Bring Me the Horizon's Oli Sykes on Hard-Fought Sobriety, Reinvigorating Metal on Daring New EP | Revolver

Bring Me the Horizon's Oli Sykes on Hard-Fought Sobriety, Reinvigorating Metal on Daring New EP

Second 'Post Human' installment is about recovery — as "a planet, a society, and my recovery as a drug addict"
bringmethehorizon_3_credit_carlosjaramillo.jpg, Carlos Jaramillo
Bring Me the Horizon's Oli Sykes, Los Angeles, 2021
photograph by Carlos Jaramillo

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After a month of living in an ashram in Brazil — rising with monks each morning at dawn, spending his days reading the Bhagavad Gita and praying to a God he'd spent most of his life rejecting — Bring Me the Horizon's Oli Sykes managed to outsmart his first guru. He'd arrived at the spiritual retreat shortly after turning 34, determined to get clean and curtail his ego (something that had been inflamed by the ultra-visible metrics of his band's growing success: Spotify monthly listener counts, festival placements, album sales). Jealousy, competitiveness and ego, the monks and gurus taught Sykes during his stay, were the cause of his undoing, the root of all evil. So, one morning, when he found a guru livestreaming a sermon, complaining about the lack of viewers, Sykes began to proffer: "Remember what you told me. You should be unmoved by whether you get riches or nothing, you should feel the same with either fate. You need to keep your equilibrium."

The spiritually reformed Bring Me the Horizon frontman is recounting this story to Revolver outside of the Los Angeles recording studio where he and his bandmates — guitarist Lee Malia, bassist Matt Kean, keyboardist-programmer Jordan Fish and drummer Matt Nicholls — alongside a roster of producers and songwriters — have been recording and writing the second installment to their Post Human series for the past five weeks. Dressed in all black, his hair a black velvety shag, the pale white of his skin glistening in the sun like ice, Sykes looks every bit the California vampire. Then there is the matter of the fangs. "I were getting some whitening treatment in Brazil, and then I just asked whether they could do me some fangs," he says, nonchalantly. "It doesn't feel any different," he tells Revolver, running his tongue along the bottom of each sharpened canine, speaking softly in his Sheffield accent. He is unwaveringly polite, as though he's meeting a lover's parents for the first time. He smiles nervously and often. There's something vaguely adolescent about him in that way, but something newly adult in him, too, like he's cultivated a new sense of deliberateness and grace. He swigs regularly from an industrial-sized water bottle. Sykes is newly, happily sober; a man who can out-guru a guru, an artist who can outpace his own ego — even as his band are approaching biggest-in-the-world status, and divining a new, reinvigorated era of rock music.

With chart-topping albums in the U.K., Grammy nominations and, most recently, a headline-making collaboration with mega-star Ed Sheeran, today, Bring Me the Horizon are almost singlehandedly responsible for reabsorbing hard rock back into the mainstream pop consciousness. Not unlike their Sheffieldian forebears Def Leppard, BMTH have steadily moved away from a wholly metal sound towards a hookier sensibility, transgressing their subcultural position to gain significant commercial success and influence pop culture at large.

For the first time since nu-metal's needle-scratching moment in the mainstream over two decades ago, pop and hard rock seem to have rebooted their symbiotic relationship. Pop stars are embracing the grotesque and gory, while metal bands are playing with EDM synth pads. And BMTH are taking full advantage of the moment. Now approaching almost 20 years in the game — the time it usually takes for a trend to die and then become fashionable again — the "rawring" emo, post-hardcore aesthetic they first became known for has come back around. The pressure to seize the moment might threaten to unmoor Sykes once again. But this time, he's thinking far beyond his ego. He's determined to shift the relationship between metal and the mainstream once and for all.

"It's rare to find a band, who, when they get bigger and more mainstream, make sure to retain the harder elements … that made them big in the first place," says Sykes. "That's what we're trying to do now: retain those extreme elements … but at the same time push ourselves and evolve. Let's keep the screaming. Let's keep the breakdown. Let's keep the fast drumming. Let's see what happens if we make pop music but still keep all those elements in there."

