Formed from the ashes of fly-by-night Rhyl punk rock bands including The Toilets, Mike and his crew scored their first hit 68 Guns in 1983.
The band went on to share the stage with U2 and Bob Dylan, building a lasting career that’s seen them through a hiatus and a change in line-up.
Later that decade, The Alarm went on to score the first ever Top 40 Welsh language single (A New South Wales), driven by Mike’s desire to celebrate his national identity.
When he’s not making music, the multi-instrumentalist and vocalist also co-runs the Love Hope Strength Foundation, a charity that promotes music-related outreach and awareness programmes for leukemia and cancer sufferers.
Having been diagnosed first with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995 and later leukemia, Mike has first-hand experience of the disease that he’s using to help other sufferers.
In 2007, the charity organised the highest gig in the world on Mount Everest with over 40 musicians, including Mike, Slim Jim Phantom (The Stray Cats), Glenn Tillbrook (Squeeze), Nick Harper and local Nepalese artists.
We recently spent some time with Mike to learn more about the foundation’s work and get his take on punk in the 21st century…
We’ve just interrupted you in the studio - what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on new records for 2017, so they’re all at demo stage at the moment. Laying it all out, seeing what I’ve got to take forward. It’s always good to have a choice of songs to hone down, rather than scrambling round looking for some. I’ve got a lot at the moment, it’s good.
How did you first get into making music?
I saw the Sex Pistols play in 1976 and that was a real moment where life stops. You emerge from something like that in flash of mixed emotions, and you’re another person.
I resolved to start a band and focus on playing the guitar and writing my own songs. The Sex Pistols unlocked a door in me to be an original recording artist and have my own voice musically and lyrically.
What do you think it was about the Pistols that had that effect on you?
All the bands I’d seen up to that point in my life were ‘entertainment’ groups. They wanted to be liked and they were always very polite to the audience, showing off how great they were on the guitar. There was no real attitude to it. Whereas the Pistols came out and they didn’t care whether you liked them or not. They just knew they were good and they gave you the confidence to be, to have faith in your own music and not feel like you had to play a 10-minute guitar solo to be recognised as a guitarist.
It’s been forty years since the advent of punk in this country – was is its legacy in 2016?
There’s that great song, Ain’t Been to No Music School. I don’t even know who sang it, but I think that’s the legacy of punk - it’s still, anyone can do it. Anyone can make music with whatever they have to hand, whether it’s a guitar or a symphony orchestra or a laptop and GarageBand.
There are plenty of outlets now too. YouTube, Facebook, whatever. There’s no reason why you can’t start a band anywhere in the world and be heard, be seen. That’s incredible, that’s what punk rock was all about..
How did all of that feed into The Alarm when you finally got together in 1981?
We never had a Malcolm McLaren character to shortcut our education, if you like, and so we could only find out what it was all about by trial and error and real experience.
So it took us quite - from 1977 until 1981 - to finally get a direction for our music that reflected who we were as individuals and what we were trying to say. It might have happened a bit earlier if we’d had somebody to help produce us, if you like.
Why was it important to reflect your Welsh culture and language in your music?
I grew up in Rhyl, in an English-speaking part of Wales, but I felt 100 percent Welsh. In the seventies and eighties there was a real barrier up to the Welsh language. People in our communities had to go on hunger strike for Welsh TV. They had to take direct action, protest, to have bilingual road signs or make sure the Welsh language was represented at the bank or in the supermarket. These were things people had to literally fight for in their own country.
Eventually that started to change and Welsh language bands started to become more known, particularly through S4C television. I started to see these bands on TV and I’d see people speaking Welsh and I felt a little bit discommunicated from it all because there were no subtitles or anything.
I could tell some of these bands were amazing, so once we broke through in the early part of the eighties and we’d come home to Wales, we always had Welsh language bands opening for us.
What effect did the rise of Welsh language bands have?
When you think of language as being a communicative tool, in Wales in the late seventies and early eighties, it became a barrier, a barricade, to protect itself. But it also meant that people couldn’t get in to understand it.
I felt if we made a Welsh language album ourselves, we could show that it’s time to take the barricade down and remember that language is there to communicate and allow you to speak with other cultures and widen the horizon. So we made an album called Change, but we made it as Newid in Welsh. We released a double A-side single with the Welsh and English version of our song New South Wales.
It was the first time a Welsh-language record got into the top 40. I think that changed things in Wales, because bands were able to see that by embracing bilingualism it wasn’t selling out the Welsh language, it was just actually enhancing it and allowing more people to understand the importance of protecting your own culture.
Can you see the repercussions now?
Yes! Wales is exploding. since The Alarm in the eighties, you’ve had all the Catatonias, the Stereophonics, the Manics and the Super Furries and now you’ve got Catfish and the Bottlemen coming through and loads of others. It’s exciting for Wales.
Also, there’s lots of people like me who are non-speaking Welsh but we’re making our children come through the Welsh system. My boys are fluent Welsh. It’s bringing the culture back with the next generation.
What challenges do new Welsh bands face now?
I think it’s difficult for any band. When you start you’re enthused by your own songs and you think the world’s got to hear them. If it doesn’t happen quickly it starts to get frustrating, and I think groups lose sense of the fun and the enjoyment. But they picked up the guitar to learn to play and write good songs, it wasn’t necessarily to get famous. That’s the by-product. You shouldn’t be looking for fame in music, it’ll come to you if it’s great, if it’s truly great. If you’ve written the next great, world-shattering song you can start by playing it to your family and it’ll grow from there, it really will.
So, the challenges for Welsh bands now are the same as a band if you come from Tanzania or anywhere. They have to be making new music all the time. If you play the same set of songs over and over again it starts to become a negative process and it will eat away at all the good things that you do.
Could you tell us more about the foundation?
Yes, well it all started when I was diagnosed, for the second time with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995. But I came through that pretty quickly to be honest, with a bit of luck and endeavour and what have you. In 2005 I was diagnosed with leukemia and it was a pretty heavy situation. I had to really change the way I thought about playing music and living life.
While I was having chemotherapy in the hospital in North Wales, I could see Snowdon from the window of the cancer centre and I just resolved that when I got well, with the support of the nurses and the doctors, I’d take all the fans I could muster to the summit of the mountain, do a gig and raise funds for the hospital.
That’s been the basis of what we’ve done and the Love Hope Strength Foundation I started with my wife Jules and friend of mine from America. He was a leukaemia transplant survivor with a donor from Germany and we had all this in common so we started the charity in Britain and America simultaneously with the idea of doing gigs to support people who didn’t have access to facilities and treatments and doctors, medical teams that had kept people like myself alive.
To learn more about the work of the Love Hope Strength Foundation, please see http://www.lovehopestrength.co.uk/