Oli Sykes Doesn’t Care If You Love Him
From fronting a hated metalcore act to an adored stadium rock band, Sykes spoke to us about love/hate and the sixth Bring Me The Horizon album, amo.
All Photography by Chloe Sheppard
Oliver Sykes has been concerned with love for some time. As he stands over me, shoulders curved in, at his six foot one to my one foot shorter, he describes the breakdown of his first marriage. “I saw what I felt was a strong love go almost instantly into pure hatred, where someone’s trying to almost destroy you,” he says, face giving nothing away. “It’s more than just a chemical reaction in our brains… How can it flick from love to malice so quickly?”
Passion's vicious duality – its potent love-hate dichotomy – isn’t a theme Bring Me The Horizon has plucked from nowhere for their upcoming sixth album, amo. The way love shapeshifts, entices and betrays has provided every emotional beat for their narrative arc. This is a band that went from being loathed by the press to being called Britain’s most prominent active rock band. It’s been the same for their frontman Oli Sykes, tossed from one end of that amorous spectrum to the other, both professionally and personally.
We meet at London’s Dover Street Market, in late November, at my suggestion. The indoor retailer seems ideal considering Oli’s clothing line Drop Dead and the high-end streetwear and mid-range designer brands he currently favours. He has “no idea, really” what or who he’s wearing right now, for example, pulling gently on his colourful striped Acne jumper. It’s getting harder to keep up with what teens want to wear, and fashion trends, than it was in his twenties, he says, now 32.
We spend a while wondering around, glancing at chain wallets and signet rings in glass cases, eventually coming to a natural stop by a rail of jumpers in the menswear section, where we remain for an hour and a half. Early on, a guy in his early-to-mid twenties notices Oli, reaches for his phone and does a couple of slow circles around some islands of shoes. Despite the laughably conspicuous movements of the fan (or someone with general music knowledge and a group chat to gossip in?), Oli either doesn’t clock, or doesn’t mind.
Fans – those followers who supposedly love you the most – have become a complicated fixture in Oli’s life over the years. As well as being invested in Oli himself, many were intensely interested in his ex-wife and their relationship. That’s the double bind of a life lived online, particularly when you garner a real following: once you’ve shared one aspect of yourself, however small, that becomes public property. One selfie of you and a partner means ‘likes’, and in exchange, your relationship is an open topic, free to be debated by anyone.
While the marriage was ending in 2016, of course “the internet” had no idea what was going on, but people relentlessly commented, blogged, speculated, made YouTube videos throughout the whole period. Oli was silent until his then-wife’s Instagram account was hacked, and a post claimed that she had cheated on him. His immediate impulse was to speak out and deny it to protect her from further threats and vile comments (the cheating rumours were true, he said later).
When Oli started dating his new wife soon after, the semi-anonymous mass turned on them. “Everyone jumped on my new girlfriend calling her a ‘whore’, so many horrible things, but people had no idea of the context. I was sat there thinking, 'I didn’t ask for this, I’m getting divorced because my wife had an affair,'” he says, quickly. On the surface reserved, once he’s decided to share a painful anecdote, he commits, and it pours out. Whenever his words veer closer to the difficult subject, he fumbles over them.
The other day, Oli says, he posted a photo and someone commented: "I seriously think Oli is taking ketamine again, look how many selfies he has taken, he posted four photos in the last few hours." Curious, Oli went on the profile of the commenter and they were a super-fan, someone who had recorded covers of the band’s songs. “Ten to fifteen years ago, I don’t think that’s how any fan would react,” he says. “You looked up to bands or artists, you never used to talk about them in such a derogatory way.” Between conducting this interview before Christmas and writing the feature in early January, Oli had deleted or archived his Instagram posts, leaving only the picture of the amo cover.
Distancing himself from the constant timeline makes sense when you consider the atmosphere BMTH came up in. The band was an arrangement made by teenage boys chatting on MSN, going to college and playing deathcore in Sheffield in 2004. They, and more obviously Oli, were already MySpace famous before their first album Count Your Blessings was released. Made simply to be “as heavy and brutal as they possibly could”, its reviews were generally negative, often slatings, and the band became a punchline. But if you were a teen emo/screamo kid during that time you knew there was something about him, the “poster boy” for a scene that felt special. Even if you hated the music, you might’ve pretended to like it (me), relished in vocally hating it (my internet friends) or followed them closely anyway (both).
An opinion was formed based on controversy, violent or colourful shows (from both sides of the stage) and the fact that they were a bunch of internet-famous kids having a laugh. Older critics shouted (distasteful) style over substance, with Oli’s obvious good looks at the forefront. BMTH were cheeky and belligerent at best, and cocky talentless brats at worst.
The press and public perception of him was, in hindsight, both fair and exaggerated, Oli tells me. “Once you’ve been painted as something it’s very hard, especially when you’re young, to wash that off. We got off on the wrong foot with the press, however we did it. The way we looked, the faces I were pulling, the music we were making. People were listening to our shit music recorded in their bedrooms and it was getting thousands and thousands of plays, and we got signed off the back of people not being able to ignore us. The press didn’t build us up so they were already like, ‘what is this and why do we have to write about these people?’ Personally, I was just a kid trying to look cool; I must’ve come across as smarmy.”
