The scene for Bring Me The Horizon’s NME cover shoot couldn’t be much more on-brand for the Sheffield band. Frontman Oli Sykes slowly stalks the room in a dark suit, make-up and a spiked black crown, flashbulbs creating his towering Nosferatu-like silhouette. The masked figures around him only add to the horror movie vibe, even if it is a necessity for our photo crew in the times of Covid, rather than an affectation of the band’s spooky cyber-punk aesthetic.
The singer seems chuffed to be out and about, and as his wife (Brazilian model Alissa Salls) and a pal chuckle away on a nearby sofa, the sounds of early Björk blaring from the stereo, Sykes tells NME of his time in lockdown: “I don’t know what I’d have done if it wasn’t for being able to carry on and make music.” During this period, he and the rest of the five-piece stayed sane by working remotely on ‘Post Human: Survival Horror’, the first in a run of four EPs coming in the next year, all part of a project that they’ve dubbed ‘Post Human’.
Bring Me gave us a first taste of ‘Survival Horror’ with last year’s single ‘Ludens’, an electro-rock beast written for the soundtrack to Hideo Kojima’s PS4 game Death Stranding. The song features the lyric “How do I form a connection when we can’t even shake hands?”, yet was written well before anyone knew what the words ‘social distancing’ meant.
“I was reading some of the comments online and someone said, ‘This song completely called 2020’,” Sykes explains in his soft south Yorkshire drawl. “There were little references in the video, as well, like people protesting and Mat [Nicholls, drummer] wearing a mask – which were all coincidental. At the time I thought I was singing about something that was years away; I didn’t know it was months away.”
It was also back in November when Sykes told NME: “We’re not going to do an album again, maybe ever”. No, Bring Me weren’t planning to retire, but to defy music industry expectations with their eccentric EP releases. Their last album, 2019’s ‘amo’, was a genre-hopping triumph. Mixing hard rock with rave and art-pop with a little help from electronic pioneer Grimes and goth-rock hero Dani Filth, it was lightyears away from their growling deathcore beginnings 15 years ago.
The record saw the band gatecrash the UK charts at Number One, earning nominations at the BRIT Awards for Best Group and the Grammys for Best Rock Album. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, they found the process a little draining.
“I’m really proud of that record, but it was a slog – a real ballache,” Sykes says today. “Maybe that’s because we forced ourselves into making an album that wasn’t based on anything that we could do easily. We couldn’t do that again. You spend a year-and-a-bit making a record, people listen to it in 45 minutes and then they’re like, ‘Alright, what’s next?’ It’s like with a Netflix series – you watch all eight episodes in one go and it’s over. It doesn’t last.”
For this new project, Bring Me are excited to be free of the limitations of the album format. “We wanted to get less precious about our music,” says Sykes. “Some of the music that we’ve written recently has been about not overthinking it and doing what comes from the gut – and it’s probably being received better than the stuff we spent so much longer on.”
“We’re trying to piss off as many people as possible”
And what about the chart positions, the awards and the festival headline slots? Are they done with chasing them too?
“All that sounds super-successful, but it’s not as glorious as that,” he shrugs. “We sweated so hard to get that Number One. It’s great, but it’s not like Coldplay just putting out a record and it going straight in at the top. We fucking worked out arses off and hustled for it. It’s cool, but who cares? No one cares if our record goes to Number One or Number 10. Why do we care so much? It means nothing. Who are we really doing it for? Just our own egos? It’s pointless. “
He’s equally ambivalent about the Grammy nomination: “We had no idea that was going to happen, but those things mess with your head. It poisons me, because I see all those people that are doing better than us. You start wanting everything that they’ve got. Your ego starts to do the talking. You get materialistic. We’ve got plenty to be proud of without comparing who’s got more followers or sold more.”
With the ‘Post Human’ project, Bring Me are more concerned with the journey than the destination. Written and recorded in lockdown, the EPs are a real-time reaction to the shock, fear, chaos and confusion of 2020. Take the gothy, industrial recent single ‘Parasite Eve’: it started life last year after Sykes read about a super-resistant Japanese superbug, before the song mutated to address a rather more publicised airborne disease.
“‘Parasite Eve’ was about the dawn of a new problem that mankind was going to face,” says Sykes. “I was getting anxious, feeling that this could be our future. I wrote it before Covid, and we talked a lot about whether or not we should release it. We were worried if it was offensive. The line, ‘When we forget the infection / Will we remember the lesson?’ was originally ‘If we survive the infection…’. That line just shook me at first because people were actually dying.
