Bring Me The Horizon discuss their musical evolution in AltPress issue #401 cover story
The best laid plans can even go awry for one of the biggest rock bands in the world. The day before Alternative Press connects with Bring Me The Horizon was scheduled to be the band’s first in earnest working with BloodPop (aka Michael Tucker, the man who’s overseen records by Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber) on the follow-up to 2020’s POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR. Within an hour of their collective creative juices commencing flow, a power cut plunged everything into darkness. An extended game of hide-and-seek in the building’s rooms and corridors started by way of surrogate bonding exercise. “It was a bit of a false start,” Oli Sykes says, laughing about the now-aborted studio session. “We’ll get back to it today, though.” But first: breakfast.
Today’s most important meal consists of Potato Smiles, eaten in the comfort of the West Hollywood Airbnb the band have been in for the past week, while the rest of the quintet — keyboardist Jordan Fish, guitarist Lee Malia, bassist Matt Kean and drummer Matt Nicholls — go about their business. In a corner of a kitchen decorated by the kind of broadly appealing block color artwork you expect from a property with a revolving door of guests, Sykes sits, the youngest-looking 35-year-old you’re likely to meet, an impish grin passing his lips.
He’s got every reason to feel happy. During their time in La La Land, Bring Me The Horizon have played an intimate show at the legendary Whisky A Go Go venue, prior to stepping out as main support to Slipknot at the Californian installment of Knotfest. “If someone would have told me, ‘You’ll be supporting Slipknot in America one day, and [Slipknot frontman] Corey [Taylor] is going to tell you how much he likes your band,’ I’d never have believed it,” Sykes admits, his teenage self having marveled at the metal titans from the mosh pit at England’s Leeds Festival back in 2002, beginning the kind of story arc movies would be made of, if it didn’t all seem so outlandish.
Other bands have been central to the life of Bring Me The Horizon, of course. Sykes had no interest in music until he heard the sounds of Linkin Park. He would later weep when he once picked up a British music magazine and saw that he’d been (partially) photographed at one of their concerts. In 2017, of course, Sykes would have the “bittersweet” honor of performing at the memorial concert for singer Chester Bennington, three months after his death, alongside members of Avenged Sevenfold, blink-182, Korn and System Of A Down.
But it is Slipknot that today provide the closest point of comparison with Bring Me The Horizon. Both bands are wholly unlikely success stories, purveyors of seemingly uncommercial heavy music possessing an undeniable kernel of accessibility. Both have made era-defining records and resultantly transcended the scenes in which they started out. And both have empires that encompass various other business interests; Sykes owns both his clothing line Drop Dead, represented by the gnarly T-shirt adorned with a death-metal font that he wears today, and an 100% vegan bar and street food kitchen in the band’s native Sheffield, where a “Syko” burger with a charcoal bun will set you back 15 bucks.
And while Slipknot have their traveling extravaganza Knotfest, in the days following this interview, BMTH will announce details of their own festival in Malta for 2022, a four-day event with a lineup curated by the band, featuring live performances, pool parties and club nights.
“You wouldn’t be surprised if it had been someone’s genius plan,” Sykes says of Slipknot, who went from sniffing dead crows in jars in their native Iowa to the sweet smell of success. “But they’re really just a bunch of dudes who got together and did stuff they thought was cool — wearing masks and boiler suits, making insanely heavy music. I know they weren’t overthinking it when they did it; it all came together automatically.”
Bring Me The Horizon certainly didn’t have any kind of grand plan when they started out in Sheffield in 2004. In fact, Sykes only started thinking longer term about what they were doing to have an answer to the question, “Where do you see the band in five years?” that interviewers would incessantly ask him.
“Maybe a couple of years ago, I would have taken something like this in my stride, whereas now, I can see how trippy it is,” Sykes reflects of sharing a giant stage with heroes who have become contemporaries. It’s capped off a year beset by challenges and replete with accomplishments, coalescing to give Sykes a renewed appreciation of what his band have achieved. That includes their most recent music, POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR, which though released at the tail end of last year, has changed its creators and the world in 2021 — cementing BMTH’s place as a once-in-a-generation success story.
