Oli Sykes is stood in the eye of the storm, fizzing with adrenaline. It’s August 2008 and his band, Bring Me The Horizon, are performing on the main stage at Reading Festival to thousands of faces – the majority glazed over with frenzied anger rather than glee. As the frontman looks out to the crowd in front of him, he suddenly finds himself in a feverish nightmare scenario as he’s pummelling with cameras, gravel and, erm, bananas. Bring Me The Horizon, it seems, have become victims of an unprovoked ‘bottling’ attack.
The incident was part of a long tradition of acts being harassed at the festival by its previously volatile crowds: My Chemical Romance and Panic! At The Disco both survived the experience the year prior. “You don’t even understand what it was like – I’ve never seen anything like it,” Sykes says as he retells the story to NME over Zoom call over a decade after the band’s fateful, first-ever Reading performance. “It was so scary.”
When we speak to Sykes a week before the band are set to return to Reading & Leeds Festival for their first-ever headline performance, he’s in the midst of final, day-long rehearsals. The resulting show is an astonishing display of how far the band have progressed in the last 14 years: after being greeted with a hero’s welcome, their spectacularly OTT collision of searing metal and experimental pop encourages swirling circle pits and limbs-flailing euphoria. Yet the greatest surprise of all comes when an unannounced cameo from Ed Sheeran – with whom they perform a heavy reworking of his tune ‘Bad Habits’ – is greeted with crowd-wide, fists-in-the-air approval, rather than the bottle-throwing of years past.
“To be headlining the festival,” Sykes tells us, speaking in front of a tapestry depicting the artwork for the band’s 2020 chart-topping EP, ‘Post Human: Survival Horror’, “with people throwing shit at you being the least of your worries, is genuinely amazing. It has been such a crazy journey for our band: you look back and think, ‘How the fuck did we manage to turn things around?’”
Frankly, it would be difficult to find a band more deserving to headline Reading & Leeds this year than Bring Me The Horizon, whose initial lineup formed in 2004. The Sheffield five-piece – Sykes, lead guitarist Lee Malia, drummer Mat Nicholls, bassist Matt Kean and keyboardist Jordan Fish – have honed their incendiary, blockbuster live show by performing at the festival six times across their illustrious career, including a slow before headliners Metallica in 2015 and a weekend-stealing secret set at Reading 2018.
NME wrote that that 2018 show saw Bring Me “kick the doors back open and usher in a new era for the band.” Yet for Sykes, the ghost of 2008 still looms large. “Every single time we play Reading & Leeds, mentally, we always go back to that first time because it was just so insane – and it feels worse every time we look back,” he says.
As Sykes recalls Bring Me The Horizon’s storied history with Reading & Leeds, his face constantly suggests imminent, nervous laughter, as though he’s still making sense of everything that he and his bandmates have been through. 14 years ago, after headliners Slipknot pulled out due to late drummer Joey Jordison breaking his ankle at the 11th hour, every act was pushed up one slot on the main stage at Reading – with Bring Me The Horizon drafted in to open proceedings.
At the time, the band were promoting their second album, the smart and aggressive ‘Suicide Season’, but the way in which they inbued heart-quickening metalcore with elements of electronica – plus their ‘scene kid’ aesthetic, inspired by the emo subculture of the early 2000s – ruffled the feathers of genre elitists, to the point where Sykes believed that the band would “never, ever return to Reading” after 2008.
“We thought to ourselves, ‘This is clearly not the festival for us,’” he continues. “At the time, crowds watched us thinking, ‘These [boys] are a bunch of dickheads’ – our style was so polarising, and people clearly thought we were the type of band that you’d want to beat the shit out of.”
“Every single time we play Reading & Leeds, we always go back to that first time. It was insane” – Oli Sykes
Throughout the early 2010s, the group tried to rebuild themselves from this experience. They delivered one of the decade’s most accomplished metal albums with 2013’s ‘Sempiternal’, a record that was, unexpectedly, a huge success: for the first time, Bring Me The Horizon broke the Top 10 of the UK Albums Chart, while lead single ‘Shadow Moses’ received regular airplay on mainstream stations such as BBC Radio 1. Follow-up album ‘That’s The Spirit’, released two years later, went even further by achieving Platinum status. Within 12 months, Bring Me The Horizon were playing The Other Stage at Glastonbury.
Finding success some way into in the band’s career has given Sykes “perspective”, he says. Not just in the sense of understanding their own past – he’s achieved greater lyrical depth in that time, too. “I feel like it is really hard, as a British band especially, to change the public’s opinion on you. I genuinely still wonder how we managed to become a band that people finally respect.”
The band arrived at a real turning point, Sykes says, when they performed that secret set at Reading 2018, which marked their live comeback after 16 months off the road. Throughout the show, they previewed tracks from the album they’d been working on: ‘amo’, a genre-busting smash of glitchy dance experiments and futuristic metal. They played to a packed tent, and lead single ‘Mantra’ found its destiny as a festival anthem for the ages. “I knew right there that I didn’t feel that divisiveness anymore; I feel like we now have the support of everyone,” Sykes recalls.
