I wasn’t gonna play for a few months. And then, surprisingly, everyone was cool with it and the other patients were like, ‘Hey, keep going. Turn it up a bit.’ <laugh> The nurses encouraged me, and then eventually I started hearing some new music that I wasn’t expecting in this sort of situation. I wasn’t writing songs as an exercise. I was just playing guitar for my own pleasure. And then songs arrived. I suppose the album really started when I was lying on my side. I had to have a drain out of my lung, and I could see this guy in the periphery and he was hovering around the bed, and it was unusual because there was no visiting really.

But this guy had come from America to see his father a few doors down, and they’d allowed him to break a few protocols beause it was touch and go. And he was going, ‘I’ve been trying to catch your eye for a couple of days. It’s Mike, isn’t it, from The Alarm?’ And I go, ‘Yeah,’ and he goes, ‘I knew it was you, I was on the forums with all the fans last night saying, ‘Mike’s in the cancer center here with my dad.’ And I was thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s out in the public domain. ‘ So I knew I had to write a letter to post on the internet to reassure the fans because the speculation was I knew they were thinking the worst. So I wanted to sort of put them at ease, really, and share my mindset with them.

And I signed off a message with the word ‘forwards,’ and as soon as I wrote that down, I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s an album I’ve gotta make.’ And off it went in my imagination like a firecracker. All of a sudden, songs arrived, and the guitar became this quiet little midwife in the hospital allowing me to put some chords down and some melodies into my phone and some words, and it was kind of all there when I came out of the hospital, to be honest.

So what was the first song you wrote while you were in the hospital?

Mike Peters: Probably, “Forwards” itself was the first one. And “Next,” they were the first two. “Next” was really the situation where I wasn’t sure what was next because I was in this situation where every part of me was being challenged. I had pneumonia, a chronic lung disease and leukemia was fighting back and rejecting all the treatment I’d had up to that point. And at one point my glands in my neck and my face and under my arms and my groin, they swelled up so big, I sort of couldn’t recognize myself. I looked like the elephant man. It was like unreal how bad I was. My wife had come to visit me; she was allowed in for one hour a day and that was it. But I could see, and there were other patients going into the next world, in opposite beds. I was on the ward where you’re thinking ‘I might not come out of here’, and I couldn’t get any real reassurance from the doctor because he wasn’t sure either. At those points, you kind of go on Dr. Google, as we call it on the patient ward, and you put in ‘why am I being sent for a CT scan? Why am I doing this? Why are my glands…’. And I put in all the drug combinations I was having and it looked like I was transformed to a whole other disease at one point. That’s what the doctors were thinking, they told me that after I’d come out of the danger zone.

And so really when I had this little riff on the guitar, that just happened, just picking up the guitar and it’s there. You don’t write, it just appears out of nowhere. You put your fingers on the guitar and all of a sudden you’re playing this riff and ‘where did that come from?’ And then next minute I’m thinking what’s next? What’s in store for me? What’s next? Am I ready for what’s next?

Am I ready to accept what might happen here? And I thought I am, I’ve lived with cancer so long, I know that it could cut off my lifetime at any point. But I’m happy with the life I’ve lived. I’ll always aspire to tomorrow and the next breath and the next conversation and the next song. And that’s what I was projecting. I was creating my own optimism with the songs and projecting to where I want it to be, not where I was. If I’m gonna make a record called “Forwards,” it’s got to be about the trajectory I want to aspire to and how I want to get out of this place and not finish the story here. And so those were the first two songs, and then that started to inform the longing that I was feeling, the returning and love and forgiveness.

Am I going to be spared here? Because I’ve asked for a lot in life, you know. I’ve asked for the strength to go and do lots of crazy things. And I’ve been rewarded with that life energy. And you think, is it a time when you think, I’ve used up all my goodwill here? <laugh> So what am I gonna get this time when I ask, is it some more love and forgiveness or something else completely. Especially when …. when you finished an album, that’s it, the well’s empty. You’ve put out all your ideas and you think, ‘wow, where’s the next lot gonna come from?’ And luckily for me, I sort of felt like when I was in hospital, I’d been put into a place where no one had written a record before or made songs up before.

