Twelve months ago, OLI SYKES declared the world needed a break from his band. He was true to his word, too. But now, armed with a view on life transformed by matters past and present, BRING ME THE HORIZON’S frontman has his eyes firmly fixed on the road a
BRING ME THE HORIZON’S FRONTMAN FACES UP TO THE PAST, AND LOOKS TO THE LIMITLESS ROAD AHEAD
Mounted on one wall of Bring Me The Horizon’s recording studio is a whiteboard, upon which the progress of what will become the Sheffield band’s sixth album is being charted. Prominently displayed is the ‘Jordan Fish Stress-o-meter’, a crudelydrawn bar chart mischievously designed to record just how anxious BMTH’S keyboard player/ programmer is feeling about their momentum on any given day.
“He’s currently registering as ‘Unsure’,” explains Oli Sykes, “which is the first graduation beyond the baseline ‘OKAY’. When things start to get bad, he’ll move to ‘Demons Inbound’. Beyond that is ‘Good God!’, which is basically boiling point. And right at the top here, we have ‘Fullblown Meltdown’. Hopefully that’s some way off yet.”
For his part, Horizon’s 31-year-old frontman is a picture of beatific calm this afternoon as he walks Kerrang! around the capacious interior of the vast converted warehouse which houses the retail and distribution headquarters of his clothing company, Drop Dead, BMTH’S recording facility, a photo studio, several company offices and – currently a work-inprogress, with construction being overseen by his father Ian – a Brazilianthemed bar. Oli bought the building four years ago, and it’s now the workplace of 20 friends and family members, a tightly-bonded micro-community in an increasingly sought-after section of the Steel City formerly better known for hosting a busy red light district.
Glowing from a recent seven-day trip to Costa Rica, where he saw first-hand the positive impact Drop Dead’s collaborative initiative to raise money for school uniforms in developing countries (in tandem with Akin Clothing) is having, the singer is relaxed and attentive, with a smile and a warm greeting for all he encounters on his walkabout.
Drop Dead staff and family members alike have gotten used to seeing Oli’s face around the facility more frequently over the past 12 months. Ahead of the band’s huge UK arena tour in October/november 2016, their frontman declared that “the world needs a break from Bring Me The Horizon for a year or so”, and he’s been true to his word: since they closed out their touring schedule for That’s The Spirit on April 8, 2017 in Las Vegas, the band members have kept a low profile, relishing their return to ‘normal life’, or at least what passes as normality for young men who’ve dedicated their entire adult lives to Bring Me The Horizon.
This afternoon, Jordan Fish, guitarist Lee Malia, bassist Matt Kean and drummer Matt Nicholls are at Drop Dead also, the unit reassembling to play their management team snippets of their new material for the first time. The chilled atmosphere in the building suggests that this playback premiere went rather well. “We’re starting to see the road ahead,” says Oli with a smile.
The singer’s last professional engagement was on October 27, a day he swears he will never forget. On that evening, Oli was one of many guests to join the surviving members of Linkin Park onstage at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles to pay tribute to the life and music of the late Chester Bennington. It was, says Oli, an emotional night, “nerve-wracking, but amazing.” Seeing Linkin Park on Kerrang! TV as a 13-year-old was Oli’s introduction to heavy music, the band’s September 15, 2001 gig at Manchester Apollo the teenager’s firstever gig. “That show was the night I became addicted to music,” he told Chester in 2014, when the two singers were brought together for a joint Kerrang! interview ahead of that summer’s Download Festival.
“When I met him that day I just gushed to him,” Oli recalls. “I told him I was a massive fan, and he was very cool: I think he was stoked to think he’d made that impact on someone’s life. We played before Linkin Park at Download that year and they gave us a shout-out onstage, which was amazing. So the connection was there.”
