Still revered by chart nostalgists who remember The Alarm, MIKE PETERS is today finding a whole new creative resurgence. Peter Bate spoke to the Welsh rocker.
Punters who, like me, drifted away early from the final night of the final Greenbelt (as we knew it) missed a rare treat. Billed to perform a solo acoustic set, ex-Alarm front-man Mike Peters burst onto the main stage with former Cult guitarist Billy Duffy to unleash a rock tirade worthy of any of the new wave of Welsh chart upstarts. Eight years after he disbanded his oft maligned but fanatically loved 1980s' air-punchers, Peters is back - bolder, brasher than ever. Three studio albums since Cross Rhythms last spoke to him in 1994, the blond Welshman has enjoyed rare critical praise for 1998's 'Rise' LP and is soon to release a full album with Duffy under the ColourSound moniker. So, as Peters exits his thirties this year, the old "life begins at 40" cliche for once rings true. But life after The Alarm has been no easy ride. The valley boy, who lost his father and saw his sister suffer a brain haemorrhage soon after the band split, reached his deepest pit to date in 1995 when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. Yet, what began as a faith-shaking tragedy became a miraculous victory when Peters was given a clean bill of health after battling the cancer head on.
I catch him on the up at a barnstorming solo gig at Wolverhampton's Varsity - part of the singer's 'Interactive Acoustic Works' tour on which fans e-mail requests until 20 minutes before the curtain climbs. A flood of suggestions keeps Peters embroiled in practice, pushing my 7.30pm interview slot back to a few minutes before midnight. In between, the enigmatic songwriter delivers a rousing, unbroken two and a half hour performance of Alarm standards and solo efforts, all backed by a chorus of loyal followers. When I finally sit down with Peters, who has to return to his Prestatyn home tonight, the affable artist is in buoyant mood. "It's been amazing," he says. "It's been like the wind has been flowing behind me for a change rather than me heading upstream all the time. It's been like that in America as well. The 'Rise' album has definitely caught on out there and, with the work I'm doing with Billy Duffy in the background as well, I'm just starting to get a lot more profile going which is bringing people back into the fold. So it's been a very exciting time again."
Peters has more reason than most for his infectious lust for life. The celebratory mood of 'Rise', easily his best solo album to date, followed 1996's jagged 'Feel Free', recorded in the aftermath of cancer. Refusing at first to accept he had lymphoma, the singer soon rallied himself and his fans around. Gig-goers at his 'Psychological Combat Zone' shows witnessed a man, dressed in army slacks, channelling every sinew into beating the deadly condition. "It was pretty harrowing really. I went into a period of denial about it. When I was told I refused to believe I was ill and my survival instinct took over," he recalls. "I was actually on tour which I think was a good thing as it meant I didn't have to stay at home and brood. I was so afraid of going to sleep and having moments of solitude that I filled every single moment with activity, writing songs, playing gigs, travelling and talking. I would literally keep going until my body shut down and then I'd wake up and start again.
"I did everything. I read books about how people had overcome situations with faith and prayer or through creating mind games to combat things. So, I took as much of that on as I could. I filled my mind with people who'd gone through unconventional means and when I came back from the American tour all my statistics had gone into reverse and they started to creep back up. It was a mad period because even the doctors didn't know what was going on. They didn't know why it was all happening. They kept monitoring it until they finally gave me the all clear."
Peters admits his Christianity took a battering during the period. "I was so angry about it at the time. So much had happened to me in a short space of time. I'd virtually lost my sister, I'd lost my dad and then this happened. At that point you do get really angry with your faith and think, 'Why is it happening? It can't be!' But I think that's a good thing in a way because it helps to remind you why you found your faith in the first place." The singer discovered God in 1981. "I wrote a song called 'Shout To The Devil' which was quite an anti-religion song really and I thought, 'Well what do I know about religion really?', and so I started asking questions and I wanted to research my own self. It was like schoolboy tactics, 'Down the Church!' and all that kind of thing, and I thought, 'Well it's a bit naive that' and so I started asking questions and before you know it the light goes on, doesn't it?"
A firm Greenbelt favourite, the former punk has never been one to put on a pious mask to appease evangelical onlookers. His passionate pen portraits are sometimes coloured by strong language and his partnership with Duffy, guitarist with '80s hell-raisers The Cult, is bound to raise a few CCM eyebrows.
Asked if he's ever considered a career in "Christian" music, Peters emits a resounding "no". "I think it's because I'm not a Christian artist. I'm an artist who's a Christian and there's a major difference in that," he explains. "I'd rather keep it that way. I've always seen faith as being a lot more of a private thing. I'm not going out there witnessing other people have a vocation and a calling for that. That's part of the thing which makes me uncomfortable with Christianity as expressed through church and religion. It tends to push people in the same way all the time. I think sometimes it's intimidating for those quieter Christians who are looking into it more deeply and then see people falling about and speaking in tongues and fainting. And then there's a pressure that that is how your faith should be expressed and I think that can be quite terrifying for some people. I've always got on with a little, quiet revolution. It was a rowdy revolution tonight!"
To this end, Peters has made his followers his church family rather than settling in a local fellowship. As the interview winds down and I turn off my tape recorder, he brings the subject up again and, with a grin on his face, labels himself a "secret agent". But even casual listeners can't help but notice the spiritual themes the songwriter has consistently weaved through numbers from early Alarm tracks like "The Stand" to "My Calling" and "First Light" on 'Rise'. "I've never been a religious type," Peters admits. "I've always felt more comfortable just out on the street with people in that sense. I've also thought it's very important to not be a religious singer or have that tag. I play a lot in America and you see bands that are very overtly Christian and people switch off. It's like Welsh bands who sang in the Welsh language, you'd see it all the time, they'd only play to people who understood the Welsh language.