I felt like I had stumbled onto this gold mine of music that hadn’t been discovered, you know, by John Lennon or Bob Dylan or someone like that. They’re the guys that got into the big coal mines of pop music before anyone else and took all the great stuff out and then we’re all playing catch-up after that, looking for one gem they might have left behind. So I felt like I was in a place where I had it to myself, and it was effortless. The music was just all there. I did the demos as soon as I came out of hospital, thrilled to come home and grateful to be alive. Once I’d settled in and took the dog for a walk and sat down with Jules and me boys, I went straight into my little studio and banged out the songs while they were fresh in my mind and the energy was still alive.

Since you did initial writing while in the hospital, do you think that the material might have turned out differently if you did have access to a studio and were able to go into recording right away?

Mike Peters: I’m not sure about that because when I was in the hospital, it’s a noisy place. It’s hard to sleep at night. There’s always somebody coughing or groaning because they’re not well. It’s a place where, you know, all humanity is challenged and you’ve got all the machinery keeping people alive and they generate a noise and it’s like sometimes the ‘beep beep beep’ with the alarms going off to warn the nurses that the drugs need changing. That became your little rhythm track, and, the beep is going in the background. And in your imagination, the song is gigantic. You hear everything in your imagination. The trouble is realizing what’s in… all artists struggle with realizing the scope of your imagination, getting that down as a physical manifestation through some set of speakers. I’ve got quite a simple set-up at home. It’s in my caravan at the top of the driveway. I went in there, plugged it all in and bang it and put a drum machine on, put a guide track down, sang it straight away while I had it in my head.

And I’m glad they did that because soon after I’d sung it all, I lost my voice completely. I was being introduced to a brand new drug that took me down first before I could go back up. I had to get used to it really, a hard-hitting new drug. And I had to be introduced to it incrementally. Couldn’t go straight to the high doses or I couldn’t survive it. So it was like being weened onto a really hardcore drug. During that process. I really lost my voice. So much so, I thought I’m never gonna get this back. It felt terminal to me. And I had demos with one vocal track of each song and I took them to my producer, George Williams, who’s done the last few Alarm albums and he just said, “mate, you’ve nailed it with these. These demos are great. The energy’s brilliant”. He said, “you got the tempos right”.

“They may need a bit of editing here and there or, or tidy up some things, but it’s all there, and it’s important that you don’t lose what is in this already.” Because that moment of creation is a big part of a record. And so we just went on top of it. Within 24 hours, we had Smiley, our drummer, playing drums to all the tracks. In four days, he did all the drum tracks. This is coming from him. He said, “oh, these, I know exactly what to do. You’ve already expressed it in the drum beats you’ve chosen for the demos. It just needs some really good fills in the right places. The tempos are bang on”. George, myself and Smiley put down the backing tracks because we couldn’t get James the guitarist in so fast.

Eventually we got him in, and again I had put all the guitar lines down. So he knew exactly what to do, and he just knew how to embellish them in the right way. Take that a little bit further than my capabilities can do. And before we knew it, we had a finished record. And I think probably in terms of recording, we had it all in 10 days. Then obviously we wanted to mix it. But then George said, “look, do you think you could have one more shot singing it”? And I said, “well, I am feeling like my voice is starting to get somewhere again”. So I thought I’d again give it whirl. I fired it all up, got my great microphone out (the U87) and it just flowed. I thought, I’m not gonna stop, next track, next track until I burn it all out.

And then when I finished I thought, wow, okay, that’s how it’s supposed to be. It was all very clearly laid out. I don’t think I’ve ever made a record that clearly laid out before. There’s always a grey area in some of your demos and some of the songs and how you gonna finish it. But it was surprisingly crystal clear. I was in such a precarious position. It really focused my mind. Because I was in isolation. I wasn’t being distracted when I was writing the songs. There was no phone call going in the middle of it. You know, I might have been disrupted to put my IVs back in, but I’d already probably finished by then anyway. Knowing what was coming up, I knew I had bursts of time, because I was in between IV sessions all the time.

And soon as I was taking off the IV in my arms and I could play, I would keep them going and at night I would have some time to myself. I wanted to keep muscle strength as much as I could. So as it was difficult, I started shuffling off down the corridors of the hospital because they were all empty, because there was no visiting. That was kind of strange. And I had a lot of time to think. And I poured that in and thought about the lyrics along the corridor, and it was all about where I like to get to. Like I said, it appeared really quickly.

