Oliver Sim on his soul-searching solo debut: “If I’m not one-third of The xx, who am I?”

'Hideous Bastard', the singer's first album under his own name, deals with the difficult topics, but is anything but a downer. “The whole experience of making this has been joyous," he tells El Hunt

While the past couple of years have thrown up a whole host of surprises, it’s fair to say that a member of The xx transforming into a B-Movie monster and murdering his esteemed producer and bandmate Jamie xx in cold, ketchupy blood probably wasn’t on your bingo sheet for 2022. “Talk about dreams coming true,” quips Oliver Sim with a wicked smirk. “I loved it”.

To swiftly alleviate any fears: Jamie xx is actually alive and well – Sim’s jaunt into campy, fake-blood-splattered homicide was in aid of his debut solo record ‘Hideous Bastard’, which is out today (September 9). Partly inspired by many of the horror films he grew up devouring, donning prosthetics and turning into a rampaging demon with a sequin-heavy wardrobe for its accompanying short film HIDEOUS – created with director Yann Gonzalez, and co-starring Bronski Beats’ Jimmy Sommerville as a glimmering guardian angel – felt like “fulfilling a childhood dream”. The slightly meta murder of ‘Hideous Bastard’s very own producer, meanwhile, was all Jamie xx’s idea. “He’s a shy guy,” Sim laughs, “but he was in his car on the driveway beforehand, practising his scream.”

In fairness, the bright, theatrical colours of ‘Hideous Bastard’ also feel like drastically different territory for Sim. For over a decade, the singer has been best known as one-third of London’s most glacial-sounding minimalists, his deep, hypnotic singing voice the perfect intertwining foil for joint lead Romy Madley Croft. Forming the band back when they were still schoolmates, the trio unearthed something that felt at once sparse and strangely intimate on 2009 debut ‘xx’. Many first stumbled across their music by way of a stark black-and-white cross that adorned one of the ad-breaks for seminal teen drama Skins. Their first release would soon rocket the trio to almost-immediate fame.

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“We were teenagers when it was kicking off,” Sim says, “We were scared, and didn’t know what we were doing. And it’s funny – that naivety and excitement changes over time, but some of those feelings remind me of what I’m feeling now. It’s nice to reconnect with that teenage feeling of just like: ‘I don’t know where this is gonna take me’.”

In 2011, Jamie xx – aka Jamie Smith – became the first member to splinter off and explore solo projects. By the time the band got back together to record their third and most recent album, 2017’s dance-y ‘I See You’, it was plain to see how much Smith’s own 2015 release ‘In Colour’ had re-energised the entire group. “Making the last band record… that was the first time I started thinking, ‘Maybe this is something I should do’,” Sim says. “I wasn’t thinking of an album,” he cautions. “Album’s a scary word! Don’t say that word… not until the very last moment.”

Without committing to anything in particular, Sim soon began writing and inadvertently laying down the groundwork for what would become his own debut solo record. “It was scary because I’ve been in the xx since I was 15,” he admits. “That’s all I’ve ever done. It just begs the question: if I’m not one third of The xx, who the fuck am I? What do I sound like? What do I write about?”

In getting to the bottom of this weighty question, Sim thought back to the elaborate stories he’d disappear into as a child. “I’ve always had a wild imagination, especially around romance,” he says. “I think, being a kid and realising I was gay, but not really being able to let that play out in real life, meant that a lot of my romances were in my head. Honestly, I could be given a morsel of romance, or just even just a look or a “hello”, and I could spin that in my head into a whooooooole relationship.” He adds with a faux-weary laugh: “I can still do that as an adult. Like, to my own detriment sometimes.”

In the swooning ‘Romance With A Memory’, Sim has written a love song addressed to a connection that fizzled out before beginning – ”the lack of a kiss did more than a thousand” – while the twinkling but off-kilter ‘Never Here’ finds him shifting the colour and shape of old memories at will. “Though I’m getting further from the truth, this version reads better,” he sings with a knowing wink.

As the musician kept writing, he landed upon a surreal blurring of memory, reality and mask-wearing. “In the moment I really meant it, I tried hard to be authentic,” he sings on the record’s mid-point ‘Unreliable Narrator’ is an eerie collision of goosebump-inducing ‘80s horror synths. On the track, Sim sings of deliberately lowering his voice in the past so that strangers would be less likely to perceive him as a gay man.

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“So much is wrapped up in my voice and how it’s perceived in the outside world,” he says. “Am I giving away my sexuality with my voice every time I step into a cab? Why am I dropping my voice down – he deepens his town – “down here, and losing anything that I think gives away my sexuality? The only person that’s bearing witness to this is myself. I’m just telling myself I am not OK as I am. Why am I doing this?”

as ‘Hideous Bastard’ began to take shape, Sim realised that this was in part a record about carrying the burden of shame – but he was also conscious that he’d left one particular stone unturned. Until this year, the singer had never spoken or directly written about his HIV-positive status, which he’d lived with since he was 17: “Unfortunately it happened at quite a formative age. It was my first time stepping out into the world, and it shut me back down. It made me quite scared of the outside world, and parts of myself, [as if] my sexuality was dangerous or going to cause me harm. It was something to be ashamed of, and it forced me back into myself.”

