Bring Me The Horizon's Mat Nicholls: “We’re not scared of being a mainstream band”
When we sit down with Bring Me The Horizon drummer Mat Nicholls, the modern rock behemoth is awaking after a slumber away from the spotlight.
After wrapping up work promoting their 2015 mega smash That’s The Spirit album, the band took eight months off to engage in a much-needed recharge of the batteries. But, behind-the-scenes, work was already underway on new material for their sixth album, amo.
Given that That’s The Spirit matched the froth-mouthed critical acclaim of earlier work – such as the superb Sempiternal – while also scoring major commercial success all over the world, the new material has plenty to live up to.
Some bands might crack under such pressure, but after spending an hour chatting with the uber laid-back Nicholls, we don’t think Sheffield’s finest are about to lose any sleep over what could be the record that firmly cements them as arena fillers and festival headliners.
It’s a success story that belies the band, and Nicholls’, humble beginnings. A self-taught drummer who found himself behind the kit for the band that would become perhaps the brightest young hope for 21st Century rock and metal, Nicholls admits that his early days as a pro drummer were characterised by playing with speed rather than groove.
Debut album, 2006’s Count Your Blessings, displays as much. It’s a real rocket of a record, propelled at break-neck speed by Nicholls’ rapid-fire kick and snare work. Fast-forward nine years, to That’s The Spirit, and a very different animal had emerged, with big rock grooves packed with feel now more the order of the day.
It’s an evolution that has brought the band consistent praise for their live and studio work, and now they stand on the cusp of joining the very top table of rock and metal royalty.
Their flourishing reputation and sky-rocketing commercial performance is reflected in our surroundings for today’s interview. We arrive in Sheffield at the HQ of Drop Dead, the fashion line owned by the band’s singer Oli Sykes, to find that the building also houses a staggering amount of gear, a rehearsal space and a makeshift studio.
Oh, and next door is the newly-opened bar-arcade (also owned by Sykes), Church, dubbed ‘Temple of Fun’ and where we sit for our chat with the softly-spoken drummer.
There’s also the little matter of the brand new Tama Starclassic kit that Mat has just taken delivery of. So, no prizes for guessing where we start our chat…
You’ve just joined the Tama roster, but you’ve had a long association with the company already, haven’t you?
“I bought a Tama kit in maybe 2007 from my local drum shop in Rotherham. I just needed a good kit to record on. All I had before that was an old Pearl Export that was good for touring but it didn’t sound the best.
“The band had a bit of money, not much, and we thought we’d buy a sick drum kit to record on. We bought a maple Starclassic kit and have recorded every album on it since apart from the one we have just finished because we didn’t fly it out to the studio. It’s the kit that I have at home. I love it.”
What is it about that kit that works so well in the studio?
“It just sounds so good. It sounds better than anything else we had ever used before. It’s my ‘nice’ kit – it’s kept in its cases and only comes out for recording, so it’s pristine.
“I played SJC Drums from 2008 and they were great for touring kits. They make kits that visually look amazing. But for recording I always used Tama.”
Is there something about Tama kits that record particularly well?
“They just sound better than anything else! I played a bunch of kits when I went to pick my old Starclassic kit and when you find the right kit you just know.
“It was like when I went to [Tama distributor] Headstock to pick my new kit and they were maybe swaying me towards walnut rather than bubinga because bubinga is an endangered wood so they’re not making them.
“But as soon as I sat behind the kit and hit the kick drum I said, ‘I’m having this.’ You just know when you get behind a kit that feels and sounds right for you.”
Had you played bubinga before at all?
“I hadn’t. I had heard people playing bubinga kits and it always sounded fat. That’s the drum sound I like. I like big toms, almost like an 80s vibe.”
Have you changed anything with your kit sizes with this new set-up?
“I’ve got 16" and 18" floor toms. I have had an 18" floor before but not for a few years.”
Will that influence your playing, or will the second floor end up as a place to keep your towel and setlist?!
“It’s just going to be for big, boomy tom bits. I’ll get an 18" EMAD head on it for the big, loud toms.”
What about the depth of the drums, have they changed?
“The kick is bigger. It’s now 22"x16". I’ve had 20"x20" before and even a 20"x22". That was super punchy and it came through really well for the faster metal stuff that we were doing.
“This time we’ve gone for the standard rocky sound and size.”
