a long talk

Oliver Sim’s Honest Fantasies

Vulnerability and camp humor coexist on the xx singer’s solo debut, Hideous Bastard.

Photo: Casper Sejersen
Photo: Casper Sejersen

Hideous, the surreal horror short film paired with Oliver Sim’s forthcoming solo debut, Hideous Bastard, centers on a talk-show interview. Sim, as The Artist, takes the host (Dune’s Fehinti Balogun) aback with his openness, speaking frankly about a monster in his mind “created from fear: fear of being different, fear of being judged, fear of others.” The host makes a confusing attempt to ask follow ups and cut in typical talk-show banter, like praising Sim’s outfit. Such exchanges fascinate Sim. “Interviews are an opportunity to try and present the best version of yourself,” he tells me. “Wearing a mask, in some way.”

That’s still true when Sim, best known as one of the singers in the moody English band the xx, speaks to me one afternoon from his home in London. “I’m quite enjoying interviews at the moment,” he says. They’re some of his first conversations with people outside his circle who have heard Hideous Bastard (out September 9), the next step in Sim’s ongoing process of making sense of the music he’s made. That began years before, when Sim, 33, showed his mother “Hideous,” in which he comes out as HIV-positive: “Radical honesty / Might set me free / If it makes me feel hideous.” He was ready to release the song, but his mom recommended he tell others about his status first. Along the way, he met a key collaborator in Jimmy Somerville, the Bronski Beat singer and HIV advocate, who contributed vocals to the final version of the track.

Sim had a feeling “Hideous” couldn’t work in the xx, the band he’s sung and played bass in since 2005. He’d begun opening up more on their last record, 2017’s I See You, particularly on “Replica,” about his new sobriety. But as a trio, the xx triangulated three separate viewpoints, and Sim wanted to dive further into his own interests in horror, camp, and queerness. He knew early on that he’d work with his bandmate, Jamie xx, on Hideous Bastard, but like Jamie’s own solo work, the album strays from the xx’s usual subdued emotion. The synths skew louder and clubbier, the vocals stretch to theatrical heights, and an underlying eeriness lurks in the piano chords.

Maybe that’s a mask too, but the way Sim sees it, that can still be just as revealing. He explained as much as he discussed truth and fiction in Hideous Bastard, the process of opening up about his HIV status, and his career in the xx.

How did you know that having a solo career was something that you wanted to do?
It’s not something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I love being a part of the xx and I still am; it’s still my home and it’s still my priority and where my heart is. The band kind of gives me everything I need. And I had always seen making a solo record as not only a scary thing, like, Do I have enough to say on my own to make a record? Do I have the nerve to do it? Who am I if I’m not one-third of a band? But also I’ve seen it as leaving the band in some way, and that’s just not how I see this record, and that’s not how I see Jamie doing his record or Romy doing hers.

I’ll tell you what, it took a while to call it my own record. I started writing songs and I was like, I don’t know what this is going to be for, it could go anywhere. It could be for the band maybe, it could be songs I give to other people, I don’t know. But Jamie was the first person that said, “I think you should make your own record, and I’d love to make it with you.” And that gave me a lot of confidence, the fact that he thought I could do it, but it also gave me permission, that one of my band members was saying, “You should do this.”

So, at one point, you thought some of these could’ve been xx songs or could’ve lived somewhere else than being solo?
I don’t know. I was just writing songs. The last band record that we did, I See You, was just off the back of Jamie doing his solo record [In Colour], and he learned so much. I See You is so much better because Jamie had done his solo record. And I think that was the beginnings of both Romy and I thinking, Maybe we should do this. Like, in service of being a better band member. I want to bring new ideas to the table. I want my own identity.

On I See You, I feel like I hear that starting to happen with your songwriting a bit — things getting more personal and more stylistically distinct.
There’s a song called “Replica” that was a bit of a turning point for me. And there’s a song that’s a B-side called “Seasons Run.” Neither one of them are love songs, and they’re very much from a place of experience. The first record I did with the band, that’s an album of love songs. And when we wrote that as teenagers, I hadn’t been in love. [Laughs.] It was still a vulnerable thing to write about, because it was an insight into my head and my expectations and my fantasies and my observations. But on I See You, those two songs are very much from a place of experience. Writing about fantasy and writing about specific experience — I think both are honest, both are revealing, but it was a new thing for me to write “Replica,” ’cause it was quite specific.

I hear that split between fantasy and experience a bit on this album too, with this motif of being interested in storytelling and how to construct a narrative.
That’s why I brought in a lot of my love of horror. I think fiction can teach me so much about the world, just as much as documentary film. And especially the way that my head works, I sometimes need a layer of fantasy and adventure to coat very real things. When stuff is delivered to me in a package that is shouting at me, “This is honest! This is real! This is raw!” my instant reaction will, most of the time, be, “Bullshit.” I knew I was making a record that was honest and it was revealing. I just didn’t want to shout that, I suppose.