Something that struck me while listening to the album is the overall flow in terms of the track sequencing. Was it obvious how the songs would fit together?

Mike Peters: Yeah, I think the title song dictated that it had to be first. There were some songs that’d been around. Some of the last songs, like ‘New Standards’ and ‘Love Disappearing’, had been around a little bit in some form before I was taken really ill. I felt like they were a big part of it, but did not belong right at the start. People expect much more of a worldly view and I thought, “Right, okay, I’m going to get out of this place. Then we’re going to have a look at what’s around us.” By doing that, I was able to finish the lyrics to those songs. An earlier album, “Omega” which was originally called “War,” was made during the lockdown in 50 days.

The energy of that was so powerful that I carried on writing a few more songs as well. Those songs rolled into this at the far end. I came out of the hospital with about nine songs and then had three others floating around, maybe four. There are two other songs that didn’t get onto the record and are part of a tour edition that we’re releasing in the UK. There will be a limited run of that with the two extra tracks. But they were from before. Well, one was from my time in the hospital. It’s called ‘Passover,’ and the other one was from before. It’s called ‘The Last Words of Johnny Rotten.’ They ended up on the extra record, but they’re good. They just didn’t feel like they belonged in the same body of work.

I think focusing all of our energy into 10 songs was a better decision than spreading it across 12. I thought that by making it more concise, we would get the message across better. It would bring it to the place that I want to be. I wanted it to show that I am back, that I am alive. I thought that 10 songs conveyed that more so than the additional two songs and ten minutes would.

Before you went back into the hospital, you had been celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Alarm with a tour and the ‘History Repeating’ collection. Did revisiting the past have any impact on new material?

Mike Peters: It did have an impact on the ‘Forwards’ album in the sense that during the pandemic, one of the things I learned from fans was that … We were supposed to play shows the weekend of the lockdown in the UK. They all got pulled, so we decided to go on the internet from our sofa and play some songs and chat with the fans. We knew they would be disappointed because they weren’t able to go to the show and we were all locked in our houses. Then we never stopped. Every week we were back on the sofa, playing songs and chatting with people. At the same time, coincidentally, we were transforming our studio, Chapel, into apartments, with a plan to do some long-term rentals. Our base is opposite a 70-foot waterfall.

Everyone was telling us that we should do them as holiday lets, not rentals. They called us mad. We considered it, and during the lockdown, when construction was allowed but people were still locked down, we got to a point where we could see the completion date nearing. Our problem was that we didn’t think we could rent them for at least six months after that date because people don’t want to rent a room in an apartment if they don’t know what it looks like. We didn’t have photographs, but we knew the Alarm fans would come. So, we put up the architectural drawings and we said, “Come and stay here. You’ll get to be a part of the live audience with ‘A Big Night In,’ our internet program. Then you can have a personal concert with Mike on Saturday night in the community hall.” We ended up doing 35 weekends.

The government protocols at the time allowed 30 people to attend an event in Wales. So, we’d have 22 guests staying in the chapel. With our crew and Jules and all that, it was 30 people. We created a bar atmosphere almost like a little jazz club. And the fans were so with me all weekend that I decided I would ask them to tell me what songs they wanted to hear. All of a sudden they’ve got the chance to write the set list, haven’t they? And it wasn’t the obvious songs on their choices. Some nights I thought, I can’t not play that, I’ve gotta do them all. So some nights I was doing 55 songs for 20 people that had all chosen some each. I thought, I’ve gotta carry this energy of a lot of songs in a space of time into the tour. When we got to 40th anniversary, there was one night it played a request show and I did an encore, a second set. There was so many requests. I played 30 songs in 50 minutes and I was just going one to the next. I lose the intro straight to the vocal, after the second chorus don’t go to the third chorus, go straight to the next verse, to the next song.