If you want to make Oli Sykes tongue-tied, ask him to appraise the new Limp Bizkit album, STILL SUCKS, their first since Gold Cobra a decade earlier. Back when the long-gestating record was still going by the name Stampede Of The Disco Elephants, Sykes and keyboardist Jordan Fish, having earned themselves wunderkind status in the industry, had been invited to provide young ears and a fresh perspective to the proceedings. It had been believed that pairing of the nü-metal stalwarts and the plucky lifelong fans could be fruitful. Unfortunately, that belief was misplaced.
[Photo by Pooneh Ghana][/caption]Sykes and Fish emerged from the aborted sessions with the colossal riff that would become “wonderful life,” the track featuring Cradle Of Filth frontman Dani Filth from their sixth album, 2019’s amo. It was a watershed moment Sykes considers “[the] album that means we can now go and write whatever the fuck we want.” Meanwhile, Fred Durst and co. would ultimately go on to release their new effort this Halloween, an album that, to Sykes’ memory, is little changed from the one he’d unsuccessfully grappled with. “It’s weird so many years later to be hearing the same riffs that haunted us in our sleep,” he says.
BMTH certainly practiced what they preached with POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR, which, according to Fish, had a clear brief from the get-go. “We wanted to make a nü-metal-inspired album with a modern twist,” he explains of a mission that he believes took the band full circle.
“We’ve been through ups and downs in every sense. [We’ve] played shows that were really big, and we’ve been back and played shows that were not so big. We’ve had albums that were really well received [critically] and didn’t do so well [commercially], and we’ve had albums that weren’t so [well] received [critically] and did really well [commercially]. It’s just the right time now. We’ve been through lots of phases."
"We’ve almost been ashamed of what we really are [musically], by picking awkward support acts for [touring] bills or choosing artwork that you wouldn’t expect to see from rock bands. [We’ve] always tried to do everything differently, from production styles to song names to lyric choices. It’s all been to separate ourselves from the world that we’ve come from, and it’s helped us become an entirely different prospect, but now we’re comfortable with doing a dumb breakdown if we want to.”
From a young age, Sykes sought inspiration wherever he could find it and endeavored to put a new spin on the familiar, a trait that’s grown exponentially over the years. In his first band, the members would continuously swap instruments, despite no one being able to play any of them particularly well, to ensure each composition sounded completely different, a trait compounded by genre-hopping from ska to nü metal and so on.
Just the other day, the vocalist saw Dune, and while he enjoyed director Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi spectacular, his overwhelming desire as he emerged from the cinema was to incorporate the type of tribal drumming in Hans Zimmer’s score into his own work. “It’s best to find inspiration from sources different from what you do,” he admits. “If you’re getting inspiration from other bands in your scene, you’re never going to progress. Whereas if you’re pulling [inspiration] from movies and video games, you might find a sound that feels fresh. That’s what we’re always craving.”
Sykes had been seized by the work of Mick Gordon. A devoted gamer, the singer became particularly enamored with DOOM Eternal, the latest installment in the beloved first-person shooter franchise. Over time, its “fucking crazy” soundtrack had begun to work on him, with its swooping, bowel-shaking synths and industrial atmospherics possessing a heaviness that was dark but different. “We were trying to rip off what he was doing for the longest time,” Sykes admits. “Until I finally said, ‘We should hit this guy up and see what he says.’”
Thankfully, the Australian composer was flattered and keen to collaborate, with the first of their combined efforts being “Parasite Eve,” released last summer to announce the arrival of the POST HUMAN project. Its title borrowed from a biological horror video game of the same name, writing for “Parasite Eve” began as early as 2019, after Sykes read an article about a Japanese superbug. The band had their doubts about releasing the track once the coronavirus pandemic took hold, worried they’d be viewed as “glorifying” the horrors engulfing the planet. Eventually, they decided to proceed. “People needed to hear a song like that,” Sykes reasons, “as it helped them through a time in which they needed to realize that the world’s fucked up.”
