The Horror and Happiness of Oliver Sim
LOS ANGELES — Oliver Sim was happy to be a freak. 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 was living out his fanboy fantasies of becoming a creature from a horror movie.
“They were like, ‘You need to relax your face, you need to stop smiling,'” Sim recently recalled, explaining how a makeup artist who stuck a textured prosthesis on her forehead asked her to take it down a notch.
Sim knows he doesn’t have a reputation for smiling too much. Since his teens, he’s been part of xx, a band whose minimalist post-punk vision is synonymous with whimsical restraint and understatement. Thirteen years after the band’s debut, he’s released his first solo album, and while it’s not exactly a laugh-a-minute, it’s coated in a brilliance of humor and campiness. The title of the album, “Hideous Bastard”, gives a good indication of the cheeky melodrama it contains.
“I think it’s kind of more who I am as an individual and not one of the three,” Sim said. Both of her bandmates have released their own solo music, which suits her very well: “As the Spice Girls all had their own identities, I wish the three of us all had our own identities.”
Sim’s voice on “Hideous Bastard” is flinty and melismatic. The lyrics are ironic and heartbreaking. “A lot of the sense of humor is very British,” he said. “To me, starting a song with ‘I’m ugly’ is hilarious.”
Oliver Sim is far from ugly in the conventional sense. He’s tall and thin, with gigantic amber eyes that he says turn a little green when he cries. On an April afternoon, he was sporting baggy khakis and a fresh tan thanks to a weekend of watching bandmate Jamie xx at Coachella. Something darker was hiding under his blue and white striped shirt: a T-shirt emblazoned with “Buffalo Bill’s Skin Lotion”, an allusion to the serial killer in the movie “The Silence of the Lambs”.
“Hideous,” a mid-tempo pop song with brooding, lush orchestration, opens the album, and its final verse hits hard: “I’ve been living with HIV since I was 17, am I hideous ?”
These words are true. Oliver Sim has been living with HIV for 15 years. Many of his friends and family were aware of this fact, but this is the first time he has been singled out to discuss his status in public.
“I wrote this song knowing that a lot of this record had to do with shame and fear and I knew I was dancing around something that causes me the most shame,” he said. declared.
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 status. “To me, it’s the opposite of shame,” Sim continued. “If I was in the depths of shame, I would have made a record without talking about any of this.”
When Sim first wrote “Hideous” he played it for his mother. “She gave me great advice,” he recalls. “She was like, ‘How about you have a few conversations before you do this?'”
He has spent the past two years doing just that. “It was difficult,” he said, using an expletive. “But each has been easier.”
Sim has also spent this time reaching out to other gay musicians, seeking guidance and camaraderie. “First, I went straight to the top and contacted Elton,” he said. Elton John introduced him to Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters, Perfume Genius and Jimmy Somerville.
Somerville, who founded the pioneering gay pop group Bronski Beat in the 1980s, became a pen pal, then friend and collaborator, contributing vocals to three tracks on Sim’s album and appearing as a twinkling alien in the short film “Hideous”.
The film, which is set entirely to tracks from Sim’s album, was directed by Yann Gonzalez, another gay artist Sim contacted during the pandemic. “I confessed to him that the first time I met one of my ex-boyfriends, we were swapping xx music,” Gonzalez said in a video interview. “So it was very emotional.”
Their correspondence led to the film “Hideous”, a pastiche of early silent films, 1960s British television, 1970s glam rock and 1980s gay pornography. story of a pop star who comes out as gay on live television. The outsized ridicule he faces from the public literally turns him into a monster.
“I have to kill Jamie xx, which I always wanted to do,” Sim said, referring to the monster’s first kill, played by his teammate. Sim speaks with great affection for his bandmates (whom he swears are funny) but also likes to rib them. “If I had to criticize the band, there wouldn’t have been much sense of humor,” Sim later said with a laugh.
Horror has long fascinated Sim, and during our afternoon in Pasadena he toured the filming locations of one of his favorite movies, “Halloween,” recreating poses as both the killer, Michael Meyers, and the last girl, played by her favorite actress, Jamie Lee Curtis.
“I feel the energy,” he said with a broad smile outside one of the houses. He pointed to a window. “That’s where Mike kills his sister,” he said.
Next stop was Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a site he hadn’t visited since the xx played a show there in 2012. Sim remembers little of that night other than riding around in a golf cart and being hit by l actor January Jones. “It was a very boozy time,” said Sim, who is currently sober and on a 12-step program.
We passed a bust of Burt Reynolds that Oliver greeted as “Mr. Burt” and walked around two headstones labeled “DADDY”. Sim used to walk through Brompton Cemetery in London on his way to the primary school. He remembers being warned by his mother not to stray from the paths. As a child, he was unaware that the cemetery was a popular meeting place for men seeking anonymous encounters.
At 13 – when he had already reached his current height of 6ft 3in but was even skinnier – Sim plucked up the courage to buy a pint at a local gay bar, not knowing he was addressing “bears”, a term for burly, shaggy gays. The other customers ignored him.
“I ran that pint for three hours and then had a ‘Dancing on My Own’ moment,” he recalled.
As his teenage years progressed, he gradually became more comfortable with his gay identity. Then, at age 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 was just opening the doors and it closed them a bit.”
The stigma associated with HIV had a lasting impact on him. “It started to marry with my sexuality,” he said. “As if sex itself was something destructive, dangerous or shameful.”
“And I think I wanted to separate that, separate those two,” he added, referring to his new album. But Sim stressed that HIV is only part of the story he tells in ‘Hideous Bastard’.
“This record is not about HIV,” he said. “I’m not naive, I know we’re going to talk about it and it’s going to be a defining part, but that’s not how I see this record. It’s about shame, it’s about out of fear and it’s a party.
After the cemetery, Sim wanted ice cream. His publicist knew of a great place in Los Feliz that offered flavors like cookies and jam and all things bagel. Before entering the store, Sim lit a cigarette and talked about Jamie Lee Curtis. “I think I wanted to be her: angry and sexy,” he said.
Sim doesn’t seem angry. He also does not come across as moody or withdrawn, as he has often been portrayed in the past. In person, he was quick to laugh and easy to talk to. As we drove around Los Angeles, he talked about a recent date, sang Janet Jackson’s “Together Again” and professed his love for the reality TV show “Selling Sunset.”
“I don’t think I’m the shy, awkward person that’s perhaps been written about or portrayed,” he said, tapping out a cigarette. The pandemic also made him realize he wasn’t quite the introvert he always thought he was.
“I thought that was life for me,” he said of his time alone. “I quickly realized that was not the case.”
“I’m on this journey,” he added, “where I realized that I love people.”