Interview: Mike Peters, The Alarm

In July 2014, Colin Liddell did a "phoner" (or "skyper") with Mike Peters, the singer and main songwriter of 1980s rock band The Alarm. Here, in its unedited form, is the first 15 minutes of what turned out to be a one hour interview.

Liddell: Hello.

Peters: Hello. Hi, Colin.

Liddell: Yes, it’s Colin Liddell, yes.

Peters: Hi, Colin. How are you?

Liddell: Fine. Is that Mike Peters?

Peters: It is Mike Peters speaking.

Liddell: OK, great, right. So I believe it’s 8AM where you are, right?

Peters: Yeh it is, yes.

Liddell: You just got up, I assume...

Peters: I’m used to getting up. I’ve got two kids.

Liddell: Uhu.

Peters: [coughs] Yeh, they’re up and ready, they've had their breakfast, watched Match of the Day for the World Cup, ready for school.

Liddell: Oh, great, yeh. Em, so, which team are you supporting. I know Wales didn't go and neither did Scotland, so it's always a tricky one, isn't it?

Peters: Yeh, it is, I sort of support the home teams, but it's a double-edged sword because if they win you enjoy it, but if they lose you enjoy it just as much.

Liddell: Yeh, I know what you mean.

Peters: So, yeh. I'm...I’m going for Holland this time.

Liddell: Yeh, they're a very attractive team to watch. There's a lot of good teams. France are quite impressive too.

Peters: Yeh, yeh. My kids are only seven and ten so they're loving watching it all and doing the wall chart in the morning, putting the scores in... We're really enjoying this one

Liddell: Mmh.

Peters: So, it's good to be home.

Liddell: Yeh, but I'm going to talk to you about your show you're gonna do here in Tokyo in, eh, I think it's in late August.

Peters: Yeh, August the 25th.

Liddell: Yeh, quite a way away still, yeh. And, eh, the show will be the Declaration album. Is that right?

Peters: That's right, yeh. It's thirty years since that record was released.

Liddell: Yeh.

Peters: And, um, and, and, uh, I wanted to go back to it for this tour, but to go forward in a way. Em, I thought it was important, um, to show how the songs have developed and how they've grown with the people who helped write them, or the people who have listened to them have helped keep them relevant, and, um, songs that people still want to hear today, so I thought it was... Y'know, you can’t go back to the 80s and pretend that life hasn't impacted on us all in the 30 years since it came out, so, um, I thought it was good to play the record and to represent what it is today...

Liddell: Yeh.

Peters: But by doing that, I think... I think, y'know, it was a big risk on my part... sort of quite a few chances the way it was played and performed, eh, but I think the audience respected, em, the approach because I think it enabled them to go back to the record and see things in it that they hadn't realized were there. Um, y'know, the big one was performing Sixty Eight Guns with an extra verse, em, because, when it was... It was the first and one of the very few Alarm songs that started as a lyric, and, um, people don’t realize that, and I went, um, back to the original lyrics and looked at them all. Em, it was almost a screenplay how it started life and, um, I realized that to cut it down to make it work as a rock song for Declaration, I edited a verse out and I realized – and I knew it was thirty years after the song had come out but I realized that I had actually taken the wrong verse out and had stripped the song of its meaning almost, so I was able to put that verse back in the song, and, em, and that’s em em em em....

[Disconected due to a problem with Skype]

Peters: Do you hear it?

Liddell: Hello.

Peters: Hello, Colin.

Liddell: Yeh, there was something, um, going wrong with the Skype there. It was like a record that kept repeating or something...Yeh, I dunno...

Peters: OK, sorry.

Liddell: It's not your fault. It's probably Skype. Anyway, you were talking about em, you were talking about Sixty Eight Guns and how you, em, restored the original lyrics to, y'know... that gave people a new perspective on it, yeh?

Peters: I think, yeh, that's right, I think y'know, and I sang in a slightly different style. I played it in an unabridged style really, and, uh, which again made it a longer song but made it a lot more interesting because of that, I think. Em, it's not to say that I won't go back and play the song the way it was, but at this point in time, it's, um, y'know how good a song it is that it's...why it was such a big hit and why it still has resonance today, I think I was able to get to the core of why that song still needs to be performed when I walk out on stage. Y'know. it’s a song I've played every show I've ever played pretty much. There's hardly a show that I can remember where it wasn't played, so it was nice to play a song that's as over-familiar to an Alarm audience as that one but make it... give it an edge to it, and that's how I've approached the Declaration album. I've tried to show people where the Alarm came from through the record and why, when the band started with acoustic guitars and a drum kit – we had no bass guitar – that in a way, when we were recording and leading up to Declaration in 82 and 83 and we were still trying to get our sound together, um, I came across a bootleg of a demo session that we did with Bram Tchaikovsky from the Motors. Do you remember them?

Liddell: Vaguely... yeh.