Despite the outpouring of love the band has enjoyed in recent years, Sykes realised last month that he was anxious about this year’s Reading & Leeds headline slot when he started to reread live reviews from the band’s UK arena tour, which took place last September. As they conquered a sold-out, 20,000-capacity O2 Arena in London, critics were almost unanimous in awarding the band five stars.
“It really meant a lot for those big publications to be saying, ‘You are a decent band’,” he says, describing how, despite this extraordinary critical success, he’s still riven with self-doubt. “It’s like we needed that reassurance from outside voices, even though that tour was the first time I could actually look out at the crowd and say to myself, ‘You’ve made it. You’re OK; you’re safe.’”
As rehearsals for Reading & Leeds 2022 began, Sykes started to question his motives. “I asked myself: why is it so important to me to be so successful? I realised that I needed to make sure that I don’t get to a point where the band is just my life, and there’s nothing else.”
“Last year, I could actually look out at the crowd and say to myself, ‘You’ve made it’” – Oli Sykes
However, in recent weeks, he says, he has started to get the balance right in life. Last month, Sykes took a holiday in Fuerteventura with his partner, the musician and model Alissic. The pair went surfing, meditated on a daily basis, and learned how to practise mindfulness.
When they returned home, Sykes began to organise his day-to-day tasks – vocal training, working out, meetings for his alternative clothing line, Drop Dead – into checklists: “I’m someone who could literally wake up at 7am, and until I go to bed, I’ll always have work to do.” He catches himself. “But with this festival [show] ahead of us, I’m finally learning to take some time out.”
In August 2019, after 15 years together, Bring Me The Horizon headlined their first-ever festival at All Points East in London’s Victoria Park. The band curated the lineup, which featured, among others, US rap kings Run The Jewels, Bristol punks IDLES, and experimental pop icon Alice Glass. On paper, the rest of the bill – metalcore titans Architects and trap-metal upstart Scarlxrd – should have appeased both metal purists and the more forward-thinking. Behind the scenes, though, the festival was a “nightmare”, says Sykes.
He explains that on the first day of ticket sales, they only managed to shift 500: “We were like, ‘Oh my god – what has happened here?’, he says. “I don’t think we did anything wrong, but my vision for the festival was that it would include all kinds of music; we didn’t want it to purely be a metal and rock festival. We wanted it to be full of bands and artists that we respected.” He shakes his head solemnly.
The eclectic lineup caused a level of friction between fans of their newer works versus older, more hardcore fans. “For a lot of people, a festival is like going to their own version of Disneyland, where they find their people, their music and their scene,” he continues. “But we were so adamant on breaking away from our scene and saying ‘Oh, we’re not just a regular metal band’ that maybe we put off our own fans. [Our All Points East event] didn’t really work, which is why I guess there’s not a lot of festivals like that.”
Earlier this year, however, the band flipped the script entirely. Bring Me The Horizon’s four-day Malta Weekender saw the group take over Gianpula – the country’s leading clubbing destination – for five days in May, where they performed twice, including a ‘throwback’ set which consisted of rare older tracks that they hadn’t played live in over a decade. Across the weekend, the band also hit the decks to play a series of DJ sets, during which they premiered latest single ‘Strangers’, an ascendant ballad ripe for the many more festival singalong moments that lay ahead.
Sykes says that the booking of other influential metal bands, such as Bullet For My Valentine and While She Sleeps, was a case of ‘lesson learned’. “With Malta, it was like, ‘Let’s try taking the path of least resistance for once, and go for the easier option’,” he says, explaining how, unlike All Points East three years prior, he wanted to “actively bring the metal community together.”
Crucially, the event also featured a number of progressive rising heavy acts willing to throw down the gauntlet to the old guard. Just as the shapeshifting Bring Me The Horizon have continued to develop by incorporating elements of pop, trance and electronic music into their sound, bands such as Leeds emo quartet Static Dress and former NME cover stars Nova Twins – both of whom played at the Malta festival – are continuing to throw a middle finger up at standard genre definitions.
“Arctic Monkeys play it cool. That’s what makes you like them. We’re like, ‘Love me!’” – Jordan Fish
The latter, comprising Georgia South and Amy Love, appeared on glitchy ‘Post Human Survival Horror’ standout ‘1×1’ and joined Bring Me on tour last September, forging a close creative relationship with Sykes along the way. The duo recently released their second album ‘Supernova’, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Mercury Prize. Sykes says he feels like a “proud dad” and namechecks the pair, plus other experimental artists Ashnikko and Lozeak, as acts who “remind me of the ethic we had when we started out as a band: just chucking demos out online and making this really unhinged, cerebral music.”
