The xx’s Oliver Sim On How Horror Movies, Male Vocal Groups, And Friendships With Gay Pop-Star Elders Shaped His Debut Solo Album Hideous Bastard
Oliver Sim’s forthcoming solo debut Hideous Bastard is a kind of subversive Cinderella story. But instead of the carriage turning into a pumpkin at the end of the ball, his forehead sprouts a horn and his skin turns scaly, green. And instead of the rags-to-riches trajectory, the xx bassist never turns back into his handsome human form. Rather, his monstrous transformation is his fairy tale come to life. “[He] allows himself to be embraced and is the most vulnerable and to me the character that I relate to the most,” Sim says, Zooming in from his home in London. “I see myself as more of a monster.”
The transformation to remarkable abomination —more of a stunning demon than a Disney prince — not only folds in a childhood dream, but tackles shame around queerness and illness enforced by society. “Why don’t you leave me in the dirt?/ That I’ve been sick and I’m perverse,” he sings on the album’s phenomenal opener “Hideous.” In the accompanying short film directed by French filmmaker Yann Gonzalez, Sim undergoes this gruesome metamorphosis while performing on a talk show, wearing a glistening mirrorball shirt, and begins levitating off the ground. Moments before, he murders the video crew, with a cameo from one of his best friends, bandmate Jamie xx. While under two inches of grotesque prosthetics, Sim lays in the arms of his latex- and glitter-covered fairy godmother Jimmy Somerville, singing: “Radical honesty might set me free/ If it makes me hideous/ Been living with HIV since 17/ Am I hideous?”
It’s a gorgeous, horrific scene that highlights the absurdity and even dark humor of being alive in our world today. And that’s only one poignant glimpse of the musician’s incredibly fun and insightful solo project. The rest of Hideous Bastard throws us into the mind of a ravishing psychopath, surrounds us with luminous harmonies and raging dance beats, and emphasizes the multitudes within Sim’s arresting voice.
A solo project from Sim might seem like a given considering his other bandmates Romy Madley Croft and Jamie xx ventured off into independent works long ago, but that desire to branch out with his own album wasn’t always there. “The band is like my home. I feel way more secure. I feel way more confident being one of three with Romy and Jamie. So I didn’t think I had the nerve to do it. I didn’t know if I had enough to say on my to make my own record,” he says. “I’ve been in the xx since I was 15. And it’s taken me a while to settle into being in a band being up on stage, let alone the idea of being up on stage on my own. Even though maybe I had childhood dreams of being a performer, they were up there like being a superhero. They weren’t necessarily real.”
Whether it’s becoming a horror-film monstrosity or breaking out as a solo performer, Hideous Bastard is filled with Sim’s dreams turned to reality. We talked to him about his love affair with horror films, reaching out to heroes Elton John and Jimmy Sommeville, and how Hideous Bastard came together.
OLIVER SIM: I’ve always been a horror fan. And that’s something that I haven’t been able to show because I think everything in the band is a democracy and a shared interest. The other two don’t share my love of horror. But, I realized I was making a record about fear and about shame. I was writing quite earnestly. The way that my brain works, I need a level of performance and entertainment and fiction to sometimes coat very real things. I think that fiction can be just as sincere and just as meaningful as documentary. And me personally, the way that I work if things are delivered to me in a very earnest package, my instant reaction is to call bullshit. This is so insincere.
I wanted to deliver it in a package that had fantasy and had showmanship to it. And that’s what horror is to me. It can be extremely meaningful and it’s taught me so much, but can also be absurd and can also be camp and funny and fantastical. That’s what I wanted to do with the music. If I had delivered this record in, “This is me at my rawest. This is me at my realest,” that just sort of felt like I’m shouting at people. When art shouts at me, “This is raw. This is real,” I can’t handle it. [Laughs.]
Often when I mention horror to people, they assume that I’m presenting this album in a really dark way. Horror isn’t that to me. It’s also colorful and fun.
When did you realize that horror was more than about shock or fear? What was your first horror film?
SIM: It’s not really a horror film, but my first entrance point into the horror-adjacent world was Buffy. That show gave me so many characters that I loved and kind of identified with, kind of aspired to be. The idea of female rage is really important to me, like characters like Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy or Jamie Lee or Sigourney Weaver—women that were feminine and beautiful and sexy but also angry and powerful. They were like the first characters that I saw that encompassed all of the attributes that I felt I had that fire inside of me, but maybe didn’t feel like I could show in the corridors at school. I had so many teenage sexual awakenings [Laughs] with Spike or Angel. That show didn’t ever really scare me, but it excited me and it is camp.