Peters: I've got a bootleg 7-inch single – probably originated in Japan probably – and it's a... I put it on to listen to it to sort of get a flavour of what we were doing around that time, leading up to Declaration, and it sounds amazing. It sounded so relevant, and it sounded like something from The White Stripes, or the Black Keys, or Mumford and Sons. I realized that, y'know, in a way the Alarm today have got more in common with those bands than the groups that were around us when we started. We often got compared with U2 and Simple Minds and Big Country, but we were very different from those bands in the beginning, and it was only through production of records like Declaration and Strength that pushed us more towards that... to sounding like those bands, but when we started had a very original raw sound, and again that's something I wanted to highlight with this tour so people could see where the band came from and how the music developed into this record called Declaration

Liddell: Aha, so musically, eh, how will it sound different from the version that people are familiar with from the album?

Peters: It'll sound more like how the band sounded when we were touring on The Sound and the Fury tour in 1984.

Liddell: So, it'll be more acoustic?

Peters: Yeh, very acoustic, but it'll have the crossover, y'know. There was always a point in the Alaram gig where we kind of put our foot on the stomp box and everything went electric.

Liddell: Yeh.

Peters: And there'll be that element to it as well. It starts with acoustic guitars, but they're loud acoustic guitars. I'm playing an instrument on this tour called "The Deceiver," and it's a guitar I've developed with Auden Guitars from England, which is run by a guy called Doug Sparkes who is a massive Alarm fan, who followed us around in all those early days, and we got together because at the time we felt we never really got the guitar that was in our heads properly. The technology wasn't quite there. All we had was sticky tape, cordless drills, and, em, electric guitar pick-ups that we would mutilate to fit into the sound holes of the acoustic guitar, or cut some wood out of the guitar and destroy the bracing in the process, and, uh, it was hard to pick out the individual notes, which is why Dave Sharp, our guitarist, eventually moved across to telecasters and stratocastors as his main instrument, but with that move some of the sonic soul of the group got lost, I always think.

Liddell: Yeh.

Peters: And so I was able to go back to taking an acoustic guitar as the foundation instrument but then rebuilding it with all the...putting the electric guitar pick-ups in, in an innovative way. We've got a silent crossover switch. When I flick it the whole gig goes electric, and you really get that sense of shock like there was in those beginning days when we came on and we played seven or eight songs with three acoustic guitars and a drum kit, and flick the switch and there would be bass guitar, two electric guitars, and the whole sonic pitch would widen as the gig went by.

Liddell: Yeh.

Peters: And so, y'know, people who come and see the show in Tokyo will hear all that and experience that.

Liddell: So, in a way, you're kind of rewriting history, aren't you, like, like, cos, like... It's like what the Alarm could have been if the record company hadn't sort of jumped in and started steering you in a certain direction.

Peters: There's an element of that because I think the label saw, y'know... We made Declaration in 1984. It was the same year as Born in the USA and the Springsteen, um, mega global stardom kinda came to the rise. He was... Springsteen and Michael Jackson were the iconic artists of 1984, and, em, I think the record company pushed us towards that Springsteen sound without us realizing it, y'know; we were new to the studio and the producer was there to listen to us, but he was also there to listen to the A and R man and the label and the, em... He made us move forward as a band with Declaration. Um, the band, the Alarm who went into the studio to make Declaration came out a different group at the other end, and I think something got lost. There was an era of the Alarm that got lost. It was there just before we made Declaration and, um, it was that Declaration that I wanted to focus on, because when the album itself came out in 1984 our fans hated it.

Liddell: Yeh?

Eddie Macdonald
Peters: And there was a backlash because it didn't sound like we did on stage and in fact when we played it live on The Sound and the Fury tour in 84 before Declaration came out – we toured on Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke single, and the album came out on the day of the last but one show of the tour, and of course in those days nobody heard music before it came out. There was no internet, there was... Your records never got bootlegged before they got released, so there was a real shock when the album came out because it didn't sound like the tour everybody had just been enjoying. In fact another instance, the introduction of Sixty Eight Guns – a big fanfare. It sounds great on the radio and heralds the introduction of the song – was, that was put on without us really knowing it was there. Um, we, we got... put down our backing track, gone off to play some shows and came back to hear that, and I remember Eddie our bass player going crazy because it didn't sound like we did.

Liddell: Uhu.

Peters: But then again, I think that's part of the charm of bands in a way. When you go into the studio every single member's got an image in their mind of what they're going to sound like, and the producer's job is to unite all those visions and bring them all together, and, um, because y'know we never had a solid template in 1984. We didn't know what our sound was. We were hoping it was great and then when we went into the studio... So when we actually heard it we were all in for a shock I think, and that was y'know something that was there for Declaration. We knew it was a great album and we knew the songs were great. We really believed in the songs. We knew they were going to stay with us forever...

Liddell: Yeh.

Peters: ...if we were lucky enough to be round for a long time, and, um, and so... But there was an element of, of the record that had got lost in, y'know, an element of something I thought had been lost about The Alarm in making the record, and when we were touring and playing “Sixty Eight Guns” when it'd become such a hit, we were still playing it without the introduction.

Liddell: Yeh.

Peters: [garbled] there was something wrong. This wasn't going down so well, and as soon as I started singing the first line, everyone would go crazy, and in the end we had to give way and start to learn to play it like the audience knew it from the radio, ha ha!

Liddell: Yeh. So...

Peters: It was, it's a case of looking at all that and assimilating it, and then trying to present a record, y'know, obviously I've been on, and thirty years of life have impacted on me since Declaration came out, and I wanted to show that in these songs and the skin they live in today.

[The rest of the interview will be posted in due course]
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