The Big Read: Bring Me The Horizon: “We never say die”

Once the preening band rock fans loved to hate, Sheffield’s Bring Me The Horizon are now one of the UK’s biggest live draws. In the run up to release of their bold, brilliant and boundary-pushing album ‘Amo’, Andrew Trendell meets them in Reading, Berlin and London to dig into their latest reinvention – shaped by death, divorce and a newfound sense of happiness

 

At Reading 2018, Bring Me The Horizon made their live return with a triumphant ‘secret’ set on the Radio One stage. The single ‘Mantra’ had dropped just a few days before. Landing as an instant BMTH classic, it opened a short and sharp eight-song blast to kick the doors back open and usher in a new era for the band.

The heroes’ welcome the Sheffield band received was a very different story to the hatred awaiting them at their first appearance at the festival 10 years earlier. After headliners Slipknot pulled out, every act were pushed up one slot on the main stage – and Bring Me were drafted in at the 11th hour to open. Their debut album ‘Count Your Blessings’ had attracted as much derision as it did celebration; a shock of cutesy long fringes and deathcore, they were ripe for a traditional Reading Festival bottling.

“It was horrific,” remembers frontman Oli Sykes. “We literally got camera phones, bananas, gravel, ketchup, all that thrown at us. It was madness.”

But they coped, because, between them, Bring Me The Horizon have developed rhino hides that have enabled them to negotiate drug addictions, personal crises and critical derision without becoming rock casualties.

“We’re very strong-willed people,” says drummer Matt Nicholls. “We were kids when we started the band and we got a lot of shit. We didn’t let it get us down. We’ve got a ‘Never Say Die’ personality trait. We don’t give up, we don’t take any shit. We do what makes us happy.”

A few months after they put the Reading and Leeds Festival crowd through target practice in 2008, the band shed their deathcore sound for something a little more accessible with second album ‘Suicide Season’ – but the jury was still out. It wasn’t until 2010’s third album (take a deep breath now, reader) ‘There Is a Hell, Believe Me I’ve Seen It. There Is a Heaven, Let’s Keep It a Secret.’ that the world woke up. Introducing electronica and a few more shades of light and dark, it attracted rave reviews, gatecrashed the Top 20 and – finally – earned them some cred.

When Worship keyboardist Jordan Fish joined the band in 2012, BMTH coloured their edges with a sprinkle of pop and their world opened up. Both 2013’s ‘Sempiternal’ and 2015’s ‘That’s The Spirit’ have sold over 1.5million copies to date, with the latter kept from the Number 1 album spot by just 1,300 copies of Stereophonics’s not-nearly-as-exciting ‘Keep The Village Alive’.

Bring Me have stormed Wembley and Royal Albert Hall, their threat to the mainstream becoming manifest when Sykes infamously crashed through Coldplay’s table at the 2016 NME Awards during a raucous performance of ‘Happy Song’ – much to the delight of the tabloids. But the cartoon Sykes reported on during years of drugs, decadence and rock n’ roll antics is not the one we meet when he and Nicholls step into the lobby of a luxurious Berlin hotel with a health shake and a couple of shopping bags.

Around the writing of ‘Sempiternal’, Sykes was addicted to ketamine, the horse tranquiliser. He headed to rehab, admitting that he “fucking hated himself” and “didn’t care if he lived or died”. Today, talking in a soft South Yorkshire drawl and nervously pulling on his earring, he’s the zen ying to the crazed yang of the maddened cult leader you see on stage.

“Everyone in the band is in a good place now,” Nicholls says. “People are getting married, having babies and cracking on with life. With ‘Sempiternal’ everything was up in the air. Personally, no one knew what was going on. This time, I think everyone’s feet are firmly on the ground.”

Sykes agrees: “It’s weird. We’re older now, but the way that we’re approaching things feels more youthful than we’ve ever been.”

You might have seen Sykes cruising around Sheffield in his Tesla car, where he still resides and runs his clothing brand Drop Dead and the vegan bar, restaurant, arcade and music venue ‘Church: Temple Of Fun’ – a hipster hot-spot in the formerly industrial Kelham Island area.