There are probably so many musicians who, if they were going to be writing about shame and HIV, would make it a more, “Self-empowerment! Woo!” sort of thing. It’s almost a risk to take the complete opposite perspective of that.
I mean, I do not devalue at all the empowering approach. I think pride and celebration are the most useful tools ever. But for me, I haven’t made this record to beat myself up or make myself feel any worse. The opposite — talking about these things to feel more at ease with myself. Often, speaking about myself, when I’m most trying to present myself as proud and celebrating myself, sometimes what I’m doing is trying to conceal this other stuff that I don’t want to talk about. Which feeds into the whole shame of it all. You know I don’t want to perpetuate the idea of a self-loathing gay man. This is, for me, a gay man trying to feel more at ease with himself.

It doesn’t sound like self-loathing to me because there’s joy that comes later on the album. It’s a good mix of things. It sounds more real.
I’ve started going to gigs again recently. And I have noticed that there is almost like a responsibility that artists feel, halfway through their set, to sort of preach the word of self-love. And that is lovely. But it’s a little alienating. [Laughs.] It’s a little unrelatable sometimes. After seeing that for quite a while, I was like, Wouldn’t it be nice if a pop star, halfway through their set, said, “I woke up this morning and did not feel so great. I did not feel like I could do this today.” That would mean more to me in that moment.

I want to talk more about the song “Hideous” and this story that I read you tell, where you had played it for your mom and she recommended you have some conversations with others about your HIV status. That seemed like a side process that took a while. What did you get out of doing that?
When I wrote “Hideous,” I was in quite a different place to where I am now with how much I disclosed my status. My way of dealing with it was control. Like, I know exactly who knows, and if they’ve told anyone else, I know that person’s a safe person. I’m managing this. And there were still people in my life that didn’t know. I think my mum knew for me to just put the song out into the world would’ve been quite a shock to the system for me. And she also knows that it would’ve been, in my head, a much easier thing to do. It’s much easier for me to be honest in songwriting than it is in a conversation. Because there’s no back and forth with songwriting — I don’t have to be in the room when somebody listens to this.

I started having those conversations, and they were uncomfortable, but each one I had felt a little less uncomfortable, a little less heavy. And I started working my way further and further out of my inner circle. Because me trying to control it, like, it’s controlling me. It felt like something that I had to manage, and it was effort, and it was stressful, and painful. [Then], I was meeting people for the first time and having conversations about it. I made a film where I played “Hideous” in front of lots of people I didn’t know. Who knows who they could’ve gone on and told? By the time “Hideous” came out, in my head, it was already out in the world. It didn’t feel like this huge reveal. So, mum, she did good!

What did it feel like to play the song for crowds for the first time?
I’ve come a long way in the past few years with shame. But it’s still with me. I am not a finished product. I am not as overwhelmed by it as I used to be, but it was a really scary thing. But it was also a liberating thing. I’ve had no moments in my life that have been like a lightbulb switch, like suddenly I’m free! But being up on stage and being able to sing that and realize I couldn’t do that three years ago is a nice moment to measure how far I’ve come.

Something that has been interesting watching your solo career, and also when Romy put out “Lifetime” in 2020, is that it’s all very distinctly queer in a way that the xx was not — even though you and Romy were two-thirds of the xx. What about stepping out on your own opened that up for you?
Within the band, Romy and I have always said that we would try to make things as universal as possible — in terms of gender-specific pronouns or time or place or pop culture references that might age the song — so that wherever you are, you could imprint. And I do stand behind that. But speaking for myself, it was also a real insecurity there. I’m gentle on my younger self. I’m like, Okay, maybe that wasn’t time. But each of our records, it’s not a shared perspective. And it felt right to go into that. I think a listener doesn’t have to be queer, doesn’t have to share that experience. They have enough imagination to relate to a feeling. I don’t think you have to be HIV-positive to get something out of “Hideous,” to understand that feeling of shame. I thought about so many different poetic ways I could say HIV. I was like, How could I say this in a way that would be more general and more accessible? But more veiled. And then I was like, The whole idea of doing that is feeding into shame. It’s more important for me to actually just say it as it is.

I’ve been thinking throughout this about when I first listened to the album and, like you said, you start thinking, I project this confidence but maybe I am covering stuff up.
I’ve leant into a lot of characters on this record. There is a song called “Unreliable Narrator,” which is pretty inspired by a monologue in American Psycho. In the film, Christian Bale is doing his like 15-step skin routine and is talking about essentially wearing a mask. “You can shake my hand, it might feel warm, but quite simply, I’m just not there.” And I’m not a psychopath, I’ve never killed anyone, [laughs] but that whole idea is just so relatable, of facade and creating a mask that you think is going to be received better in the outside world.

