Oliver Sim's Solo Adventures
“I think the shows themselves remind me of that first XX record, in that there’s that naivety and that unknown fear, but also that excitement.”
Image credit: Laura Jane Coulson
13 years on from The xx’s iconic self-titled, debut album, songwriter, bassist and vocalist Oliver Sim steps out in solo mode, with his debut album, Hideous Bastard - an intensely passionate and personal album three years in the making that Sim may never have released without a little push from best friend and bandmate Jamie xx (who went on to produce the album), who alongside Romy Madley Croft makes up the iconic indie trio.
With early sessions for the record taking place in Byron Bay alongside Jamie, Hideous Bastard would go on to become a long, painful journey for Sim that included him publicly talking about his HIV for the first time on single Hideous, that features Sim’s longtime hero and gay music icon, Jimmy Somerville (Bronski Beat, The Communards).
Touching on themes of shame and fear with an overarching theme and influence from Sim’s love of Horror film, Hideous Bastard delivers its narrative through a combination of melancholic art-chamber-pop, 80s-inspired electronica and all manner of indie flavours
Taking this film influence to a literal conclusion, Sim teamed up with filmmaker Yann Gonzalez to craft the film Hideous - starring Fehiniti Bologun, Bimini, Jamie xx, a glitter-covered Jimmy Somerville and Sim himself in this self described “queer horror film from Yann’s big heart and perverted imagination, and a dream come true”.
We jumped on the line with Sim for a really great chat about the Australian connection to the record, sampling the Beach Boys, mums, favourite horror films, solo live shows and so much more!
I want to start by asking about the Australian connection on the new album, I guess you could say, in the sense that some of the music was made with Jamie XX in Sydney - how did you end up in Sydney?
Well, winter had started - the months January to March here, when I say bleak, they are brutal, they are so brutal. Jamie had decided to bypass the British winter. He had spent New Years’ in Sydney, and I chased him down there. They ended up being like the first sessions I did for this record, and it was, you know, I think back at that time and that is living the life - it was swimming, surfing, making music and going back in the water. And it was really dreamy, and we that’s where I made GMT. And I started Fruit there, and yeah, it was amazing. We spent a couple of weeks in Sydney, and then road tripped down to Byron Bay, and we were like listening to music, stopping at beaches, swimming. We listened to a lot of the Beach Boys, and as soon as we got to Byron Bay, we started GMT which samples the Beach Boys.
And you might have answered this by referring to the sample in GMT, but what era Beach Boys are we talking about here?
Well we were actually listening to Brian Wilson’s Smile, and we used that sample from like an offshoot of Smile. You know, sampling is such a funny one because you’re not just sampling like “oh, this sounds great, sounds pretty” - you’re sampling because you have like an emotional connection to something you have a memory locked in. I think that memory of road tripping with Jamie down to Byron Bay, that’s the memory we’ve kind of wanted to capture. And it’s like, sampling Brian Wilson, I’m just gonna tell you now - very expensive.
The fact you’re talking about it shows you cleared the sample *laughs*
But we were like, we can’t replace this with anything else, because it was about capturing that moment that we had, and the memories we had locked into it.
Has that always been your approach to sampling? Cos I can’t help but think about, you know, being a young person getting your first DAW [Digital Audio Workstation] and yoare sampling just because something sounds pretty?
Sampling’s quite new for me, you know, but Jamie has a history of sampling, and you know, I’ve spoken to The Avalanches, and I’m like “if they can go through the hundreds of samples that they do, maybe just a few would be okay”. Yeah, it’s an emotional thing, it’s a sentimental thing.
So where does your single Hideous sit on this timeline? Had Hideous already been recorded before you came down to Sydney as the starting point of the album?
No, Hideous came later into the writing of the record, and then by that point - like, I didn’t start out writing thinking “these are going to be the things, I know what this record is going to be about”. But like, after a handful of songs, like two thirds of the way in, I knew that these themes had appeared, like shame and fear. And Hideous was a condensed version of that like, going for the jugular of the thing that probably causes me the most shame. So yeah, it came later in the process.
And how long had those things been bubbling away and you needing to release them through music?