Bring Me The Horizon formed in Sheffield, England, in early 2004 at the start of the deathcore movement, where they found peers among Hot Topic favorites like Job for a Cowboy and Suicide Silence. Sykes immediately stood out, not just for his robust goblin-style screams, but for his iconic mid-2000s alternative style: the airbrushed skin, perfectly curved eyeliner, purple eyeshadow, hair so fiercely straightened you could still smell the steam. His first style icon? A girl he'd been crushing on at school who told him he'd look better as a girl. "Since then, I've always liked feminine stuff," he says, "I've always wanted to look like a girl."

Naturally, in 2005, Sykes became one of the poster boys of Myspace's scene-kid movement. It led to the band's early success, as well as their derision. "We were just an easy target," Sykes now reflects, "with the fucking massive hair and makeup, things that piss off small, boxed-in people." But the frontman was used to the battering. Beating Sykes up outside the school gate had become an end-of-year tradition among the school's bullies. The teachers had despised him, too, rebuking him for his eyebrow piercing, the baggy jeans that covered his shoes, not to mention the toy gun he'd wear as a belt buckle to school.

Sykes found his first sense of acceptance and affirmation from the band. After the release of their first record, the vociferously sludgy, breakdown-packed Count Your Blessings, BMTH almost immediately made Myspace's "100 Most Listened To" chart. "I was still a teenager," he says, "so all of my love and worth came from that kind of status, that's where I began craving it."

Still, the band — most of them not yet 18 — couldn't take the gig seriously. "After we finished recording Count Your Blessings, I remember listening to it in the car, and being so blasé about it. I can't understand why it resonated with people so much," Sykes admits. The band's first live performances were fueled by heavy drinking. Vomiting onstage was a regular occurrence. The members were almost never sober. Their purpose was merely to create and perform the heaviest party music they could: music to mosh to, to smash the living shit out of someone to. Teenage girls loved them — or, more specifically, teenage girls loved Oli. He drew in a disproportionately female crowd, particularly for a metal band. They became an easy punchline.

bringmethehorizon_1_credit_carlosjaramillo.jpg, Carlos Jaramillo
Bring Me the Horizon, (from left) Matt Kean, Matt Nicholls, Sykes, Lee Malia and Jordan Fish
photograph by Carlos Jaramillo

To their surprise, the band's first album was a relative success. "We toured the world and won awards and then we were like, 'Shit, what if we take it seriously and actually try and make some really good music?'" says Sykes. "That was the beginning of us pushing ourselves and trying to improve as musicians."

In 2008, they released Suicide Season, which integrated their deathcore roots with metalcore and anthemic, melodic hooks — widening the band's vision, as they began to explore a vaster musical palette and emotional range. 2010's There Is a Hell…, with features from electro-pop musician Lights, opened them up further, and provided the first glimpse of the band's eclectic, electro-leaning future.

All the while, Sykes was desperately trying to separate himself from his ego — a feeling he sought, and found, in ketamine. Ever since he emerged as the micro-famous scene kid on Myspace, the world had decided who Sykes was for him. He derived his worth from public opinion, and eventually fell into a spiral of self-effacing self-hatred. "When I were on harder drugs, I'd take stuff that would remove my name or meaning. It was extremely dissociative," he says. "Rather than getting high or feeling happy, it was about cutting off all feelings and associations with all the important things in the real world."

Sykes spent a month in rehab shortly after the release of the band's third album, and emerged ketamine free. He charted the experience of getting clean on the band's fourth album, Sempiternal, which saw the introduction of keyboardist Jordan Fish, an addition that resulted in a dramatic change of musical direction. The band's metalcore elements softened while their electronic and pop influences became far more pronounced. It split the band's fans in half. "That really pissed me off," Sykes admits, "but now I kind of get it. You come to expect certain things. If you went to see one of the Fast and Furious movies and it suddenly became a rom-com, you'd be like, 'What the fuck is this!'"

The band's progressive sound earned them favorable reviews from critics, as well as Album of the Year at the 2014 Alternative Press Music Awards. In a memorable speech, Sykes opened up about his ketamine addiction in public for the first time, telling the crowd that once he'd left rehab, he "didn't want to scream anymore, he wanted to sing from the fucking rooftops." In truth, that tidy recovery narrative had a lot more thorns. "After a couple months I started drinking again," he reveals. "Even though I was like, 'I'm not fucked up on drugs and in that really bad place,' I just kind of still stayed in this distracted place."

