Oliver Sim Wants the Truth, In All Its Horror

On The xx bassist’s solo debut, ‘Hideous Bastard’

On September 14, 2022
Photo by Casper Sejersen

Everyone thinks they want authenticity, but in actuality, what’s presented to us as honest and raw — endless social media stories, reality shows, six-hour livestreams — is actually preened over and manicured. The musician Oliver Sim recognizes this: It’s why his terrific debut album, Hideous Bastard, is all about how honesty is relative. How it changes over time in our minds, how it’s liberating to some but terrifying to others, and how it’s sometimes best consumed with a chaser of artifice.

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“The way that my head works, I need a level of adventure and fantasy to coat very real things,” he says. “If something is presented to me in a package that is overly earnest, is telling me, ‘This is real, this is raw, this is honest,’ my instant reaction will always be, ‘This is so insincere.’”

Sim, 33, has been an indie music darling for well over a decade as a member of The xx. Initially formed from the childhood friendship of Smith and Romy Madley Croft, the group expanded to include producer Jamie xx and won critical and commercial success with three studio albums released between 2009 and 2017. As the band’s bassist, Sim thrived in a classically unglamorous role, keeping the trains on time, while also showcasing a commanding voice on standout songs like “Chained” and “Fiction.”

“I couldn’t have done this album any sooner,” Sim says. “Mainly because I haven’t wanted to.”

Usually when someone in a highly successful band releases a solo album, it’s for one of two reasons: the once-solid dynamic is beginning to fissure, or they wanted to try something that they could not within the context of the group. For Sim, it is unambiguously the latter.

“I’m in one of my favorite bands with my two best friends,” he says. “I haven’t made this record out of dissatisfaction for where I’m at. The xx gives me everything I need, really.

Jamie xx produced most of Hideous Bastard, but Sim explains that the workflow was meaningfully different for this record. “The way we work in The xx, it’s a democracy,” he says. For Hideous Bastard, Jamie stepped into Sim’s world, which meant watching the horror films that he never had much of a taste for, and delving into LGBTQ+ topics that didn’t directly pertain to him.

“He is a straight man and this is quite a queer record,” Sim says. “He was involved in conversations that don’t necessarily involve him, but he was interested in it. It was so gracious of him.”

For Sim, taking the spotlight on I See You standout “Replica” helped him feel comfortable as a lead artist, but it was also Jamie’s 2015 solo debut In Colour that inspired his decision to make Hideous Bastard. Widely considered one of the best albums of the 2010s, Sim says he saw how making the LP didn’t fracture Jaime’s focus but rejuvenated him for their next group project.

“I’ve always seen making a solo record as breaking away from the band and that’s not something I wanted to do. The xx is my priority, it’s my home,” Sim says. “But seeing what Jaime’s record did to our last band record, he came to I See You with so many new ideas and ways of working and had his own identity; it made our record so much better.”

So much of Hideous Bastard is impossible to imagine in the context of an xx record. Musically, the cascading indie rock of “Never Here” and the jagged sonic transformations of “GMT” and “Confident Man” sound like nothing from The xx’s three LPs. Lyrically, songs like “Never Here” and “Unreliable Narrator” really establish what Sim sounds like on his own. The latter is a key to understanding the album — inspired by the skincare routine scene from American Psycho, the song makes the listener question whether everything they’ve heard Sim sing before (and everything to come) can be trusted as fact.

“I like in the middle to allude to [the fact that] anything I’m saying could be wildly unreliable,” he says. “That’s such a psychotic move halfway through the story.”

Sim plays with people’s double standards on the album’s de-facto title track, “Hideous.” Throughout the song, he teases what seems to be a dark, corrosive secret, drawing the listener in the way that a compelling true crime documentary or good horror movie does, only to reveal that the truth is not actually sinister: He has HIV. It doesn’t change anything about Sim’s worth as a person, nor does it define him, but it will surely change the way certain people view him, even leading to the irrational fear people felt when the disease first began to spread in the ’80s. But Sim recognizes that shame often says more about the judge than the judged. By claiming his condition in full-throated fashion, Sim not only destigmatizes living with HIV, he also makes us consider the societal wrongs that make such a diagnosis “controversial” in the first place.

“Shame thrives off secrecy and being hidden,” he explains. “It multiplies, and it walks.”

Sometimes, as Sim points out on “Romance With A Memory,” our mind can warp and refract the truth like a funhouse mirror, filling in for what we forgot or what was never there in the first place. The track is not some slow simmering love song as the title may suggest, with a steady percussive tick and Sim’s voice doubled on the low end giving it a guttural, monstrous quality. (He told DAZED its eerie synths are meant to invoke the work of Dario Argento.) “You’re just an idea / To keep me company in the late night / You were never really here,” he sings, sounding more bemused than crestfallen.

“Writing about memory is a funny one for me, because my imagination can really warp things over time,” Sim says. “To the point of it almost bearing no resemblance of actual experience.”

The visual components of the Hideous Bastard rollout have played into Sim’s love of scary movies — we paused mid-interview to marvel at the infamously bleak ending of Frank Darabont’s The Mist — including the “Hideous” video, which sees him experience a Cronenberg-esque transformation during a talk show appearance.

Sim had to cancel a fall tour, but has already played some of the Hideous Bastard songs live in environments that differ from the stadiums and concert halls The xx regularly fill. He acknowledges that even with the more manageable scale, the adjustment to being a solo artist — and a vocalist first and foremost — is significant. “The bass is my weapon and my shield,” Sim says of his signature instrument. “To not have that, it’s a daunting thing.”

He also recognizes that he’ll never find the same kind of unspoken understanding and kinship he has with Romy and Jamie with other musicians. But Oliver Sim is ready to present something different from the earnest camaraderie of The xx, something deeply personal that still winks at the audience. Even while Sim is baring his soul, there remains a mischievous glint in his eye, the sort of thing that makes him a narrator whose words you hang on, whether they’re 100 percent true or not.

“I don’t need art, whether that be musical, film, to tell me it’s honest. It doesn’t need to shout at me. I think I’ve made an honest record,” Sim says. “I don’t have to perform in a very stripped-back way for people to be able to feel that or see that. So I want showmanship, I want performance, I want theater.”

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Grant Rindner

Grant Rindner is a freelance music and culture journalist in New York. He has written for Dazed, Rolling Stone and COMPLEX.

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