You’ve got a double pedal on the kit, is that your preference rather than having two bass drums with a pedal each?
“I have tried that before. The first bonus we got as a band, we all got £1,000 each. I went straight to a shop and bought a Joey Jordison Signature Export kit. It was ridiculous.
“I was used to having one kick, rack and a floor. This kit came with two kicks, three rack toms, two floor toms and also a 13" aluminum snare which sounded wicked.
As time went on I got lazier and took one of the bass drums away and took the toms away. So yeah, I use a double pedal. I’ve started using the Speed Cobra.
“I’ve used all kinds of pedals over the years and the Speed Cobra is just so smooth. It’s a longboard as well which I like and it feels easier to play than the other pedals.”
Are you most comfortable on a more stripped-back kit?
“Yeah, I think it’s out of laziness. When I got that Jordison kit I thought I’d use all of the drums and I never did. One by one they came away and I went back to the set-up that I played originally.
“To me, it just works, less is more. You can have as many drums as you want, but for me it works. I’m not opposed to experimenting… I just can’t be arsed [laughs].”
Is that a Sound Lab snare as well?
“It is. It’s the Black Brass, a 14" and I’ve also got the 13" G Maple. That Black Brass snare is insane, it’s so loud. Previously I had a Vinnie Paul Pearl snare, the 8” deep one that was like snakeskin. I loved it.
“I put a heavyweight head on it and it sounded so fat. SJC tried replicating it for me but we couldn’t ever get that sound. I went to Headstock and they gave me the Black Brass, we put a heavy head on it and it sounded great.
“We put a little Moon Gel on it and this thing that’s like an O ring, called a Big Fat Snare Drum, it sounds wicked. It gives it this big, dead sound. I don’t want my drums to ring or sound tinny.”
Have you refreshed your cymbal set-up at all?
“A little bit. I’ve always used two sets of hats because there’s parts in our songs where I’ve had to play closed hats but double pedal parts, but then later in the song I’ve had to play open hats.
“I’ve always had one pair of closed hats set up in the kit. I’ve moved those over to my right, before I had them way over to the left. I’ve ditched the China completely and I’ve gone for the 18" EFX and the 21" Special Dry Trash Crash.
“I like dark sounding cymbals, nothing too bright. When I first started I used a lot of bright, metal-y sounding cymbals but now I prefer the Ks.”
Is that big drum sound more suited to the style that Bring Me has evolved into in recent years?
“Back in the day I used to trigger my kick drum so I didn’t really care what the kick drum sounded like. I used to just deaden it and put a trigger on it.
“We just wanted that clicky metal sound because we were playing fast stuff, we just wanted it to cut through. As the band has evolved, so has the drum sound. It has reverted back to the classic drum sound – nothing fancy, just big and loud.”
Do you use triggers and electronics live?
“I use a couple of Roland pads just for little bits. Our keyboard player [Jordan Fish] is using them as well, he has an SPD-SX.
“On this new record we will incorporate a lot more and I play some of Jordan’s stuff. We’re yet to figure all of that out.”
Is that a process of working out who will play what and what can be played live?
“Yeah, I like to play as much of it live as possible. I’m sure we’ll work it out. I like to play the big beat, hats and snare stuff. If Jordan wasn’t there then we’d probably have to use tracks.
“On our third album, before he was in the band, we started using tracks just from an iPod split two-ways. That was when we started playing to a click, you have to when you’re using tracks. We still play to a click now even though we have Jordan in the band. It’s just tighter when you use a click.”
Did using a click come naturally to you?
“The first time I ever used a click, I cried. I just couldn’t do it. I started playing drums when we started the band. I had a kit but I could hardly hold a beat together. When we went to record the first album I was 19 years old and they said we were going to use a click and I was like, ‘What the f***’s a click?’
“I had been playing drums for a year and didn’t know what I was doing. I had a day where I didn’t put anything down because I couldn’t get my head around the click. I was so frustrated that I cried. But then I just got it. Now, I prefer to play to a click, it keeps you locked in.”
Do you practice to a click?
“Yeah, I do. If I’m practicing at home I’ll put Spotify on and play along to stuff. But if I’m practising our songs I’ll play to the click.”
Do you get much time for practise? Or in your downtime do you prefer to have a break?