The music got better – second and third albums Suicide Season (2008) and There Is A Hell, Believe Me, I’ve Seen It… (2010) moved away from deathcore to metalcore and experimented with the original electronic and symphonic elements the band fully embraced later on. In a complete 180, they were hailed by the press as near single-handedly “saving metal”. But Oli had been affected by their rise, the accusations, the idea of himself. During this period, he became addicted to ketamine.
He can’t remember whole chunks of time; his dad drove him to pick up drugs to keep him safe, knowing he’d go anyway; his bandmates dealt with the strain of having an addict in the group. Between those two albums, in 2009, Oli was on the front of Kerrang! with the coverline “You Don’t Know Me!” – an apt summary for how he was feeling at the time.
“You just want so badly to be the best version of what people are saying, you want to look like the covers you’re on, but it’s hard to do that everyday,” he says. “People were saying all this shit about me, things I was doing that weren’t true – but at the same time, I wasn’t a good person. There were things I was guilty of doing that they didn’t know about: being disloyal, bad things.” When accused, his mind went back to the incidents people didn’t know. The shadow of the un-truths, his poor conscience. In essence: “I didn’t feel like ‘an idol’ or like that horrible person.”
It wasn’t the press or accusations or rock fans that made him an addict – he takes full responsibility for his actions. He says he has an addictive personality and was re-diagnosed with ADHD during recovery, so saw what happened as somewhat inevitable. But these conflicting impressions of himself were an understandable catalyst. His name became a trigger for this self-loathing and anxiety. “Ketamine weren’t like a buzz – I could just take it and my mind was completely disconnected from my body. I weren’t Oliver, I weren’t ‘Oli Sykes’, my name didn’t mean anything. The ego goes and for however long, you’re not that person anymore.”
A general ward. In neighbouring beds there are people with eating disorders, schizophrenics, shellshocked men returned from war. Oli had relapsed and long given up on the idea of the 28-days or 12-step rehab programme. He’d done it once already, left three days later and went back on drugs after a month. “They tell you to hand yourself over to God, in a circle of people who never believed in God before. I thought to myself, what happens when these people come to a realisation that God’s not real or one day he’s not there to answer our prayers?” The second time around was the alternative: rather than pray at an altar for lost Gods, he went to a hospital for recovering souls.
“Everyone was in the same boat, with so much shit going on in our heads, it was killing us,” he remembers. “I related so much to those people, even though they were rich businessmen asking me for advice, a schizophrenic teacher, this guy who saw his best mate get blown up in Afghanistan, people you’d never talk to in any other situation. We sat down together to play Scrabble. We’d talk shit like, ‘that therapist were crap, weren’t they?’ and it didn’t feel like the therapists were helping, it was the mental dumping. When you speak with people who’d been through such horrible stuff, as soon as I listened, I thought, ‘what’s my problem again? I don’t like my own name?’”
Perhaps ironically, the 2013 album that took his addiction and recovery as inspiration, Sempiternal, broke them outside of metal, and garnered them the most adulation. It’s easily one of the best heavy albums of the decade. New member Jordan Fish provided a completely different counterpart and writing partner for Oli. He had run a studio and been in bands since he was young. According to him, he was a musician who “wouldn’t have been able to tell you the difference between Bullet For My Valentine and Bring Me The Horizon.”
Where Oli comes up with the vision, themes, lyrics, video, artistic direction, Jordan focuses on the finer musical details. The accolades came from there: opening at Reading and Leeds in 2015 for Metallica, a Wembley Arena headlining show, a performance at Royal Albert Hall with a full orchestra and choral arrangement. Facts that couldn’t have been appreciated at the time were realised: their inclusion of electronic music, and nod to nu-metal, before its revival; leaving metalcore behind while it was at its peak popularity in UK charts, before an inevitable tail-off; embracing a pop-metal sound. All suggestions of being ahead of their time and evolving a genre that sees little movement.
Music alone didn’t take them to this position. That’s not how rock works. After their big double-headlining show at Alexandra Palace in December, I speak on the phone with Jordan about this. “Oli’s an arresting character. He’s one of those better types of frontmen: you can’t put your finger on it, it’s just one of those things you can’t fake. It’s the upbringing, it’s what they’ve been through, it’s circumstance.”