At a sleepover, I suppose Scream was probably the first [horror film] I saw. I remember my reaction being quite different from other kids. I have always been quite afraid [Laughs], quite anxious. The other kids that were a bit more bossy were, like, running away from this film, and I was leaning into it. I don’t know exactly what it is. But all of my friends that share my love of horror are quite anxious souls. [Laughs] There’s definitely something in there. I don’t know if it’s like control or — but there’s a different reaction to horror, which is we go through it to feel excited, but also there is something cathartic about it maybe? I remember seeing Psycho very early, which didn’t necessarily have the fun that Scream had, but that was another one of my entry points.
I remember seeing Final Destination accidentally as a kid, and it really exacerbated an anxiety in me, but also gave me like a fear to overcome by wanting to watch it. And then I think once I understood that it was really just a fictional outlet to experience or express these anxieties without actually experiencing them for myself in real life. It’s like understanding the illusion but then also being comfortable with the feeling it brings.
SIM: One hundred percent. Also, fear in day-to-day life doesn’t have a beginning, middle, and an end. To watch it in a controlled hour and a half that you can pause, you can step away from, is perversely soothing.
Manicured Villains (Patrick Bateman, Hannibal Lector, Norman Bates)
SIM: So much of my childhood was really digging for not only queer moments, but for characters that excited me that I kind of wanted to be/felt like I had parts of them inside of me. I wasn’t an action hero. I wasn’t a Disney prince. And I didn’t want to be. But those characters were the first ones that I was like, “Cool.” The “monster in the closet” character — Patrick Bateman, Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill, Hannibal Lecter — there were quite a few, but they were all queens to me. And there is definitely something extremely problematic about them and that queerness about them being villainized — that that is the thing to be afraid of.
But as a kid, I was really attracted to them because, in the films, they were the most fun. They had that femininity to them. They had that queerness to them, but they were also dangerous and something to be afraid of. I was like, “I would love for people to be afraid of me because I’m afraid of everyone.” [Laughs] So I loved them and, thinking about Hannibal Lecter and Patrick Bateman, I loved that whole idea where there’s something so unsettling about both of those characters presenting themselves so beautifully. Hannibal is so whimsical; he’s so funny; he’s so intelligent and presents himself so beautifully. But it’s to mask that he is an extremely, extremely dangerous psychopath. It’s the same with Patrick Bateman.
There’s that whole monologue when Christian Bale is doing his like 15-step skin routine. He’s talking about, “You can hold my hand, it might feel warm, but like, quite simply, I’m not there,” about facades. You know, I’m not a psychopath [Laughs], I’ve never killed anyone. But that whole idea of wearing a mask in day-to-day life that he feels is more presentable to hide what’s going on inside I think is very relatable. There’s a song on my record called “Unreliable Narrator” that I wrote pretty much inspired by that monologue. They just excite me. I love those characters. I’m not naive to their problems. But I do love them.
That’s what’s interesting about anti-heroes or villains and the issue with trying to either completely glorify or completely villainize a character. I think that it is very human to just find what you’re attracted to about them since no one is obviously perfect. In “Run The Credits” you actively denounce the idealized Disney prince for these more complicated characters.
SIM: The whole Disney prince thing isn’t just because I don’t relate — [they’re] also just boring. I think I knew that as a kid. I am bored by these people. My dad taught me a word a few weeks ago, louche, which I’d never heard of, but describes something that I love, that whole idea of presenting yourself incredibly beautifully, but if you look closer, the devil is behind the eyes. Bryan Ferry, from my understanding of the word louche, is a perfect example of that. He’s so refined and wears beautiful clothing and carries himself with this — but that man has definitely done some stuff [Laughs]. I love it.
Reaching Out To Personal Heroes Like Elton John And Jimmy Somerville
SIM: I’ve made a real effort to reach out to lots of artists that I admire, in particular older — well, I wouldn’t say older—more experienced [Laughs] queer artists that I admire, like Jimmy Somerville, and like John Grant, like Elton. I’ve gotten so much out of those relationships. All of those people have nurtured me in some way.
Was that scary or intimidating reaching out?