“I’m not one of these religious practise guys. I like my downtime. I’m pretty lazy, to be honest with you. When I come off tour I like to put my feet up a little bit. But I have a kit downstairs next to my living room and every night I’ll just jump on it for an hour. I’m not militant, I’ll just jump on when I feel like it.
“Sometimes I might be on there for three hours, sometimes maybe I’ll just mess about for ten minutes. When we have shows coming up I’ll spend a lot of time playing through our own songs. But otherwise I will just mess about grooving along to pop music.”
You’ve been hard at work on a new Bring Me album, when did that process start?
“It started in December. We had a long time off. We had finished touring in March. When we finished the cycle for the record before the last one, we just had a month off and jumped straight back into writing.
“With this one, we wanted to give ourselves enough time to relax. We had a good eight months to chill. We started putting little ideas out there and getting a feel for it.
“When the new year came around, that's when we became fully into it and fully immersed in writing. We recorded through May and June and had a good solid four or five months of writing.”
Were you jamming it out when writing?
“We wrote upstairs. Our singer owns this building, he’s just opened this bar that we’re sat in and our band room is upstairs. We put some walls up there, we have beds in there in case you want to pull an all nighter. There’s a table to eat your dinner from.
“But we write around the computer. We’re not a band that jams bits out. We did that and we ended up pulling our hair out. We’ll program everything. Jordan is a genius when it comes to ProTools. It is easier for us to do it like that, it’s less stressful, we can record guitar straight into the computer and we’ve got a vocal booth up there.
“It’s easier to listen to something like that instead of jamming stuff out and writing parts. We will program the drums, record the guitar and if it sounds s*** then we just take it away.
“That just works for us. It won’t work for every band, but for us, it’s not stress-free but it is less of a stressful experience.”
How does that work with your beats? Do you then go away and translate the programmed parts into drum beats?
“We just sit there and do it. We will put a skeleton beat in, something that sounds like what the song needs and then we’ll add some fills in, kick drums, take kick drums away, it just works like that. It’s just me and Jordan bouncing ideas off each other.”
Has the partnership that you have with Jordan given the band an extra dimension creatively?
“Oh yeah, he’s been great for songwriting, creativity and ideas. He’s a very full-on guy, and that’s not a bad thing. He’s from Reading and we’re northern so we’re a little bit more laid back naturally.
“He brings a lot of ideas to the table. I hate blowing smoke up his arse, but he is a bit of a genius. He brought something new to the band. Before he joined the band we didn’t know what was happening, we didn’t even know if we were going to still have a band.
“We were having time off and people were going through a lot of s*** and then Jordan came in and it was just natural. He brought something fresh to us and it rejuvenated the band a little bit. He brought new life into the band.”
You’ve built yourselves a reputation as being the biggest British rock band out there and future festival headliners. Does that bring added pressure when you’re working on new material?
“With our band, we don’t see breaking into the mainstream as selling out. We just want to be a band that everyone likes, whether you’re a rock fan or a pop fan.
“It’s not about selling out, to us it is just about being the best that we can be. We’re not scared of stuff like that and if we ever get offered the headline slot for the right festival then we would take it. That’s where you want to be as a band.
“You want to be successful. You don’t have to be, if you’re happy playing the pub circuit then that’s great, crack on. For us, we just want to see how far we can take it.
“We want to be as accessible as possible and be a band that everyone likes. We’re not scared of being a mainstream band.”
The band has evolved from the early metal days, has that evolution continued on this new material?
“The new material is better than anything we’ve done. I think people are expecting a pop record. There are elements of pop on there and there are some pop elements but there are some weird songs on there as well.
“There are some songs where when you’re writing them you think they’re going in one direction and then they go in another. You’re playing it thinking, ‘I didn’t expect this!’
“Some people will be surprised by this album. Some people are expecting a pop record, but it’s not a pop record.”
Do you demo here and then move into the studio?
“We work them up here and demo them but they’re not finished and then we finish them up in the studio. This time was a bit more all over the place with that.
“Usually when we go into the studio we know what we’re doing with the songs and we’ll chop and change a little bit. This time we didn’t really know where a lot of songs were going. We got into the studio and we kept on writing and writing.
“ There was a lot more writing being done as we were recording. That was weird but it was cool to be writing in a different environment. We recorded in California so going from winter in Sheffield to California sunshine was great.
