LOS ANGELES — Oliver Sim was happy to be a monster. too happy
On the London set of the short film Hideous, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday, the 32-year-old musician lived out his fanboy fantasies of becoming a creature from a horror film.
“They said, ‘You need to relax your face, you need to stop smiling,'” Sim recalled recently, explaining how a makeup artist who stuck a textured prosthetic on his forehead instructed him to flatten it a bit.
Sim knows he’s not known for smiling too much. Since his youth he has played with the xx, a band whose minimalist interpretation of post-punk stands for atmospheric restraint and understatement. Thirteen years after the group’s debut, he’s releasing his first solo album, and while it’s not exactly a laugh, it’s laced with a sheen of humor and camp. The album’s title Hideous Bastard gives a good indication of the cheeky melodrama it contains.
“I think it’s a little bit more who I am as an individual and not one of three,” Sim said. Both of his bandmates have released their own solo music, which he’s totally fine with: “Like the Spice Girls all had their own identity , I would love it if the three of us all had our own identities.”
Sim’s vocals on “Hideous Bastard” are heavy and melismatic. The lyrics are ironic and heartbreaking. “A great sense of humor is very British,” he said. “To me, starting a song with ‘I’m ugly’ is hilarious.”
Oliver Sim is anything but ugly in the traditional sense of the word. He is tall and slim with huge amber eyes that he says turn a bit green when he cries. On an April afternoon, he wore baggy khakis and a fresh tan courtesy of a weekend as he watched bandmate Jamie xx at Coachella. Something darker lurked beneath his blue and white striped shirt: a shirt that read “Buffalo Bill’s Skin Lotion,” a reference to the serial killer in the movie The Silence of the Lambs.
“Hideous,” a mid-tempo pop song with moody and lush orchestration, opens the album, and its final verse packs a punch: “I’ve lived with HIV since I was 17, am I hideous?”
These texts are true. Oliver Sim has been living with HIV for 15 years. Many of his friends and family members were aware of this fact, but this is the first time he has decided to discuss his status publicly.
“I wrote this song knowing that a lot of this record was about shame and fear, and I knew I was dancing around what shames me the most,” he said.
Sim said he was inspired by musicians like John Grant and Mykki Blanco, who do challenging and nuanced work and are also open about their HIV-positive status. “To me, that’s the opposite of shame,” Sim continued. “If I was deeply ashamed, I would have made a record that didn’t talk about all of these things.”
When Sim first wrote Hideous, he played it to his mother. “She gave me great advice,” he recalls. “She was like, ‘How about you have a few conversations before you do that?'”
He’s spent the last two years doing just that. “It was tough,” he said with an expletive. “But everyone was easier.”
Sim also spent this time reaching out to other gay musicians for advice and fellowship. “First I went straight upstairs and contacted Elton,” he said. Elton John introduced him to Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters, Perfume Genius and Jimmy Somerville.
Somerville, who formed the seminal gay pop band Bronski Beat in the 1980s, became a pen pal, then friend and collaborator, contributed vocals to three tracks on Sim’s album and appeared as a glittery alien in the short film Hideous.
The film, based entirely on tracks from Sim’s album, was directed by Yann Gonzalez, another gay artist Sim contacted during the pandemic. “I confessed to him that when I first met one of my ex-boyfriends, we exchanged music from the xx,” Gonzalez said in a video interview. “So it was very emotional.”
Their correspondence led to the film Hideous, a hybrid of early silent film, 1960s British television, 1970s glam rock and 1980s gay pornography. The film is largely impressionistic but tells the story of a pop star who comes out as gay on live television. The excessive ridicule he faces in public literally turns him into a monster.
“I have to kill Jamie xx, which is what I’ve always wanted to do,” Sim said, referring to the monster’s first victim, played by his bandmate. Sim speaks with great affection for his bandmates (whom he swears are funny), but also likes to spoil them. “If I had to criticize the band, there wasn’t much of a sense of humor,” Sim later said with a roar of laughter.
Sim has long had a fascination with horror, and on our afternoon in Pasadena he visited locations from one of his favorite films, Halloween, and recreated poses as both the killer Michael Meyers and the Last Girl, played by his favorite actress Jamie Lee Curtis.
“I can feel the energy,” he said with a big smile in front of one of the houses. He pointed to a window. “That’s where Mike kills his sister,” he said.
The next stop was Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a place he hadn’t visited since the xx played a show there in 2012. Sim remembers little of that night other than driving around in a golf cart and being bowled over by actor January Jones. “It’s been a very wet time,” said Sim, who is currently sober and doing a 12-step program.
We passed a bust of Burt Reynolds, which Oliver called “Mr. Burt” and walked around two headstones that said “DADDY”. Sim used to walk through Brompton Cemetery in London to get to primary school. He remembers his mother warning him not to leave the paths. Little did he know as a child that the cemetery was a popular destination for men seeking anonymous contacts.
At the age of 13 – already at his current height of 6ft 3 but thinner – Sim plucked up the courage to buy a pint at a local gay bar, unaware that they were “bears”. , a term traded for gay men who are strong and hairy. The other guests ignored him.
“I let that beer sit for three hours and then I had a ‘dancing on my own’ moment,” he recalls.
As his teenage years progressed, he gradually became more comfortable with his gay identity. Then, at 17, he was diagnosed with HIV. “It happened at a time when I was just starting to be open about my sexuality,” Sim said. “I just opened the doors and it kind of closed the doors again.”
The stigma associated with HIV left a lasting impression on him. “It started to wed with my sexuality,” he said. “As if sex itself were anything destructive or dangerous or shameful.”
“And I think I wanted to pull that apart, separate these two,” he added, referring to his new album. But Sim emphasized that HIV is only part of the story he tells in Hideous Bastard.
“This record isn’t about HIV,” he said. “I’m not naive, I know it’s going to be talked about and it’s going to be a crucial part of it, but that’s not how I see this record. It’s about shame, it’s about fear and there’s celebration.”
After the graveyard, Sim wanted ice cream. His publicist knew a great place in Los Feliz that offered flavors like cookies and jelly and everything bagel. Before entering the store, Sim lit a cigarette and gushed about Jamie Lee Curtis. “I think I wanted to be her: angry and sexy,” he said.
Sim doesn’t appear angry. He also doesn’t come across as dour or withdrawn, as has often been described in the past. Personally, he was quick to laugh and easy to entertain. As we drove through Los Angeles, he talked about a recent date, sang along with Janet Jackson’s “Together Again” and confessed his love for the reality TV show Selling Sunset.
“I don’t think I’m the shy, awkward person that might have been written about or portrayed,” he said, tapping a cigarette. The pandemic also made him realize he wasn’t quite the introvert he’d always thought he was.
“I thought this was the right life for me,” he said of his time in solitude. “I quickly realized that wasn’t the case.”
“I’m on this journey,” he added, “where I realized I like people.”