In retrospect, Sim thinks that learning his status in his late teens partly shaped the fantastical nature of his songwriting on The xx’s debut, and years later that otherworldly, magical leaning still lingers in his work. “I think that made my imagination go into hyperdrive,” he explains. “‘xx’ is an album of love songs, but I was very much writing about fantasy, observations, and other people’s relationships. It was about my excitement of, like, should I fall in love? When I fall in love, what’s that going to be like?”

Sim adds that “writing about fantasy as opposed to experience is still a vulnerable and meaningful thing to do” as “both are equally honest.” This final point also became something of a guiding beacon for ‘Hideous Bastard’, a record he wanted to fill with both darkness and celebration.

“Elton John has more of an interest in new music –  finding it and supporting it – than my friends in their 20s”

In broaching the subject for the first time, the artist decided it was time to reach out and make some new friends: namely more “experienced” queer people. “I avoid trying to use the word ‘older’,” he footnotes. Sim reached out to Sommerville, a personal hero, and the pair became pen pals during lockdown. An outspoken advocate for both LGBTQ+ rights and HIV/AIDS campaigning, Somerville famously appeared on breakfast telly in 1988 to talk about his late friend, the activist Mark Ashton, and called out radio stations who refused to play music that dealt with the devastating realities of the AIDS crisis.

“I came into speaking to him with quite a specific idea of who I thought he was,” Sim admits. “I was like, ‘This guy’s fearless. He’s been so vocal and visible for such a long time.’ And like, getting to know him, he’s an anxious Mary! It makes everything he’s done so much more relatable and meaningful. He’s not fearless, but he’s still done it.”

He also found a second sounding board in Elton John, an artist who “has more of an interest in new music –  finding it and supporting it – than my friends in their 20s”. Sim adds: “I approached him when I was trying to make my mind up about [writing about being HIV-positive on] ‘Hideous’. I just wanted some guidance. I thought he and Jimmy might push me to do it, but neither one of them did. They both kind of said: only do this if you feel ready to do this. Don’t flip into the mindset of being a martyr for a cause or anything. They were very gentle, and they were just like, I’ll be here if you need me.”

Sim onstage with The xx at All Points East festival in 2018. Credit: Getty

And so, with the encouragement of his new mates, Sim ultimately chose to explore his experiences of living with HIV publicly for the first time on the record’s arrestingly beautiful opening track. “Radical honesty might set me free  / If it makes me hideous,” he sings in the closing lines. “Been living with HIV since seventeen / Am I hideous?” In the matching visual, Sim’s monstrous prosthetics deliberately border on comedy camp, taking the corrosive, gnawing core of shame and turning it into a kind of ridiculous bogey-man instead.

“Comedians, I think, are fascinating,” Sim observes. “The day after Joan Rivers’ husband passed away, she was on stage, and she put it in her set. OK, that’s extreme, but kind of incredible. I’ve really realised humour is something I value so much, because otherwise I do flip into a mode of, you know, taking myself very seriously. When I do that, I get totally overwhelmed. The world seems like a scary, scary place.

“A sense of humour is so important. What Elton has been through and what Jimmy has been through… they both lived through the AIDS crisis. I’ve noticed a resilience from not talking about it, which I totally understand, but when I hear moments about it, I realise how apocalyptic it was. And their sense of humour… it just feels like that’s the reason you’re here, energetically. It’s about that ability to kind of be savage and dark, and serious about the things that they care about, but to also have a sense of humour about the world outside of themselves. Love it.”

“My HIV status came quite a formative age. It was my first time stepping out into the world, and it shut me back down”

Sim freely admits that one of his biggest fears going into ‘Hideous Bastard’ was being cast as a Beacon of Representation holding all of the answers, and he’s also keen to make sure his own perception of the record is coming across how he hoped. “I hope I don’t present this record as, like a downer,” he says towards the end of our conversation. “The whole experience of making this has been a joyous one – well, it’s been uncomfortable at times – but it’s also been celebratory.”

And towards the end of the record, ‘Fruit’ perfectly captures this sense of celebration. Taking its title from a word that was once wielded as a slur, but has since been reclaimed as an affectionate term in the LGBTQ+ community, the song riffs on temptation, sin and the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, but here the venom of shame has all but evaporated. Take a bite babe,” Sim sings, his voice buoyed by gleeful defiance. “It’s an ordinary thing.” 

– Oliver Sim’s debut solo album ‘Hideous Bastard’ is out now 

The Terence Higgins Trust offer information, advice and support about HIV and sexual health – head to their website to find out more.

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