MIKE Peters took his guitar into hospital to write The Alarm’s new album, Forwards, out on June 16.
After a year of heightened health challenges, the 64-year-old Welshman is on tour, performing a one-man band electro-acoustic setlist of songs from all four decades of The Alarm discography at The Crescent, York, on Thursday.
“The album title came to me when I was in hospital, at the North Wales Cancer Treatment Centre [at Glan Clwyd Hospital, Rhyl], and things weren’t looking good,” he says.
“I was in a ward where someone had flown in from America to visit their father for the last time, and they said, ‘oh my God, it’s Mike Peters from The Alarm’. I realised I would need to write a letter to The Alarm fans and I signed off the note, ‘Forwards, Mike Peters’. That’s when I thought, ‘that would make a great album title’.”
Mike was suffering from both pneumonia and a leukaemia relapse. “I’ve been living with leukaemia since 1995. I’ve probably had more [leukaemia treatment] than any person alive and I’m still here to tell the story,” he says.
“But all the drugs that had kept me alive were now working against me, which was why I was in such a dire position. It would take three weeks to get used to the new drug, and luckily I made it through to be able to take the full dose. That’s what’s keeping me alive today.
“I asked if I could bring my guitar in, when I was lying on my side for eight days while five litres of blood were drained out of me, through the back. I was walking the corridors when I could to keep functions going – and playing the guitar to do that too.”
His fellow patients encouraged him to “keep going” with his guitar playing. “They were enjoying it, and I found myself coming up with new chords. By the time I came out of hospital, I had all these new songs and did the demos really fast in the caravan by my house, when my voice was working well before I lost it again,” says Mike.
“My manager said, ‘you’ve got to record this’ – and I was down to a whisper at the time – so I thought it might the only vocals we could use but could rebuild the music sonically around them, but later switch back to the caravan to record the vocals again.”
Mike was last on the road with The Alarm in 2019, playing a 38-date American tour and subsequently did a spoken-word show called Stream, piecing the story together from the albums Eye Of The Hurricane  and Change : a story of leaving your environment, going downstream and then realising you can’t really leave your roots behind.
“So I did the show, one performance with a proper immersive theatre experience working with the Brecon Theatre company in South Wales, which was amazing, and I was about to stage it at the Edinburgh Fringe when the pandemic came.
“We hope to revisit that show with an open invite to bring it to the Fringe, but for now I have this solo tour in May and June, doing ten dates, just to get the voice into action again, then two dates in America.”
All this is against a backdrop of Mike having to take a regular “huge dose” of chemotherapy in tablet form. “I also have to go to hospital to have different drugs put in my bloodstream two weeks apart,” he says.
His solo show takes the form of a one-man band. “I play drums with my feet and my guitar is acoustic or electric, which is a lot of noise for one man – and that’s how The Alarm started without a bassist. It’s like a one-man White Stripes: I can play bass, acoustic and electric all in one on my guitar,” he says.
“I like going on without a setlist, just playing what comes into my head and whatever people shout out for, so there are endless possibilities. That’s why people come to the gigs: they want spontaneity. I want that moment of surprise too.
“One night I wrote a whole song on the spot around a setlist I found on the floor from the gig there the night before and that song’s never been repeated – I didn’t even know who the band was!”
Being in a band allows you to run away from life, says Mike. “Now music is my form of escape to forget about cancer and live in the moment, so it’s been a great release for me.”
At one point he was set to have a bone marrow transplant. “I said, ‘that’s great, but I’ve got a tour to play. Let me do that and come back in a really positive state of mind’, but when I came back my blood cell count had gone in the wrong direction,” he says.
“At first, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma but then I was re-diagnosed with chronic lymph Leukaemia. The disease I’ve got does ebb and flow in its intensity and it came back with a vengeance in its intensity last year, but hopefully it will stay stable for a few years.
“The music keeps me alive and gives me a reason to look forwards. Just because you’ve heard the word ‘cancer’ doesn’t mean you stop going for a run, going to work, but no-one prepares for it, thinking ‘I’ll read a book about it’.
“You only read about it when the doctor says ‘you’ve got cancer’, which could send you plummeting, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You have to stay at the highest point you can.”
Mike’s wife, Jules, has been through breast cancer, charting both her and Mike’s cancer journeys in a documentary for the BBC, and now she mentors cancer patients.
“We run our own charity, the Love Hope Strength Foundation, which takes people to Everest, helping to build a cancer treatment centre, speaking at the World Cancer Congress,” he says. “Every year we climb Snowdon, taking other survivors with us, showing that with a good attitude, you can ‘buy yourself’ days, months, years, through a positive attitude.
“Exiting from life can be just as beautiful as the entrance point, and we have to accept that sometimes we’re going to have to go through that, and maybe cancer will save you from other horrors. You have to respect cancer, as it comes from the same life as all the positive things.
“In my case, I try to be in control, and I know that some people don’t have that disposition, but if you can find some inner strength, you will be better for it.”
Mike Peters presents The Alarm (Acoustic), The Crescent, York, Thursday, 7.30pm. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.