Right as that distracted place had devolved into somewhere much darker — reflected on 2015's That's the Spirit — he met his current wife, Brazilian model Alissa Salls. Sykes just discovered his previous wife was having an affair, "and Alissa was in a very similar situation," he says. "It was almost like if we'd started speaking to each other at any other time we would have missed each other. It does feel like we saved each other."

In 2019, BMTH released amo (the Portuguese word for "love"), a record they'd spent hundreds of thou-sands of dollars to make. It was an unapologetic love letter to pop music, born from the desire to push themselves as far as possible into an ultra-hooky, melodic realm. "To be honest, I think we lost sight of the things that made us special, and why people fell in love with us in the first place," Sykes reflects. "I'm a lot more proud to be in a rock band than I was five years ago. It used to piss me off, rock music, and I openly said that. I just felt like it was dead."

amo earned them two Grammy nominations and their first U.K. No. 1 — but the growing status threw Sykes into a disequilibrium. Envy and ego threatened to undo him as he began obsessively poring over the band's stats and data.

When the pandemic hit, Sykes began using again. "Being alone every day and losing the band, not touring … as soon as that all went, I started slowly creeping back onto the harder stuff," he says. "The world works when it works, but as soon as this virus came and fucked everything up, it made me realize that the world doesn't actually work at all. … And the same goes for me. My life works when it's working. But as soon as it stopped, I didn't know what my meaning in life was. … If I'm not Oli Sykes from Bring Me the Horizon then who am I?"

The first time Sykes hit rock bottom, he didn't have a steady girlfriend; lovers simply passed in and out of his life and "wouldn't have felt particularly betrayed" by his using. But this time, he was five years into a marriage with the love of his life and they had a hidden sanctuary flanked by forest and beach, a three-hour drive away from São Paulo. But he returned to heavy drugs in the house they shared together in the U.K. "For her, it was like I was cheating … because I was taking drugs behind her back. She didn't know, then she found out and she'd never seen anything like that," he says.

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photograph by Carlos Jaramillo

"I thought I was only harming myself," he continues. "But in recovery, talking to her and talking to a therapist with her, it's like, Fuck, I've really scarred her.' It's taken a long time to get her trust back. When I go out, she's scared I'm gonna do drugs. It's the same as someone cheating on their partner: they're always gonna have this slight insecurity that they're gonna do it again. Realizing that was like, Fuck, I can't do that again. It's evil. It's not just hurting myself. It's hurting other people."

His newfound realization and the fear of relapse are what keeps him sober. "All of [my] near-death experiences — when I got so fucked I could have overdosed — I look back and think, 'How am I alive? How am I not in prison?' That fear keeps me sober. It's a miracle I've gotten this far, so I'm like, I cannot fuck this up. I am so determined not to go back to drinking or drugs."

Instead, Sykes focused his energy on his art. Midway through 2020, he and BMTH collaborated remotely with the likes of Evanescence's Amy Lee, BABYMETAL, Nova Twins and Yungblud for their second U.K. No. 1 and return to metallic sounding EP, Post Human: Survival Horror. "[The title] came from the idea that, as humans, we've advanced [so far] that we've stepped out of the food chain. I think if we can evolve that much, we can all evolve to be better people in general. To not fall prey to our impulse centers."

Combatting his own impulse center, Sykes has now been sober for over a year. At first, it sucked. "My therapist was like, 'You're gonna love recovery. … You haven't even discovered the best parts of you yet,'" he says. "At first, you're like, Well, I'm still gonna use again. But as time goes on, you do actually start growing as a person." For most of his life, Sykes' drinking and drug use had put him into an emotional stasis. "I've always been down on myself and shy. I couldn't even phone people or talk to strangers. I couldn't go to a shop to buy something. I'd freak out … I had mad social anxiety," he says. "I wasn't proud of myself either. Any award we'd get I'd leave in a box … I'd never tell anyone I was in a band … I'd never look in a mirror. I was weird about everything."

bringmethehorizon_2_credit_carlosjaramillo.jpg, Carlos Jaramillo
photograph by Carlos Jaramillo

Slowly, but surely, that's all starting to change. "I've been meeting new people. I've been speaking up about how I feel about things, even standing up for myself," he reports. "Just … slowly growing as a person. I feel so much happier than I've ever felt in my life."

