Bring Me The Horizon: win when you're singing

When Oli Sykes discarded the screaming and learnt to sing, the band's success grew. But progress has also meant redeveloping a steelworks, starting a clothing line and raising money for charity

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Once the heart of the steel industry and then neglected, Kelham Island now provides a draw for Sheffield’s artists and bohemians, and has become a hipster haven of craft breweries, bakeries, street food, live music and art.

The manmade island is still a work in progress though. Cavernous former steelworks stand disused – out of the financial reach of small independent businesses and out of the field of vision of investors.

Today walls of the Osborn steelworks are adorned with religious iconography with a heavy metal edge

Enter Oli Sykes – a 31-year-old Sheffield creative and vegan activist with his own clothing line and an ambition for a new home for his business. He also happens to be an international rock star with the readies to do it on a massive scale. This year – as the building celebrated its centenary – he flung open the doors of the former Osborn steelworks, which stands, proud and imposing, on the banks of the River Dee.

It’s here that he and his Bring Me The Horizon bandmates – Jordan Fish (keys), Lee Malia (guitar), Matt Kean (bass) and Matthew Nicholls (drums) – ask to meet Big Issue North, days before the band heads out on the first leg of a tour of Europe, the US and Australia, with a few UK dates. It is not, notably, a tour supporting their sixth album Amo.

“The album was meant to come out before the tour. Now we’re saying it’s promotion,” says Malia candidly before Fish, who takes the reins in public speaking as well as music production, explains: “It’s like a little greatest hits tour. We’re doing the two new singles, and a couple of sneaky little bits from the album. And we’re going to play some old songs.”

“It didn’t feel right to rush the album out just for the sake of the tour,” adds Sykes. “We wanted to make sure it was perfect and it did just mean we had to take a bit longer on it and give ourselves that space. If you put a timeline on yourself there’s no way that you can’t compromise on what you’re doing.”

We’re sat at a food hall-style trestle table inside Church, a “temple of fun” that Sykes named to honour the listed building’s architect, John William Hale, who built the city’s most striking schools and churches at the turn of the 20th century. Today the walls are adorned with religious iconography with a heavy metal edge – a tattooed Virgin Mary watches on as UFOs invade the Creation of Adam on a ceiling riffing on the Sistine Chapel. The ground floor houses a bar and live music venue, a vegan restaurant, a tattoo studio and a shop selling Sykes’s Dropdead clothing.

Watch Bring Me The Horizon talk to Big Issue North in these exclusive short videos

“We wrote most of the album here,” says Fish. “We’ve got a rehearsal studio, and upstairs we’ve got a little set-up for writing – an apartment really. And there’s a photo studio as well.”

There are also meeting rooms and office space for various people including Sykes’s brother – a photographer and videographer – and his wife, Alissa Salls. “She’s a model, but she doesn’t really like it,” says Sykes, adding that Salls has recently turned her hand to styling the band.

There are still vast areas of the works that are unoccupied. Later, while Sykes has his photo taken, Nicholls skateboards across the concrete floor of an expansive room, expertly navigating between piles of unused technical equipment and boxes of Dropdead stock. Work is clearly still underway and largely carried out by Sykes’s engineer dad. When Sykes breaks away from his expert posing to answer his phone, he’s not being a prima donna – he’s telling his dad where to find an extension cable.

But the band recorded the album in LA, which seems fitting since its narrative concept is more suited to Hollywood than post-industrial Sheffield. It tells the story of Sykes’s first marriage – in 2015 to tattoo artist Hannah Pixie Snowdon – their divorce a year later, and his marriage to Salls another year after that.

“I found out my wife was having an affair and I could try and make it work or I could end it and move on and that’s the choice I made,” he says earnestly. Amo takes it’s title from the Portuguese “I love”, in homage to Brazilian Salls, but has the double meaning of ammunition, which Sykes says writing the songs has served as for him throughout the turbulent years since the last album, 2015’s That’s The Spirit, was released to popular acclaim.

“It’s all happened in an incredibly short space of time, which has been a little bit weird and mental,” says Sykes. “This is the kind of thing that normally happens over the course of a decade, a lifetime even. So that meant it was easy to write about because it was all so fresh.”

Sykes was hesitant to write about his divorce initially but says that in the end, as BMTH’s sole lyricist, it was a no-brainer.

“I didn’t really want to drag up the past or talk about it like I’m upset about it, because I’m not, but at the same time, when something like that happens to you, you get a lot of baggage and a lot of scars. It doesn’t mean that you are still angry at that person – I’ve completely made my peace with her and there’s always two sides to the story, it’s not clear cut. But at the same time it just messes with your mind and you start mistrusting someone else because of what they did to you.

“For me writing lyrics has always been therapeutic so, much as I didn’t want to write and give that person attention, I thought it’s important that it comes out, especially if other people can relate to it.”

Releasing the album in January, Sykes hopes it will be a metaphorical release of his relationship demons. “Some people say ‘I know you didn’t do it for this reason but it’s the biggest fuck you and the best way to draw a line in the sand because you’ve just laid it all out’, and it’s true. I’m so lucky that I have that because I’ve been to rehab and I’ve been to therapy and as good as it is there’s nothing like being able to write about it,” he says of his recovery from a ketamine addiction prior to the release of 2013 album Sempiternal.

“They tell you one good thing to do is to write a letter even if you don’t post it, but I get to write it out, make a song and then have 10,000 people screaming it back at me.”

“You’ve got to make it rhyme though. That’s the problem,” adds Fish, to lighten the mood. Sykes’s band mates have sat patiently, if a bit uncomfortably, playing on their phones and slurping their Coca-Colas while the lead singer explains the lyrical concept of the album the five of them are set to launch as a band.