And the atmosphere was electric in the room, even though it was 30 people. It was massive. And I thought, I want this at the Alarm show. And so when we did the tour, we created a part of the set, the second part of the set where we literally played, I think it was 27 songs in 45 minutes. And nobody spotted that we’d taken anything out. It was just one song after the other. And it was amazing and, and it allowed us to honor songs like “Unsafe Building” or we could put in “Shout to the Devil” or “For Freedom” from the Alarm EP into the set and still have time to play some of the songs from “Omega,” some of the songs from “Sigma” and “Equals” and “Direct Action” or whatever it was. There were certain songs we could play and move them around, different ones on the encore. And it made it a fantastic tour. And the medley, as we called it, was just such a massive highlight. And people were like, “I never thought I was gonna hear this song”. As long as you acknowledge that part of your history, all the fans went home ecstatic, and they couldn’t believe what songs were coming after the next one.

In terms of the unexpected requests, are there any trends that you saw in what people were asking for?

Mike Peters: It was all songs from the second sides of LPs that were getting a lot of the requests. And a lot of requests for songs from the fans that really stuck with me through the 00s, when bands like The Alarm and a certain generation were cast aside a little bit from the public eye because there were still new bands coming along. There are not so many new bands these days, but there was then. So there was a lot of requests from the album that really re-established The Alarm in the 00s, the “Poppy Fields” album. A lot of people don’t know it, but that was a five album release that was made in four months, 54 songs. It’s deep, and I think has some brilliant Alarm material on it that never saw the light of day other than to this small body of people.

A lot of requests for that come up, things like “The Unexplained”, “Rain Down”. And then some from the eighties, it would be “The Day The Ravens Left The Tower” from the “Strength” album or “Hallowed Ground” from the “Eye Of The Hurricane” record or “Raw” from the “Raw” album. Because that doesn’t get played very often. Things like that, and some from solo records. And so I thought if we were gonna do a 40th anniversary, we want to capture the full sweep of the Alarm’s history.

If you’re only gonna go on stage and play for 90 minutes or an hour and 45, for most bands 18 or 19 songs is still a lot. But I think we’ve gotta get at least 35 in there <laugh>. Pretty much every album of The Alarm would be represented across the tour. And I had an acoustic part in the middle, I could change that every night and take requests and play things like “What Kind Of Hell” and things like that. And these are big songs for our core audience. And so when we did “Forwards”, I thought keep things short. You know, keep things to a minimum. Don’t overextend the solos, don’t overextend the outros. Keep it short and sharp. It communicates a lot better that way. And that was because I was touching base a lot of early energy from those early songs on that 40th-anniversary tour.

You have so much material, and obviously some people do want to hear the hit singles. For regular concerts, what is your approach to putting together a set list?

Mike Peters: It’s obvious that the hits make themselves known. They are what they are. And then the big songs in the Alarm set generally come from the eighties, or the two or three that have established themselves over time. One of the big songs in the set is ‘Breathe’ from a solo period. I’ve never not liked playing the classic songs. The challenge would be if there was no new music to spread around them a little bit to put ‘em in a newer context. I’ve always been aware of my past and I’m bringing it with me all the time.

I don’t ignore it and pretend it’s not there, but I’ve always got one eye on the future as well. And I think that makes it so that you’re not reliant on your past all the time. That’s just how I perceive it, and that’s my way of dealing with it. And whenever I commit a song to a record, I always ask myself, ‘right, are you prepared to play this in 30 years?. Just like, you know, if your kid goes to jail in 30 years, are you gonna stand by him? Yes, you are. So you give them the same rationale, and I think, ‘okay.’ And then if you’re not, don’t put it on the record. <laugh>.

So given that, is there perhaps any earlier material that the fans want, that maybe looking back, you didn’t think you’d still be playing in 40 years?

Mike Peters: To be honest, they make an appearance. There’s this trend in the fan base now where if they come to one of these Alarm staycations, now they start requesting songs they’ve heard that we might have played on a sound check, or they challenge me to play a cover version – I would have no idea I would do it. Like ‘Peace, Love And Understanding’ by Elvis Costello. We used to play it on the Alarm sound checks at times. So people would hear that standing at the backstage area or outside the stage door waiting to get in early. And then even things like ‘Thoughts of Young Man,’ the B side of ‘68 Guns’, that gets requested. And I sometimes think the fans are just testing me out, making sure I’ve still got the balls to play those kinds of songs.

