There’s a song on the next Bring Me the Horizon album called Heavy Metal. It features the beatboxer Rahzel and a heavy dose of electronica and is a considerable distance away from devil-horned, hair thrashing cliche. Not content with being one of the UK’s biggest hard rock bands, now the Sheffield quintet are setting out to become its most interesting.
They’ve already been on an epic journey, forming the band as musically clueless teenagers to make brutal “deathcore” metal on their debut album, Count Your Blessings, in 2006, and ending up producing dynamic, catchy, arena-filling rock by the time That’s the Spirit came around in 2015. Frontman Oli Sykes only parked his screaming and learned to sing for the last one. It’s unusual for a band to make five albums and sell more copies every time, from 50,000 for their first to 236,000 for the fifth. “I feel like, if we wanted to be even bigger, we know how to do it,” says the 32-year-old.
But as they get ready to release their sixth, Amo in January, the trajectory has changed. They did two nights at the O2 Arena in 2016 but have consciously stepped back down a rung for their current tour. Tonight they play the second of two nights at the 10,000-capacity, all standing Alexandra Palace. “To be honest I don’t really like arenas. It’s not easy to make the sound good, or to perform in them,” says Sykes. “Obviously it’s a great feeling to get there but I’m never like, ‘I can’t wait to play this venue.’ The problem for us is all the seats. Not many people want to sit down at our shows.”
The last time around, they were genuinely upset to lose out on their first number one album to Stereophonics. Now they sound less bothered. “Not getting that number one, and stuff that’s gone on in our personal lives… Our perspective is just different now, I think,” says Jordan Fish, 32, the keyboardist and producer who joined the band in 2013 when guitarist Jona Weinhofen left, and has been a major factor in the broadening of their sound over albums four, five and six. “Our ambitions are not based on doing big venues, having number ones, selling loads of albums now. I’d rather we were smaller and feel like, ‘I love our band’.”
In 2016, Fish’s newborn son suffered a brain haemorrhage at four days old. “He’s doing really good now,” he tells me. Last year he and Sykes climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for Southampton Hospital’s Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, where the baby was treated. The total currently stands at just over £70,000.
In other personal news, since 2015, Sykes has married, divorced and married again, this time to Alissa Salls, a model from Brazil. The album title Amo means “love” in Portuguese, as well as being a play on “ammunition”.
That’s enough drama to make becoming the biggest band in the world feel slightly less important. “We’ve come a long way and it’s important that we don’t start writing songs with the goal of them being on the radio,” says Sykes. “Your favourite songs by your favourite bands are never the singles. It’s when they’ve done exactly what they wanted without any compromise and not worried about the reaction. This time we did that a lot more.”
Not that writing songs with lower commercial expectations was any easier. “This one, of the three I’ve been involved with, has been by far the hardest album we’ve ever made,” says Fish. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, I would say.”
“It’s the most amount of effort we’ve put into anything,” adds Sykes, who, during the recording process, drew a “Jordan Fish Stress-O-Meter” on the studio’s whiteboard. The scale ran from “Okay” to “Demons inbound”, “Good God!” and “Full-blown meltdown”. After months of writing and recording, Sykes found that the only way he was able to tell if a song was any good was to leave the room, hear it playing from afar and pretend it was by someone else. Fish’s method of fooling himself was to pitch a song up a semitone. “You listen to it a bit chipmunky for a while. Then it feels new again when you put it back down.”
The struggle came from a desire to try out sounds and ideas that were radically new for them, while still sounding like Bring Me the Horizon. Sykes almost raps on Why You Gotta Kick Me When I’m Down, which also features what sounds like a children’s choir. The guestlist is bizarre. As well as the beatboxer, there’s ultracool electronica producer Grimes on Nihilist Blues, which sounds like EDM turned nasty. Wonderful Life features guest vocals from Dani Filth of terrifyingly extreme metal band Cradle of Filth. Ouch has a piano intro, skittering drum and bass beats and the kind of speeded-up female vocal familiar from old garage records. It’s no wonder they seem unsure what fans will make of it.
“It feels like we’ve shared a traumatic experience. You’ve been down this rabbit hole of completely losing your perspective,” says the keyboardist. The only southerner in the band, he’s based in Newbury while Sykes, guitarist Lee Malia, drummer Matt Nicholls and bassist Matt Kean are still mostly in Sheffield. Sykes has also based his successful clothing business in the city. Drop Dead employs 20 people including his mum, who loaned him £500 to start printing T-shirts. He’s the most obvious rock star in the band, with a long earring in his left ear, rehab in his back story and an ocean of tattoos including a right hand that’s solid ink.
As a founder member, Sykes seems to have more trouble than Fish comprehending how far they’ve come. “When we started we were this scrappy metal band. We didn’t really know how to play our instruments, didn’t know what we were doing,” he says. “If you’d told me that me and Jordan would be producing these records, I wouldn’t even know what that meant.”
Not only are they producing the new album, they’re doing so with daring, and no fear that something can’t be done. “We don’t approach the writing process as a rock band any more. It’s looser,” says Fish.
“We still wanted to feel heavy and big, but had to figure out a different way. It’s still full of adrenaline, it’s still arresting music, but we didn’t lean on what we know,” says Sykes. “A guitar’s a guitar – it’s limited to the sounds it can make. We were open to anything.”
So maybe they’ve avoided the question of whether they can be rock’s biggest band – by not being a rock band any more. It won’t please a few fans of old, but they’re used to that. “The percentage of people who want us to sound like we used to is actually very small. It just gets amplified by the internet,” Sykes insists. “You do want to please everyone but at the same time you can’t. For us, there’s no question that these are the best songs we’ve ever written. We’re sure as hell.”
Tonight, Alexandra Palace, N22. alexandrapalace.com
Amo is released on Jan 25 on Sony.