They have mixed opinions on whether the fans who started with them are the people still buying albums

Because while BMTH are now five blokes in their thirties, dealing with major property purchases and divorce, and in Fish’s case fatherhood, they are still recognisable as lads who hammered out tunes with titles including Braille (For Stevie Wonder’s Eyes Only), No Need for Introductions – I’ve Read About Girls Like You on the Back of Toilet Doors, and the simple but inspired Fuck. The band – made up of founding members Sykes, Malia, Kean and Nicholls as well as Rotherham guitarist Curtis Ward – formed in 2004 between the ages of 15 and 17.

“I don’t so much cringe at all that but I do wonder what the fuck I was on about,” Sykes admits. “It’s 10 years this year since our album Suicide Season and I was reading this guy’s breakdown of it 10 years on. He was saying that at the time it was groundbreaking and, though it’s aged quite well, it’s not perfect, but you can really see the start of the journey that the band came on.”

BMTH’s early work was influenced by American deathcore – a mix of death metal and metalcore – and was dominated by the piercing sounds of Sykes’s unclean vocals, which were popularised at the time by screamo bands like Killswitch Engage and Alexisonfire. But the band didn’t fit the prescribed image and were derided in the metal world as image-conscious scene kids. The band’s early years were marked by various controversies and the odds seemed stacked against them.

But an inexplicable shrewdness and the introduction of traditional vocals propelled BMTH forward into mainstream success. Their third album, 2010’s There Is A Hell, Believe Me I’ve Seen It. There Is A Heaven, Let’s Keep It A Secret, charted at number 13 in the UK album chart and number one in Australia. And it was for 2013’s Sempiternal that Fish, a touring keyboardist with the band, came on full time. He has since carved out a shared role leading the band with Sykes, who describes Fish as a “perfect singer”. Rather than taking up traditional vocals himself, however, Fish helped Sykes step up to the role of singer, leaving screaming behind him.

“We kind of backed ourselves in a corner because we’d written most of the music for Sempiternal. It was done pretty much before we got to doing vocals. We did some screaming and it sounded pretty bad. It didn’t feel right. It needed to be melodic,” says Fish.

“I was determined to learn to sing,” says Sykes. “But everything about screaming is counterintuitive to singing – the way you breathe, the way you stand. Everything I learnt to scream is horrible for singing. There was a point where Jordan went ‘This isn’t gonna happen’, but I just kept telling them ‘I’ll get it, I’ll get it.’”

“He was totally tone deaf – 100 per cent,” adds Fish without irony. But the band’s assuredness that he would learn perhaps explains their wider success.

“You were confident,” says Fish to his band mate. “And just gradually the pitching started to get there. Honestly I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anyone go from not being able to pitch a note to being able to sing. It’s quite unusual so I kind of think it must have been there all along un-nurtured.”

And Amo marks yet another change in musical direction for the band.

“It’s a little bit more experimental for us,” says Sykes. “I don’t mean super-weird but on the last record we just set out to write 11 bangers, and really just do what we do the best we could. But on this record we really wanted to do whatever we wanted.”

The band have mixed opinions on whether the fans who started out with them are the people still buying their albums and coming to their shows. Fish thinks fans have grown up and evolved in musical tastes alongside the band, Malia reckons a lot of teenage fans jumped on at Sempiternal, and Sykes goes as far as calculating that some of their fans weren’t even born when they started out, which they all – even the affable but largely silent in interviews Nicholls and Kean – agree is scary. They all agree too that the fanbase is secure enough for them to take the risk with Amo.

And if they don’t like it? “It’s a bit too late isn’t it, really?” says Fish. “We’ve finished it now.”

Photos: Howard Barlow

‘There’s nothing worse than seeing people homeless’

Bring Me The Horizon have been fundraising for the Big Issue North Trust on the UK leg of their tour.

The Big Issue North Trust is a registered charity supporting magazine vendors to access the services they need – whether that’s permanent accommodation, access to drug or alcohol treatment, GPs, English language courses and other training. The Trust will donate 50 per cent of its proceeds from the gigs outside the north to the Big Issue Foundation, which supports sellers working in other parts of the country.

“There’s nothing worse than seeing people homeless and people want to do more but it’s getting harder. No one has any money to give,” says Oli Sykes. “As a band we just like to help because we have a platform. It’s nothing to us but it can do so much and it makes it more worthwhile for us too.”

Bring Me The Horizon have a charitable history. In 2016 they recorded a live album with an orchestra and all proceeds were donated to Teenage Cancer Trust. And last year Sykes joined Jordan Fish in climbing Kilimanjaro and raised over £70,000 for Friends of PICU, which buys equipment for children’s intensive care and supports families of sick children.

“Eliot was poorly when he was born – he had a brain haemorrhage when he was five days old,” explains Fish of his son who turned one in August. “He’s really good now but we decided to do a climb for the ward that looked after him in Southampton.”

“The summit was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” says Sykes. “In the last bit every step is a struggle and it’s so hard to breathe.”

“And you’re emotional. We got to the top and cried,” says Fish, adding: “And Oli needed a poo.”

Sykes confirms that Fish reciprocated his friend’s support and helped him in his hour of need. “I used his hat to wipe my arse.”

Fish says it will be especially hard being away from his family during this current tour.

“My wife’s quite heavily pregnant so she won’t be coming anywhere with me. She’s due in February and I will be  somewhere in America on her due date,” he says, adding that he left a tour last year to get home for Eliot’s birth too. “I’m just going to have to see if there are any signs that the baby might be coming and try and make it back in time. I’ll just bring out the old iPod Nano as my replacement for a few gigs – no one will notice.”

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