In much the same way as his kindred spirit Neil Young did back in 1991 with “Rockin’ in the Free World,” The Alarm’s Mike Peters has embedded himself in the moment. On the band’s new album WAЯ, Peters has captured current events and the politically divisive words of world leaders and turned them into raw musical anthems. WAЯ is a highly charged return to form for Peters and the band- a ten song assault on injustice and indecency perpetrated by men who should know better.
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“When the Capitol was occupied, it felt like that was one step too far,” Peters tells American Songwriter. “It’s not just an American issue- it affects the whole world. All our lives are wrapped up in this moment.”
The explosive opening track “Protect and Survive,” with its chugging eighth note feel and pointed lyrics, echoes the Neil Young classic and bursts out of the speakers with a passionate fist-in-the-air singalong quoting directly from today’s headlines. “Tribes (Stop the War)” and “Crush” stand as ‘80s contemporary redux calls to action: “You can’t crush a movement/you can’t crush you and I/we won’t be denied.” A cleverly chosen Massive Attack cover, “Safe from Harm” features Skindred’s Benji Webbe, a fellow Welshmen, growling the song’s “serious, infectious and dangerous” hook line, alongside Peters’ melodic interpretation. Raw indeed.
Suffice to say, it takes a lot to upset the always jovial Welsh-born singer. This is a man who has faced and conquered cancer three times. Rather than crumble, Peters started a charity, the Love Hope Strength Foundation, in 2005 to ensure quality care for cancer survivors. He and his wife Jules led 38 cancer survivors and musicians on an expedition up Mt. Everest in 2007, culminating in a concert with fellow musicians Cy Curnin and Jamie West-Oram of The Fixx, Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze and Slim Jim Phantom of The Stray Cats to call attention to chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The event was broadcast on MTV and watched by over 3 million viewers.
In many ways, the new album is a musical full circle for Peters. Though he lives 3000 miles away in Wales, Peters has a special bond with the United States. One of the Alarm’s earliest tours outside Europe was a 1983 US tour with U2 supporting that band’s breakthrough War album.
The January 6 storming of the US Capitol proved to be a tipping point for Peters, who was on the phone with an American friend in Washington while the events unfolded.
“I have a lawyer friend in Washington who represents a lot of fairly high up politicians on both sides. I had the TV on and was talking to him on Zoom and all of a sudden there were images of people storming the Capitol. My friend was worried about his friends in the building. I was caught up on the call and it was quite surreal. It smashed into my brain. I had this song “280 Ways” I was working on and the words “protect and survive” came to me. That set the theme and was the starting point.”
Inspired by the urgency of the newly written lyrics, Peters gave himself a deadline of fifty days- start to finish- to complete the record and get it into fan’s hands. He also opened up the studio recording sessions, giving viewers an intimate window to watch online as the band worked through the songs.
“I have to thank our producer George Williams for pulling this all together during isolation. I was working in a caravan on the top of our driveway and set up guitars and vocals. I mostly used a hollow-body and played a lot of the guitars myself, since I was writing the songs. I shared them with George and our drummer Smiley over Zoom. We’d decide on a tempo and I’d put a guide track down while Smiley laid down drums. We’d send them to James (Stevenson) for some guitars and George pulled it all together. The only time we got to work in the studio together with George was on the last four days during the mix.”
WAЯ echoes an earlier album, 1991’s Raw, with a deliberately spelled backwards graphic.
“We’ve been living through war. That’s why the R is reversed on the cover. It’s really looking behind the word ‘raw.’ We’ve all got raw emotions through this time. We’ve all been to war through this, and we’ve all had to be on the frontline trying to deal with this, whether it’s immense loneliness or turning to drink because there’s nothing else to do. Or being infected by toxic people on the internet who are supposed to lead us but make us feel angrier than we should. There’s going to be lots of scars on humanity when we all meet and compare our stories.”
Peters had been working on a 30th anniversary remake of the Raw album, intending to give those songs a fresh spin. It’s an album he felt never quite gelled the way it should have, partly due to tensions in the band as well as a changing musical climate.
“The Gulf War was happening in 1991 and there was so much to write about, but the band ended up in this compromised creative situation. I was only allowed to write three songs and sing a certain number of songs. Dave was put forward to be the new singer of the band. It just didn’t work and create what I hoped we could do.”
“I’ve revisited all the original ‘80s albums starting with Declaration and when it came to the thirtieth anniversary of Raw, I thought I would remake the album. I’d treat the music like I do today, as if it were fresh and not time-stamped to an era. I felt we missed an opportunity in 1991 to redefine ourselves and give ourselves another chance.”
Once the January 6 event happened, Peters scrapped those plans.
“The ex-President’s presence permeated the whole world. We have a song on the album called “Protect and Survive.” The key line is “280 ways to start a war, 280 ways to kill us all, 280 ways to infect us all.” I quote directly from the Twitter battle he had with Nancy Pelosi during the impeachment trial. ‘This impeachment is a witch hunt. It’s a downright lie.’
“When you see someone who’s in high office like that ranting in public, it affects all of us. Venting and attacking people when he could phone them up in private and have a conversation. To do it on Twitter meant other people could come along and say, ‘hey we can speak loudly and confront you with language.’ It just infected the whole planet. That wasn’t American politics. That was the politics of one man and how he thinks.”
Peters has always gravitated towards anthemic songs, with hits like “68 Guns,” “Strength” and “Rain in the Summertime” carrying the band through the ‘80s. And he’s not one to shy from covering powerful songs from other artists, as he did with Willie Nile’s “One Guitar,” and Neil Young’s previously mentioned “Rockin’ in the Free World.” In fact, Peters has a great story about playing the song live before Neil.
“We actually got to hear Neil Young’s Freedom album before he released it. We transcribed the lyrics right away, learned the chords and gave the tape back to Neil’s manager Elliot Roberts. He stayed around and saw our opening set and we played the song for our encore! So we were the first band to play that song live, even before Neil.”
“Elliot said, ‘Neil’s going to kill me when he hears you played it live.’ But it was the opposite. Neil came to the next gig in San Francisco and then another in New York at the Ritz and got up on stage and played the song with us. There was talk at the time of Neil producing our next record. But I think he saw the tension in the band and shifted his attention to Pearl Jam and did the Mirror Ball album. But we did cover the song on Raw.”
Peters hopes to perform the new songs live and give them their due in front of an appreciative crowd eager for the communal spirit of meaningful lyrics and sonic joy.
“Our band always tried to empower people think for themselves. Look beyond the headlines and rhetoric and make your own decisions. Follow your own path and have the courage to stick with your values.”
“When we come back to touring, I think it’s going to be about the music. Stripped down. It’s going to be about the band showing up in their own car with drums and amp, setting up on stage and rocking out. People are going to want to hear the music and get lost in it because we’ve missed it so much.”
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