From the moment the xx’s debut album arrived in 2009, it’s felt like the group has been communicating in a veiled language. Over the course of their three full-lengths they’ve delivered hushed vocals about unreciprocated longing, hidden desires, and lost moments. “Intro,” the first song on the English trio’s first record (which currently has nearly half a billion streams on Spotify), features no lyrics—just a modulating, wordless melody that nonetheless evokes a powerful feeling of deep yearning.
On his solo album Hideous Bastard the band’s co-vocalist and bassist Oliver Sim is far more upfront than he’s ever been about his own life and what’s going on inside his head. In the singles and videos preceding its release, he’s come out as gay and disclosed that he’s been living with HIV since he was 17. Beyond those revelations, Sim uses the album to contend with (and on some level accept) his feelings of shame. But it’s far from a bummer listen. Sim has infused the songs with his dry British humor. Think of him, as he sings on album closer “Run the Credits,” as a “psycho killer in a romantic comedy.”
Like the xx’s albums, Hideous Bastard was produced by Sim’s bandmate Jamie xx. Where the xx have increasingly incorporated house music into their songs, Hideous Bastard is more overtly theatrical, taking sonic and stylistic cues from sophisticated British pop of the ’80s. As he made the album, Sim reached out to other gay artists, including Elton John and Jake Shears of Scissors Sisters. He became particularly close with Jimmy Somerville of Bronski Beat, a longtime HIV activist who sings on three of the new album’s songs and appears in its accompanying short film.
Sim spoke to GQ from his air-conditioned home in London while the city was in the midst of a record-breaking heatwave. He discussed how he got himself to the emotional place where he was ready to make this album and why he always identified with movie monsters over Disney princes.
Are the songs on Hideous Bastard new, or are they ones that you’ve been holding onto until you were ready to put out a solo album?
The earliest song on this record is three and a half years old, but I haven’t been holding onto them. I couldn’t have written them any earlier. I don’t think I was at a point in my life where I was ready to be so open. I didn’t feel like I had the nerve to do it outside of the xx as well. More than the nerve, just the desire. I love being part of the xx and I haven’t wanted to step out of that until now. This hasn’t been a longstanding dream of mine to make my own record, but now I’ve done it.
How do you feel about it?
I do feel scared. I do feel anxious. So many of these feelings remind me of the first band record we did. It’s nice, because I didn’t think I would experience that naivety and that unknown feeling of: Where’s this gonna take me? How’s it gonna be received? It’s nice to reconnect with those feelings.
What got you to this place where you could be so open about yourself?
I don’t exactly know. I reached a point in my late twenties where I realized that the way that I’ve been navigating things hasn’t been working. It’s been around fear and around shame. Slowly, over time I’ve become a convert to sharing stuff, and especially sharing what I struggle with. Shame thrives on being concealed and hidden. Vocalizing things I feel shame about slowly over time, I realized I was experiencing moments of relief. That was the place where I was at when I started to record.
Also, songwriting is so much easier than conversation. I don’t have to be in the room when a person listens to this. I don’t have to make eye contact. Even before I started really having conversations, I was putting it into songwriting.
You have that line [in “Hideous”] about how “radical honesty might set me free” and you’re talking about being more honest through your songs, but have you found yourself being more honest in your personal interactions?
No. I have not been described as honest very much in my life. But I think this record, the special thing that it’s done for me hasn’t even been the making of the music, it’s been all the conversations it inspired. When I wrote “Hideous,” the second person I played it to was my mom. My mom was like, “This is a bit drastic. How about some baby steps first?” She knew where I was at. She knew there were some people in my life that didn’t know about my status. There were quite a few people who did know, but I told them one time and then just put an invisible force field around it.
She was like, “Have the conversations.” And that’s exactly what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to make eye contact. I didn’t wanna be in the room when people were hearing this. [The conversations] were incredibly uncomfortable to begin with, but each one I had was slightly less uncomfortable and slightly less heavy. So the making of the music has been cathartic, but everything around it has really been healing.
How are these new feelings reflected in the music itself?
I knew that from writing songs, this could be quite heavy. I just didn’t want it to be a Debbie Downer. Although I keep saying fear and shame, and I’m sure that sounds sad and scary, I didn’t want to present it in that package. I like joyous songs that have a bit of melancholy. I like sad songs that have a bit of joy. If I described my ideal song, it’d be a song that you go out and dance to and then take home and have a cry to if you actually listen to it.
There is this sense of honesty and revelation to the album. But then you have the song “Unreliable Narrator,” and after hearing that for the first time, I did have a moment where I did question whether some of the things you sang about were actually true.
I wrote [“Unreliable Narrator”] for that purpose. It was fully inspired by Patrick Bateman’s monologue in American Psycho about “you can shake my hand… but I’m simply not there.” I’m not a psychopath. I’ve never killed anybody, but I think that that whole monologue is so relatable about wearing a mask. I put [“Unreliable Narrator”] in the dead middle of the record where you turn the vinyl. It would be such a psychotic move if I just said, “Anything I could say right now, plot twist, who knows…”
In the video for “Fruit,” there’s the moment where you can tell the kid watching the TV show sees you and identifies something within himself. Were there things that you saw or heard growing up where you were like, that’s me?
I had, and still do to this day have, a very intimate relationship with my television. As a little gay kid, I didn’t necessarily know what my sexuality was, but I knew I felt it was sometimes hard to find representation or characters that I connected with. So loads of the characters I loved were women either in sci-fi or action roles, and later on in horror roles. Buffy the Vampire Slayer meant the world to me. I loved her and I still do, because she had a combination of attributes that I wanted to have, which was the femininity and the beauty, but also she was angry. There are so many of those characters, like Sigourney Weaver in Alien. Jamie Lee Curtis as well.
The reason that I really got into horror was because of the monsters. They excited me so much more than action heroes or Disney princes, because they were oddballs. They were chased out of town for being different and they were the most fun.
In terms of musicians, I remember the first time I saw Brian Molko from Placebo. He was the first person who identified as a man that had all of those qualities that Buffy had. He was so pretty and so feminine, but he made angry, angry music. He was powerful, but powerful in a summer dress. I remember seeing him on MTV and being like, What is this alien?
The xx are associated with wearing all black clothing and having a monochrome look. With this solo album there’s a lot more color and glitter and sparkle. Where did that decision come from?
The xx created a uniform in the beginning that was black. It didn’t say too much so the music could speak for itself. I wanted to accompany this [new] music with some adventure and showmanship. I didn’t wanna be like, “This music is honest. This is me at my barest and most sincere.” After the past few years that we’ve had in isolation, I don’t want to see a musician performing in their bedroom. That’s the last thing I want to see. Entertain me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.