Some of them surprise me. You think, ‘oh, actually it’s much better than I realized.’ Even though you might have sort of written it and thought, ‘well, it’s never gonna be an A side, it’s never gonna be on the actual album.’ But you know, especially in the early days in the Alarm, we grew up in an era where other bands, our contemporaries like The Jam and others were, you didn’t put your B sides on the albums. You often didn’t put singles on the albums. And so that was a really good outlet for a lot of great music. So with the Alarm, we thought, ‘okay, if we’re gonna put something on the B side, it’s gotta be really good.’ And so we put a lot of energy into them. And then even though historically you think of them as B sides, they’re still part of that period of what made that record what it is, especially for the fans.

Do you miss that concept, since we don’t really have the idea of the b-side with streaming? What would be the equivalent now?

Mike Peters: Well you don’t, but ironically, so to me it’s having a few extra tracks on another version of the LP or the CD that won’t be on the streaming services, that are rewards for people who buy the physical music. So there are ways to integrate music into situations. The last tour I did in America was 2019 and we toured with Modern English and Gene Loves Jezebel. So we thought, okay, we’ll do our version of modern English’s biggest song ‘You I’ll Stop the World.’ We do a Gene Loves Jezebel song, and we did covers of some of those and only put them on YouTube. They were really good recordings and everyone seems to like them. They even get requested when I’m playing now.

When you do these kinds of intimate shows with your really big fans who know everything, they really want to go deep. I think I respect them for that because they’ve stuck with me and the music for a long, long time. So I’ve spent a lot of Saturdays in the last year sitting in front YouTube, trying to remember how to play songs or dialing up old Alarm songs. How do I get that chord change there? It’s informative in its own right. You know, ‘I went from a major to a minor, oh I’ll look at that again in future. ‘Some guitar riffs that you know, if I think okay if I’m going to play an environment with an acoustic guitar, I’ll drop it down the key and play it in a different way.

You work out a new way to play the riff and you learn something more about it. I think a lot of songs in the early days when we’d hear them in our imagination, we can see them on the guitar and then you put the melody to it, as if the riff had appeared. I think sometimes we didn’t find the right space for the vocal melody. We found the right space for the guitar riff. When I come to play them, you know, 30 or 40 years down the line, I had one I hadn’t played for 29 years. I found another way to play the riff and it enhanced the melody, and it was a different version of the guitar riff that was still compelling. It allowed the song to breathe a little bit more. I thought it was really quite interesting. So bring a few songs forward like that into the set when we get, when we get out there.

We have limited time, but I do want to hear more about what you’re doing with the Love Hope Strength Foundation.

Mike Peters: We’ve got our Snowdon Rocks Annual Climb back on post-pandemic, this summer and we’re doing it as a sort-of secret festival in the mountains and a weekend camping and taking ‘em up to the mountain and back down. And we sort of moved it off the main part of the mountain. It got so big that I felt environmentally, we needed to give the mountain a break from having a thousand boots climbing up the mountain on the same pathway. So we’ve been trying to make a little bit more eco-friendly and downsize it a little bit but still create a more inclusive experience. And then we’re going to the Alps in September and hiking there and raising funds for the cancer centers we support around the world. The ones that we’ve built in Africa and Nepal. And then at the culmination of this year, I’ll be at the World Cancer Leaders Summit in October. I don’t know why I get invited, but I think it’s because I’ve come with guitar and song and uplift. For a lot of people, “Love, Hope, Strength” represents a new face of cancer, a new way of living with the disease. And it all started by accident really, and intuition and wanting to not give up a day to the disease. And you know, a lot of people think when they’ve heard the word cancer that they can’t run anymore. They can’t go out with their friends, can’t hang out with their kids in the same way. They have to lock themselves away in their bedroom or something and face it that way. But my feeling is don’t let the cancer take any of that. Go running, stay strong. Remember where you were the day before you heard the word cancer. Start from there. Not where cancer sends you 30 feet below the ground. Start where you were. Try and regain, keep hold of as much of you, the sense of who you are, as possible. Don’t let cancer take any of it. And that’s sort of the strength of our message really.

For more info on The Alarm visit thealarm.com.
Click here to get the Forwards album.

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