Nicholls and guitarist Lee Malia have stayed local too, while keyboardist Fish and his family are down south in Newbury and bassist Matt ‘Vegan’ Kean is living it up in sunny LA. All seems at peace. With the benefit of a few years’ hindsight, Sykes now feels a bittersweet sense of gratitude for what he calls the “reset button” of overcoming his addiction.

“If it didn’t get that bad and we just carried on floating through, that’s where bands start disconnecting,” he says. “That’s where you start hating and resenting each other. That’s where people say ‘There’s an easier way to make money than this’ and go off.

“We’ve got thick skin from everything that we’ve been through. Music is the most important thing in my life and I’m going to put myself into it, fully. Music is my addiction now.”

They may have had many battles behind them, but that’s not to say that making ‘Amo’ was an easy ride. After the gruelling campaign for ‘That’s The Spirit’, Jordan Fish’s newborn son Eliot fell ill after suffering a brain haemorrhage (he survived, thankfully), and Sykes had a divorce to contend with, having discovered his now-ex wife had been having an affair. He’s now happily re-married to Brazilian model Alissa Salls and – feeling content with his current lot – the frontman felt an initial reluctance to draw upon his recent trauma as a muse.

“On this album I really didn’t want to write about my divorce or talk about my ex,” he says. “I didn’t want to make that person feel any smaller or give them any spotlight. I also didn’t want anyone to think that I’m unhappy in the situation that I’m in now because I’m really glad that what happened, happened. After a while I realised I have nothing else to talk about except my own experiences. I can’t make up stories. I can’t make up emotions that I haven’t been through.”

“It felt important that I should write about it because I didn’t go to any therapy. My mum was telling me that I should. Writing lyrics, singing about it and getting it out just processes it in the best possible way.”

Infidelity and betrayal is dealt with on the album track ‘In The Dark’, but the full gamut of love is explored across ‘Amo’ [the Portuguese word for ‘love’, as well as being a nod to ‘ammo’ as a call to arms]. Lead single ‘Mantra’ likens falling in love to the unconditional devotion and blind faith of joining a cult, ‘Medicine’ talks of turning your back on the negative relationships in your life, and ‘Why You Gotta Kick Me When I’m Down’ is a message to fans who pour scorn on Sykes’ personal life. On the brighter side, there’s ‘Mother Tongue’. “That’s a straight-up love song of me just telling my wife how much I love her,” says Sykes. “It’s about how crazy it is that we speak a different language, but it’s never been an issue.”

Another tender moment comes with the closing ‘I Don’t Know What To Say’, in honour of Sykes’ childhood family friend Aidan, who died from cancer in 2017.

“It’s me nervously saying things because I didn’t get to see him before he died. It was scary to think about, because how can you talk to someone before they die? You can’t tell them it’s going to be alright when you know it’s not. It’s also about how brave he was. If I had a time stamp put on my life I’d just be so selfish and scared and be like, ‘Fuck the world’. How do you even get out of bed with that weighing down on you?”

Whether using his winner’s speech at the Alternative Press Music Awards in 2014 to publicly come clean about his drug use, or penning the 2015 anthem ‘Avalanche’ about his ADHD diagnosis and how the medication stopped him spiralling into recklessness, Sykes’s openness has proven to be his tonic through troubled times. I ask him how sharing has helped him to make sense of all the drama and confusion.

“When I went to rehab, one of the things they tell you to do is write a letter,” he replies. “It doesn’t have to be to anyone. You write down how you’re feeling and put it in an envelope then burn it or whatever. To me, I could never do that. I was like ‘What’s the point?’ I’m sure it works, but I get to do that as part of my job. It has a meaning, and people do get to hear it.

“You not only get that freeing feeling of writing it down, but then it rhymes and there’s a melody, you feel it, then you get to go out there and sing it on stage. That’s mental.”

And it travels. Since their chaotic beginnings, Bring Me The Horizon now rival Muse as a live arena rock force. The evening’s show at Berlin’s packed and cavernous UFO im Velodrom is an audio-visual spectacular of brute force, anthemics and theatrical production. It’s a setlist that draws almost entirely from their last two albums, aside from two new singles and 2010’s ‘It Never Ends’. But then a few nights later in London, the old-school BMTH fans are given quite the treat.

