As Bring Me The Horizon began the process of writing and recording their fifth album, the Sheffield group’s frontman Oli Sykes decided to do something he’d never tried before: he learned to sing.
“It was a long and arduous process,” says keyboard player Jordan Fish, 29, sitting beside his bandmate so obviously not exaggerating when he adds: “I would have described you as tone deaf, honestly. Not now, because I know you’re not, but that was how it sounded at the beginning. He couldn’t sing at all – no melody.”
Up to this point, Sykes had been a screamer, operating in the subgenre of metal known as metalcore – all the pummelling aggression of metal, but even faster. The 28-year-old had been screaming along to metal CDs in his bedroom from the age of 14, much to the dismay of his parents. “Everything I’d taught myself about screaming is basically a big no-no for singing,” he tells me. “Your posture, your airflow – you’re just pushing all the air out. When you start out, you’re fast and you’re heavy and you’re loud, but you’re hiding behind it in a way. When you stop screaming, that’s when it gets hard.”
Things have got harder in a way for the quintet. Never really adored by the serious metal fans, they’ve been bottled on support tours and long held at arm’s length, mainly because of brattish drunken behaviour in their early days and dislike of Sykes’s pretty boy looks. Now it’s even easier to call them sellouts because the new album, That’s the Spirit, is full of big bright tunes, cheerleader chants and nagging synth lines. While they haven’t exactly become Simon and Garfunkel, this is the moment when those who aren’t deeply immersed in the metal world (like me, for example) can turn their way. If you like Muse, Linkin Park or Foo Fighters, say, there’s a lot to like about the Bring Me The Horizon of 2015.
The new album, That’s the Spirit, hit the number two spot in September and has already gone silver. They quickly sold out this week’s show at Alexandra Palace and drop heavy hints to me about a possible O2 Arena date soon. The wider public is turning their way this time.
That’s the way they want it. “We’ve never been bothered by the pop connotation. In our minds it’s a pop record,” says Fish, who produced the new album and has had a major role in steering the band closer to mainstream rock since he began working with them, belatedly, in 2012. He’s the only one with a southern accent and tidier hair, and has fewer tattoos than the other members, which admittedly is still a lot. Sykes, sitting in front of me in shorts and a hoodie so full of ragged holes that it looks as if he rescued it from a fire, appears almost to be drowning in ink, flowers creeping up his neck towards his mouth.
“What puts people off metal is they think it’s all nutters and blood. We don’t want to be seen that way,” says the singer. I note that the backstage pass I’ve been given is in the shape of a coffin. “We had nothing to do with that!”
We’re in the bowels of Helsinki’s Cable Factory venue, a great long room with tall windows that the band will later rattle almost to breaking point. Outside on this dark, drizzly November afternoon, the level of fan adoration that they command becomes obvious. Almost all of the 2,800 ticket holders appear to be outside in a long line when I show up at 4.30pm, on camping chairs and under blankets as though hoping for access to Wimbledon or a new iPad. A girl near the front tells me that she’s been there since 6am, and the tour manager says he saw people outside when he arrived at 10.30 the previous night. They’re roughly 80 per cent teenagers, and 70 per cent female.
All bags must be handed in at the door, a new policy in reaction to the Paris shootings just three days earlier. The band are obviously shocked by what happened at the Bataclan venue, but want to try to carry on as normal. “If we had a show coming up in Paris we would have cancelled it but it’s not til April. It’s tragic but you can’t think, I can’t go to a gig because of what happened,” says Sykes.
When they finally come on after nine, there’s no question that this cuddlier 2015 version is still fearsomely loud. Sykes commands a “circle pit” to form in the middle of the room and the crowd begins to spin and jostle like socks in a washing machine. “Bigger! Faster! STRONGER!” he growls. I’d go down myself, but I’ve got a really nice jumper on. New songs such as Throne, with its jittery electronics and vast chorus, and the infectious sarcasm of Happy Song, sound monumental and also more mature than earlier tracks such as Antivist and its howled chorus, “Middle fingers up, if you don’t give a fuck!”
“We felt we’d done heaviness, and done it as best as we could possibly do it,” Sykes tells me. “It’s easy to hit someone hard with a big metal riff or screaming. Now the challenge is to hit people hard and make them feel something.”
He makes no secret of his desire for Bring Me The Horizon to reach as many people as possible. When most bands are asked about chart positions, they stress how unimportant they are, how it’s all about the music, man, and so on. This lot seem genuinely upset to have missed out on the number one album spot to Stereophonics in September. “We were so gutted. We were close to tears,” says the singer. “We did everything we could, and beat them every day. It were fucking heartbreaking on that final day.”
Now they’re being pitted against another big hitter, Coldplay, in the music press, which has noted that Coldplay’s new album cover features the same “flower of life” geometric pattern as Bring Me The Horizon’s 2013 album, Sempiternal. “Show me your Coldplay tattoos, then,” I ask. Sykes has so many inkings that they’re easily mislaid, and just says, “It’s around here somewhere.” Fish’s is on his left forearm. “I do actually like Coldplay. I’m looking forward to the album,” he says sportingly.
They have a small moan about the way they’re treated by music publications, which hang on their every word and not necessarily in a good way. “The fans are big internet users, so we get clickthroughs. Any news about us, people will use it.” But they also seem content right now, knowing that commercially, things are very much going their way. Sykes’s wife has just arrived backstage, two pink yoga mats lie on the floor nearby, and when he talks about the ketamine addiction that sent him to rehab in 2012, it sounds like a long time ago.
“The key to me recovering from drug addiction was figuring out why I was so upset and why I hated myself so much. I realised it were all to do with the way I was viewed by other people. It was messing my head up,” he tells me. “I was trying to prove people wrong who said I wasn’t a good guy, and I was trying to be the person that other people thought I was – people who loved our band thought I was a god.”
Now he’s just a healthy man who happens to be out front in an increasingly successful, and increasingly listenable, heavy rock band. Learning to sing, late as it was, could be the smartest move he’s ever made.