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Headlining Reading & Leeds. Creating their own festival in Malta. Doing the BRITs with Ed Sheeran. Bring Me The Horizon are somehow continuing to expand their frontiers. As they get going on the biggest year of their lives, Oli Sykes looks at how the band took on their final form, and why they can do whatever they want…
Orange lights beam down from on high. Dancers clamber from dumpsters, backflipping around shopping trolleys as barrels burst into flame. Performers tumble through the air before a smartly-dressed man with fangs screams his guts out.
We’re not trapped in some nightmarish version of Stomp – we’re staring, mouth agape, at the opening of this year’s BRIT Awards, as Bring Me The Horizon run roughshod through Bad Habits with Ed Sheeran. We are witnessing history. A watershed moment for alternative music, brought to life by one of the most forward-thinking bands in recent memory.
“It doesn’t get much bigger than opening the BRITs with one of the biggest artists in the world,” smiles Oli Sykes today, reflecting on his band’s first foray into the prime time slot. “It felt controversial. We knew there would be so many people looking at it like, ‘What the fuck is this?!’”
This is what alternative music is all about. It’s about defying conventions and showing the jaded suits propping up an industry of clones that, over here, we’re still pushing boundaries. We’re still championing the underdogs and celebrating the pioneers. And there are few acts on the planet better placed to shake up the mainstream than the Steel City heavyweights, who have spent the best part of 20 years determinedly doing things their own way.
It’s also the final confirmation that Bring Me The Horizon are, in fact, bulletproof. As a collective with a shape-shifting identity, they’re a heavy band, but have somehow found a way to appear on mid-week, prime time ITV alongside one of Spotify’s most-streamed artist without losing an ounce of credibility. There are no other bands that could have come away unscathed.
Pausing briefly to ruminate on this idea, the frontman praises Ed as simply being “a hard guy to hate”, but that also, “It’s not like we went off and did something with BTS.” Continuing down the same train of thought, Oli suggests that his band have consistently attempted things that don’t make sense on paper, comparing their risk-taking to when Heath Ledger was cast as the Joker in The Dark Knight. “Everyone was like, ‘Why have they got this rom-com dude to do this role?’ But it works!
“We’ve had to risk a lot by doing things that we wanted to do and we knew might not be on-brand, or what the majority of our fans want,” he continues. “Like when we made [2019’s] amo, it was a hugely polarising album; critics seemed to love it, we got nominated for a fucking GRAMMY, but our fans were split down the middle. For us, we had to go there, we had to do what we wanted to do, we had to push ourselves to be creatively free.
“Any Bring Me The Horizon fan knows that they shouldn’t expect the same thing from us twice, but it took a long time of us doing that for people to get used to it. People think they want [2013’s] Sempiternal again, but the problem is that it’s an album that can never be repeated, and as an artist you have to do what you want to do in your gut.”
Aware that some fans decreed 2020’s Post Human: Survival Horror as “a return to form”, Oli sees everything his band have created as a progression, and that they needed to make the more accessible amo to push themselves into the more metallic EP. And yet the door remains open for them to do anything, working with everyone from Grimes to Dani Filth in recent years.
“We’d do a song with Harry Styles if it felt right,” he adds. “It’s just about what we like and what we fuck with and what feels good. There’s no elitism with what we do, there’s no, ‘It has to be cool, it has to appeal to these people.’ Around the time of Sempiternal or [2015’s] That’s The Spirit, if we did a collab with Ed Sheeran people would be like, ‘What the fuck!?’ But now it’s like, ‘Yeah, of course they have!’”
Collaborations have rapidly become common in all corners of music, not least because it allows artists to appear in other profiles on Spotify and find new fans. BMTH have enlisted the help of their friends for years, though, harking back to Architects’ Sam Carter in 2008, all the way up to BABYMETAL in 2020.
Last year, Oli alone collaborated with no fewer than six different artists, including emo-pop star daine and genre-breaking rapper Poorstacy. This surge in activity was partly spurred on by lockdown and the desire to keep active, but it’s also the first time in years that he’s been excited about alternative music.
“There’s so many artists that I am genuinely buzzing to listen to,” he gushes. “The scene is coming back and I’m so excited about so many artists and our scene that I just want to be a part of it. I want to support it, I want to champion these acts.”
While not quite on the same level as blink-182’s Travis Barker appearing on seemingly a new song each week, Oli keeps himself ingrained in the scene. Speaking to K! today from Los Angeles, having flown out there to work with Machine Gun Kelly, there are even more collabs in his future that we’re not allowed to divulge.