The new record, the second installment in what will be the Post Human quadrilogy, is all about "drawing a parallel between recovery as a planet, and a society, and my recovery as a drug addict," he says. The band recently began writing a song about the need for humanity to unite to save the world. "It started off like, 'We're just a room full of strangers,'" he says, "and to be honest, I just wrote it because I thought it'd sound great to sing when you're in a venue … full of strangers. Then I thought about rehab. That's how it felt when I was first admitted and I was sat in a room with eight strangers, all lost and all broken and struggling. … It was funny how well these lyrics about the world having to come together to do something good related to these broken people trying to fix themselves."

Is Post Human 2 completed? "No," Sykes says, laughing. At the time of this interview, the only taste the world's been given of it is "DiE4u," a single released last September that put the lyrics "You could slit my wrists/And I'd write your name in a heart with the hemorrhage" onto mainstream radio. They worked on the song with Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber producer Bloodpop, who brought in a handful of songwriters to help work on the song. Together, they wrote the chorus — a melody Sykes admits that neither himself nor Fish would have thought of themselves.

"Coming from that approach where we don't have to worry about the pop aspects, someone else does that, and we make it a heavy song, was really fun," he says. "Collaboration is the key word here for why we're doing this. After so much isolation, we're desperate to be surrounded by people and to have something that feels a bit more alive."

The collaboration with Sheeran — a metallized version of his smash single "Bad Habits," that BMTH both performed with him live at February's BRIT Awards and recorded with him in the studio — came about after the singer-songwriter, a long-time fan, reached out to the band about working together. "To be honest, we thought it was a wind-up at first," Fish tells us of Sheeran's initial email. Sykes, meanwhile, describes the experience of collaborating with the pop star as "pretty mental," but also "the perfect challenge."

He notes that the coming EP will include "loads of collabs," though he's tight-lipped about who it will feature. "We worked with a few people last week," he says, "people on our hit list … [that] we've been meaning to do stuff with for ages."

But that's not the only reason the EP is taking more time. "It's a lot slower … because we're trying to do something different. We're trying to merge this emo, post-hardcore vibe with something modern." The band aims to create an entirely new genre, a kind of futuristic nostalgia. To get that balance, they've taken inspiration from hyperpop, an ultra-online, Gen Z associated scene that seems to share similar ambitions to BMTH: to make extreme, heavy, zany pop music. "The scene inspired me in the same way as when we were doing our music at first. It were kind of like this sugar-rushed version of metal and hardcore, making this crazy, dissonant, noisy music. … That's what these kids are doing now in pop … pushing the sound to its extreme," says Sykes. "Obviously I didn't wanna jack its style and … look like these old dudes making this young music, but just that frantic energy and that chaotic feeling, we took a while to inject it to just the right level."

For the first time in his career, Sykes doesn't feel like his band are on the brink of irrelevance. BMTH are selling out stadiums, topping the charts, receiving near-constant airtime and radio play. They're inspiring a new generation. "It feels like just over the past few years we've begun to be celebrated," he says. "I'd post a song and a kid would get in touch with me, saying, 'I fucking love your band.' That's a cool feeling to have, a younger generation looking up to us. It influences what they do and they're kind of influencing what we're doing now. I definitely feel a lot of love from the scene. Not that we feel older, but we definitely feel like proud dads now."

And as a proud dad, Sykes also feels a certain sense of responsibility. "I never used to understand when kids would say, 'Your band saved my life,'" he says. "How can I save your life when I'm such a mess myself? But now I get it, I get that a song can save you. I get that my words can have that potential. It's a really beautiful thing that I can be in this really dark place, write these words … sing them, and then possibly help someone else, which in turn, singing it back to me, helps me and affirms me, helps me feel less crazy."

Rather than monthly listeners and stream counts, this is what Sykes now holds closest. "Not how big we get, not how well it does, but how much it can connect with someone and help them. I really feel that's what Bring Me the Horizon is about," he says, taking a final swig of water. He looks content, self-assured, a man who's lost his ego and found his equilibrium.

PHOTO CREDITS: Photography assistants Luis Jaramillo and Jade Mainade; makeup and grooming: Lucy Landry