To say that The Alarm’s recent history has been characterised by remarkable inner strength in the face of adversity is no understatement.
“We can only say that the music has kept us alive as much as we live for the music,” says the band’s mainstay Mike Peters, recounting how he and his wife Jules have kept their group going in the face of serious illnesses.
Mike was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995. “It was one the eve of a tour and I was advised to have a bone marrow transplant and cease music for a long time and my instinct made me play the tour, speak to a faith healer and start wearing combat fatigues,” he recalls. “I didn’t tell anybody what was happening, if my mum thought I’d passed on the treatment she’d kill me before the cancer would and that became our mindset. Then I came back from the tour ready to face the treatment and be in that positive frame of mind to go forward with everything they were suggesting.
“My blood count reversed and Jules and I saw it as a miracle; the medical team looked for a scientific answer. Then 10 years later I was rediagnosed with leukaemia. I had reached a critical state where I needed to have treatment and by then science had been able to work out what I really had, a slightly different form of cancer that didn’t have a name in 1995, all of a sudden it did and I couldn’t not have treatment but my doctors again still worked with me so I could play concerts in between chemotherapy. Once the worst of the side effects had passed I could play a gig, we created a regime and to be quite honest I thought – and Jules did too – that I was the one carrying that cancer burden for our family, then we couldn’t believe it when Jules was diagnosed.
“Her journey really began when we were on the summit of Mount Snowdon when we were filming a documentary about our cancer charity and all the work we’d done and the survival story and the director spoke to Jules about breast cancer and asked if she’d really checked herself thoroughly. Jules said she had, but the director said, ‘No, really deeply’. When she pushed deep in Jules felt that she’d found something and went to the doctor straight away, then we were dealing with another whole world of cancer and music had to go on hold for the time being. I was plunged into the role of being a carer trying to see Jules through that period of her life.
“My cancer experiences were all in the blood, there was no real invasion for me. I had to take some drugs that behaved like poisons and can make you feel very ill and kill good parts of you along with the bad, whereas Jules’ cancer story was much more invasive, there was a lot of surgery, body disfigurement, having to live with a loss of femininity inwards and outwards. At times we would be separated through the surgery walls, in the operating theatre environment I wasn’t allowed in nor the radiotherapy rooms. To be separated from the person you love in those environments is a really challenging time and I found myself wanting to express my feelings and wrote everything I could into my phone.
“Once we were through the worst of those times Jules asked me, ‘How did you cope for eight hours while I was having surgery?’ and I said, ‘Just by walking up and down the wards and halls and corridors to stay as close as I could and this is what I wrote down and these are the feelings I felt’. Jules looked up after reading some of them and said, ‘This is probably your next album, it’s started right here’.
“Everything is wrapped up in one. With The Alarm I’ve always tried to give it an outlook that is reflective and is a mirror to the surroundings it occupies and that’s the same in my life as a songwriter who is a husband, father, patient, carer – that naturally comes out into the music through words or the drama of the chord sequences you put together or you’re driven towards because of the way you feel, so it’s all one big, entire package. The Alarm is all wrapped up in the life we’ve lived and are living.”
Equals, The Alarm’s ninth studio album in a career that stretches back to the turn of the 1980s, is full of passion. “These songs were created in life or death situations,” says the 59-year-old singer. “Do or die moments where this could go either way. When you’re in those situations, when you’re parted while somebody is in the hands of another person, the life of that person you love is going to be determined by the delicacy of someone else’s skills to keep you alive, you can’t help but think ‘Well, what if we lost Jules? How would I react to my kids? What would I say to them? How would I carry on living? We’ve been married for 30 years, how would I cope with all that change?’ They were the kind of questions that life was challenging me with, so I would write down how I felt about those situations on the paper and they became the songs, so there was a massive emotional connection to every aspect of the song.
“Once I laid them all out in front of me it was a case of word association to create songs, in a way. I’d read one sheet of paper, read another and see there’s a connection there or I’d hear a melody in those two sentences that I’d put together and music started to be formed as a result.
Both of us say cancer blessed our lives. We wouldn’t want it to be placed in anyone else’s life but it’s put us in the position where we’ve met some incredible people and seen some inspirational things happen around us through other people.Mike Peters
“The arrival to Equals was quite an incubation period. We created a project on our website called Blood Red Viral Black and we shared a lot of music in its first form with the fans before we went public with it to record stores and radio and music press and the live environment. It was all shared internally because I didn’t quite know where some of the songs were taking me. At first some of the songs were looking in, some were looking out then they go coded into Blood Red and Viral Black; the Viral Black was more what’s happening in the world and the Blood Red was more what’s happening inside our world and our family, our nearest and dearest.
