The Picture of Oliver Sim
May 10, 2023
Culture & Music
Oliver Sim had no burning desire to follow his bandmates Romy Madley Croft and Jamie Smith in making a solo album. Nor did he think he had the nerve. But he was working on a track – Romance with a Memory – with Jamie a while ago when his bandmate said, “I think you should make a record.” And that was the beginning of the long and painful birth of his debut album, Hideous Bastard. “Almost three years of me asking myself questions,” is how Oliver describes the process. “But if I’d come into it with the answers, I wouldn’t have done it.” Now he wants someone else to ask the questions.
“I’m ugly.” The first words you hear. First track, first question. “Am I hideous?” Oliver introduces his themes: fear, shame, loneliness, secrets, masks. A sonic storm brews, an angelic voice cuts through. “Be brave, have trust, just be willing to be loved.” Oliver counters with his coup de grâce. “Been living with HIV since 17, am I hideous?”
The revelation stalks his record, as it has shadowed his life. In that first track, Hideous, Oliver wonders if honesty will set him free. The hope and the tension are reflected in the twisted musical environment he’s created with Jamie, full of surreal little sounds that escape into the ether, breaking free.
Oliver Sim: “Hideous is the song that has kept me up the most. I remember I told my mum I had this song, and I’m talking about my HIV for the first time. And my mum was like, ‘Woah, woah, woah! OK, that seems quite drastic. How about you start speaking to the people in your life that you haven’t spoken to about it? As a test run. See how it makes you feel, and then go from there.’ So I’ve spent the past year playing people that song, having conversations first. And each conversation I’ve had, things have gotten a lot less heavy, and I felt a lot freer with it, which is something I just needed for a very long time. There are people in my life that I have maybe told, like thrown it at them, and then been, ‘OK, now we don’t talk about this’. And now I don’t have that. There’s no one that’s in my circle that doesn’t know, that I haven’t opened a door to where we can’t talk about it.”
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In the endless days of Covid lockdowns, Oliver started reaching out to people – musicians, filmmakers – he loves, figuring they’d be looking for conversations like he was. One of them was Jimmy Somerville. First he wrote a gushing fanboy text, then he drove down to Brighton to visit him. He wanted him to be part of Hideous, and if not, just be there for the moral support. Jimmy provided the angel’s voice. “OK, that’s a real sledgehammer you have there at the back end of this song,” he told Oliver. “But don’t do this trying to be a martyr or a leader. Do this because you’re ready and you want to. And anything that comes from that, that resonates with other people, is the cherry on the top.” Elton John said much the same thing when Oliver connected with him. And the wondrous John Grant, who is also HIV+. “I love that he can have a sense of humour,” says Oliver. “It’s often the people who are a little bit dark that are the funniest. That was actually one of my objectives from the beginning.” “I don’t think it has come through quite as much as I thought,” he adds ruefully. “But this has to be for myself, primarily. And I believe that’s what I’m doing. Though when I was 17 and I found out, the only person I knew who was positive was Freddie Mercury and he was dead, so if I can, I would like to be more visible for other people as well.”
The visibility comes with The XX’s turf. When they first appeared it was almost unfathomable how fully-formed they were as barely 20-somethings. Everyone said things like that to them, to the point where they felt like frauds. “It was a bunch of mistakes,” says Oliver, “…no, not mistakes, but we were figuring things out,” one such being Crystallised, the greatest love song of the 21st century, and the greatest testament to friendship.
Oliver Sim: “I like to sing with Romy. The first songs we wrote as a band, neither of us sang alone. Never harmony, it was completely in unison. Because we were supporting each other. This is the first time I wrote purely for myself, so I’m discovering different ways I can sing. We have a meeting point where me and Romy both sing. I’ve realised that from hearing her own songs. I absolutely can’t sing them. When Lifetime comes on the radio, I can’t sing it. It’s in a place that I can’t reach. So I think that’s made this record sound a lot different, because it’s the first time I’ve sung in these ways. I’ve loved it so much. It’s been a real touch of the new. It has aspects that feel like how it felt making that first record, of just stumbling across things, not having an identity or a language already set up. Run the Credits is probably the biggest departure. Sonically, it’s a place that I’ve never written in before. And it’s at the end of the record because I think it’s the most positive and most upfront in pulling off the mask and saying, ‘Here I am!’, no apologies. There are so many harmonies in that song, and I’ve never done harmonies. I’m a really big fan of male harmony groups like The Beach Boys, there’s something very masculine but also very tender and sweet.”
On debut single Romance with a Memory, Oliver sings “I only wanted to feel handsome”. He calls the feeling “a very real internal desperation”. Blames it on Gemini (June 15). His childhood was troubled. Winning people over was very important to him. But he was also labouring under the illusion that he was good on his own, that solitude made him stronger. Wildly wrong, Oliver admits now. “I love people, I love being around them, and I need to be around them. It’s quite difficult to admit that, though, because by my old rulebook that’s admitting I’m weak.” Part of these past few years of working on his record has been about adjusting ingrained behaviours, confronting the addictions they encouraged.
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Charm is still his armour. Oliver has been taken up by the fashion industry, ironic in light of that lyric, but also a quintessentially queer development. Like a 21st century Dorian Gray, male beauty masking a heart of darkness. Although Patrick Bateman is probably a better analogy. He’s the spiritual godfather of Oliver’s record, one of his Unholy Trinity. “I love Patrick Bateman because he is the personification of the mask. Even if you’re not a victim of tons of shame, we all have the feeling that we’re hiding some kind of sick side which we can’t share with the outside world. He’s just the extreme version of that.”
The Trinity is completed by Buffalo Bill and Norman Bates. At least two of them make guest appearances in Run the Credits, in which Oliver positions himself as “a serial killer in a romantic comedy.” He has been a fan of horror movies his whole life. His pre-teen touchstones were horror and female rage, even better in tandem, like Alien, The Fifth Element and Carrie. He could never bring it to the band – “The other two are wimps,” he snorts – but he relished bringing Hideous Bastard to life visually, collaborating with one of his favourite filmmakers, Yann Gonzalez.
“Our friendship came first,” says Oliver, who spent a year sharing music, film and literature with the acclaimed director before even discussing a collaboration. “In terms of film and video, Yann knows me better than anyone else.” The result is Hideous, a film starring Fehinti Balogun, Bimini, Jamie XX, a glitter-covered Jimmy Somerville and Oliver himself. It premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, and Oliver describes Hideous as “a queer horror film from Yann’s big heart and perverted imagination, and a dream come true”. Ambitious, provocative, revealing (and at times very funny) in equal measures, it’s a pitch-perfect visual accompaniment to the album.
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