SIM: It’s just not how I function. I’m a part of a band with my two best friends, which meant that I haven’t had to make any other friends even though I should. I’m like, “I’ve got my people. We’re on a lone Island.” Even though the other two are making friends. But it’s scary. It is intimidating. I’ve approached these people, I approached Jimmy, not being like, “Let’s work together,” but just as a fanboy, like, “Hi, Mr. Somerville, my name is Oliver. I’m a big fan.” And I reached out early on in isolation. I was not doing very well, creatively, on my own. I reached out to loads of film people, which was great timing, because all of their filming plans had just fallen through. They were bored at home and were the quickest to reply. I was in a fortunate position because of the band that I could get a hold of email addresses. They were just kind of up for chatting, which was great.
With Elton, I knew he’s in his mid 70s, but he is the most up-to-date and engaging with new music, like more than my friends in their 20s. He wants to know what’s up, and he wants to be a part of that. He’s walked the walk for such a long time. I was like, “Look after me, please.” [Laughs] And he has. He has taught me a lot, and he’s very funny, very fucking funny.
And Jimmy as well. I reached out to Jimmy because I wanted to be his friend, but also I was like, this guy is fearless. There’s videos of Jimmy in the early ’90s, on English breakfast television, talking about HIV and AIDS. He’s saying this to people like British families eating their breakfast when no one is talking about this. This guy is fearless. I was like, I need a bit of that. And I’ve gotten to know him and he loves horror. He’s anxious. He’s not fearless. He’s full of fear, which makes everything he’s done so much more meaningful, and so much more relatable. And it hasn’t been easy for him, but he’s done it. It’s really been fighting against my ingrained nature of I’m going to be an admirer from afar and not actually engage with people [Laughs] trying to fight against that and just be like, “Hi.” And I recommend it’s really worthwhile.
I love that. So since he’s a horror fan as well was it easy to connect on the album and the accompanying film?
SIM: When I was making the film with Yann, obviously it had meaning to it of me wanting to be the monster, but it also had a performative mask. Literally I was two inches under prosthetics. It’s my childhood dream to do this. It is meaningful, but also give me that layer of prosthetics to hide behind. Jimmy, he’s been so generous with me. I was like, “Would you be a part of this film?” He’s like, “What can I be?” I was like, “Glitter. You can be an angel.”
He plays the guardian angel, right? The relationship between you and him in the film almost mirrors a fairy tale, like fairy godmother energy.
SIM: It definitely has that fairy tale imagery, but also he is in latex and glitter. [Laughs] And I am a monster. I don’t turn back into my regular self. I stay as a monster. It was discussed if I turn back into my normal skin, but no. That’s the exact ending that bothers me and reinforces that whole story. It’s the complete opposite of what the story should be. Like, I should stay as the monster. The monster kills a ton of people and is violent and angry but also allows himself to be embraced and is the most vulnerable and to me, the character that I relate to the most. Even though the other two technically are me. I see myself as more of a monster.
Humor As A Coping Mechanism
SIM: The whole idea of happy or sad, dark or light, is so unrealistic. I don’t experience things that it’s either/or. I’m not attracted to things that are either/or. All of the sad songs that I love have a bit of joy to them. All of the fun songs have a touch of melancholy to them. I don’t walk around life being like, “Oh, today was a bad day today. Today was a happy day.” [Laughs] “Run The Credits” to me is sonically quite fun and has a lot of joy to it, but it also has a kind of viciousness to it, and it has some anger to it. Which is a balance, all around this record, I wanted to do.
I get really nervous when I’m talking about the record because it’s not out in the world. Am I painting this out to be a real sob fest? Because that’s not how I see it. I’m talking about fear. I’m talking about shame. I’m talking about my HIV. Okay, this is sounding very heavy. This is sounding way heavier than I see this record. There’s humor in it and there’s a lot of joy. The whole process of making it definitely has been uncomfortable at times. But it’s been a positive thing. It’s hard, sometimes in words, to strike that balance—I’ve made a song about feeling scared, but it’s happy. [Laughs] It’s difficult.
Musicians that I love the most are the people that I would say are world builders; people that interact with more than just music. It’s film. It’s fashion. It’s art. And create a world. I think Björk does that. I think David Bowie did that. That is very exciting to me. Then thinking about the music that my parents love, like David Byrne. He’s a person I think about a lot because he strikes a really difficult balance of being meaningful and innovative. Everything he does, even the heartfelt moments, there’s always an air of playfulness and a sense of humor. And that is my favorite thing in people, just like day to day life. I think John Grant is a great example of that as well. He’s savage. He’s so intelligent, so dark, but he’s hilarious. All my heroes in my life have that sense of humor and are able to be quite savage to themselves, and had been through things but have retained a sense of humor as a way to cope and to deal with life.