As well as acting as a catalyst for what came next — “it set the tone for the record,” Sykes says — “Parasite Eve” heralded a new ambition and drive in Bring Me The Horizon. Emboldened and vindicated by their past successes, they became musically less obvious and thematically more curious in a drive to be something far greater than the sum of their parts — to become more than a band, as if the label were too reductive when it came to discussing their plans.
“It’s about creating something that when you listen to it, it doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh, this is just a band,’” Sykes explains. “I’ve always wanted it to feel like more of an experience. When you see it all live, coupled with the visuals, then it feels like…” He trails off, trying to think of the most intoxicating example he can. Seconds later, he’s got one. “My favorite place in the world is Universal Studios, so the more we can do to make our music feel like a ride at Universal Studios, the better.”
During this time, Sykes had been on a roller coaster ride of an altogether different kind. With the pandemic and England’s strict lockdown protocols robbing him of the rigorous, reliable structure of touring life, he had what he calls “a meltdown” that had been rather a long time coming. “I think I was always in this weird little half-state of OK-ness where I didn’t feel great, and sometimes I didn’t even feel good,” he reflects. “And I didn’t fully realize I felt like that before because I was so busy.”
Sykes’ suffering had also been anesthetized by a growing dependency on his smartphone and social media. “We’re all half online now and half in the real world. Sometimes the line is blurred between what’s important in both of those worlds — who you are, your identity,” he says, likening the often hostile environment of the internet to fronting BMTH in their divisive early days.
“When I was 23, the band was getting bigger and was quite controversial, with some people loving us and some people hating us. I was always worried about the way I looked, the way I was and the status I had. I didn’t feel like anyone understood that, even in my own band. They got to sit back a little bit while I was in that intense spotlight. I feel like every fucking kid goes through what I went through. Everyone feels like they’re not good enough compared to the picture-perfect lives everyone else seems to be living.”
While the creation of POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR would ultimately help Sykes regain his footing and a sense of perspective, he stored those powerful thoughts away to be used later, for a greater good.
On Sept. 20 of this year, Bring Me The Horizon played at the Bonus Arena in the English port city of Hull. Despite the venue’s name, with a capacity of 3,500 people, it was the smallest space visited during the six-date run by some margin, particularly when compared to their final appointment, at London’s O2 Arena, watched by some 20,000 ardent fans. Regardless of the numbers, however, the Hull show was auspicious for another reason — it was the first the band had played since the previous February.
Given the 19-month absence and the lingering presence of COVID-19, precautionary methods to ensure the U.K. tour went ahead as planned were unforgivably fastidious. The headliners, support acts and crew all had bubbles and were tested exhaustively, with social distancing often seeing bandmates housed on different floors of each venue.
[Photo by Pooneh Ghana][/caption]Hardest of all for five men devoted to their families, loved ones weren’t allowed to come backstage either before or after shows. Fish recalls explaining that to people, who said they understood because there must have been a lot of money at stake. “But that’s not what it was at all,” he clarifies. “It was to do with nothing but selfish reasons — after waiting that long, those shows were an absolute lifeline. You don’t get a proper feel for how a record is going over when you release it during a pandemic. Streaming numbers aren’t the same as seeing people going off in arenas.”
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“It was definitely strange,” Sykes recalls of the restrictions. He waited until the final show of the tour to join opening act You Me At Six to perform their 2011 collaboration “Bite My Tongue,” lest an onstage infection occur. “We were always wondering if the shows were really going to happen and couldn’t bear the thought that they wouldn’t, so that’s the thought we held on to, and it got us through.”
But while coronavirus cowed the band backstage, once showtime arrived, it was a different story. POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR, which had eight months prior arrived atop the U.K. Album Charts, was brought to life in vivid, violent detail. With some of the most extraordinary production ever utilized by a rock act, the onstage world was rendered akin to a zombie apocalypse, a landscape where those who haven’t died are irrevocably changed, fighting for survival, chased by mysterious figures in hazmat suits spraying them with a mysterious foam (but did it contain the disease or the cure?).
And then there was Sykes, dressed in the band’s uniform cream-colored tailoring, marshaling proceedings with gut-punch gusto, wringing every last drop of energy at a time when gigs were not at a premium and, some feared, might not be again. “Imagine this is the last show you’ll ever see,” he’d scream each night — part rallying cry, part threat. It was attention-grabbing, to be sure, but also uncomfortably on the nose.
