Mike Peters, lead singer with The Alarm, told David Hennessy about his new collaboration with The Cult guitarist Billy Duffy, what his advice is to people struggling with a cancer diagnosis and why Bono is the best PR man a young band could ever have.
Mike Peters is best known for being the lead singer and guitarist in new wave rockers The Alarm.
After being formed in the late 70s/ early 80s, the Welsh band became known for hits like 68 Guns and Rain in the Summertime and are still going over 40 years later.
Mike has just reunited with Billy Duffy, guitarist with The Cult, for their joint project, Coloursound.
The duo have just released their second album Coloursound II, along with the lead single Paradise, some twenty years after their first collection.
Mike describes the union as being ‘born outside of wedlock’ as it was originally forged in 1997 when both The Alarm and The Cult were on hiatus.
In fact, it was the same year that the pair released their first album Coloursound back in 1999 that both The Alarm and the Cult would get back on the road.
However, when both were busy with the bands they are both synonymous with in the years since, the original Coloursound album would grow a reputation of its own.
The pair always continued to work together when time allowed but lockdown allowed them the chance to produce this follow-up together.
Mike told The Irish World: “Whenever I do something with Billy, it tends to notch up the volume level a little bit more than usual.
“We have longstanding friendship that goes back to ‘96 and then we fell into making a Colorsound album, and that got exciting.
“I think we’re both individuals who like to play and make music as much as we possibly can.
“With Covid coming along, we took the opportunity to do a Coloursound album. We didn’t have the same touring commitments as we might have had if life had been normal.
“It gave us space and the opportunity to work together again which we haven’t had for a long time.
“I’m such a fan of Billy’s guitar playing.
“He can play almost anything and I can hear a song that I can get excited by.”
While Mike says the pandemic allowed them the chance to produce the album, he believes it would always have happened at some point.
“I think it might have done because even in the 20 years, we’ve always found an excuse to play together whether I’ve been in LA with The Alarm and Billy’s come on stage and play with us.
“And, of course, we can’t help but play a Coloursound song whenever he has come on stage.
“And the idea was to make a very live, honest record where we almost got together in the studio and just recorded what was going to happen.
“And that’s literally what we did, we made the majority of the recording in seven days in a residential studio, playing like a live band like it used to be done when we started out.
“And that’s something that we were, especially Billy, very keen to capture.
“Because in The Alarm and The Cult, we both work in quite intense creative processes where we’re trying to not repeat ourselves and we’re trying to find ways to go forward.
“Whereas with Coloursound, we both wanted a release from that pressure and we wanted to make a very straightforward rock record that was centred around Billy’s guitar with my voice in the mix.
“I didn’t want to even play guitar. Why would I want to play guitar like I do in The Alarm when I’ve got one of the world’s greats alongside me?
“I always say me and Billy are quite lucky that we’re two people that had lightning strike twice in our lives.
“For me it struck being in a band called The Alarm.
“For Billy it struck when he met Ian Astbury and started The Cult.
“But when Billy and I met, there was a third lightning bolt that welded together our creativity.
“And so it’s a very simple and easy situation to fall into when we get together.”
Mike has over 40 years in the music business. Although they have been known as The Alarm since 1981, he formed his earlier band The Toilets in 1977 after being inspired by seeing The Sex Pistols performing live.
“It is hard to believe because I still feel like the kid who saw the Sex Pistols, as Billy did. We both saw them play in 1976 and were fired up by that energy to be in bands ourselves.
“And we’re still feeding off that energy to this very day.
“It’s very hard to think it’s been around so long, especially when the punk energy was supposed to be quite a fast energy that would burn out quite quickly.
“To still be able to feed off that is quite interesting of itself.
“And I think that when the pandemic struck, and I think the experiences we were able to fall back on allowed us to come up with ways to make music in the pandemic era that could sound relevant and be exciting and uplifting and represent what we were trying to do.”
Originally from Rhyl, Mike and his bandmates moved to London in 1981 to tour the club circuit. He doesn’t believe such a scene of musicians exists anymore unless it does online.
“At the moment, I think young children who play guitars don’t see a gig as a way out for them because that avenue’s been cut off.
