Oliver Sim
Oliver Sim | Credit: Stephane Cardinale/Corbis via Getty Images

Oliver Sim: “You Don’t Have to be HIV Positive to Connect with the Feeling of Shame”

As a member of The xx, Oliver Sim shot to mainstream fame in 2009 with the release of the band’s first album, xx. Featuring the singles ‘Crystalised’, ‘Islands’ and ‘VCR’, the debut was a critical success for the trio of Sim, co-lead vocalist and guitarist Romy Madley-Croft and producer and keyboardist Jamie Smith (aka Jamie xx)

The xx’s debut was followed by 2012’s Coexist and 2017’s I See You. In the meantime, Jamie xx launched an electronic music side project, releasing his debut, In Colour, in 2015. Madley-Croft followed suit a few years later, releasing her debut single, ‘Lifetime’, in 2020.

Now it’s Sim’s turn. Produced by Jamie xx, Oliver Sim’s debut solo album, Hideous Bastard, is out now. Music Feeds caught up with Sim to chat about the process of self-exploration that informed the new album, making the short film Hideous, and why he loves horror movies.

Oliver Sim – ‘Fruit’

Music Feeds: How has writing purely for your solo record differed from writing with The xx?

Oliver Sim: There are a few different things. Like, within The xx, Romy and I have consciously tried to keep our songwriting as, like, universal as possible in terms of time or place or gender-specific pronouns. Just like [avoiding] specifics or pop culture references that might age the music so that wherever you are, whoever you are, whenever, you’ll be able to put yourself in the song.

Thinking back to that, though I stand behind that, for me there was a bit of an insecurity in that, in that I also wasn’t ready to share that kind of thing, share the specifics. Also, now I believe as a listener you have enough imagination to see past certain parts and to connect with the feeling.

So, I haven’t been afraid to go into more detail. Like, a song like ‘Hideous’, I don’t think you have to be HIV positive or I don’t think you have to be gay to connect with the feeling of shame. And I’ve gone into specific pronouns. So if the song is about a man, I’ll say “he”.

That’s definitely been a difference, and I think working with Jamie has been very different. I’ve worked with him for 15 years in a specific way, which is in The xx where everything is a democracy and everything is a shared interest and we meet in the middle. Working with Jamie on this record, he’s taken a step into my world. We haven’t met in the middle. We don’t have the same references, we don’t have the same record collection.

I’ve leant into a lot of horror. Jamie doesn’t particularly like horror, he’s scared of it, but he sat down with me and watched the films that inspired me, listened to the music that’s inspired me. He’s a straight man and he’s got involved in very queer conversations, which is so cool – like, he has no ego in that way.

MF: You talk about your HIV for the first time in the song ‘Hideous’. I read that you showed it to lots of different people as a test run before releasing it to the world. What was the moment you decided you would go ahead and release it?

OS: My initial decision to do it was super impulsive. It was super impulsive because it’s much easier for me to be honest in songwriting than it is in conversation. Songwriting, it’s a conversation with myself, but I don’t have to be in the room when anybody listens to it. Most importantly, there is no eye-contact here [laughs].

The second person I played that song to was my mum, and I think my mum knew that was maybe quite an impulsive thing for me to do. She knew where I was at in my day-to-day life and she suggested, okay, baby steps first. She was like, “Why don’t you start by having conversations with people that you feel safe with?”

That was the thing I didn’t want to hear, but I did it and it was super uncomfortable. But each conversation I had became a little less heavy, a little less scary, and I started working my way out of my inner circle. I was speaking to people that I’d just met and I was making a film where Hideous was played in front of lots of people that I didn’t know. They could have gone home and told anyone.

I was letting go of control because that had been my way of coping with my status. Just control, like, I know exactly who knows, I know if they’ve told somebody else. And then before I knew it, I was talking to journalists, you know what I mean?

By the time this song had come out, it wasn’t an impulsive thing of just, “Fuck it, I can just do this.” It was already out in the world. I’d done – at the risk of sounding very American – I’d done a lot of healing. It was still uncomfortable, and it was still scary, but it wasn’t what it could have been.