He continues: “Quite a few years ago, we were disillusioned with rock, but the last couple of years I have come to feel very different about that… It’s very exciting to now see a lot of young kids getting into alternative styles and sounds. It feels so much more diverse than ever before.”
That music as restless and ruthlessly experimental as Bring Me The Horizon’s is now not only inspiring a new generation of artists, but finding great commercial success, is perhaps surprising – not least to Sykes. In February, the band set the BRIT Awards ablaze with a then-unlikely team-up with Sheeran, where they debuted that amped-up remix of ‘Bad Habits’. It was a performance that firmly planted a flag for the future of the band, allowing them to cross over into the mainstream all while maintaining their metalcore ballast through electrifying screaming vocals and a barrage of pummeling riffs.
For Sykes, working with Sheeran would have been previously “totally off the cards”, but it was ‘Post Human: Survival Horror’’s wide-ranging approach to collaboration – which included tracks with Yungblud, Babymetal and Evanescence’s Amy Lee – that changed his mindset. “I’ve always been someone who gets bored really quickly,” he says. “When we finish a song, I often want to move onto the next thing. It’s a constant cycle, and our band is reflective of that. Bring Me The Horizon is one of my favourite bands in the world – and of course it should be. Very early on, we decided that we were going to switch stuff up. And it paid off.”
A week after we speak virtually, NME meets a fairly reserved and meditative Sykes on-site at Reading Festival to film a video interview, where we’re also joined by Jordan Fish. In a few hours’ time, Bring Me The Horizon will take over Main Stage West, followed by fellow Steel City rockers Arctic Monkeys, who will headline the Main Stage East on the opposite end of the site. They share the same dressing room area, split only by a single barrier gate. The significance of the two Sheffield bands headlining the same festival, given that they both had their start on Myspace and the south Yorkshire gig circuit in the early 2000s, is not lost on Sykes.
During our last conversation, he told NME that he felt “starstruck” when he crossed paths numerous times with Alex Turner on the European festival circuit in 2018 – it was the first time the pair had seen each other in person since attending the same school in the town of Stocksbridge. Eventually, Turner told him that he’d been watching Bring Me The Horizon videos on YouTube: “I felt a little nervous, then [Alex] waved me over and he was like, ‘I’ve been waiting ages for this!’, and I was like, ‘What? How do you remember me?’”
“We were disillusioned with rock, but in the last couple of years I have come to feel differently” – Oli Sykes
Today, he reaffirms his admiration for Turner and co., explaining that he and Fish had recently watched a number of the band’s European festival performances from this summer online. “Arctic Monkeys’ set is so fucking cool and understated,” he says. “They pick up their instruments and get on with it, but we’re just the opposite of that. Fish jumps in: “Any [Arctic] Monkeys set is like a girlfriend playing it cool, and that’s what makes you like them, whereas we’re like, ‘Love me!’
Sykes concurs: “We’ll never be cool, so we’ll just do our best to make everyone feel like a kid again. We’re trying to make a Universal Studios-style experience in the form of a rock set: we’re so scared that people might be bored for one second that our show is full of constant flashing lights!”
The mood in the room starts to shift and crackle. Beneath the enthusiasm, the band’s nerves are palpable. It all starts with an innocent question, as NME asks how they hope to feel when they walk off stage tonight. “I’ve been trying to live in the moment,” Sykes responds, “so when you reach something scary like [a headline show], it means you haven’t addressed the situation. It’s fucking horrible.” Fish cuts in: “I was even trying to tell you earlier to view it as just another show…”
When the band hit the stage two hours later, all of this pent-up anxiety alchemises into adrenaline and a healthy bit of fear. Frenetically pacing around, Sykes is a constant exchange of energy with the audience, apparently feeling every moment. He dares his fans to try to reach the stage, jumps into the photographers’ pit, climbs the monitors – and repeatedly strikes gold with his haywire impulses. The moshpit never stops.
The colossal production value is used to amplify the communal experience of the gig as fans look up to images of themselves flashed up on the screens. Some appear prepared for this, holding up ‘BMTH forever’ signs and making heart shapes with their hands. Others do not: one girl is so startled by the sight of herself, there seems every chance she’ll be carried away over the barrier. The visuals are also equally striking and entertaining: the thundering ‘Parasite Eve’ is accompanied by a corridor of images of environmental catastrophe and zombie marches that stretch into infinity, while ‘Happy Song’’s rotation of acid house smiley faces recall early ‘90s club culture.
You’re struck by the feeling, however, that the simplest staging ideas are just as effective: a single red flare casts a smoky shadow behind Sykes as he stands defiantly at the top of the stage for ‘Shadow Moses’. “You’ve saved my life so many times, you don’t even fucking understand,” he says, visibly emotional, to the thousands-strong congregation before him. He closes his eyes and soaks in a field of pure emotion, absorbing as much of this hard-won moment as he can take.
Bring Me The Horizon tour the US from September 22