“You’re influenced by your surroundings and I think having that change of scenery helped. It turned some of the songs in a different direction. That’s a good thing though, it meant some things came out a little unexpectedly.”
Were you self-producing?
“We had an engineer. We took someone over, someone we had worked with before. But then it was pretty much just us. We worked previously with [producer] Terry Date [on 2013’s Sempiternal]. Terry is a great bloke but he is very old school.
“He wanted us to record everything live; we’re not a band like that. We want to do parts separately and get them sounding as amazing as possible. Whereas Terry would say he worked with Deftones and they would all play live together and take that for the recording. We had never done that, we had always done our parts separately.
“Working with him was good, but he didn’t really get what we wanted to do. When it came to the end of that album we kind of said, ‘Let’s never do that again.’ Jordan and ourselves are good enough to do it and we know what we want to do, so we do it ourselves.”
Is there anything playing-wise on the new record that might surprise people?
“There’s some linear stuff on there. I’ve always listened to linear drummers and thought I would love to do some of those fills. I like the gospel chops, I know that is all kind of cool now but it sounds wicked.
“There’s not lots of it on the album but there’s hints of it. It felt so good to do it because I’ve not done anything like that before. My drumming has got better and better on each record and I have been able to try more things out as I’ve improved.
“I’m proud of this new album. It’s solid drumming, nothing fancy. I’m one for doing what sounds best for the song. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Fair enough, some people want to do some mad s*** and put as many fills in as possible but I like to do whatever is best for the song.
“This album has more grooves and more hi-hat work. I’ve got a Crash Ride and I usually pump the f*** out of that, where as on this album there’s more hi-hat grooves.”
We’ve mentioned that the band’s sound has evolved, and so has your playing. In the early, Count Your Blessings days there was a lot of fast kick work…
“I just learned to go either fast or slow. That was it. I never really learned grooves. Looking back I wish I did. I never really had any drum lessons.
“I got my first drum kit when my mum and dad separated and sold the house. With some of the money my dad said I could have one thing and I said I wanted a drum kit. I don’t know why I wanted one, I just did. He took me to Rotherham market and we got this tiny £300 kit. My dad said he would buy me this kit as long as it went to my mum’s house.
“I took it to my mum’s house and it didn’t even last a day before it was back in the car and taken to my dad’s house. I lived with my mum so I never really got to play that kit and it kind of became one of those things that I didn’t take seriously.
“Then I got to college and had mates who played guitar and I mentioned that I played drums. I didn’t tell them that I was absolutely dog s***, I just told them that I had some drums. So, I got roped into that and I didn’t know what I was doing. We played a couple of gigs but it was just playing in front of mates.
“When it came to Horizon, I met Lee our guitar player and I was asked if I wanted to start a band and I said I knew a singer, Oli, and it just happened really quick. It just clicked and we knew what we wanted to do.
“I never had a drum lesson, I just got thrown into playing our own songs. I couldn’t play other people’s songs, the only thing I knew how to play was our own songs, if that makes sense?!
“Looking back, I wish I'd had a little help and learned more technique. Still today, my technique is not the best but it just works for me. I learned early on how to go fast or slow.
“I worked washing pots in a hotel and with my first pay cheque I bought a double kick pedal. I would sit at home with my feet on the double pedal all the time and I’d learn to control my fingers so that I could blast and keep steady time.
“I didn’t learn grooves, I just learned fast and slow. That’s why the first record is like that. But that was what we were going for, this fast metal-y stuff.”
Was it just a case of learning as you went?
“Back then I didn’t even know how to play doubles. We went on tour with The Haunted and their drummer was playing doubles and I asked him what that was and he looked at me as if to say, ‘That is so basic, how do you not know that?’
“But he showed me and that was really cool and that was a new thing for me! I’ve just absolutely winged it, I’ve winged everything I’ve done when it comes to drums. It’s weird that I’ve got to this point.
“People always ask me which drummers influence me, I’ve never been influenced by drummers. I’ve always been influenced by bands that we’ve been on tour with. I’ve learned to play drums by playing live. We played with Killswitch Engage at the same time as we played with The Haunted and I just picked up all of these tips from solid metal drummers.”
In those early days speed was a major challenge, but what is the biggest challenge of being the drummer in Bring Me The Horizon now, in 2018?