In the wake of Chester’s tragic passing on July 20 last year, rumours began to circulate online that Oli was going to fill in for his hero on Linkin Park’s One More Light North American tour. There was no truth in the story, yet it gained sufficient traction that even close friends were texting Oli to make plans to meet up at shows.
“Jordan actually said to me, ‘I bet if they do a show, they’ll ask you,’” Oli recalls. “And literally two weeks later one of the guys texted me and asked if I’d be interested.
“The whole night was a blur,” he admits. “It was an amazing thing to be part of. The pressure felt way bigger than doing a Horizon gig, because obviously it was an emotional night and an important show, so it was scary. I can’t sing as high as Chester, so the band and I had talked about dropping Crawling down [in pitch], but when I got there they’d forgotten, which made me more nervous! But it was cool, and it was important to me to pay my respects.”
When Oli speaks of the evening, his humility is evident, and it’s quite charming to see his inner teenage fanboy resurface. Put it to the singer that he himself now occupies a similar iconic status for a new generation of rock fans, though, and he visibly squirms in his seat and blushes, clearly not entirely comfortable with the notion.
“Um, I guess so,” he says quietly. “But when people say that, I kinda just skip over it. It’s too weird to think like that, especially when I meet people who might like our music. I don’t want them to think I see myself as something different from them.
“It always catches me off guard. Like, when I’m at a restaurant and someone will be serving me all night and then at the end they’ll be like, ‘Can I get a photo?’ and I had no idea they knew who I was. It happened to me last night, actually. I could just feel my face going bright red. It’s not that it embarrasses me negatively, but you just forget. And then people are looking over, like, ‘Who the fuck is that guy?’ Sometimes you want to die inside, because you can see that some people are
“IT’S ALL ABOUT BEING SURE, HAPPY AND PROUD OF WHO YOU ARE” OLI SYKES
like, ‘Who does he think he is?’ It’s fine, but it’s not something I live for.”
By his own admission, Oli never planned to be a rockstar, never imagined this as his destiny. Growing up outside Sheffield in the small village of Stocksbridge, “about a half hour’s drive from here”, the young Oli Sykes obsessed over cartoons, comics and video games – “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, Sonic The Hedgehog.” School was endured, not enjoyed, with only art and English holding the restless youngster’s attention; it was only much later in adult life that Oli was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). When he first discovered music that resonated, aged 13, he considered the bands he watched on Kerrang! TV to be like “movie stars”, their lifestyles “totally unobtainable”. That all changed, however, when he picked up a copy of a 2001 Roadrunner Records VHS compilation, Drilling The Vein IV, where alongside promo clips from Slipknot, Nickelback, Machine Head and Type O Negative, he watched the video for Glassjaw’s Siberian Kiss.
“It’s a live video, of a small club show, and Daryl Palumbo was just going crazy, rolling around on the stage and jumping into the crowd,” Oli recalls. “It just struck me at that point, like, ‘That’s his job! That guy’s job is going mental!’ As a kid I had so much energy that I needed to do something with, and that was what first made me think, ‘I can do this, anyone can do this.’”
It was at an all-ages rock club at Sheffield’s Corporation where Oli met local teenagers who would help facilitate this vision. He met Maltby-born drummer Matt Nicholls first – “We both dressed the same, our pants were way too far down our arses, so we instantly bonded” – and through his new friend, he subsequently met guitarists Lee Malia and Curtis Ward, who, like Matt, were studying at Sheffield Music Academy. With the addition of bassist Matt Kean, Bring Me The Horizon were born.
“I don’t know if it was just in our heads, but there always seemed to be a buzz around the band, even before we started playing,” says Oli. “Even at our first gig, a pub show in Rotherham, it seemed like there was genuine excitement. Obviously we were pretty shambolic, though Lee and Curtis could really play, but it never seemed like we had to chase an audience. We had no goals, we just wanted to make music that kids could mosh to, but the hype around us grew pretty quickly. We got signed [to respected independent label Visible Noise], made Count Your Blessings, toured America, won the Kerrang! Best British Newcomer Award [in 2006] and played Download without ever having a strategy. And then we thought, ‘Oh, maybe we could actually do this.’”