“We’ve been a band for 15 years now,” Sykes tells the capacity Ally Pally crowd. “We’re old. I know we look young, but we’re fucking old. We’ve got six albums; some of them are good, some of them are very good, some of them not so good, but some of you fuckers seem to like them. You wanna hear some old ones?”

What follows is a break-neck four-song medley touring through their frenetic early work, giving a brief window into their more manic beginnings. Don’t get used to it. The truth is, they’re done with the tired tropes of the rock scene.

“There are people who listen to music who cut themselves or they’re depressed, so some artists really play up to that,” Sykes tells me, carefully mentioning no names. “It really doesn’t feel genuine. Emotion is a full range of a spectrum, like colours. It’s not just anger. How are you going to get that out with just a guitar and screaming? You need to explore everything else.

“The guitar shouldn’t be a main instrument, it should be a texture. It shouldn’t be important whether it’s there or not. If it’s important to you whether a guitar is there or not, you’re weird. Like ‘why’?”

Clearly riled by over a decade of falling short of rock snobs when wanting to flex their other creative muscles, Sykes goes off on one: “That’s why we really just feel such a disconnect with the rock scene, because there hasn’t been an icon in the rock scene for 30 years.

“Do you know what I mean? Who was the last great icon?,” he asks. “It’s all Metallica and Black Sabbath. The bands that are headlining are all bands that came out 20 years ago. Rock hasn’t produced a legend in decades, and every other genre has.”

Sykes doesn’t want to step into that role. Perhaps he was poking fun at these cartoon metal bands when he himself became a fake cult leader in their recent video for ‘Mantra’, but he’s adamant in not being able to live within the “fixed boundaries of colours and imagery” that come with the genre. “There is an unwillingness to move out and to not be parodies of themselves,” he says. “To not be covered in blood, horns and screaming. You don’t have to be ‘rock’. To be true and be pure you have to follow these very small and limiting rules. For us, how could we survive?”

Isn’t the world of rock supposed to be welcoming and inclusive?

“It’s not inclusive,” he replies “[The scene] doesn’t like it when a band gets big. It’s like something is being stolen from them. There came a time for our band where we just couldn’t entertain that world any more.”

So, onto this latest incarnation: the kaleidoscopic world of ‘Amo’. Originating from 20-30 varied demoes (including two with ‘Boyz II Men R&B’ and ‘funky Caribbean vibes’ that didn’t make the cut), it’s loaded with trance, pop, beatboxing, ballads and experimental soundscapes.

Sure, it’s got the usual rock bangers, but with a more open and universal edge. Is this Bring Me The Horizon trying to appeal to as wide an audience as possible?

“We’ve got a very different stance on it,” says Sykes. “We’ve just been to America and done some press and it made us realise that for the scene that we’re in, a lot of people aren’t going to ‘get’ this record. Some people just like rock music or metalcore and they’re not interested in anything different. Sometimes we’ve been like ‘Oh, this sounds like Oasis’, and it doesn’t. Whereas here there are moments where it does. Sometimes it doesn’t sound like rock and feels like pure dance.”

The band admit that they suffered under the weight of expectation before. While writing ‘That’s The Spirit’, they say they got “caught up” in the machine wanting them to be rock’s great bright hope, the next generation’s Linkin Park to open up to the mainstream and become a global force. “We wanted to make 11 bangers, 11 good songs that could all be singles,” recalls Sykes. “This time, we didn’t want to do that; we wanted a full experience of an album.”

Sykes goes on: “People might not think we’re as heavy any more, but for us it’s important that every song gets the hair on the back of your neck up. That’s not really where music sits any more. People make albums of 17 tracks all the same tempo and vibe. That’s the clever thing to do. People just want background music to scroll through. Making an album like ours is almost a bit old-school. You’ve got to pay attention. You need to stop and take it all in.”

Will the record attract a different crowd?

“It’s really hard to tell,” Sykes replies. “How do you know if people who go to Creamfields are going to like the song ‘Nihilist Blues’? You just don’t know.”