"I think it's important to be known as just an ordinary singer and then that way if people want to think, 'Why does he sing 'Come on down and meet your maker' in "The Stand"?' They ask their own questions and go on their own journey. And I think that's very important, rather than ramming it down people's throats. I've always not wanted to be too involved in manmade religion and just have my own relationship with God that's not based on texts that have been distorted down the years with so many different versions."
On his partnership with Duffy, which was sparked by a football kick-about at The Phoenix Festival, Peters comments, "The whole point is to interact with people who aren't the same as yourself. Otherwise it's boring and it doesn't lead anywhere. A church that hasn't got people who are not the same coming through its doors is going to shrink. So it's really important to be 'Mike Peters of the Human Race', just interacting with other people. I don't like to put tags on people."
As ColourSound, Peters and Duffy have completed American and UK tours and recently signed to US underground label Velvel. The guitarist has also played at the singer's annual convention, The Gathering, and the duo shared the stage with the Stereophonics and Levellers at last autumn's Snowdonation benefit event organised by Peters and Anthony Hopkins. However, the usually forward Welshman was at first hesitant to strike up a partnership with the renowned axe-master. "We climbed a few peaks in Snowdonia and before you know it he was playing on the 'Rise' album. It was so natural we almost tried to avoid it - certainly Billy did." Peters observes, "It was almost too obvious that Mike in the Alarm and Billy in the Cult should get on musically and so in some ways we were very afraid of playing together, but life just seemed to throw us together. He came to The Gathering and it was also the time when Eddie (McDonald) from The Alarm came back to play with me for the first time since the band split. In the aftermath that wasn't what people were talking about, they were talking about me and Billy and the chemistry we had. I was pretty shocked by that," Peters goes on, "We decided we would get together for a couple of days to write some songs and we ended up doing two weeks and wrote loads. Then we got our friends in to come and play bass and drums. We made some demos and everyone was really getting into it. We knew at that point we had something really, really good going and we can't deny what's happened between us."
ColourSound's line-up reads like a who's who of '80s alternative rock, also featuring bassist Craig Adams (Sisters Of Mercy, The Mission) and drummer Steve Grantley (Stiff Little Fingers). Scheduled to start recording their eagerly awaited debut album in the US last month, the record could be in the shops by June. Peters' enthusiasm for the project is captivating. "It's been very exciting, there's just a raw kind of edge. We've got some killer songs. It's more direct and not as singer-songwriterish as Mike Peters or The Alarm. It's not based around the songs of Mike Peters like The Alarm was. I'm writing all the songs with Billy but they come from a different place."
Whether ColourSound sink or swim, commercial success is not a priority for Peters, who has bittersweet memories of his major label days with The Alarm. "I never liked fame when it came around," he reveals. "I felt frustrated by it. I didn't like being rushed past people to get through doors or to get into a show, I always wanted to stop and talk to everybody. So I felt very uncomfortable with certain aspects of fame and the way fan clubs were run and the distance between people. I felt quite hollow. When I left The Alarm I slipped back into the underground. And in a way it's been the best thing. It's revitalised everything about the music that I've done. I've had to work through a period of musical confusion. I look back now and I see that I was pulling myself in two or three directions when I left The Alarm. But now I've got a little bit of hindsight and can say, 'That wasn't such a good idea', or whatever. One good thing when I left The Alarm was that I didn't take up the position I could have done with IRS. I could've carried on with a fairly major record deal but I actually negotiated my way out of that and put my own record out myself. In some ways I was quite glad because it meant I was never blasted back into the music scene at that level as one of those horrible failures. I followed my instinct again and started a web site, opened the phone lines up and made it a much more communicative, open situation."
The Mike Peters Organisation set up after The Alarm disintegrated, is the antithesis of today's big budget music biz promotional machine. But it works. As well as organising The Gathering, a pilgrimage for up to 2,000 fans every January, it answers calls from enthusiasts the world over and runs an extensive net site. "Our phones are ringing all day long in our office in Prestatyn," Peters enthuses. "My mother's there, my father-in law, my brother, they're all answering the phones and speaking to fans, taking care of their needs in a way. It used to frustrate me when we went on tour with The Alarm. We'd have fans phone the record company and say, 'What's happened to The Alarm?' and they'd say, 'We don't know' and put the phone down. So as soon as I had the autonomy, I decided we were going to take care of people as proper human beings. That's sustained me in a period when I've not had any airplay or any real profile. It's all been done through fans staying in touch and us staying in touch with them. We send them letters, e-mails and put on web sites so they can chat to each other."
He continues, "I've done nine albums since I left The Alarm - three in the shops and six private. It's not been going through the roof but it's just like an amoeba spreading out. It's more of a global village thing. We sell records all over Europe and America, in Argentina and Peru - not in massive numbers, but when you add them all up you think, 'Oh, that's quite a lot isn't it?' And it's all from the touring, on the underground and over the internet. For me the music industry's fairly redundant now. It can break records and make hit singles but it doesn't know how to take care of careers."
Mike Peters is a man
on a mission, somehow maintaining wide-eyed wonder in a cynical,
sneering world - a million miles from jaded '80s rock stars scratching
about to make a living. His faith, his family and his life-threatening
illness have all played a part in this. And his adventure is only just
beginning. "Sometimes I can be over optimistic but it's also what's
kept me going. When people write you off and you go out of fashion
it's very important to have that inner resolve and that optimism to
counteract that. Life has started all over again. I might as well be
14! But I don't feel my age in any shape or form. I'm not afraid of
it. The more I know the more liberty I feel."