From early on, BMTH divided opinion, and their pretty, delicate-looking but fearless singer became a lightning rod for the band’s most vocal and vitriolic critics. “I never saw myself as like a snot-nosed, obnoxious kid,” he admits today, “but when we started doing magazine stuff, that’s how I started getting perceived.” As the band’s popularity began to grow – 2008’s Suicide Season breaching the UK Top 50; its follow-up There Is a Hell, Believe Me, I’ve Seen It. There Is a Heaven, Let’s Keep It a Secret becoming a Top 20 hit in both the UK and U.S. – the gossip and rumours around the singer began to spiral out of control. By his own admission, the sensitive singer “didn’t know how to play the game”, and, increasingly frustrated by his inability to control the narrative around him and his band, began self-medicating, “trying to find happiness in all the wrong things”.
“The biggest thing for me was that people were saying things about me that weren’t true,” he reflects now. “But I was getting so mad about it because I wasn’t proud of who I was, in different ways. Most people didn’t know I was doing drugs, they didn’t know about things I’d done that I was really ashamed of, but I was kicking against them so bad because they were affirming my belief that I was a bad person.”
Attempts by bandmates, friends and family to curb Oli’s growing dependency on ketamine and cocaine were angrily rebuffed. The singer will admit now that he didn’t care at the time whether he lived or died, so determined was he to disassociate from his reality. The issue got so bad that a heartbroken and desperate Ian Sykes made himself available to drive Oli around Sheffield to pick up drugs from his dealer, convinced that only by doing so could he safeguard his son against killing himself or someone else in a road accident while under the influence. Neither he, nor Oli’s loving mother Carol, could watch over their adult son 24 hours a day, however, and they weren’t present in 2012 when Oli overdosed.
Speaking today, Oli will admit that he has no memory of the circumstances that led him to wake up in hospital with both the police and his parents by his bedside.
“A lot of that time I’ve mentally blocked out,” he says. “I can’t remember who called the ambulance, or where I even was, I just remember being told what had happened. There’s a year or two of my life that’s pretty much just black: I’ve had people describe to me things I did and I can’t believe it. But at the time, it wasn’t even about getting high, it was about not feeling anything at all. When I overdosed, I thought, ‘I need help, I don’t want to die.’ I thought that I did, and I very nearly did, but that was my moment of clarity.”
It’s a testament to Oli Sykes’ strength of character, and indeed to the unconditional love of his family and friends, that he’s still among us. He’ll confess that, at points, he’d lost sight of everything that was important to him, had stopped appreciating everything his band had achieved, had stopped getting a buzz from writing and performing music. He had become unable to differentiate between Oli Sykes ‘the rockstar’,
“IT WAS IMPORTANT TO ME TO PAY MY RESPECTS TO CHESTER” OLI SYKES
and Ian and Carol’s son, Oliver Scott Sykes, and was torturing himself trying to live up to the cocky, mouthy, confrontational persona the media had been complicit in conferring upon him. “If you’re not careful, you start becoming the person that people think you are and getting so messed up because you can never live up to that image,” he acknowledges.
“It was important to me after coming out of rehab and getting drugs out my life to figure out why I was that person in the first place, what happened down the line to get me to a place where I couldn’t stop using drugs. Because I wasn’t always like that. Is it fear? Is it insecurity? You start to lose your identity, because you’re not who you are. It’s all about being confident in yourself and being sure and happy and being proud of who you are.”
