The Alarm Aims to be Creatively Restless, an Interview with Mike Peters Ahead of Denver Show

TheAlarm_AndyLaBrow3
The Alarm, photo by Andy LaBrow

The Alarm is currently touring North America with Modern English and Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel with a stop in Denver at the Oriental Theater on Friday, August 9. All three bands came up at around the same time and were on even mainstream radio in the early 80s. At that time post-punk bands of various stripes were enjoying varying degrees of popularity and commercial success. In addition to the above groups like U2, Simple Minds, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Cure, Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees helped to define the sounds and look of that style of music for decades to come.

The Alarm’s roots in music go back to Wales where singer and guitarist Mike Peters cut his teeth as a live band playing in the punk band The Toilets in 1977. Peters says the fledgling group played with bands like The Clash, The Buzzcocks and Sioxsie & The Banshees. The band would go to London’s now legendary The Marquee Club, where the Rolling Stones played their first live show in 1962, to see bands including Chelsea whose James Stevenson once drove original Alarm guitarist Dave Sharp home one night because he’d had a bit to drink. Stevenson now plays in The Alarm as well as Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel. The same social milieu meant that Peters went to a clothing store on London’s King’s Row where Billy Duffy worked before the latter joined The Cult. At that time The Toilets had dissolved or rather evolved into a group called Seventeen. “That was fairly directionless in a way and we experimented with echo, power pop, rockabilly and we got lost in the learning curve,” comments Peters. “But we got a tour with the Stray Cats by pretending to be a support band at gigs and we played The Marquee Club and the guy who ran the club thought we were horrible.”

That club manager refused to book Seventeen from thereon out from one of the premier venues of the era. But a year later Peters and company had reconfigured and focused its ideas into The Alarm. And still the guy at the club recognized the members from being Seventeen. “[He] said, ‘I’m not gonna have them play,’” recalls Peters. But Chelsea Singer Gene October offered to get The Alarm a gig as a support band but needed an alternate name so The Alarm played The Marquee Club for the first time as The Black Sheep and the club manager said, “That band’s going places.” At that The Alarm’s manager quipped “That’s the band you wouldn’t book. That’s Seventeen!” And from there The Alarm became a popular band throughout the 80s even though savaged by the English music press. It’s 1983 single “Sixty-Eight Guns” broke into the top twenty in England and it’s 1987 single “Rain in Summertime” cracked the American top ten Mainstream Rock chart, the latter remaining a staple of college and Modern Rock playlists for decades.

Though known for unabashedly positive up-sweep to its music, The Alarm’s catalog runs the gamut of emotions with luminous songwriting that sounds like the band is striving to connect with something bigger than themselves. By 1991 in the wake of the then new album Raw, The Alarm called it quits. Peters went on to a respectable solo career but also engaged in a short-lived project in the late 90s with his previous acquaintance and now then friend Billy Duffy—Coloursound. The group recorded demos, no official releases, but it did perform live. “Pardon me saying so but those recordings have a kind of cult status for fans of the bands,” jokes Peters. The band sounded like a fusion of the great sounds of mid-80s post-punk and Peters says that in the audience of that first show were Ian Astbury, The Cult’s singer, and Eddie MacDonald formerly of The Alarm.

“The next morning the phones were ringing off the hook, says Peters. ‘Let’s get The Cult back together! Let’s get The Alarm back together.’” By the turn of the century or so both groups were back and active.

But by then Peters had already recovered from a bout of lymph cancer only to discover in 2005 that he had chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He formed the Love Hope Strength Foundation shortly after to support people suffering from cancer and leukemia. Peters and The Alarm continued to write and perform music perhaps more actively than in its previous iteration and in the wake of Peters’ wife/band mate, keyboardist Jules, diagnosis of breast cancer in 2016 The Alarm has put out four albums in three years beginning with Blood Red and Viral Black in 2017, Equals in 2018 and Sigma in 2019. It wasn’t just the urgency of health issues that has inspired this flurry of creative activity either. Peters took on the challenge of his creative legacy as well and not to just rest on past laurels like a band celebrating live a kind of museum.