Indeed, the track ‘Nihilist Blues’ is by far the biggest surprise of ‘Amo’ to absorb; a touchstone moment of unrecognizable experimentation. An unlikely collaboration with art-pop icon Grimes, it’s the album’s centre-piece, and a glitching rush of “dark ‘90s Eurodance” to soundtrack the blackest of raves.

After she declared her love of Foals and Bring Me The Horizon as “the future of rock” in an interview a few years ago, the band took a stab in the dark and sent the track to Grimes’ management. She quickly approved, and started texting Sykes to say how ‘pumped’ she was the be involved. To take it somewhere else, her Midas touch came with her own ad-libs, sound effects, and personal touches.

“She was like ‘This is the greatest song I’ve ever heard’,” smiles Sykes. “30 seconds in she was like ‘GET ME ON IT GET ME ON IT’. For me, that was huge. My wife really love Grimes too and she was like ‘She isn’t going to do it, she’s too cool, she’s so selective’. Then when Grimes sent the vocal through she was nearly crying with joy. When she came back, she was gushing. She would just text me randomly going ‘Dude, this is going to blow people’s minds’. We were like, ‘Fuck yes’.”

Lyrically, the song reflects the band’s own existential crisis of reaching where they thought was the destination and asking ‘What now?’, before realising the freedom that comes from overcoming the anxiety of inevitability. It’s an anthem for millennials who feel like there’s nowhere else to go as robotic voices groan: “I’ve been climbing up the walls/To escape the sinking feeling/But I can’t hide from the nihilist at my door”.

“I wouldn’t call myself a nihilist, but I definitely relate to what it’s saying,” ponders Sykes. “I feel that emptiness a lot in my life. It’s not strictly a negative thing for me, but sometimes I ask ‘What’s the point in life? Where are we going?’

“Sometimes it feels like everything is so important. For kids of our generation, they feel like they have to find who they are really quickly or they’re failures. So many people go through that feeling if they don’t get married or find their perfect job or their calling. You feel like your life is meaningless. No, your life is still meaningless when you find it, and that’s freeing. It doesn’t matter, it’s all fine. It’s all going to end someday.”

Other guests on ‘Amo’ include The Roots’ beatboxer Rahzel and icon Dani Filth of goth-metal demi-Gods Cradle Of Filth. Rumours of Post Malone making an appearance were not true. “We just hung out and went to Vegas,” confirms Nicholls, adding that while they ‘appreciate and respect what he does’, they didn’t want to ‘force a space for him into their sound’. But who’s to say what the future holds? From here, Bring Me The Horizon say they’re “more interested in going sideways than upwards”; exploring the nooks and crannies of the space that they’ve created for themselves rather than upping the scale.

Part of that sideways trajectory comes with the band topping the bill at All Points East this summer, choosing something a little more curious and esoteric than the predictable step of headlining Reading & Leeds. With it, they get to curate the support bill themselves, and have invited the likes of wokepunks IDLES, rap duo Run The Jewels, rising pop-punkers Yonaka and the trap-metal enigma SCARLXRD. Of the acts they aspire to, Sykes rejects rock monoliths like Linkin Park or Metallica, citing Bon Iver as a “respected artist with a cult following”. They want to be the best band in Britain, not the biggest to emerge from metal.

“It doesn’t matter if these new songs are commercial or marketable, we just want to do what buzz off’,” Sykes says of his ambition for ‘Amo’. “We’ve realised that you can’t have it both ways. If we want to be up there with Twenty One Pilots or Panic! At The Disco and make that surefire thing, then you’ve got to play that game. For us, it would have been a compromise.

“There are a lot of people who just don’t like our band or take us as seriously because they think we’re part of a scene,” he concludes. “I feel like now we’re getting to a point where people are like ‘You know what, fair play to this band’.”

Not anchored by their roots, Bring Me are heading into an ever broader horizon. They’re still standing, despite all that’s been thrown at them.

‘Amo’ is released on January 25. Tickets for All Points East are on sale now.

Listen to the NME Radio playback of ‘Amo’ with Oli Sykes and Jordan Fish on NME 1 at 00:01 on Friday the 25th January.