The return of Big Country, following the tragic loss of its frontman, surprised even the man selected to be his replacement.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Despite one extremely popular song in the mid ‘80s, Scotland’s Big Country never quite gained their proper due in this country. Their sound can be heard in scores of popular bands; the musicianship remains impressive decades after they proved you could make a guitar sound like a bagpipe (listen to the opening strains of “In a Big Country”); and their cult-like popularity is still rabid across Europe, 30 years after cementing their reputation for being able to blend pop music, new wave and even elements of punk rock into memorable albums.
Though the band had managed to weather the changing whims of musical tastes and a fickle record industry, Big Country was dealt a massive setback in December 2001. Weeks after disappearing, the band’s singer/guitarist Stuart Adamson, who had been battling alcoholism for years, was found hanged in a hotel room in Hawaii. The band would be forgiven for wanting to close the book and put it back on the shelf, but they decided to honor a commitment to their fans and play a date in Holland that had been previously booked. They turned to Mike Peters, front man for The Alarm, a longtime contemporary of the band and friend of Adamson, to fill in on vocals. Now, after a series of wildly popular European festival dates in 2011, Big Country has returned, with a new album aptly titled The Journey, with Peters officially part of the group and a U.S. tour ahead of them. In addition to Peters and founding members Bruce Watson and Mark Brzezicki, Big Country now includes Watson’s son Jamie and Derek Forbes.
On a recent morning practicing for the upcoming tour, Peters was kind enough to get on Skype to talk about his relationship with Adamson, juggling two bands at once and how his battle with cancer forced him to finally accept the invitation to join Big Country full time.
BLURT: You’ve obviously played shows with the band before. Were you surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reaction you guys got when you played those festivals in 2011? Surprised by how many people still wanted to hear Big Country?
MIKE PETERS: It was a very difficult decision to walk into because Stuart Adamson was so loved by his fans, the same way I have a similar relationship with The Alarm’s audience. I have always played in The Alarm, and we’ve gone through everything life has thrown at us, but nothing nearly as difficult as (what Big Country) had to go through with the loss of Stuart. When I walked out to play that show with the band on the 31st of December, 2010, it was a real emotional moment. The lights went out and the original members of the band walked out and I came on last and it was a real tense few seconds and then the drums started up and then the guitars and it was like nothing had changed because it was still the classic sound of Big Country.
As soon as I opened my mouth to sing the first few lines “Now we play our final hand” from “1000 Stars” off The Crossing, I felt every single person in the room go through the machination in their minds, “Whoa, what’s this?” And luckily for me I had spent a lot of time with Stuart on the road and I think I know how he would have wanted his band to be represented and how he would want his lyrics to by sung. He always gave everything he had… So I did it my way, because you can’t replace Stuart Adamson… When we line up on the stage at the end, I stand to the left and someone stands to the right, but that center spot is always open because that’s where Stuart resides. We always say there may look like five people on stage, but there’s really six because Stuart Adamson will always be present.
Was that always a conscious decision to leave that space open on the stage?
It wasn’t conscious as such, but that’s always where it felt right. Stuart could sing as well as play these very complex guitar parts. I’m not a guitarist the same way Stuart was by any means, so those guitar parts were taken by Bruce’s son Jamie Watson and we needed two people to do what Stuart was able to do on his own and Jamie and Bruce are the reason I decided to continue with Big Country. They have the same intimacy in playing that Stuart and Bruce had – they shared buses and hotel rooms night after night, day after day for what must have seemed like a thousand years and Bruce and Jaime, as father and son, have a similar relationship. I think if we brought in another guitarist, I don’t think you could expect them to work out as well… the intimacy in the playing was still present because they have to play very much in synch with each other. That left me free to concentrate on the singing.
Do you remember that conversation you had when they first asked you to join the band? Were you hesitant at all? Did you have to come back to them?
Oh, I was definitely hesitant because the first person to ask me to join the band was Stuart Adamson himself.
I was on tour with Big Country on the  Driving to Damascus tour. (Ed Note: Mike was opening the shows as a solo performer.) We were on tour across Europe and I was on the tour bus with Big Country. We played night after night and I could tell that Stuart was in a very difficult place at the time, dealing with problems; he was very taken with trying to become a country singer – he had a wife who was in Tennessee – and he was very immersed in trying to be a part of that culture and that was rubbing up against the rock culture and Big Country. Stuart was at the point where he said, “I can’t expect the band and the fans of Big Country to accept me playing country music and I’m going to have to walk away from this for the time being”. He said to me, “I think you should carry on where I leave off. You get along great with the band and you’d be perfect.” At the time I thought it was very strange for Stuart to be saying anything like this and I just brushed it off. He said it in public a few times after that… On his last gig with Big Country in Glasgow, we played together and he walked off the stage and I was left up there… After Stuart took his life, the band had one gig left to play at a convention in Holland and the band asked me if I’d come up to sing some of the songs with them. I said yes; it wasn’t a big commitment and it was a way to honor Stuart. It was an emotional time. We talked about doing it again, but it was still emotional and we were all emotionally raw and I thought more time was needed.
When did it feel right?
I’ve got leukemia, so I was climbing a mountain in Wales as part of a cancer fundraiser in 2010 and Bruce Watson phoned me on the mobile I had in my backpack and asked me if I would sing two songs at a charity event. I said yes without hesitation. At this point, I’d been through cancer twice and taken stock of my life and worked out in my mind what would happen if these were my last days… I decided to say yes to everything and worry about the consequences later. By the time they phoned me back to confirm things it had gone from two songs at a charity to being an eight-date, full blown tour.
You’ve managed to do something very few people have ever been able to do: be in two well-loved, long running bands. Were your bandmates in The Alarm nervous that you were leaving them to focus on Big Country?
No because they are used to me doing different things. I write for The Alarm, I write on my own, I’ve got a film out that I’ve just written the soundtrack for, I’ve played in a band with Billy Duffy from The Cult. For me it’s about being disciplined and writing for the band you’re involved with at the moment. The Alarm is very autobiographical; everything that happens to me ends up in a song. Writing with Big Country I knew I had to be very disciplined. I couldn’t bring my life into it in the same way.
When I was in the hospital for chemotherapy, my music was with me and Big Country came on and there were two words that came up “Stay Alive” (from “In a Big Country”) and they had a big impact on me and became this sort of Talismanic call to arms to me to survive the treatment and get well. I’ll always be grateful for that song as a fan, as a human being, and to be asked to sing that song live, to continue that tradition, is just… it means a lot. From talking with the band and with Stuart, I knew their music was created very organically and very different from the way I write music with The Alarm. When I write with The Alarm, I write on an acoustic guitar and come to everyone with lyrics and everything, but it would be disrespectful to expect Big Country to change things for me. People have this perception that they see a singer playing a song and they think the whole thing has come from him, the band around him becomes slightly invisible. With Big country, everyone in the band has always been contributors to the songs. Ninety-nine percent of the time I spent my time outside of the room while Big Country were writing the music and I’d be just listening to the melodies that were coming from under the door. Nobody knows where lyrics really come from, but I would listen to the music and the music would suggest words and I’d them come bursting into the room and say “I’ve got two words”! … I thought it was very important to work within the tradition of how Big Country’s music was always made.
Photo Credit: Andy Labrow. Big Country’s North American tour starts June 6 in Asbury Park. Tour dates can be found at their official website.