“It’s a way for me to express myself in a way that I want to without it having to be a Bring Me The Horizon song,” he explains. “If I want to do a super-poppy song, I can go off and do that. At the end of the day, sometimes it might not make sense for us to write a song that’s got no guitars or isn’t heavy, because it won’t translate live or it won’t stand up against our other songs.
“I love being able to do something like Ed Sheeran, and then go off and work with a super-heavy band. I don’t feel like there’s been many artists who can jump from such a broad spectrum, and that helps reinforce what we are.”
The ascension of Bring Me The Horizon is nothing short of extraordinary. Coming up through the mid-’00s MySpace scene, their abrasive brand of deathcore was as inaccessible as their fringes were long. No matter what anyone tells you, nobody thought the band behind the grinding gut-punch of Re: They Have No Reflections would either have the longevity or even the songs to break through into legit arena headliner status.
The Oli we meet today isn’t the man we see onstage commanding those vast rooms, though. He’s softly-spoken and quite a reserved figure, acutely aware that he’s talking to a journalist. Going into the band as a teenager, he says he was an outgoing guy and the life of the party, but when BMTH started to get (rather negative) attention from the music magazines he had grown up reading, he retreated inside himself.
“Our band was kind of branded as a Mötley Crüe-esque bunch of fucking dickheads,” he spits. “One of the first interviews I did, the guy twisted every single word. Things that were said as a joke were put like I was saying it angrily, and it was just a massive shock to me that we were portrayed as these people. I thought I was a nice guy, and there were all these magazines that said I wasn’t. It was amazing just how your words could be twisted into something you didn’t mean, and I struggled with that.
“People either painted me as an idol or I was fucking hated. You’re the guy on the cover and it’s Photoshopped and put in the best light, but you can never look like that. And you’re also not this horrible, evil person, you’re just a regular person that makes mistakes like everyone else – but no-one thinks you’re a regular person. You’re either a c**t or a god. It’s quite a headfuck.”
Bring Me The Horizon faced opposition from all sides. While the press still couldn’t make up their minds, rock fans up and down the country took one look at these tattooed lads with haircuts and wrote them off as posers. Ask the same people today and they’d undoubtedly tell you they prefer Horizon’s early records.
Questioned whether he sees BMTH’s career as one long campaign of proving people wrong, Oli agrees. “To be honest, yeah,” he chuckles. “We’re glad for it in the end because it did make us fight, but we also listened when people were right. If someone was saying we play out of time or whatever, it’s like, ‘Fair point, maybe we’ll drink a little bit less when we’re playing live.’ (Laughs) It made us push ourselves and work on our craft, and that paid off really quickly.
“On our first album [2006’s Count Your Blessings] we were hammered and just having fun. It was successful despite us not giving a fuck. So we thought, ‘If we push ourselves and work hard to do something different, where could it take us?’ So that’s what we did with [2008 follow-up] Suicide Season and it paid off so well that it was what we had to do every time.”
With a laser-focused work ethic, Horizon embraced electronics on the groundbreaking There Is A Hell Believe Me I’ve Seen It. There Is A Heaven Let’s Keep It a Secret. in 2010, before finding themselves on the precipice of a new movement with Sempiternal, a record that sent shockwaves that can still be felt today.
What’s more, it made Oli something of a celebrity in alternative circles. Whereas before he was a posterboy for the scene, he was now the mastermind behind one of the most exciting metal albums to come out of the UK in years. And with each subsequent release, his stature has only grown further: he has over 2.5 million followers on Instagram and 1.5 million followers on Twitter. He’s also started to get into TikTok after Can You Feel My Heart? went viral last year, opening the band up to a new Gen Z audience.
You might think that social media would be second nature, then, but Oli freely admits that TikTok would be “alien” to him if it wasn’t for their inadvertent viral hit. In fact, the sheer amount of admin that goes into an online presence fills him with dread.
“I feel sorry for this generation of artists,” he sighs. “Most labels want you to do skits for TikTok, or be thinking about your social media presence, and that alone is a full-time gig. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a new artist and have that responsibility. It’s not just making music, you’ve also got to be an actor, almost. I’m watching it with my wife [alt.pop artist Alissic] now, and it’s mad.”