“Just keeping it solid. I’m a nervous drummer. I can’t relax. I find it very hard to relax while I play drums. I just don’t want to f*** up. My fear of f***ing up is massive.
“One, because I don’t want to look s*** and ruin the show and the other thing is that I don’t want to let the rest of my band down. When I play live I just want to be solid.
“I don’t care about flash, I hate stick tricks. When I see drummers doing stick tricks I just think, ‘Just play the f***ing drums.’ I think drummers should just be solid.
“Don’t worry about being the centre of attention. I think a lot of drummers want to be the centre of attention. I’m not like that, I’d rather just get my head down, play solid, make sure I play well. Playing the best that I can is paramount.”
Were you not tempted to throw some stick tricks in when you moved up to the arena shows?!
“Nah, a gig is a gig to me. It doesn’t matter if it’s the O2 or wherever, just play well. Don’t worry about throwing your sticks in the air. I don’t do that, I find it cheesy.
“I just want to play solid whether it’s to ten people or to 10,000 people. I just want to do my job well but maybe that just comes from a nervousness.”
What are you like in the 30 minutes before you go on stage at a show?
“People who say that they don’t get nervous are telling lies a little bit, I think. I think you have to get nervous, I think getting nervous shows that you care. I’ll get changed about an hour before a show, I’ll stretch and I have a little warm-up kit with mesh pads and I’ll put Spotify on and jam.
“I think dance music is really good to jam to, the tempos are good for playing solidly and some chops. I loosen up. I hate going on stage stiff. I think you know when you’re warming up when you’re ready and prepared. I like knowing that I’m ready and I’m feeling good.”
What about after a show; do you scrutinise your own playing and performance after you’ve been on stage?
“We come off stage, everyone sits down and we sit in silence and then someone will go, ‘Good that.’ That’s when you know that you can have a shower and get changed because if anyone has a problem then they will bring it up at that point.
“Then you crack on and onto the next one. We’re not one of these bands that are super anal about everything. But we’ve done well, I’ve done ok for someone who is just winging it. That’s the thing about our band, we never set ourselves targets.
“A lot of bands do that and say in five years time they want to headline Wembley. Our ambition has always been to play some gigs and we don’t care where. Some people set targets and get bitter if they don’t reach them, we just take it all as it comes.”
Mat’s Drum tech, Andy Clements, reveals all
“How long have you worked with Mat for?
“I’ve worked with Mat since they played Reading and Leeds on the That’s The Spirit tour cycle. I finished out that cycle and now we’re coming back in for another one.”
What is a typical show day for you?
“Wake up on the bus, grab some breakfast and start loading the gear. The gear will be brought up by the local guys and we will crack on once the set is built. We’ll get the new heads on and let them stretch on the kit for a little bit.
“Whilst they are settling in we’ll get the hardware up. The cymbals will need cleaning. This happens just before soundcheck. The last cymbal will be cleaned and then the boys will come up.
“I’ll set the warm-up kit up for Mat, he’ll knock around on that for half an hour before the show. I’ll make sure sticks are out, Lug Locks are on, water and towels are out and that’s about it.”
Is that new heads for every show?
“Yes, apart from the kick drum. I do toms and snare every show because they’re big 2B sticks and he hits hard. Resonant heads are once every tour.”
With such big sticks is cracking cymbals a major concern?
“Absolutely. My job is damage prevention. On a new cycle, Mat will tell me the cymbals he recorded with and I will tell him which might be prone to breaking – some cymbals when the lights are on might last two shows.
“How can I make sure that the show goes smoothly? Are the pedals done up properly? If I’ve done a good job then you won’t see me on stage.”
Tama Starclassic Bubinga kit in Pink Champagne Sparkle
22"x16" bass drum
16"x16" and 18"x16" floor toms
Tama 14" Sound Lab Project Black Brass snare drum
Tama 13" Sound Lab G Maple snare drum
Evans EC2 Clear heads
Evans Heavyweight snare drum head
14" K Custom Dark hi-hats
14" K Custom Hybrid hi-hats
9" Oriental Trash splash
10" K Custom special Dry splash
18" K Custom Dark crash
19" K Dark Thin crash
21" K Crash ride
12" K Custom Special Dry Trash crash
Vic Firth drum sticks
Porter and Davies BC2
Tama Speed Cobra bass pedal