Do the band agree? Given that some fans at the shows would have experienced loss at the hands of COVID and displayed evidence of a vaccine or a recent negative test to attend, did they have any doubts about creating a hyper-version of a world onstage that was already hard for people to handle?
According to Sykes, there was a method in the madness. “As time went on, I thought, ‘There’s nothing that we can do that’s going to be any more offensive than what’s going on in the everyday media,’ whether that was Donald Trump or the way England handled the pandemic. People seem to forget that this is the way things are going to be from now on. England’s going to be a subtropical country in the not-too-distant future. The unbearable heat is going to mean we all need air conditioning units, which will only contribute to the problem. There are going to be flash floods every year. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry, you know?”
Sykes is well aware how this is coming across. He realizes that a rock star who’s no stranger to jetting between shows waxing lyrical about climate change is the definition of unpalatable hypocrisy, particularly when he does so while ensconced in the Hollywood Hills. But his relatively newness to this discourse, as an interviewee and a songwriter, is all part of his journey.
Sykes didn’t used to write about sociopolitical issues — not explicitly, anyway — but then again, he didn’t chronicle broken relationships before either, until it came time to make amo, when the frontman realized he’d have to use the breakup of his first marriage as a prism through which to examine love’s many forms. “If I didn’t, I would have ended up writing about a big bunch of nothing,” he says now, wincing at the memory of probing wounds that hadn’t healed.
Developing POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR, on the other hand, while not necessarily enjoyable given the bleak subject matter — disease! destruction! despots! — afforded Sykes the chance to turn his gaze outward, at long last providing him with a canvas to match the scale of his ambitions. “It finally felt like I had something bigger to write about. It wasn’t about me as much as it was about the planet, the world and society. But at the same time,” he adds, eager for his work to be anchored in accessible emotions, “how it’s affected us on a personal level.”
Why was 2021 the year that BMTH emerged as the band that want to save the world as well as take it over, then? Ask a blunt question, receive a blunt answer. “Because no one gives a fuck,” Sykes exclaims, criticizing his own complacency as well as everyone else’s. “None of us care. Everyone just says, ‘How can I make everything go back to normal so I can get on with my life?’ It’s people like us that can convince others that something has to be done. We’re trying to spread a message and influence people.”
So what’s been the most galvanizing element in this graduation to the league of one they now occupy? Is it grabbing onto their band with both hands during a pandemic that threatened to derail their enterprise or realizing that as the stakes get higher, they can be a force for enlightenment as well as entertainment? “Both,” Sykes decides after a pause for thought. “Sometimes I’m on the side of just thinking, ‘Thank fuck I get to do what I love doing.’ But then again, you remember how serious things are, that until the people in charge take notice, then things aren’t going to change. And you worry it’s too late for some things to change. There’s a cost to inaction. How many people are we going to have to lose?”
Jordan Fish has been a member of Bring Me The Horizon for almost a decade now. A markedly different interviewee to Sykes, his responses are largely more functional than emotional; he is a man who would rather make music about how he feels than discuss how he feels about music. It may also be because while the many lockdowns led Sykes to an existential crisis in which he questioned his purpose. Fish, who’s married and has two young children, contentedly focused on fatherhood. He never doubted the band’s future, either, because of the speed with which work began on POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR.
Something of a perfectionist, he’s self-conscious about “not being very good” as an interviewee to the point that he’ll later apologize for his efforts. He’s doing himself a disservice, though; ask Fish the right question — such as his thoughts on the involvement of BloodPop in the band’s current writing sessions, the first external producer employed on a BMTH release since 2013’s defining Sempiternal — and he’s more unguarded than his bandmate, pouring forth a cocktail of mixed emotions.
“Since I’ve been in the band, I’ve acted as one-half of the production team [with Sykes], which is the half that handles the ‘sounds’ more,” he explains. “Part of me is excited, but the part of me that’s insecure is apprehensive. The apprehension comes from wondering how I’ll fit in, how it’s going to work and what the workflow is going to be. I want to make sure I can be at my best in that situation. It’s one of those things that’s either going to turn out really sick, or it isn’t. I don’t think our relationship with [BloodPop] is going to be one where he comes in and says, ‘I like this,’ or ‘I don’t like this.’ That’s just not how we work.”