For me, it’s his nihilism. It’s the philosophy at the forefront of his attitude, that allows for an oscillation between love and hate, one that predates influencer culture, shiny aphorisms and most importantly the backlash against positive thinking with regards to mental health. It's in an atheism that possibly contributed to ideas of them being difficult. It’s in those early Drop Dead designs that look almost like the grotesque animals in the popular internet cartoon of the era, Happy Tree Friends. It’s calling other rockstars who do paid meet-and-greets “fucking cockstars” and following up with a tweet saying “I never wish to upset its just Bullshit gets up my nose like a fart in a lift.” It’s always been in the lyrics, even in pop-rock album That’s The Spirit (2015), in cheerleaders chanting “S.P.I.R.I.T” to keep everyone upbeat on “Happy Song” while Oli screams “But if we sing along... maybe we'll forget.” It’s in how he deals with passing moods and keeping addiction at bay: “Sometimes that pull – you know the void? – opens up inside of you. When you feel it, accept it, it’s some sort of cleansing of yourself.” It’s the fact that “there is no point [to life], that’s freeing.”
It’s writing an entire album about love and using most of it to unpack love's rottenness, stating it predictable for its unpredictable nature, while admitting there’s something pure there too.
Amo. It means love in the language of his new wife, Brazilian model, Alissa Salls. The obvious wordplay is there: ammunition. It can mow you down and make you feel like you’re the living dead, and even when you’ve recovered, against all odds it hits again. Amo also means ‘master’ or ‘lord’, like the owner of a chained-up genie in a bottle, a meaning hinted to in the first single from the album “MANTRA” that conflates relationships with religious cults. A fair observation.
Oli was resistant to use his old relationship as material and expressed this to the band. When the time came to plan and write amo, he was in his new relationship. “I didn’t want to give [my ex-wife] any time; I didn’t want to upset my new girl about it. I didn’t want her to think that I was still hung up on it or that there was something there that was still bothering me. But I had nothing else to talk about. That’s all my life had been from That’s The Spirit to then.”
But the album isn’t just about his experience of romantic love – our ideas of love, cultural reference points to romance – it’s also about that “love” from fans. Plenty of longtime fans will almost certainly hate it. In Kerrang! Oli described the album as “varied,” “weird,” “free,” and “mental” which is a decent assessment. There’s also a clear strategy of putting heavy, rock-focused singles first, songs that would appeal most. For years the band have said they don’t listen to much rock music, aren’t impressed with what’s coming out of the “scene”. Oli tells me Spotify chooses what he listens to, which for a while has been predominantly electronic music (his current favourites include Arca, serpentwithfeet and Banks).
amo is the final form of what has been long coming: pop-focussed, experimenting with their personal electronic interests and throwing back to 90s boybands like *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys (“in the dark” and “why you gotta kick me when i’m down” are the most obvious examples of this). It follows on from the closest comparison point in their own material, the final and most accessible song from their last album, lyrically bleak “Oh No”, a driving dance track with sing-along backing vocals, about partying when you’re past your peak.
Their three guest tracks express plainly what they are trying to do. Standout “nihilist blues” featuring Grimes is nu-metal influenced existential europop, and sounds like two characters in an anime fight scene (“Paradise is in my soul / And I’m terrified I can’t get out / I’m lost in a labyrinth / Please don’t follow”). Jordan in particular is a big Grimes fan and thought “there was almost no point asking, but we sent her the track and she was obsessed”, which speaks to the genreless space the band occupies now. They sought out a known rock heavyweight in Dani Filth to lend vocals to “wonderful life”, a nu-metal anti-party party bop that feels like the spiritual sister of “Happy Song’”. Its bouncy riff originated from sessions writing for and with Limp Bizkit. Finally they had beatboxer Rahzel on self-referential “heavy metal”, a track that nods to fan reactions to their departure from their musical roots (“’cos a kid on the gram in a Black Dahlia tank says it ain’t heavy metal”) and knowingly preempts backlash to this album.
As we all do despite “moving on”, Oli carries the “scars” of what happened in his last relationship. He watches as I pull a jumper out from the rack we’ve been standing by for almost an hour and a half. It’s expensive and beautiful, a unisex one, not dissimilar to what he has on. “Even though that very unique situation had happened, I started to think it was going to happen again.” He uses the examples of being a fraud victim and worrying about money being stolen. “I could feel how I was projecting onto other people, because I hadn’t dealt with it.”
He accepts his insecurity by being very specifically vocal with his feelings. He practices this now with his wife. He might tell her he knows what he’s thinking is stupid – “even if it’s the most embarrassing thing” – but he’s feeling scared, then they can discuss it, and it’s in the open, rather than becoming something that might insidiously slip into the way the pair interact with each other. Scoring points. Rumination. Growing resentment.
As we’re leaving the building, Alissa, with bright dyed hair and a tiny bomber, jumps gently in the stairwell. She looks like Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element. Oli watches her, while we’re talking about his recent favourite films, and she and the PR ascend the stairs. “I wanted to get the point across that I’m not swearing off love, or saying it’s a bad,” he’d said a few minutes prior. “It is so powerful, it makes you angry, sad, happy, it can destroy your life, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have something to love, what else is there?” He doesn’t really know what “love” is. Neither, when I ask, can he pinpoint a time when he first felt that he might, but he has drawn his own conclusion from it all.
“You can compromise on anything else in your life but love. It’s the one time where under no circumstances should you let yourself have second rate.”