SIM: I love London. I can bitch about London for days, but the moment anyone says anything remotely critical of London, I will jump to defend it. Creatively, it’s one of the most exciting places in the world. Like my school experience, it wasn’t just one type of music — there definitely was a more popular type of music to listen to, but there was so much at our disposal. There were so many gigs we could go to. There were so many nights we could go to.
There is an inherent melancholy and misery to London. It’s very conducive to what comes out of it creatively. I spent time in LA but never any longer than a month because I think it’s important that I go through seasons and that I have a bit of misery. [Laughs]
Was that your first instance that you were inspired to write a song about the city?
SIM: I wrote “GMT” being away from the city, being in Australia and feeling very far away from it. And from the people here. I’m really glad I get to leave London, and my mum lives by the seaside in a place called Brighton, which is where Jimmy lives. And because of work I get to travel, get to step outside of London quite regularly. But I’m also glad this is my home.
SIM: I revisited a lot of music from my childhood. I’ve done a lot of sampling on this record, which is such a personal thing. You’re not just sampling it because it sounds pretty but because you have an emotional connection or a memory locked into it. And lots of things I’ve sampled have been from either Jamie or I’s childhood and have sentimental value.
I read you sampled the Beach Boys and maybe the Flamingos?
SIM: I didn’t sample the Flamingos. I tried to on a song that I didn’t end up with. But I just love male harmony groups. It does something to me. I think it’s so beautiful. I think it’s very much rooted in my childhood. It has that interplay of being a masculine sound, but the whole idea of men harmonizing together is very romantic, and it’s very tender. To the point of where I’ve spun this narrative where I’m like, it’s queer. [Laughs] It’s something I’ve tried to kind of lean into. I really tried to play with my voice on this record, because my main instrument is the bass guitar, and it’s not the most melodic. Lots of my demos, I was layering my voice, trying to learn how to harmonize. Then the other samples are very much of an era — ’60s and ’70s. Lee Hazelwood is on there and Del Shannon. Yeah.
I love that your friendship with Jamie comes through in not only the fact that you’re working together, but also that you’re sampling music that you both have sentimental value towards.
SIM: That’s how Jamie sings, is through sampling. That’s his songwriting in a way. He’s been so good, working on this record with him. I’m so used to working with him in a certain way where we kind of meet in the middle. I tried working with other people and it was great and I’m just so glad I did, but I don’t think I could have been as comfortable and relaxed and vulnerable if it weren’t with my friend of 20+ years. He came into my world. He has virtually no interest in horror. And he sat down with me and watched the films that I was talking about, even though it was quite hard for him. And we don’t have the same record collection, but he listened to the music that I was talking about, in particular, like soundtracks. And he’s a straight man, but got involved in conversations. He just did it with no ego and I think that’s so cool of him. And, he still has his stamp on there, like you can hear him. But then he very much came into my world.
Finding His Voices
SIM: So much of what I perceive as my identity, and how much I have tried to control, has been about my voice. And I’m not talking about singing. I’m talking about talking in day-to-day life. I have noticed in the past, and I still notice to this day, how my voice changes in different environments and in different company. So much of my sexuality is locked into my voice.
I’ve talked about this before, but it’s like going into Uber, noticing where my voice goes. This person that I will never see again that probably and, but to this day, I notice myself like stamping out any kind of like gayness in my voice. Wrapping down an octave, taking out anything that will give me away. I don’t mean to do that. I’m not gonna see this person again, and it sounds so mundane, and it sounds harmless. But like when I’m doing that repeatedly, I’m the person that I’m left with, and the message I’m saying to myself is that I am not okay as I am.
So much of my identity is locked into my voice. And even, like, being up on stage with the xx, noticing how different my stage voice is to my talking to my friends voice has been a sore point. For “Confident Man,” [I’m] playing with that — I do have a low voice, but bringing it even further down to accentuate to the point of it being demonic. This is a parody of what I sound like. It was fun to play with my voice because I learned to sing by singing in unison with Romy because I didn’t ha,ve the nerve to sing on my own. But now that I’m writing, not in a duet with Romy, what do I sound like? Because I’m hearing what Romy’s writing at the moment, and I’m trying to sing it, and I can’t. Likewise, I’m playing her my music, and she’s trying to sing it and she can’t necessarily. We have our home within the xx. When we step out, she goes this way, and I go this way. I’m just trying to figure out what other voices I have in me at the moment.
Hideous Bastard is out 9/9 on Young.