Once the frontman of stadium rockers The Alarm, MIKE PETERS has found new direction since the band split. The Welsh singer/songwriter spoke to James Lewis.
Most Christians will be familiar with Mike Peters as the frontman for Greenbelt favourites, the Alarm - who were the most requested act there along with U2 and Cliff Richard during the 80s. The band were famous for the "cartoon punk anthems" and naive idealism for which they were frequently attacked by the ever-trendy music press. Never popular with NME and co they still commanded a fiercely loyal following which ensured that although none of their subsequent singles were as successful as "68 Guns", their albums were always guaranteed a chart placing. Alarm concerts produced a "clan" atmosphere which was likened to "church in a Welsh-at-Cardiff-Arms-Park sort of a way" by Strait magazine writer, Martin Wroe.
It also has to be said that The Alarm, with other Christianised mainstream bands like U2, The Call and Lone Justice were dealing with the doubts and agonies of faith quite a long time before CCM decided it wasn't really heresy to admit to not feeling exactly victorious all the time, thanks to people like Russ Taff and Jon Gibson (although Rez and Larry Norman deserves a special mention). "The Deceiver" cuts to the heart of spiritual warfare much better than the plethora of songs that White Metal used to have a habit of producing. "The Stand", based on the definitely not-a-Christian Stephen King's book of the same name exhorts us to "Come on down and meet your maker/Come on down and make the stand". Contrary to popular belief about songs by Christians working in the mainstream there are quite a few other songs, mostly on The Alarm's first and last full albums, that were fairly clear Christian statements for those with ears to hear.
However on 30th June 1991, Mike announced from the stage of Brixton Academy that this was to be his last concert with The Alarm. Almost three years later people could be forgiven for thinking that Mike had just disappeared.
However Mike has been a busy man - the last couple of years have seen two versions of his new backing group, The Poets - full name Poets Of Justice, and four tours. The last but one was in support of his debut single appropriately enough titled "Back Into The System" backed with "A New Chapter". The month of April saw a mini-tour followed by a series of support slots for Aimee Mann's tour which is followed by a return to the studio during May and June to complete work on his first solo album, much of which has already been recorded.
But what actually happened? Mike is very up front about his recent history; "When I left the band, it was at the end of a very emotional time really, a very difficult time -I lost my father and then my sister had a very violent brain haemorrhage and it left the whole of the family just decimated... I felt very vulnerable and at the same time I was feeling quite alone within the band. I couldn't really put my finger on it - we'd grown up as friends but I felt more and more isolated within the framework of The Alarm. They wanted to adopt a much more communal song writing approach which I went along with. However with the first four albums I had been the main songwriter and heavily involved at the forefront of the direction of the group -now I was being restricted to just one of four members. I went along with it because we'd been friends for a long time but it felt very difficult... I felt we had this barrier that we couldn't break through in The Alarm, and I just became frustrated and I thought, 'This isn't a healthy position to be in, musically.' There was a lot of emotional pressure inside of me."
After leaving The Alarm, Mike took some time out to be with his family, enjoying their company and coping with the double tragedy. That time was actually very helpful in some ways - his mother was a very strong support and an inspiration to the family through it all, and Mike discovered new sides to his father through speaking to friends at the funeral. As he has shared from the stage at times, during the introduction to "Train A Coming", a song movingly dedicated to his father, Mike had an opportunity to talk about his faith and get to know him a lot better before he died - something that he is grateful for.
Nevertheless, Mike has at times had severe doubts and questions, unsurprisingly during such a traumatic time. Some of the recent songs deal with these uncertainties, and Mike feels that his work has to encompass all of his experiences now, not just the positive. "I didn't want to polish it up because I think there's a lot of people that have their own perception of Mike Peters and The Alarm - I wanted to smash that perception. They'll say 'Oh, Mike Peters is an artist with Christian faith' and then they won't listen to me again". Instead Mike believes that if he expresses his negativity people will prick up their ears and may just listen to the whole sweep of Mike's music. Some Christians will be uncomfortable with the exploration of the darker side of his nature but Mike is confident that this is actually a healthy sign; as he says of "Back Into The System" - "It demonstrates the freedom I now have - it expresses the cynicism, the humour, the doubts and the expression of faith, the whole thing I think it says I'm a more balanced character now, I'm not one dimensional."
Of course, that was one of the main accusations levelled at The Alarm by the critics, that they were one-dimensional, and in hindsight Mike concedes they had a point. Much of this due to the rest of the band who surprisingly not only restricted the Christian content of the songs but also objected to songs that were too "dark" or sensitive. The unequal yoking and self-censorship of the band took it's toll on Mike: "I didn't exactly lose my confidence but I think by trying to appease everyone in the group, by trying to say, 'OK, I'll write about things that affect me, like my faith, but I won't put it in quite as open terms as I'd like to - I'll smooth it out a bit so the band can sit with it, feel comfortable with the words,' that started to have an effect on me as an artist. I wasn't as incisive as I could have been like I was when making earlier records. When I left I felt like a massive weight had been taken off my shoulders - all of a sudden I didn't have anyone looking over my shoulder when I was writing lyrics. I just felt free again."
