In 2019, Oli Sykes predicted “a fucking mental disaster in a few years… We’re literally at the end, isn’t it for you? He imagined a tsunami or a volcano.
Her lyrics are taken from Underground Big, a 24 minute track from her band Bring Me the Horizon, and the first of two prophecies from this stadium rock Cassandra. He got closer the second time around with Parasite Eve, a song about a pandemic. “I had read about this superbug in Japan that was killing a lot of people, and the article said it was the next war humanity will face,” he says now. “I didn’t think that would happen this year.”
As Covid-19 took hold and people began to die, the band put their unreleased song on the shelf. “I had treated it like a video game, a fantasy – and someone was going to hear it and they had just lost their grandfather or mum,” said Sykes. But the group thought again, “There are probably all these people who need a cathartic experience. There’s no one writing songs about it – and we have one. It will help people understand how dark things are right now. And that’s rock music. “
Parasite Eve was released in June and became the first major artwork on the pandemic. Full of theatrical flourishes such as sirens, sneezes and the voices of a dispassionate cyborg-overlord, its volatility – shifting from whispers to giant chords – evokes the chaos that defined 2020. Sykes castigates “all the king’s sources and all the friends of the king ”who“ I don’t know their donkeys from their pathogens ”and asks,“ When we forget the infection / Will we remember the lesson? “
The song is included in Bring Me the Horizon’s new EP, Post Human: Survival Horror, which features brilliant apocalyptic pop with boyband-style melodies. Seven of the nine tracks have been fully completed during, and are often on the verge of locking; the new single Teardrops, on which Sykes shouts “Oh my God, everything is so fucked up!” With exasperated terror, was inspired by the news during the pandemic, “how we allow ourselves to be traumatized by it every day, and it’s addicting”.
The band members isolated themselves from each other and collaborated on Zoom and FaceTime. It makes sense, practically and aesthetically, that their “cyberpunk metal” is built with software. “Our last album, Amo, we had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it, and we made this new album for nothing,” says Sykes.
This 2018 album was their sixth since forming in Sheffield in 2004, and gave them their UK No. 1 debut and two Grammy nominations. His smooth pop was far from their roots, back in the days when Sykes roared demonic over delicate riffs and stop-start beats. His shift from raucous choruses to pop tunes reflects his own progression through hellish childhood, addictions and divorce.
We talk about it all in the vegan bar he owns in Sheffield, under the offices of his clothing company, Drop Dead. The tattoos cover his arms and slip around his face, as if he’s only keeping them at bay. Now 33, he grew up in Stocksbridge, a small town in South Yorkshire between Sheffield and Huddersfield. “I was the school punching bag,” he says. ” Literally. The 11 year end prank every year was to beat me. It would come from a child who beat me, everyone … [it was] implanted in me is what everyone was going to do to me, go through life.
The disaffection was significant for his new group, who built a dedicated following through their first three albums. Unbeknownst to these fans, Sykes suffered from undiagnosed ADHD and developed an addiction to ketamine. He poured the experience into the group’s 2013 breakthrough, Sempiternal, telling audiences of an awards ceremony the following year: “When I came out of rehab, I didn’t want to scream anymore, I wanted to sing on the fucking rooftops.
His voice got even stronger on the 2016 anthemic That’s the Spirit, which narrowly missed the # 1 spot (“We were so gutted, our heads in our drinks, like: Bloody Stereophonics”), but the album spent a year on the charts and took them to Wembley Arena. Sykes, however, was soon faced with a new trauma: his first wife cheated on him. Later, she accused Sykes of her own infidelities, slapping her and spitting on her.
He denies everything. “I said, ‘I love you, but I can’t do this anymore.’ I kept my cool so much… for her to come out and portray me as an abusive person, it was amazing. But, he says, “I’ve had relationships where I’ve cheated on the other person – I haven’t always been a saint. And [his ex-wife] was going through a really tough time when this happened, so there was always more concern for her than hate. The night I discovered was such a dark time. It was beyond my anger, the safety of this person.