“Then we thought, ‘People need this, actually’, to get a cathartic experience from music and process things a little bit – even if it is dark. That really cemented what we wanted to do with this record and what the rest of the album was going to be themed around.”
“I can’t connect to right-wing politics or left-wing politics: they’re too black-and-white”
Describing the ‘Survival Horror’ EP as “a recruitment record with battle songs”, Sykes says that its nine tracks are a rallying cry to act now against inequality and environmental peril – which were there all along, but have become impossible to ignore amid the chaos of the coronavirus crisis: “We’re trying to get as many people as angry and pissed off as possible so that they join the cause. It feels like we’re on the verge of something, dealing with how our culture is and how we look to destroy people. We can become something better than what humans are right now.”
‘Survival Horror’ features plenty of signposts to the worst headlines from the last eight months. The hook-laden ‘Kingslayer’, which features Japanese pop-metal sensations BABYMETAL, is an ode to someone who’s “willing to do what’s right even if it’s illegal”, says Sykes. “The irony of Trump condemning [anti-fascist union] ANTIFA and wanting to call them a terrorist organisation is just insane. He’s basically admitting that he’s a fascist.”
‘Dear Diary’, a brutal trance-meets-speed-metal onslaught, recounts the paranoia and monotony of lockdown (“The sky is falling, it’s fucking boring,” screams Sykes, “It’s not the end of the world… Oh, wait”). Later, ‘Teardrops’ sees him warn that we’re becoming numb to the daily tragedies shown us by rolling news: “The emptiness is heavier than you think”.
“‘Teardrops’ is about how we’ve been traumatised into submission,” says Sykes. “Whether the media intended it to be that way or not, death just becomes statistics. We’ve been pummelled so much by bad news over the last year.” Speaking about the shocking death of George Floyd under the knee of a US police officer, which led to renewed momentum around the global Black Lives Matter protests, Sykes notes: “That was like, ‘Fucking hell, there’s some real bad shit going on that we’ve just been sleepwalking through’.”
Pop-metal banger ‘Obey’ sees the band implore the listener to “wake up and smell the corruption”. “Lyrically, it’s very much coming from the oppressor saying, ‘Don’t pay too much attention! Get on with your lives and you won’t have too much trouble,” he explains. “‘If you do kick up a fuss, we’re going to come out and put you right.’ It echoes what [Donald Trump] said throughout the [BLM protests], seeming to support right-wing groups. It’s the stuff of nightmares. It’s trying to convey that notion that we are being a bit too submissive.”
That song also features Doncaster pop-punk hell-raiser Yungblud, of whom Sykes insists: “He’s the kind of artist that rock needs – the kind of rock star that changes a scene. I love him; he lights up a room. He’s the polar opposite to me. I wish I could have that confidence that he has. It’s infectious and that’s why a lot of kids look up to him. Not since Bowie have we had people who are just so unashamedly and genuinely themselves and don’t give fuck or play by the rules.”
Throughout Bring Me’s career, Sykes has explained that one of the band’s key objectives has been to improve the health of rock’s ecosystem; in 2015 he told me that they vowed to bear Linkin Park’s torch as a “gateway band” to take the genre back to mainstream radio and the top of festival bills.
“Even Yungblud was like, ‘Doing a song together is so good for the scene’,” Sykes says today. “It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the best band in the world, because if that’s the only one, then that scene dies… You can count on two hands the prominent rock bands that aren’t legacy acts or indie/pop bands like The 1975. For actually heavy rock, there aren’t really enough artists to coax people in. I get excited when I see Machine Gun Kelly doing a pop-punk album. That’s going to bring people into our world.”
“Machine Gun Kelly doing a pop-punk album will bring people into our world”
Their Yungblud collab shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, as Bring Me have never been afraid to embrace the poppier side of rock. Of BABYMETAL – not exactly a band for metal purists – Sykes says: “We wanted to do something with them for ages. We’ve got a really special connection with them, even though we don’t speak the same language. We don’t hang out or have conversations, but when you see them, it makes you really happy. They work so well with the whole idea of this record being cyber-punk-y. It sounds like an anime TV trailer.”
The new EP’s wordily titled closer ‘One Day The Only Butterflies Left Will Be In Your Chest As You March To Your Death’ Amy Lee of goth-pop titans Evanescence. The ballad emerged from unusual circumstances.
“The weird thing about Evanescence is that we got sued by them on our last record,” Sykes says with a smile. “On [‘amo’ track] ‘Nihilist Blues’, we ripped off one of their verses. It was subconscious, but when it happened we were like, ‘We’re not even going to argue’.” After the band agreed to share a songwriting credit with Lee, Evanescence’s management got in touch: “They were like, ‘Amy really likes your band and would love to work with you’. That was the silver lining.”