Oliver Sim – ‘Hideous’

MF: You’ve described the process of creating Hideous Bastard as almost three years of asking yourself questions. What other questions were you asking yourself during that time?

OS: Questions like, Why am I so afraid? Why do I feel like I have to perform? Or why do I have to wear a mask? It’s funny, I don’t think I necessarily have definitive answers to those questions. If anything, the process of making this has left me with more questions.

The fact that I am putting this record out, I’m playing live shows, I’m stepping forward – it’s kind of a resolution in itself of just like, well, although I am afraid, I still can do these things.

MF: I really resonate with the themes of ‘Romance With a Memory’ – that people are so important but admitting that feels like admitting weakness. Was that a feeling you had to confront during the pandemic?

OS: Yeah, definitely. I have a wild imagination and I think that is such an asset but also such a curse sometimes. I think that really shone through in the first album I did with The xx. Like, that’s an album of love songs. I hadn’t been in love. It was all based on just my excitement, my fantasies and my observations of other peoples’ relationships.

As a teenager, somebody could say hello to me and my imagination could go off into like, okay, this is what the relationship’s gonna look like, we’re gonna be really happy. And then from that, we’d start a relationship, break up, all in my head.

During the pandemic, I reached out to almost every ex or any person I had ever had an interaction with, just being like, “Hi,” [laughs].

MF: Why the unholy trinity of Patrick Bateman, Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill on this record? Is it to do with your love of horror?

OS: Yeah, 100%. I gravitate towards horror, and it doesn’t make sense that I gravitate towards horror because I’m a fearful person. I have a lot of fear but horror I don’t go to to feel scared. One of the main things that draws me in is the characters.

There’s I think two categories of characters that I love, which is monsters, the Patrick Batemans, the Norman Bateses, the Buffalo Bills, the Hannibal Lecters. They’re all to me kind of repressed homosexuals or repressed queers in some way, in that they are complicated, they have that queerness to them but they’re also, like, deadly, and they’re just fun.

Growing up seeing action heroes and Disney princes, I was like, that’s not me. Also, they’re boring, I don’t wanna be them. These guys are complicated and villainous, but they excite me.

So, I love all those kind of monsters and I love the final girls. The women like Jamie Lee Curtis in the Halloween films or Sigourney Weaver in Alien or Buffy The Vampire Slayer. As a little boy, they possessed all the qualities that I felt like I maybe had or wanted to be. They were feminine and they were beautiful and can be sexy, but also they were pissed off and angry, and that was cool to me.

    Oliver SimCredit: Francois Durand/Getty Images For Christian Dior

MF: How did you find the process of creating the short film Hideous?

OS: I made the film at the same time I was making the album, which was a really new way of working for me, in that the music inspired the film, but also making the film inspired the music. It made me look at this whole album as kind of like a film. I’ve written songs that are designed to be like, this is the middle, this is the finale.

Also, it’s just like this childhood dream. Shooting that film, for like five days I was in prosthetics and I would have to get there at 5AM and spend three hours in the make-up chair putting on those prosthetics. Those three hours were joy. I’d become the monster of my childhood dreams, and it pushed me to do so many things. I’m not an actor, I’m a musician, but it pushed me to do so many things that I’m afraid of and I loved it.

I had a great time and I made so many friends through that process, which is kind of my agenda for making this record. I love Romy and Jamie, but they can’t be my only two friends! I need to meet other people and it kind of opened that up for me.

MF: Do you have plans to visit Australia in the upcoming months?

OS: I mean, yes. I started this record in Australia, in Sydney and Byron Bay with Jamie. That’s where I made the song ‘GMT’, that’s where I started the song ‘Fruit’. It would only make sense that I come to Australia with this record. So, yes, my heart is in it. Right now, nothing is set in stone, but I would love to.

    Oliver SimSim on stage with The xx in 2018 | Credit: Burak Cingi/Redferns

Further Reading

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ENOLA: “There Is a Sense of Togetherness in Your Aloneness”

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