“I think a lot of that stems from arriving at that point in 2010 or 2011 and an era of fortieth anniversaries for The Alarm,” says Peters. “And I like to look forward so I took that as an opportunity to re-present ourselves as a modern band even given the dynamics of who we are, our age, and even though we have active and inactive members but all part of the family—you become a history of the band. You go away but you never really leave. So I wanted to re-establish the band in the modern era given the weight of our history and make music that can stand up to that and live up to that and represent itself through itself against that history. With the new records it challenged us to re-establish ourselves. That’s a stronger calling, I think, and that’s what’s fueled all the new music we’ve made. And more the will to survive, my wife diagnosed with breast cancer and my leukemia relapsed. There was a lot of reason in the air and to make music that could be a soundtrack for us not just as human beings but as a band as well.”

With the new configuration of the band Stevenson, a versatile instrumentalist, has taken on a greater role playing bass pedals as well as guitar as Peters plays a special guitar called The Deceiver which looks like an acoustic guitar but has greater capabilities than the standard instrument. Peters also has microphones set up across the stage so he can move about and in general the music can be presented in ways that had not been possible previously. To perform live for the anniversaries of their respective releases, the first two albums 1984’s Declaration and 1985’s Strength have been revisited and reinvented given the new live format and not hemmed in by the technological and creative limitations of the time of their original release.

In 2017 The Alarm performed on the Vans Warped Tour side by side with much younger bands but earned the respect of musicians and audiences who, given the era, shared The Alarm via social media platforms and giving the group a new audience that only truly knows the modern band and not influenced by expectations of years past. And the younger audience is having an impact on The Alarm’s older fans through social media.

“That’s re-invigorated our old audience and they see younger people talking about the music in social media. And they can say this band is making music today and it validates their reason to like the band in the first place. As long as we’re enjoying it and our success isn’t getting number one on the Billboard charts but maybe to still be there. It’s about longevity and creating a life in music. We’re still learning what we’re capable of. In the 80s we had big hair and western clothing but that’s only one facet of our history and people can discover other facets of us and doors open for us as we play and opportunities arise when we stay true to the core values of the band which is to to be restless, never be happy with what you’ve be created, make things better, make it around the next musical corner, live for the day to find that chord and keep on dreaming and the thrill of the music.”

Modern English and Jay Aston’s Gene Loves Jezebel have also been releasing some of the best music of their careers with 2016’s Take Me to the Trees with the former and the latter’s 2017 album Dance Underwater. Modern English in particular has always made interesting and moodily haunted post-punk but most people probably only remember the band for “I Melt With You,” which was commercially beneficial but has perhaps eclipsed its other fine offerings.

“A lot of bands can get overshadowed by a massive hit,” comments Peters. “I remember playing with Radiohead in Albany, NY in 1995. They were massive Alarm fans and struggling with the weight of ‘Creep.’ It became a sleeper hit in a way and they’d just released The Bends. And they were saying no one wants to hear The Bends, ‘They only want to hear ‘Creep!’ And it was killing them. Thom Yorke was really struggling and I talked with Jonny Greenwood and told him you’ve got to put your arm around this guy and stick to what you believe in and keep playing your music and it will come out from under the shadow. They stopped playing ‘Creep’ for awhile and I admire them for that because that’s what bands have got to do sometimes. That’s what’s great about seeing Modern English on this tour and spreading their wings and playing the music they love and playing ‘I Melt With You’ at the end of the night. It’s great seeing them and Jay and James playing songs from Dance Underwater. It’s as good as anything they’ve done. What’s good about this tour is that all three bands are as much about tomorrow and we’re all bands that have survived but the ethic of the band has stayed intact and that’s what people are experiencing when they come and see the tour.”

Daphne Willis and Dave Tamkin Take the Stigma Out of Talking About Self-Care, Addiction and Mental Health Issues

dave_daphne-promo_web
Daphne Willis and Dave Tamkin, photo courtesy Big Fish Booking

Songwriters Daphne Willis and Dave Tamkin will share a bill tonight, Friday May 18, at eTown Hall (for more information and to buy tickets click here). The two veteran musicians, who met twelve years ago playing local clubs in Chicago when both were living in the Windy City, have recently released songs with themes related to mental health and issues of self-care. As artists who have or still are involved in heavy touring, Willis and Tamkin have witnessed issues of mental health and addiction firsthand and the tone of their music seems grounded in experience rather than an abstraction of real life struggle. With their music both artists aren’t just trying to raise awareness but to humanize issues that can seem overwhelming and insurmountable.

