Oliver Sim: ‘The way I dealt with shame in the past hasn’t worked at all’

Few indie musicians have made the kind of impact on pop music that Oliver Sim has. With the xx, the band he founded as a teenager with Romy Madley Croft and Jamie xx, Sim has won a Mercury prize, topped the UK album charts twice and played on some of the biggest stages in the world. Meanwhile, the xx’s distinctive, minimalist take on R&B and indie-pop was infiltrating the mainstream: by the mid-2010s, you could hear fragments of their musical DNA in songs by Rihanna, Beyoncé and Drake.

In September, Sim becomes the last member of the band to step out as a solo artist with Hideous Bastard, an album of ragged, off-kilter pop and post-punk that explores queerness, masculinity and shame. Featuring vocals from Bronski Beat’s Jimmy Somerville on opener Hideous – which deals with Sim’s HIV diagnosis at 17 – and production from Jamie xx throughout, it’s an album that, refreshingly, elides the empowerment/self-hatred binary that many pop records from LGBTQ+ artists seem pressured to fit into.

There’s a lyric in Hideous that I think really gets to the heart of the record: “Radical honesty / Might set me free / If it makes me hideous.” Was that idea a guiding light as you were making the album?

I think it had become one in my day-to-day life. I was starting to come to the realisation that the way I’ve dealt with stuff in the past, especially shame, has just been trying to control it – managing how much I’m showing and how much I’m holding on to. And it hasn’t worked at all. I’ve been doing that my entire adult life and in my teens as well.

I’ve become a believer in sharing stuff. Shame and fear thrive on secrecy. And that’s how, for me, it’s grown and mutated and [given me] a warped perspective on things. So I started opening my mouth socially, and it spilled its way into music.

Oliver Sim, Romy Madley Croft and Jamie xx AKA the xx.
Distinct … Oliver Sim, Romy Madley Croft and Jamie xx AKA the xx. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

You really dig into horror analogies on this record. What does it mean to you to evoke characters such as The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman?

I just love them. Growing up, I definitely wasn’t an action hero, and I wasn’t a Disney prince. The characters in horror, those monsters like Buffalo Bill, Patrick Bateman, Norman Bates, excited me, because I think all of those characters have either a repressed femininity or queerness about them. I’m not a psychopath, but I was like: “OK, that’s maybe a bit more of what I see myself as.” That and also a category of women I would call “female rage”: women such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sigourney Weaver in Alien, Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween and Sissy Spacek in Carrie. These women possessed a group of different qualities in one person that I didn’t think I was allowed to be, which was to have femininity, but also be angry and out there. So the monsters and the “final girls” [in horror] were the ones that spoke to me the most.

Buffalo Bill and Patrick Bateman tap into this idea that vanity is something that makes you grotesque, which is something that you reckon with here.

In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman has that monologue while he is doing his 15-step skincare routine, and he says you can shake my hand, it may feel warm, but quite simply, I’m not there. Let me stress again, I’m not a psychopath. But I think that monologue is so relatable, about wearing a mask in some way. When I am trying to present myself as beautifully as possible, it’s normally for a reason, and it’s normally to hide something I’m feeling. This record is trying to push some of the ugly to the forefront.

What’s your personal queer canon – the books, art, music, icons you return to over and over?

Somebody who has meant more and more to me is John Grant. I think he possesses one of my favourite qualities, which is the ability to be dark and talk about potentially heavy things, but be funny in his music as well. I think [maintaining a sense of humour] is a hack to dealing with life.

And definitely Jimmy [Somerville]. Jimmy, as a voice, has always been around – before I knew who he was and what he represented. Becoming a fan, [I realised] what he represented – being a beacon for many people, not just around HIV and Aids, not even just around queer people, just for people that felt a bit “other”.

There are videos of him on YouTube in the early 90s on breakfast television talking about things that nobody wanted to talk about – he was repeatedly saying: “HIV”, “Aids” and “gay”, and he was saying this to British families eating their breakfast. I assumed he was a fearless person, but having got to know him, he’s not that – he is full of fear, which makes everything he has done so much more meaningful.

Sim performing at Coachella in 2010.
‘This record is trying to push some of the ugly to the forefront’ … Sim performing at Coachella in 2010. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Can you tell me a bit about working with Jimmy, and his presence on the album?

I won’t talk about Covid for too long, I think everyone is a bit tired of it. But early on in isolation, I realised I needed to speak to people, and I needed to speak to people that I admire and maybe haven’t spoken to before. Jimmy was top of my list. I messaged him saying: “Hi, Mr Somerville, my name is Oliver, I’m a big fan, how are you doing?” And kind of formed a relationship.

Part of my reasoning for wanting him on Hideous was that I wanted some emotional support and guidance. When I came to him with the song, I hadn’t entirely made my mind up about whether I was going to put it out. I thought he was going to be … like: “Yes, this is a good thing, we should do it.”

But he was very gentle on me, saying: “Only do this if you feel ready, if you want to – I’d love to be a part of the song, but don’t feel like this is something you have to do.” He’s been through a lot, and he can be very dark, but he’s also just so savage and funny.

Before Jimmy came into the studio, he said: “I’m a 60-year-old man; don’t be expecting me to hit the high notes like I was in the 80s.” But the moment he started singing, I cried. And Jamie [xx], I think, was holding back tears – because his voice is incredible, and hasn’t deteriorated in any way. If anything, it’s stronger than ever.

Jimmy has taken care of me a lot. I speak to him every other day and he has been very generous with me. He was a part of the horror film I made, and he allowed me to cover him in glitter. I haven’t had many relationships until the past few years with older queer – I won’t say older! – more experienced queer people.

Coming out and making a song about being HIV-positive must be tricky nowadays, especially whenpeople are given a burden of representation. When you were preparing to release Hideous, how did you navigate making sure it was always for yourself?

I went to Coachella earlier this year, and I noticed that halfway through most acts’ sets, they turned into a life coach, or a preacher. It was surprising seeing that there was an obligation to be a voice, as opposed to just playing songs.

When I made Hideous, I met up with the Terrence Higgins Trust, who are a really big HIV and Aids organisation. I went into that meeting saying: “OK, what is all of the most up-to-date information that I need, prepare me for everything.” And they said: “Hold on – you’re not a healthcare professional. You’re not equipped.” You know what I mean? I am a musician. They said: “Definitely talk about your experiences and your feelings to whatever degree you want, but you don’t have to be that person.”

Also, I’ve made an album about fear and shame to unburden myself – but I still have fear, I still have shame, I’m not a finished product. I don’t want to put myself in a position where I’m trying to present myself as one. I’m on a journey – but I’m willing to talk. To some degree.

Hideous Bastard is released on 9 September (Young).