Ask Oli if he’s happy with himself right now, and he answers “Yes” in a heartbeat, while acknowledging that it’s partly his medication that is keeping him on an even keel. He mentions the “liberation” he felt in being diagnosed with ADHD, while refusing to lean on the condition as an excuse for past indiscretions or behaviour. “People were worried sick about me 24/7, and it’s not about me being sorry or thankful now, it’s about improving every day,” he states. But he‘s clearly in a much better place. He remarried last summer in Vegas, to Brazilian model Alissa Salls, and the pair have settled in Dore, a small South Yorkshire village where no-one is overly bothered at all about the presence of a rockstar in their midst – which, in turn, is freeing up said rockstar to concentrate on the new music he and his best friends are making at Drop Dead HQ.
According to a pie chart on the studio wall, Bring Me The Horizon have only 1.1 per cent of the follow-up to That’s The Spirit completed at present, but Oli says the band might be “being a little hard on ourselves”. They have 30 song ideas in the mix, “in various stages of non-completion”, and Oli intends spending the next few weeks working at home on lyrics and melodies. Obviously it’s far too early to get a sense of how BMTH album number six might sound, but the singer says: “I don’t think any Bring Me The Horizon fan is going to be surprised at this next album sounding different to the last one.”
“I kind of know where I want to go, but it’s also falling into place as we write the thing,” he says. “We want it to be different and we want to push forward. We like the idea of breaking into the mainstream. We’re not ashamed of that, we don’t see it as selling out. We see it as a great challenge, to make music that can be adored by more people but still retain who we are. That is the goal.”
Ask Oli which bands are inspiring him right now, and there’s a long, long pause, broken only by the observation that “music is in a weird place right now”. Eventually, while making it clear BMTH aren’t absorbing any musical influences from the duo, he nominates twenty one pilots as a band he thinks are going about things in an inspiring manner, noting that the group are “popular and accessible, but without compromising their integrity or who they are. That’s a real challenge now.” Equally, though, it’s hard not to think of his teenage heroes Linkin Park when Oli talks of his hopes that BMTH become “that band to bring people into this way of life, into the rock scene, where people say, ‘I don’t like rock music, but I like your band.’”
“As horrible as it was what I went through, and put other people through, we’re in such a better position for it because this made us all really appreciate what we have,” he says. “When you’re in a band for 10 years, it’s really easy to stop appreciating it, and it took that horrible, dark near-death experience to really turn this around, because at a point, it seemed like the band was going to end. It’s all about the future now.”
Mention that this next album, which he hopes will be released before the end of 2018, could be the one that truly transforms Oli Sykes into a rock icon, and the singer shrugs off the idea with a blush. What’s more important, he says, is the notion of moving forward, of refusing to rest on laurels from the past. “So many bands that were bigger than us in the past are now gone,” he cautions, “because of a mentality where you think we’re untouchable.” He’ll even admit to a touch of guilt that perhaps Horizon aren’t further advanced in their career, that he feels that perhaps his own tribulations have held the band back in the past. This changes now, is the unambiguous message.
“You can’t buy this kind of buzz,” he says. “With all the shit you’ve been through, you can write a song about it and everyone can sing it back to you and there’s no kind of therapy that can compete, in terms of getting rid of your demons.”
It’s a theme Oli will return to as he drives Kerrang! back to Sheffield train station in his beautiful black Tesla supercar. He talks, in a down-to-earth fashion, of remaining true to a vision, of having the nerve to hold firm to beliefs, of the importance of knowing oneself above all, without ever sounding like he’s resorting to therapy-speak. Unfailingly polite and humble as he reveals himself to be in conversation, there’s a steely determination in his words when he speaks of a future yet unwritten. As he pulls away from the station kerb, he looks left and right for oncoming traffic, but beyond Sheffield’s rush hour, on the journey ahead, Oli Sykes is no longer looking in the rear-view mirror.
“THERE’S NO KIND OF THERAPY THAT CAN COMPETE WITH MUSIC” OLI SYKES
Oli Sykes, shot exclusively for Kerrang!, London, February 2018
Oli joins Mike Shinoda and Linkin Park onstage in LA, October 2018
The original member of Drop Dead FC’S Ultras