I mean, in terms of thinking I could - only in that very moment. It’s a funny one for me because it’s like, in terms of talking about my HIV status, when I wrote the song I was not in a very open place, like I knew my way of coping with it was trying to control it. Exactly. Like I know exactly who knows, and I know if they told somebody else, like trying to manage it. And my decision to put it in a song was super impulsive, I was just like “fuck it - let’s just throw this out into the wild”. It’s way easier for me to be honest in songwriting than it is in conversation, because songwriting isn’t a conversation, it’s a conversation with myself, but I don’t have to be in the room.
When somebody listens to this, there’s no back and forth, it’s no eye contact. So my decision to do it was not a cop out, but it was just like, it would seem easier to me. I put this in a statement I put out, but I played that song to Jamie and the second person I played it for was my mum. My mum was like “okay, this is quite drastic”, and she knew where I was in my life, and she was like “how about maybe some baby steps first, have those conversations”, which is exactly what I didn’t want to do. But I had those conversations, and they were super uncomfortable, but each one I did became a little less uncomfortable. I started working my way further into where I was playing the song and lots of people were hearing it and I was speaking to journalists, so by the time I released the song, it wasn’t impulsive. It wasn’t as drastic as it could have been.
Mum knows best!
Mums and dads. My mum’s a bit nuts, but like, she’s wise and she knows what she’s talking about!
What about musically and music taste formation - what music was your mum into when you were growing up?
My mum? I think my mum is really responsible for for my love of Talking Heads and David Byrne. When she used to clean the living room, she used to put a VHS tape of Stop Making Sense on, and I remember it so vividly because David Byrne was this man with these huge shoulders and he was like a cartoon character to me. And he still kind of is. But my mum was awesome, my mum had like a second puberty in her 40s and got super into new music, in particular The White Stripes. And she took me and Romy [Madley Croft] to our first festival, she took me and Jamie to our first gig to see The White Stripes and she had to get to the front.
I think your mum and my mum need to hang out *laughs*. So I absolutely have to ask about Jimmy Somerville, like, woah, amazing, right? I can’t even say his name without hearing the melody of Smalltown Boy in my head. So yeah, what’s it been like first approaching him to work and now getting to know him?
I won’t talk about COVID for too long, I think we’re all bored of that, but like coming into isolation, I was like, creatively it was not happening. I thought I was gonna thrive in iso, I love my own company, I’m gonna do great tings - turns out to be bullshit, I need people. I made an effort to reach out to, and this is not in my nature, but to reach out to people that I didn’t know, just to kind of speak to and the first person I reached out to was Jimmy. It wasn’t even just like “let’s work together”, it was “Hi, mister Somerville, my name is Oliver and I had a band and I’m a big fan - how are you doing?”, like real fanboy stuff.
And from that he sort of became a pen pal, we spent months messaging back and forth before I talked about working together. He’s just such a special person. Like, my reasons for wanting to work with him, and not only because I think he has one of the best voices alive, but also because of what he represents around HIV and AIDS for many queer people, or just for people that feel a bit removed and feel a bit “other”. He means a lot. And I wanted someone on this song, I wanted someone to like support and to give me confidence and he’s somebody I’ve always assumed is just like this fearless presence and this incredible personality, I want some of that fearlessness.
And you know, the moment COVID would allow it, I drove down to the seaside to go and visit him. And you know, he’s not fearless, he’s like, full of fear, just like me, but he’s kind of done all the things that he’s done for the past four decades, despite feeling afraid, which has just made him so much more human and yeah, I just love him. And he’s funny, a little weird, and he’s been so generous and so nurturing with me. Not only did he come into the studio and record, which is something he doesn’t really do very much anymore, and he was nervous about coming to the studio, he was like “I’m 60, the voice isn’t what it used to be”, but the moment he started singing, I started crying. It’s like, perfect, and stronger than ever. But he agreed to be in my short horror film and be covered in glitter and fake blood. He’s an angel.
That’s just all so beautiful! Like, yeah, I’m just loving hearing all of that! So, horror films - your love of horror films is something that’s been mentioned in the lead-up to this record too, so I’ curious, what sort of horror, like favourite films or directors?