Clockwise from left: Photo: Oliver Sim/YouTubePhoto: Oliver Sim/YouTubePhoto: Oliver Sim/YouTube
From top: Photo: Oliver Sim/YouTubePhoto: Oliver Sim/YouTubePhoto: Oliver Sim/YouTube

What got me interested in this album in the first place was watching the “Fruit” music video and seeing this freedom in performance for you — you out from behind a guitar for once and being very performative and over the top. It was striking to me. What made you want to do that?
I enjoy performance. I enjoy theater, I really enjoy showmanship. I know we talked about this earlier, but the idea of, “I’ve made an honest record” — I don’t want to see an artist, like, performing in their bedroom, [laughs] for it to be like, “This is something real.” Give me some showmanship, give me some entertainment. And I also wanted to push myself. My bass guitar is my shield, it’s my weapon, it keeps me safe. In the live show, I only play it on two or three songs. It’s been really hard to put it down, but I’ve been learning stuff. And within the film, the whole idea of an artist being performative and performing confidence is important to me.

I want to talk more about collaboration. What was it like letting Jimmy Somerville into your music-making process?
My incentive of bringing him into the album, and especially onto “Hideous” — I had so many reasons. Superficially, I think he has just the best voice in the world. He is one of my favorite singers, and I wanted that beauty. But then also, thinking about everything that he represents, not only around HIV and AIDS, but for queer people, or even just for people that feel a bit other. Also, I just wanted the emotional support of having him on it. He’s somebody that I’ve always perceived as being so fearless. There are videos of him on breakfast television in the U.K. talking about gay matters, talking about HIV and AIDS, to English families eating their breakfast, when no one was talking about this. And I’m like, This guy is fearless, like I need to get that. I’ve gotten to know him, and he is not fearless. He’s full of fear. Which makes everything he’s done so much more cool, so much more meaningful. It hasn’t been a walk in the park for him, but he still pushed himself to do those things. Which has taught me more than if he had just been a fearless person! [Laughs.] I had high hopes about who he was gonna be, and he was completely different but so much better.

And he’s funny. He’s really fucking funny. And he’s been through shit. He has a darkness to him, but he’s retained his sense of humor, which I think that’s what all of my heroes have in common. I keep coming back to this sense of humor, because I’ve realized how important it is to me: being able to have gone through stuff, being able to be savage to oneself, but also have a sense of humor doing it. When I’m taking the world completely seriously, it is so overwhelming and so scary, and I think that sense of humor is such an antidote, and such a great coping mechanism. Lots of people that are like the older — I wouldn’t say older, more experienced! More experienced. I’ll get myself in trouble if I do that! More experienced queer artists all have that, and I love it.

You were saying earlier that Jamie was part of this album from the start and one of the inciting factors in you making this. How was the dynamic of your collaboration different, with this being a project that has your name on it versus the xx?
Everything with the xx is, we bring our own parts of ourselves, but we meet in the middle. And there’s so much on this record that we haven’t met in the middle. Jamie’s come into my world. And he’s done it in a way that is so gracious of him, and he hasn’t had any ego. Like, I’ve leant into a lot of horror — Jamie doesn’t like horror. It’s not his world, and he got scared by it, but he’s sat down with me and watched the films. We don’t have the same record collection, but he’s listened to the records that have inspired me, in particular a lot of soundtracks from horror films. Also, he’s a straight man! And he’s gotten involved in conversations [about sexuality]. He’s definitely brought in parts of himself, like you can hear him on the record, but he’s come into my world, and I think that is so cool of him, ’cause that’s not how we normally work. I love that guy.

I want to talk about the final song on the album, “Run the Credits,” which has stuck with me for ways I can’t fully articulate. It strikes this balance you talked about earlier, where it’s melancholy, but there’s a contentment to it as well. I keep going back specifically to the line, “Even Romeo dies in the final scene.” Is that Romeo you? Is this about this whole opening-up process on the album that came before it?
In my head, this album is a movie. It’s a horror movie, how I see it. And there are two songs that I purposefully wrote as like, This is what I want for the middle, which was “Unreliable Narrator,” and This is what I want for the end, and that’s “Run the Credits.” Sonically, I think it’s the most joyful song on the record, and is very playful. But it’s also, for me, quite an angry song, but also does have a sense of humor — my version of a sense of humor. [Laughs.] In terms of the Romeo line, one thing I am holding onto from the xx is not over-explaining lyrics, because I know if some of my favorite songs were explained by a songwriter and it didn’t match up to my narrative I’d made, I’d find it a little bit heartbreaking. But yeah, that’s the note I wanted to end on. Although it’s a final song, the ending is kind of open-ended, which to me, is the scariest ending in the films that I love. Thinking about Hitchcock’s birds, like, Why did the birds do this? Where is the explanation, where is the Disney bow to this? That is scary to me.

I think that’s what is keeping this song in my head, hearing you say that. It sounds very resolved to me, but then lyrically, it doesn’t really give resolution, even though it’s been presenting that. And I think that’s why I’ve been chewing on it for so long.
Good! Leave them unsettled! [Laughs.]

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I See You introduces samples and drops into the xx’s sound, following Jamie’s foray into house music on In Colour. On which Sim sings about depression.
Oliver Sim’s Honest Fantasies