In the past Mike had a great reluctance to express his faith, partly because he felt that to encapsulate it in a few sentences would inevitably diminish it, partly because of lack of confidence in being able to express it, and partly due to fear of being seen as merely a platform for a particular brand of evangelical Christianity -something the rest of The Alarm were wary of. "The first time we played Greenbelt I really had to persuade the band it wasn't like the Moonies cult or something - it was just a bunch of great people having a great time celebrating life, and so the first time I played it was on my own (Dave Sharp has since played there solo, including in his set a song based on some of the stories in the Old Testament). I think the band were concerned about being pigeonholed as a "Christian" band really.
Now Mike feels his own man and free to express his beliefs - recent work like "I Want What The World Can't Give Me", "Train A Coming", "Spiritual", "Devil's World" and possibly the as-yet unaired "Hallelujah" are as explicit as early songs like "The Stand", "Unsafe Building", "Blaze Of Glory" and "The Deceiver" - all of which are still being played in Mike's set. But songs like "20th Century" confess that, even though he condemns cynicism and bitterness, the spirit of the age has rubbed off on the singer as he asks, "Is this really what you want from me?"
Mike met up with Chris Kimsey (Rolling Stones' producer) and played him some demo tapes made with a drum machine. Chris suggested he use Ethan Johns, the son of Glyn Johns (also a producer), and his band, all session players. Mike spoke to Ethan and they got on very well. Thus, along with wife Jules on keyboards, the first incarnation of The Poets was born. Says Mike: "I wanted the control of being a solo artist, being able to direct the music and direct the whole band towards the ideas that I can see in my mind. But I also wanted the emotional cushion that being in a band can bring when you're not quite sure - you can go and say 'What do you think?' and know that they will give you an objective opinion."
"We worked and it was great -I think I was getting off on the buzz of just playing again with other musicians." But after two tours the flaws of the line-up began to show. Mike found the band atmosphere lacking within in a group of session musicians. Also outside commitments meant that members of the band frequently needed a stand-in. Mike found as well a reluctance on the part of the group to delve into his back catalogue."... they were a bit resentful about playing songs from The Alarm and if they did want to, they wanted to change them and do it their way. I said "Hold on, you might think you can do better but a lot of people really enjoyed them as they were."... I don't want to forget my past -I actually really like the 'Declaration' album - the reason I stopped The Alarm is because The Alarm weren't going to be The Alarm much longer."
Mike pulled back for a bit to have a rethink and then got in touch with Jess, a Welsh group who released a Welsh-language rock album, and on which Mike guested on several tracks (The Alarm's "Change" was made available in a limited Welsh language version). They had played with The Alarm on several occasions and were friends as well. The new Poets (Jess plus Jules) are likely to be a long-term prospect; "The good thing about them is that they are really nice guys. I've known them for a really long time, and they know me inside out and have a respect for what I have achieved."
It appears that the balance between solo artist and group member that Mike has been looking for has been found "I have literally got the best of both worlds. The lines are clearly drawn between us - we know exactly where we stand and how we like to work, an understanding of each other. We also come from a similar background, which is very important; we understand each other on a spiritual level (Jess comes from a typical Welsh 'Chapel' background), as well as on a musical level, which is very important to me as well.
Free of The Alarm and now with the right band of musicians around him, Mike is ready to take on the world and relishes the challenge. Whereas The Alarm were staunchly traditional in their music, dare I say Luddite, the new material is feet sensible. It could be argued that it might be a bad move considering the other main accusation held against The Alarm, that of being U2 clones, but the new material does have a similar influence to Zooropa (though less industrial) or that of Deacon Blue or INXS' more recent albums. But the fact remains that Mike appears to have taken to the style like a duck to water. Despite the humorous knocking of U2 in "Back Into The System", Mike is fairly happy to be compared to them. However, he is keen to point out U2 have borrowed from The Alarm as well - the western feel and style of "Declaration" cropped up later in "The Joshua Tree" - The Alarm had a more mainstream rock and roll attitude than U2 to begin with.
It's no accident that Mike is borrowing heavily from the start of The Alarm - using Declaration-era imagery on the debut single cover, not to mention the fact that almost all of The Alarm songs currently on the set-list are from the first album, 1981's "Unsafe Building" and "Spirit Of 76" from "Strength" being the only exceptions.
"There are parallels, it's really strange, but there are definite parallels between the growth of "The Alarm" and the growth of the solo career." And what with the renaissance of early 80's songs, e.g. The Bluebells, 80's retro could be a good idea.
And the future looks fairly bright - Mike has signed with Welsh indie label Crai - an unknown quantity, but the first single debuted at No.5 in the indie chart which indicates a strong core following already and with upwards of 60 songs to choose from written over the last few years there is no need for a let-up in the assault on the charts for a long time to come.