“Once I felt I’d got a handle on what was the best representation of this situation to go public with it became titled Equals, mainly because I felt we’d come through this passage and there was a lot of equilibrium in our lives. I relapsed in 2015 and Jules started her breast cancer journey not long after that and I felt we’d come through to another side where we could look back and take stock of it all and work out what would have to come with us into the future, to be part of our lives on the journey that we’re on now.
“So the album became Equals because of that equalisation. Jules was able to take up a position in the band again and I felt again the band was starting to reflect the shift in society where we’d come from a very male-dominated industry, the music business, and The Alarm was very much a boys’ band from the football terraces. As those boys grew up they got partners and have wives and families of their own.
“Having Jules from our family up on stage I think represents a more equal cross-section of society and Jules has become such a hero for female and male members of our audience through her stance in dealing with breast cancer, in the way it was portrayed in the BBC documentary.
“Both of us say cancer blessed our lives. We wouldn’t want it to be placed in anyone else’s life but it’s put us in the position where we’ve met some incredible people, we’ve seen some inspirational things happen around us through other people by being placed in hospital wards where miracles happen every day and are often overlooked because of the pressure on the NHS. We’ve been through a remarkable experience that can only enhance our music because of the positive elements that we’ve experienced through living the life that we have.”
Billy Duffy of The Cult plays on the song Coming Backwards. The pair’s friendship goes back to the late 1990s. “We met in that period where the cult had broken up and the alarm had in the mid-90s,” says Mike. “We met playing football in a music business tournament at the Phoenix Festival in Warwickshire and we both connected. I was a fan of his work, I loved him as a guitarist and we just got talking at the sidelines and we realised we both liked hiking in the mountains so I invited him to come up to Wales. He came and stayed with us and we went off into Snowdonia, for days on end we hiked there and we talked about The Alarm and The Cult, that’s what we had between us, we were musicians, and I think we learnt a lot from each other. I learnt about the role of a guitarist from him and because we weren’t in the same band there was no agenda between us so we could talk quite openly about each other’s roles and I think we both came to a new understanding of how our bands operated and worked.
“We created a band that wasn’t long lived – it was called Coloursound – but it was a special band and we created some incredible music and made some amazing demos. We played a few shows together and one particular show was in London and there was a big vibe building up for the band. Ian Astbury from The Cult was at the show and Eddie MacDonald, the bass player from The Alarm, was also at the gig and it was an amazing concert. The next day the phone started ringing saying ‘Let’s put The Cult back together’ and ‘Let’s get The Alarm going’. In a way our relationship was art of the rebirth of both of our own bands that whether we liked it or not we were both tied to forever more.”
The pair remain good friends and in October they went hiking in the Grand Canyon to raise money and awareness for Mike and Jules’ charity Love Hope Strength. “One of the aims of the aim of the foundation is to encourage bone marrow donation,” Mike explains. “We host bone marrow drives at concerts and music festivals in the UK and the USA,” Mike explains. “For instance at the Isle of Wight festival this summer we registered over 800 people to donate bone marrow. We’ve also worked with artists from Ozzy Osbourne to Kenny Chesney, the country singer, and many in between, and we’ve registered 180,000 people through the international registry, we’ve found over 3,700 potentially life-saving matches for people who need a bone marrow transplant. We’ve been very engaged in that process in the last few years and it’s been very successful with really tangible results, lives have been saved, the ones that we know about. It’s an anonymous procedure when it becomes a donor.
“We also do other events – in Nepal we did the highest gig on Everest and Kilimanjaro, we raised funds to build a children’s cancer centre in Darussalam in Tanzania, so we’ve done a lot of work in the cancer field. It’s led by myself and Jules as co-founders, we felt it was a great way to be able to pay back for all the care and the dedication that has kept us alive.
“We host an event in Snowdonia every year, we take people into the mountains and stage a concert and the money raised there supports cancer services in North Wales. The walk in the grand canyon with Billy and Robin Wilson from Gin Blossoms and members of The Alarm raised funds to support our ‘get on the list’ bone marrow donor campaign but also we were supporting cancer care for native Americans who live on reservations in Arizona and Utah.
“We try to support cancer services in the locale of where our events take place; we have a global outlook but we try to support local initiatives.”
The Alarm play at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on December 6. www.thealarm.com