Right out of college at DePaul, where by coincidence Willis also attended several years later, Tamkin found himself carving out a live music career tapping into the National Association of Campus Activities circuit and performing at colleges and towns across the country for eight years before meeting his future wife, Anne, and asking her to have a drink one night but she told him she didn’t have time for that because she was moving to Boulder. The couple has now been married for a decade. And Tamkin found, around that time, that he had to retool his music career considerably when changes in digital marketing were coming his way.

“Business marketing was my major and I was pretty good at getting people to Myspace at the time” says Tamkin. “Even with your website, owning those emails was your career—being able to have contact with your audience at any time. As soon as Myspace went away, I think I had thirty-thousand fans at the time, my whole career changed. I had to start over and it’s still taking me some time. So I’ve spent the last eight years not touring and rebuilding. So it’s nice to get back at it with a different point of view and I’ve been humbled. I appreciate every gig and audience I get in a way that maybe I didn’t back then.”

Tamkin found that not touring constantly forced him to reevaluate how he related to other people and himself not being on the road for six months at a time. Finding himself intimidated by the talent he found in Colorado, Tamkin took a number of years to get hooked into a local music community. And now, as a talent buyer for The Walnut Room through Homevibe Presents, Tamkin has connected with the local music world that he finds “welcoming and kind.” He also discovered Love Hope Strength Foundation, a group whose “Get On the List” campaign seeks to expand a registry for bone marrow donation and other efforts linked with music to try to help those living with cancer. Around that time he lost his father-in-law and Tamkin has encouraged his fans and peers to contribute to Love Hope Strength to give hope to people in a way that Tamkin couldn’t do for his father-in-law.

Tamkin also wrote the song “May” that was featured on Videos That Matter to address the opioid crisis in America. The brightly moody and uplifting song shines a compassionate light on what leads to abuse of opioids without romanticizing or demonizing anyone’s circumstances.

Willis has been collaborating with songwriters around the world since 2015 through her deal publishing deal with Sony/ATV. The versatile songwriter, whose work seems to know no genre boundaries, got her professional music life started early when her first acoustic EP, released when she was nineteen, got picked up for sublicensing through companies that place music in retail outlets and, at one time, through airline music channels. An executive at Vanguard heard her song on an American Airlines flight when his iPod wasn’t working and subsuently signed Willis for two albums. While that story is the dream of many a songwriter, Willis currently still self-produces much if not all of her own work.

Like everyone in America paying attention, Willis has been aware of issues of mental health and addiction for most of her life. With her father in the music industry for over thirty years in the sales and distribution wing of Sony/BMG, Willis grew up in a musical family and as a professional musician she undoubtedly saw the downside of self-medication and mental health struggles among peers and, it turns out, her own family. She wrote about this vividly and with no small amount of sensitivity in her 2017 song “Somebody’s Someone.”

“It’s autobiographical and it’s about my brother and myself,” says Willis. “It’s about every family that struggles with these issues—which is to say every family in the country has someone that struggles with depression, addiction, ADHD, PTSD [and other issues].”

Willis aimed with her songwriting to bring a more realistic perspective to a problems that seem mysterious and impenetrable to many people, especially thouse caught up in the embrace of psychological issues and addiction for whom the stigma might prevent actually getting help or treating before they become a larger problem.

“It’s become a bigger issue than it should be largely because of the stigma,” says Willis. “These issues are not like they’re not preventable or treatable. We as humans are perfectly capable of supporting each other and healing each other through all these things. But because of the fear and stigma that exists toward all of these things there’s a big barrier and we’re not able to do that. The idea of the song is to create a conversation about it. The point of the song is to take our experiences of these things to make it so basic everyone can understand it and relate to it because everyone has been there or know someone who has. People have been writing about this stuff for centuries. But I feel people have been less direct about it.”

While both Willis and Tamkin have written plenty of songs not about such dire subjects, it’s a testament to their talent, humanity and self-awareness that they’re bringing conversations into the creative zeitgeist. Doing so also highlights their insight into what makes a song work and have resonance not just for themselves but for their audiences. Witness it for yourself tonight or any other time you have a chance to see Willis and Tamkin in their element live on stage.