Yeah, like a reason I gravitate towards horror is just like the characters, like categories of characters that I like, I adore, which is the monster in particular, like a certain type of monster which is, you know, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Norman Bates from Psycho, Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs, which to me, all three of those characters are like, repressed homosexuality. But they’re just fun, like I say this on the record but like, Disney Princes actually never did anything for me. But those kinds of complicated characters I loved. And then I suppose like the final girls, the heroines like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween or Sigourney Weaver in Alien, Sissy Spacek in Carrie. Yeah, they’re my girls.
And it’s interesting when you phrase it like that, like, the spectrum from repressed homosexual monsters to strong female heroines, I never thought of that!
Mum and dad, mum and dad. Like, those final girls weren’t feminine - they were beautiful and sexy but they were also pissed off, angry and powerful, which was what I wanted to be.
Hell yeah, I could go on a massive tangent to keep talking films with you but let’s not do that - let’s talk about live shows, and solo Oliver Sim live shows. So you just recently played your debut live show in London, what was that like and how does this all come together in a live show?
I’ve only done a handful of shows, and I’ve got a tour later in the year, but, you know, I’ve been in the XX since I was 15 with my two best friends. I’m never going to be able to recreate that level of like, understanding and communication and like safety and security that I have with Romy and Jamie… but that’s kind of the point of just putting myself in positions that I’m not used to, and I can learn some new stuff. I tried putting down my bass guitar, like only played three songs in the set. My bass - that’s my shield, that’s my weapon, and my shield to keep my hands busy.
So scary, it’s been really scary, but it’s been great as well. So many of those feelings, and I think the shows themselves remind me of that first XX record, in that there’s that naivety and that unknown fear, but also that excitement. As the XX has gone on, I haven’t lost any of my enthusiasm. It changes, because it’s like, you have one body of work that’s been received well, so you can have that safety. Me on my own, I din’t have that, so it’s fun to reconnect with those kind of teenage feelings again.
So speaking of rekindling teenage feelings and nostalgia and whatnot - at your recent London show you put an amazing spin on Nancy Boy by Placebo, one of my all-time fave 90s tracks - what do you look for in a cover, what leads you to cover something like Nancy Boy?
Something that I know I have a really strong emotional connection to, something that I love. But also something that I think I could bring something different to, you know, if it’s too close to what I think I already do, then it’s like, “well, what can I bring to this?”. And Nancy Boy is, I remember hearing that the first time when I was really young, like a teenager, and you know, I didn’t understand that song. There were so many words that - like, what’s lube? Who knows, but I was like, I know this song speaks to me. You know when I talked about all those final girls, and all the attributes that they had, Brain Molko was the first man I had seen that had all of those qualities. You had the femininity, you had the sexiness, but he was making like, angry music. Like he had that aggression, but also that feminity and I was like “cool - you are an alien to me… and I love it!”. So much of this record has been about like the masculinity and reconnecting with childhood feelings, and that song is from my childhood and says a lot about masculinity.
I love it, and I can relate to being like 9 or 10, singing along about “cruising for a piece of fun” and having zero fucking clue what it meant *laughs*. So finally, we’re chatting about a month before the record comes out and you said you’ve got a big tour coming up, you’re jetting off to the US and going all around Europe, so I guess just - what are you looking forward to the most?
I’m just feeling really impatient, I want the record out now - a month is far, far too far away. I think playing live is something I’m really looking forward to, because playing live is the most immediate way to like, gauge reaction whereas being in the studio and releasing records is kind of a slow burn. To be able to see people’s faces - having the music out and being able to see people’s faces, it’s just so immediately gratifying, and that’s the thing I’m most looking forward to. Also just like, getting the music out, getting the whole thing out because I’ve loved putting out these individual songs, but to me this record has got a beginning, a middle and an end, and I want people to hear it in its entirety.
And hopefully people in Australia will get to hear the record live in person sometime soon?
I mean it only makes sense, considering I started the record there, it would only make sense.
Hopefully sooner rather than later! Oliver, thanks so much for chatting and giving your time, that was so much fun!
Cheers, have a great day, cheers!