Amo, made after this painful breakup, was for the most part surprisingly relaxed. “Spitting on heavy guitars would have sounded like I wished him harm, but I didn’t,” said Sykes. He had also met his second wife, Alissa Salls. “We don’t argue. It is very loving, compassionate, open and trusting. People stay in abusive relationships, whether emotional or physical, because they think, “This is love, love is hard. But this fairy tale, this perfect, idealistic thing, is not fantasy: you just have to find the right people.
A safer Sykes continued to write upbeat songs, but then, as the lockdown began, he experienced a resurgence of the anxieties he had developed in school. “My norm was to perform shows for thousands of people. This world had kept the darkness at bay. When all of this happened, I felt a little worthless. He had his very first therapy sessions, and his therapist linked Sykes’ trauma at the playground to his “tendency to believe that everyone thinks the worst of me.” Next time I start to think negatively I’m like, wait a minute, your brain does it automatically.
Nevertheless, as the world grew heavier, so did the band’s music. “To begin with, I was like, ‘I wear pajamas every day, I’m sick,’” Sykes says. “But after a while things like that start to make you feel sub-human.” You sit there playing Monopoly when people are dying. The EP’s opening, Dear Diary, is a hardcore punk rager about this predicament, with the chorus “The sky is falling / It’s fucking boring”. And there is a line in Parasite Eve, “life is a prison and death is a door,” which Sykes says is unable to get out during the pandemic. But could that send the wrong message to vulnerable listeners? “You always run that risk when you write the kinds of things I write,” he says. “Where does my art stop in terms of everyone’s safety? It is not something that I take lightly. It’s not romance or glorification… that’s how this particular thing makes me feel.
The synthetic sound of Bring Me the Horizon evokes a suffocating digital existence; Sykes says he has developed an addiction to his locked out phone. And the roaring voices are back, but where his anger was once on himself, now it’s about everything else. “With this record, there is something to shout about”, he continues. “I feel angry… I got shit for the way I dressed, but I always had the freedom to do it. While there are still people who are persecuted every day for the way they were born, whether it is the color of their skin or their sexual preference.
Sykes was already pretty jaded about politics and society. He did not vote in the last election, claiming Jeremy Corbyn ‘walked on eggshells, distinguishing between what he really wanted to do and what he said’ – but he had an underlying faith in the British government. “Like, maybe they didn’t always make the right decisions, but they’re not inherently bad, which I used to get that feeling of America. Every man for himself is the American dream, whereas in England it seemed that there was more camaraderie. But, he says, in something like the friendship of Jeffrey Epstein and Prince Andrew, “you’re starting to see this corruption creeping in.” He wonders, “With the lockdown, are they really trying to do the best for us? Travel lanes, for example: are they going: give us a good deal on Brexit? It is just more difficult to see them as unconditionally caring government now.
Victims of a decade of austerity might wonder what took it so long. Sykes says he’s been “cocky and complacent” about his political involvement in the past: “Before that, I had used my veganism like, ‘Well, I’m doing my part for the world.’ He castigates the lack of faith in science during the climate crisis. “I am a bit pessimistic. But what I’m hoping for is – well, not hope, because it looks bleak – but something really bad is going to happen. Where we’re not wiped out, but it’s enough to come back. Because that’s the only way people are going to see.
Do we need something even worse than the coronavirus? “Unfortunately, for humanity to wake up. We have to evolve out of division and conquest… We don’t like to see our realities broken, or even bent. But you have to keep your brain soft and pliable.
He uses the Black Lives Matter movement as an example. “Your first impulse when someone says you’re racist is to say, ‘No, fucking not.’ But if you listen and take your ego out of the equation… because you don’t know all the ways systems are built. It’s the same with everything in life.
After years of personal chaos, Sykes therefore experiences an equally messy political awakening. “Whether it’s love or government, you have to demand better,” he says, starting to separate signal from noise.
• Post Human: Survival Horror is now available