“And they’re the avenues that allowed bands like The Alarm, The Cult and U2 to thrive.
“Billy was in Theatre of Hate and Summer Death Cult were the support band and that’s how he met Ian Astbury.
“Whether those connections are happening today because kids aren’t meeting in those environments anymore, it’s hard to say.
“I think rock music doesn’t have the same hold over young people like it did.
“I was like, ‘I’ve got to get out there in front of people’.
“I just think young people don’t see it in the same way we used to do.
“Maybe that’s why Billy and I and bands like us can still exist, because there’s no one coming to blow us out of the water like there has been at various times in our career.
“We got to the end of the 80s and all of a sudden these new bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana came along and blew us all away for a while. And then Britpop comes along, Oasis and there hasn’t been a lot since, I don’t think really.”
Mike feels for those young performers who have robbed of the chance to get out in front of audiences.
“When you’re young, you feel like it could be over before it starts.
“I remember when we had a hit with 68 guns, I was going, ‘Please don’t let this be the end. Let us have one more hit at least so that we don’t become a one hit wonder’.
“I think a lot of bands have been robbed of some of their best years almost because of Covid.
“But for Billy and I, it was almost the opposite.
“It gave us another opportunity to make music that we might not normally have had so we grabbed it with both hands.”
“I’m not sure where the future of music is going to go from this point.
“It could be very interesting because I think it could be directed not just by a young band that doesn’t know any different coming along like the Sex Pistols did or Nirvana did.
“It might be a band that’s been around for a while, that has got experience and has got a vision to be able to see their way out of the pandemic and thrive and make the record that captures the moment and excites everybody and brings them back to the magic of music.”
Mike founded the Love Hope Strength Foundation and has been awarded the MBE for his work with cancer sufferers and survivors.
This is a cause very close to his own heart not only because he is a cancer survivor himself but his wife is also.
“As a cancer survivor myself and my wife Jules, a breast cancer survivor, it’s obviously very close to our hearts.
“We’ve done a lot of work and worked with all kinds of musicians and saved a lot of lives at gigs by doing bone marrow drives at festivals, added over 250,000 people to the bone marrow registry and found over 4,500 life-saving matches.
“Billy and I have been on lots of these adventures together and Billy was at the very first event we had which was on the summit of the Empire State Building.
“We kicked off the charity with a gig on the Empire State Building which was pretty amazing and Billy climbed every step and we’ve kept going ever since.”
Billy describes the moment his life was turned upside down by the dreaded diagnosis.
“It was terrifying because it was so out of the blue.
“I think I was sort of lucky in a way that when I was first diagnosed, it happened to be the night before an American tour.
“And I just said, ‘I’ve got to go on the tour and prepare myself for this mentally’.
“That gave me a mindset to face up to the cancer because a lot of people have the diagnosis and are plunged into the treatment.
“But I sort of went off, probably out of fear to be honest, and managed to finish off a rock ‘n’ roll tour before I started facing the battle and that gave me a fortitude, I think.
“No one’s prepared for cancer.
“No one carries a cancer survival pack with them through life.
“It’s something you have to deal with when it lands on your doorstep.
“You always think that it’s going to happen to someone else, never you.
“And when it does, it can be a real shocker.
“I often say to people, when they are facing their own diagnosis, try and remember what it was like before they said the word ‘cancer’.
“Because often you meet the doctor and it’s only because you’ve got symptoms, it is not because you’re feeling unwell. It’s because something strange is happening in your body.
“You know, some people are playing football. Then they go to the doctor and they tell them they have got cancer. So they stop playing football straightaway.
“Carry on, face your cancer from the point in your life where you were just before you heard the word cancer and start from there, not from the place when you hear the word cancer and it sends you down 20 storeys into the basement of life and you’ve got to start your struggle there.
“Get back up to fight back from there.”
Mike continued to perform and even book gigs during treatment.
“I knew I could recover.
“I knew I didn’t want the cancer to take my music away from me.
“I didn’t want it to take me away from my family.
“I decided that cancer wasn’t gonna win like that.