Despite Fish’s reservations, he concedes that working with a producer speaks volumes about where BMTH are right now. “I think [BloodPop] will be more of a collaborator, and we’ve done so many collaborations in the past few years. We’re very receptive to working with other people. And to do so feels different to how it would have, say, five years ago, when we were really cementing ourselves as Bring Me The Horizon and grinding away to get out of the box we were in.”
Sykes, meanwhile, is more philosophical about the appointment. Far from being a move that means they relinquish creative control, he sees it as indicative of being so comfortable in their creative skin, however chameleonic it is, that they’re attracting famous fans like BloodPop to get in on the action.
Plus, he says, while their autonomy was born from youthful bullishness that meant their successes were entirely their own. Too much insularity for too long isn’t a good thing. “Every time we’ve been in [the studio] with a producer, it’s not worked,” Sykes reflects. “So we really adapted to the mentality of, ‘If you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself.’ That’s why we’d self-produce and I’d direct the videos. But at the same time, we don’t want to close ourselves in. So it’s nice to get in a room with someone and have different perspectives.”
The fruits of the band’s initial, remotely orchestrated labors with BloodPop were revealed with the release of “DiE4u,” the ebullient single released at the middle of September. It perfectly represented the symbiosis of producer and performer, taking a chiseled pop melody and bulking it up with rockier components that, Sykes says, “allowed us to do what we do best.” While “DiE4u” will do little to knock the band off course in their mission to produce “the heaviest pop music you’ve ever heard,” it’s what they’re doing with that music, as much as what it sounds like, that’s taken them into a new stratosphere.
Younger fans occasionally ask Sykes, “Does it get easier as you get older?” No stranger to being poked in the eye by the fickle finger of fate, he’ll generally respond in the negative. “It gets less confusing but way more real.” He doesn’t think this answer cuts it, though. It does nothing to prepare that person for what comes next. That’s where the first of the three follow-ups to POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR will come in.
If the first part was, in the singer’s words, “a call-to-arms record,” then Post Human: Part Two — name TBC — is about how you act upon those good intentions. “This one’s going to be more about, ‘All right, we’re in a mess. What do we do?’ The theme of the record’s going to be about recovery. I’m using my own recovery, the journey I went through in lockdown, as a launching point. I understand why people don’t have compassion for the planet, why they don’t give a fuck. Because a lot of people haven’t even found compassion for themselves yet. It’s considered weird to say we love ourselves or are proud of ourselves.”
So is Sykes viewing these problems in the rearview mirror? Has he recovered at this point?
“Recovery is an ongoing thing,” he whispers, having been treated for drug misuse eight years ago. “If there’s something you’re affected by, then you’re probably always going to be affected by it. You have to work to get better at living with it. That’s what I’ve learned about myself more recently. I thought I was healed. [I] thought I’d sorted out my problems, but it turns out I was more distracted than healed. I was doing the band and other things to keep myself distracted. A couple of months after I’d had the meltdown, I realized there was a lot to unpack here. It’s worth doing that because I imagine a lot of people have had similar journeys, suddenly not knowing who they are, what they do or what they want. We’re so busy that we don’t really ask ourselves these questions.”
There’s one question the band will never stop asking themselves, no matter how rarified their position is. “It’s always: ‘How the fuck are we going to switch it up again?’” Sykes says. While Fish will readily admit to considering SURVIVAL HORROR their best release to date, exemplifying the most complete version of the band, Sykes won’t commit to such a statement. Perhaps he considers fulfillment tantamount to being finished. His concluding thought would certainly suggest that’s the case. “It’ll never stop being important to us to ask ourselves that because I don’t think we’ll ever feel complete.” It’s an interesting sentiment from a guy in a band called Bring Me The Horizon, a name conveying the idea of chasing something you’ll never obtain.
While that destination remains out of reach, the journey will continue to be a fascinating one.
This interview first appeared in issue #401 (the AP Yearbook), available here.