It hasn’t escaped Oli’s attention that BMTH “could be twice as big if we played the game a bit more”, but instead of creating #content he’s trying to use his platform for good: he recently utilised his Instagram to generate support for the people of Ukraine, where Oli has many friends and where Horizon filmed their DiE4u video. A campaign in his bio has raised £500,000 to support those in need of aid.
“It’s the one thing we can do as an artist that’s selfless,” he says, adding that he never saw the point of musicians who would tweet instead of taking action (which inspired the track Antivist). “But I’ve been proven wrong. It’s so important for people like me with a large platform to be fighting the good fight and doing what you can to make an impact. Otherwise, what’s the point in having all that power if you’re only using it to promote your own shit?”
This summer will be Bring Me The Horizon’s biggest ever. After kicking off 2022 with their incendiary performance at the BRITs, a few months later they’ll be spending the August bank holiday weekend headlining Reading & Leeds. Having made their debut at the festival some 14 years ago, Oli can’t even admit that this is a dream come true, as the bill-topping position has always felt so out of the question.
But with the world-famous weekender now boasting six headliners, how will Horizon make themselves stand out?
“We’ll just do our thing, to be honest, man,” he says, matter-of-factly. “What’s cool is there’s not really anyone in our lane. Everyone’s going to be bringing their own energy, but we have an energy that’s unlike anything else on at that festival. We’ll just be Bring Me The Horizon and it’s going to be fucking sick.”
But before the five friends lay waste to tens of thousands at both ends of England, they’ll be closing their own festival in Malta in May, headlining a line-up they’ve curated, featuring the likes of Bullet For My Valentine, Nova Twins and Beartooth.
Never ones to do things by halves, mind you, Horizon will play two different sets, including a throwback show for old-school fans. While BMTH are only in their 30s and exist on the cutting-edge of contemporary heavy music, they still have two generations of listeners to keep happy. For every person moshing to MANTRA, there’ll be another moaning that it’s not Medusa.
Believing to have bettered themselves with every album, Oli enthuses that it’s not that the band don’t want to play their older material, but they struggle to fit those grunting gangbusters in alongside the likes of Drown, so will be exorcising those demons to their fullest, picking tunes they haven’t played in up to 15 years.
In a strange twist of fate, however, it does feel as though actual heavy music is on the up again, and the new breed of abrasive acts like Pupil Slicer, Heriot and Wristmeetrazor wouldn’t sound out of place alongside those early BMTH records. But will we ever see Horizon ever go full-heavy again?
“I would never say never,” Oli teases. “We are doing four [Post Human] EPs, so you never know what one of them’s going to sound like.”
Indeed, 2020’s Survival Horror was just one step in the band’s latest evolution. Single DiE4u came last autumn as the first taste of EP number two, pulling at more emo and screamo threads, but Oli remains tight-lipped on what the rest of record could entail… mainly because it’s not finished.
“We’ve got a shit-load of demos,” he reveals. “I had an epiphany moment the other day. I felt like nothing we had was good enough, but then I got to sit down and listen to it all with a bit of perspective, and there’s some really sick stuff there.
“It’s not healthy to always be like, ‘We’ve got to raise the bar!’ But at the same time we have to, especially when it feels like there’s more eyes on us than ever,” Oli considers. “Sometimes we think, ‘Oh, the best thing to do now is to put out a big, stock rock song,’ when all eyes are on you, something digestible that anyone can listen to, but it’s not in our hearts. We want to be progressive; we want to be weird; we don’t want to be a regular band.”
With the Survival Horror follow-up slowly coming into view, however, he takes a beat to evaluate his band’s position, and how they can bridge the gap between the scene that spawned them and where alt. is heading.
“[Going from] a death metal band to playing with Ed Sheeran is a wild journey,” he grins. “We always followed what we wanted to do. Even when we started I dreamt of making music like we’re making now, and we just kept working until it became a reality.
“This new scene reminds me of when we were coming through, this community of artists that are doing their own thing and not giving a fuck about mainstream conventions,” Oli concludes. “What we’re excited about in today’s scene, we want to take some of that and mix it with the scene that we got into and make this thing that feels nostalgic but progressive and futuristic. I think that’s going to be the running theme with all these records. It’s going to be more expressive, loose and out-there in some senses – and more fun. But until we make it, I can’t say for certain.”
There is one thing we can say for certain, though: you won’t have heard anything like it before.
Bring Me The Horizon & Friends’ Malta Weekender takes place from May 26 – 30. The band headline Reading & Leeds on August 28 – 29.
This article originally appeared in the March issue of Kerrang!.
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