“I said that I’m going to start with everything I hold dear and I’m going to fight for that first and then I’ll deal with cancer when it has to happen.
“I didn’t give up my life to cancer and stop playing guitar.
“I said, ‘I’m never going to cancel a gig because of cancer. I’ll do it if I have to have treatment but I’m not going to do it just because I’ve heard the word cancer’.
“I was on the way to play a gig when I was told. I got in the car. My brother said, ‘What’s happening?’
“I said, ‘They’ve just told me I’ve got cancer’.
“He said, ‘Right, let’s go home’. I said, ‘No. Let’s go and do the gig. That’s what we’re gonna do, and we’ll tackle cancer tomorrow’.
“So that’s held me in good stead. I think I was lucky that I was told I had cancer on the way to a gig. Otherwise, life might be very different.”
Mike describes Bono as the best PR man a band could have. He met the U2 frontman when it was still relatively early in both bands’ careers and they have kept in touch ever since.
“I met Bono in 1981. The Alarm played The Lyceum with U2 in 1981 and I was setting up the gear and Bono came on the stage and was like, ‘What’s this?’ He was intrigued by my guitars.
“I’ve always played acoustic guitars with electric guitar pick ups in them so they could be loud and dangerous.
“And he was fascinated and the next minute I’m invited back to their hotel and we would talk about music and bands all night long.
“And it was an obsession for both of us.
“U2 invited The Alarm to America in 1983 to support them.
“We were a completely unknown band as far as most people were concerned and that was an amazing opportunity for us.
“Bono would go on the radio and tell the DJ not to play New Year’s Day. He would say, ‘Play The Stand by The Alarm. They’re playing with us tonight. Come early and come see this band’.
“He was the best PR man you could ever have. And still is.
“I still meet Bono. On the last tour, I saw him in LA and in New York, and he is still on top of his game. And his enthusiasm for music has never waned.
“Whenever I meet him, he’s like, ‘Have you heard this, Mike?’
“He might tell me about bands and now he’s got his son in a great band in Inhaler.
“It must have rubbed off somewhere.”
Bono is not the only Irish musician Mike has combined with. Coloursound even had an Irish drummer when they first started.
“I’m a big fan of the Saw Doctors and when we started Coloursound, we were lucky enough to have an Irish drummer, Johnny Donnelly of The Saw Doctors.
“He added a big energy to the band and we were lucky enough to get him back play on this Colorsound album. We’ve never lost that connection.
“Whenever I’ve met Irish musicians- I’ve been lucky enough to support The Boomtown Rats, lucky enough to meet Jake Burns and Stiff Little Fingers early in our career- They just seem to be able to talk a lot more than the Welsh guys.
“And they have more stories and more charisma in a way.
“There was something about the accent that drew you in and made you want to listen to the stories.
“It’s no coincidence that there’s Irish bars all over the world: People want to come in and hear the accent, they want to hear the stories.
“They want to feel connected to the Irish people themselves because it’s a magical race.”
Does Mike have any Irish links himself?
Mike laughs: “Well, my father-in-law was born to Irish parents from Kilkenny.
“The kids have got some Irish blood in them but they always say there’s two ways of looking at it with the Welsh.
“They say the Irish are the Welsh that could swim or we’re the Irish that couldn’t swim.
“Whichever way you look at it, we’re obviously connected somehow because we’re Celtic.
“(My father-in-law Peter was orphaned in Wales. He had an Irish father come over from Kilkenny working on the railway and he died of tuberculosis.
“And then the mother died really fast. He was brought up by Welsh parents who adopted him.
“And he felt it was a bit disrespectful to look at the history of his father’s family because the Welsh family looked after him from birth really.
“And then they went to Kilkenny and my mother-in-law went knocking on doors and found one of his cousins.
“This is only a year or so ago, just before the pandemic. And now they found that he’s got a half-brother that lives in Oxford.
“And we’re planning a big trip to come over so that Peter can connect back to his family because there are hundreds of family connections there that they have all found.
“It’s really been exciting for our family to realize that our father figure, my wife’s dad, Peter has got a massive family that we’ve never met before.
“So we’re really excited about coming over.”
COLOURSØUND II is out now.
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