The xx's Oliver Sim on how George Michael, American Psycho, and living with HIV inspired his solo debut
On a warm afternoon in September, Oliver Sim's airy London kitchen is filled with flowers. The xx singer, whose aching voice can seem to capture a world of emotion in every tremble, has just released his debut solo album, Hideous Bastard, an exquisitely off-kilter alt-pop suite produced by his xx bandmate Jamie xx. "I see it as a celebration of the things I had thought made me hideous in some way," he says as sunlight streams through his French doors. "It's the process of talking about it and airing it out."
The LP's opening track, "Hideous," is a stately ballad that is almost unbearably affecting. "Radical honesty / Might set me free," Sim sings, before disclosing that he's been living with HIV since he was 17. His voice weaves through swoony Stereolab-esque electronic textures throughout the record, its victorious pop moments laced with a droning pulse, going in and out of tune. "It's quite 'horror soundtrack' to me," says Sim, who has a lifelong love of scary films and their heroines. "It's very beautiful, but also a little bit ominous."
A short film to accompany the album, directed by Yann Gonzales (2018's Knife + Heart), plunges further into the twilight of midnight movies. Sim plays a dashing singer who morphs into a horned monster with leathery green skin, an outcast who exacts bloody revenge on those who cross him. It is a surreal romp, with a point to make about the persistent stigma around HIV. According to a 2020 study, more than half of Americans think it is important to "be careful" around HIV-positive people, an inaccurate belief given that HIV-positive people on medication cannot pass on the virus.
By physically embodying deformity, Sim imbues his take on pop with slyly political theater that tackles prejudice head-on — while also being heaps of fun. He references George Michael, whose trailblazing '80s and '90s music often put the so-called taboo of sex at its center. "He turns it on his head and asks the question, 'Is this my shame or is this yours?'" says Sim. "And turns it into something that's super attractive and hot."
Sim spoke to EW about stepping out on his own, getting sober, channeling Patrick Bateman, and the advice he got from Elton John.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you always know you wanted to disclose your HIV status as part of this record?
OLIVER SIM: Not in the beginning. I wrote "Hideous" two-thirds in. By that point I knew I was stuck around my status. If I'm talking about shame, that's the thing that's caused me the most shame. The reason why it's at the very end of the song is that I only decided to put it in at the very end. For ages, I thought of all the different poetic ways I could say "HIV" and how I could be vague. But it didn't feel good. Trying to find a different word felt like I felt ashamed.
Your vocals are multi-tracked on "Sensitive Child" and pitched down on "Never Here." How did you want to explore your singing voice?
All of my career has been singing in the xx with Romy [his bandmate]. But this is the first time stepping out, and it's like, 'Where does my voice go?' So much of my identity I can control [is in] my voice. When I go into, like, certain spaces my voice drops down, basically stamping out any queerness. Noticing myself do that I'm like, 'Why? Who am I doing this for?' [I was] playing with that. How low can I go to the point of it being like a parody of what I think a masculine voice would sound like? And then, pushing it further, it becomes demonic.
Your new song "Unreliable Narrator" is inspired by the monologues of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman. What made you want to riff on that character?
Initially, I had sampled that monologue. But it turns out sampling film [audio] is a bit of a minefield, and we ended up having to get in touch with Christian Bale… it just wasn't going to happen. So I ended up making the song my interpretation of that. And also Norman Bates at the end of Psycho, when he's in the cell saying, "They're watching me, but I'm not going to hurt a fly. I'm just a harmless little lady." It's so grotesque; it's brilliant. I love that because it is relatable to some degree, in the sense of wearing a mask that you think is going to be well received in the outside world.
You now have an action figure.
It's so good. [He pulls it out and recites its safety warning.] "Choking hazard: may contain small parts." Which is very rude.
Did you always collect them?
I had a few Dragon Ball Z figurines. It was a weird show. I found it quite hot. The main guy was a real heartthrob.
I know you've struck up a friendship with Elton John. Would you ever do a song with him?
I'd love to. So he's had Dua Lipa, Britney… then me! [laughs]
Has he given you any advice?
He's given me lots of advice. I think the best thing is that he's been like, "I'll be here." From [an addiction] recovery place, he's been great.
Is it important to have other gay, sober people around you? [Sim became sober in 2016.]
Yeah. Especially having people that are further along and are successfully out in the world. As a whole, there's this fear of "I'm gonna isolate myself if I cut out drugs and drink."
Do you think you could have made this record at a younger age?
It would've been very different if I made this in my 20s. It would've been an album of love songs. I still think that's vulnerable, but love songs are my home. I can hide behind talking about somebody else.
Do you think you need to be in love to write a good love song?
Absolutely not. When we started writing the xx's first album [2009's xx] I hadn't been in love. I was a teenager. Most of my writing was about how excited I was by the idea of love and my projections into the future and entities. I felt really insecure about that for a while. Romy's writing was meaningful because she'd had a few relationships under her belt, but mine wasn't. But I think writing about fantasies is still a very revealing thing.
On "Hideous" you sing about living as HIV+ since you were 17. What was your headspace like at that age?
I'm still dealing with it. It just made me scared, because at that age [I was taking] my first steps into the world and I thought I'd hurt myself — like the outside world was something to be scared of, and like my sexuality was something to be scared of. It kind of shut me down. From opening the doors, I shut them again. It was a burden, but it's not a burden I feel I have to carry going into relationships now. I haven't had much experience yet. I've just been married to my work. But watch out, world.
If you were going to take someone on a date tomorrow, where would you go?
Ice-skating, bowling. I am down for the 12-year-old birthday party.
Did you watch the show Heartstopper?
Yeah. Twice. It fully warmed my heart. But it made me sad in moments because that was obviously not my experience. I didn't even have a secret boyfriend in secondary school. No flirtations. I would have loved one!
Hideous Bastard is out now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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