Mike Peters of The Alarm: 'I was just strumming my guitar and it was connecting me to the patients alongside me'
In 2022, Peters, who had previously recovered from lymph cancer and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, suffered a relapse in his condition. Coupled with a bout of pneumonia, his family were seriously concerned for his health. Yet a new cancer drug, and an indomitable spirit, somehow saw him through.
To keep up his mood during treatment, he was allowed to take an acoustic guitar onto the ward and on that he wrote the ten songs that form the new album.
“Look, it was very challenging,” the 64-year-old reflects a few months after returning home. “It was more the fact that I was in hospital for a long time. There had been post-pandemic protocols in place so I wasn’t allowed any visitors. It all had to be remote, over the phone, which is probably part of the reason why I had got in such a bad place. I hadn’t seen a doctor physically for two or three years across the pandemic time, and things had got out of control.
“Once I knew I was going to be in hospital for a long time I did ask for my guitar to be brought in, just to pass the time of day. When I was having long IV sessions and I had breaks in between I would play a bit of guitar quietly on the ward. I asked the nurses if it would be OK and they said it would be fine as long as I was quiet. So I was just strumming and the next thing it was connecting me to the patients alongside me across the ward, they’d say, ‘Carry on, it was lovely hearing that sound in the hospital, keep going’. I was wondering why the auxilliary staff were cleaning around my bed twice and it was because there was a bit of guitar being played. All of a sudden, without even thinking about it, songs appeared.”
While having to lie on his side for long periods of time while five litres of blood was drained from his lungs, he says he found that his “imagination ran wild”.
“I started to think about how I’m going get out of here, what am I going to do when I overcome this – and I have to,” he says. “I was in a dark place, there were question marks over whether I’d come out, and question marks over whether I could build myself up to accept the new drugs that I had to take to keep me alive. The dose was so heavy it takes about three weeks to build you up to be able to accept this new drug called venetoclax. All the time I was willing it to work, because I didn’t want to push back against it which I had done to previous drug regimes, and luckily for me in the long run I came out on the top side and armed with a lot of new songs.”
In announcing his illness to fans on The Alarm’s website, Peters signed off his message ‘Forwards’. “It was the direction I was moving in – and I thought, ‘That’s a song, that’s a title’,” he says. No sooner had he got out of hospital, he rattled off “a bunch of demos in a couple of days” in his caravan, then he and his band headed to a recording studio in Blackpool. “When I took them to George Williams, our producer, he said, ‘Mike, you’ve got it, this is amazing. The tempos are right, the arrangements are right, let’s just carry on from where you’ve taken them and use those as the guide to make the record’.”
Although still frail and struggling with his voice – at one point, he recalls telling Williams: “This might sound horrendous, but you might have to treat this as a posthumous album in the sense that my voice isn’t going to come back and we’d have to use the demos” – he managed to summon the energy to re-do them as the album was being mixed. “As soon as I thought ‘Wow, my voice – it’s back!’ I almost sang them in one take,” he says.
Now, with his wellbeing “top notch – OK supported by a lot of medication and hospital treatment”, he is heading out to play a small number of acoustic shows. He explains of the short tour: “I’m still uncertain whether I can carry that energy night after night with the band, so my first foray in May will be an acoustic tour, just so I can find out how far I can push myself. I didn’t want to overcommit to the band too early because I’ve been through a massively challenging period...so I have to be very careful about what I can go out and do. But I know I will sail through the acoustic tour and my health will stand up to it, and it’s going to be an amazing event. Then I can start looking forward to the band.”
Forwards is out on Friday June 16. Mike Peters plays at The Crescent, York on June 8 and The Welly, Hull on June 9.