He continues: “The idea of that song is that I’m mankind, Amy is Mother Nature and it felt like the perfect thing to have the mother of rock singing it. It’s saying, ‘This is the end of our world, so we need to try and find a new one’. [‘Survival Horror’] ends in a hopeful way. We hope that it will make people want to do something.”
‘1X1’, meanwhile, features British nu-metal revivalists Nova Twins, one of Sykes’ favourite new bands, who soundtracked many of his lockdown hours. Here the frontman laments that he’s been “reliving my memories – and they’re killing me one by one”. The song, he says, addresses “the guilt that we as a society carry for what we’ve done to other species and ethnicities and other genders”, but also the struggle to escape his own history.
Sykes’ previous turmoil has been well-publicised. Around the writing of Bring Me’s fourth album, 2013’s ‘Sempiternal’, he headed to rehab with an addiction to ketamine, telling Metal Hammer magazine that he “didn’t care if he lived or died”. His own father, resigned to the fact that he couldn’t prevent his son from buying drugs, would drive Oli to score just to see that he stayed safe. The frontman famously used his winner’s speech at the 2014 Alternative Press Music Awards in Cleveland, Ohio to publicly come clean about his drug use.
The calm, clean and meditative man before us seems a far cry from his former self. Sykes is emphatic about the potential for redemption, but laments the fact that some commentators don’t seem to share his opinion.
“It doesn’t matter how much people change; they’ll still be defined by the people they used to be,” he says. “I think that culture has got really bad. With lockdown, we’ve all been sat in our houses just stewing. I’m trying to make up for my own past and the mistakes that I’ve made, and really trying to learn to be who I am today without worrying about the past or what could happen in the future. It’s cathartic, coming to terms with my own personal demons, which I’ve been dealing with this year.”
“I’m trying to make up for my past and the mistakes I’ve made”
As a result, he’s reluctant to engage too much on social media. Back when Bring Me The Horizon first emerged through MySpace in the mid-’00s, their heavily stylised take on deathcore made them the punchline and target of trolls. Sykes, who has deleted Twitter from his phone because “it doesn’t represent the real world”, notes that the trolls haven’t exactly retreated from the internet in the last decade.
“When we released ‘Obey’ [last month], there were all of these Yungblud fans from a different generation,” he recalls. “I saw one negative comment about me saying, ‘That guy’s a fucking dickhead – he did this and he did that’ and it’s all shit that didn’t even happen. That person thinks I’m evil. It doesn’t matter if you know you didn’t do it or you know you’re not that person, but they have that power over me, so I have to step out of it.”
Shaped by the virus, fascists, corrupt leaders, world tragedies, protests, cancel culture and climate change, ‘Survival Horror’ is as close to ‘political’ as you might reasonably expect from Bring Me The Horizon. It’s a first for the band, but an inevitable one.
“Our records have always been about personal shit,” Sykes says. “I don’t know shit about politics – not beyond how things make me feel. We live in a place where the people who aren’t doing anything to help the planet are the ones who are rich, and the people who are putting their lives on the line aren’t making any money. It’s so fucking corrupt and out of shape. You don’t need to know about ‘politics’ to talk about it, because politics affect the whole planet and people’s mental well-being.”
In-keeping with the contemporary climate, Sykes is divided about his own position on the political spectrum: “I obviously can’t connect to right-wing politics, but I can’t connect to left-wing politics either because everything is just so black-and-white. People try to tell you that, ‘You’re this thing’. If I had to make a choice, it would be left, but there’s so much there that doesn’t add up too. It’s always so extreme.”
With nature itself turning against us, Sykes says that humanity needs to put divisions and greed aside: “The way the world works has shown us it isn’t right,” he insists. “If something as simple as a virus can destabilise our whole planet, then it isn’t really working, is it?”
Although, like many of us, Oli Sykes feels detached from the world of ‘politics’, the timely ‘Survival Horror’ proves that Bring Me The Horizon can go do just about anything and get away with it. Yet he doesn’t claim to have any easy answers: “I’m like everyone else – confused, scared and angry. I need to disconnect for a bit and learn some things about myself. I’m hoping that I can go off and have an epiphany moment about what to do next, because at the moment I’ve got no fucking idea. I’m sure it’ll come together…”
‘POST HUMAN: SURVIVAL HORROR’ by Bring Me The Horizon is out now