"What Brian Molko meant to me as a teenager, Perfume Genius means to me as an adult."
Interview by Emily Waller
Photos by James George Potter
It's a warm Monday afternoon in August and Oliver Sim arrives at Rough Trade West relaxed and wearing a broad, sunny smile. As one third of UK indie rock minimalists The xx, you might imagine he'd be somewhat unfazed by the smaller perks of the job by now, but expresses genuine delight at being invited to step behind the counter. It's really very lovely. We settle into two chairs and he tells me it's nice to be doing an interview in person, following a string of recent Zooms to promote his debut solo record Hideous Bastard, released 9th September on Young.
The final member of The xx to release their solo work, following music from fellow bandmates Jamie XX and Romy, Oliver Sim has not approached his album without apprehension. It's clear a great amount of self study has led to the creation of Hideous Bastard, an intensely personal exploration of queerness, of fear and shame set to striking songs informed and embellished by Sim's love of the horror genre. Though the record carefully and consciously uncovers years of anxiety, it is not presented on a sombre plate. Instead, Hideous Bastard embraces a peaceful euphoria and conceives a world that encourages us all to seek more truth in fiction.
Where I Am Now examines a personal journey, through music, connection and self expression.
How are you?
I’m doing good. It’s just under three weeks until my record is out so I’m impatient and want it out today, but also kind of don’t! Putting out records always comes with a faint air of sadness because right now it’s my choice to play it to somebody and I have ownership over it. Though it is too late to change anything, once you put it out it’s solid, so I feel a bit manic!
Who were your role models growing up?
Just as much as music was important to me growing up, so was film and television. Especially for a little gay boy, loads of the characters I identified with were in a category that I call 'female rage', like Buffy The Vampire Slayer. She meant so much to me because she was feminine and beautiful and able to have that sexiness, but also angry and powerful. They were all qualities I felt I wanted, what I felt I had inside of me, but couldn't share in the corridors at school. Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, Sigourney Weaver in Alien I think both have a masculinity to them, very statuesque. They were my heroes. Seeing Placebo as a 13 or 14 year-old and getting into them, Brian Molko and Stefan were the first people that identified as men that had those qualities, they had that femininity and they were making angry music.
I’ve taken on a lot of my parents' music. My mum used to clean the house and put on a VHS of Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads live film and David Byrne, to me, was the man with the tiny head and huge shoulders. As a kid, he was like this cartoon character type person who would always be doing things that were silly and as an adult I really respect it because that sense of humour is so important and so fun. He was someone to enjoy as a kid and later in life, has become a hero.
The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
This is music I would listen to in the car, with my parents and my sister. I do a lot of sampling on my record and it's way more than just using a piece of music because of how it sounds. It's a sentimental thing, it's emotion, because of the memories you have locked into it. We sampled Brian Wilson twice on my record (which is very expensive by the way!) and I leant into a lot of male harmony groups because there is something so masculine about them and I use that word consciously, because while it's also quite tender, the whole idea of men harmonising together is quite queer and I love it! It triggers something in me. So I've tried to play a lot with male voices and how they can sound and interact.
In the video for Fruit your younger self is depicted watching you on TV. It’s really quite emotional to watch, was it emotional to film?
That moment in Fruit is very much me. I was the kid who would watch Graham Norton because it was this really risqué thing on television, it was on Channel 4 and he was an outwardly gay man. Or things like Eurotrash and Big Brother, where I would watch in the family living room with one hand on the remote and the other on the door. And having that kiss in there, that’s the kind of thing that a ten year-old me, if I had seen that, it would have fed my imagination for months. I was waiting for moments like that and a lot of my childhood was digging for seemingly queer moments or making them queer in my head. In the whole film, I spend half of the film in prosthetics which was like all my Buffy dreams coming true. I loved it, it took three hours every morning in the makeup chair and I loved every minute of it! Those moments being under prosthetics and running around killing people, were so much easier than doing the more earnest moments, because with those, I didn’t have a mask. The bigger, more theatrical things were a lot easier.
It’s clearly important for you to be able to represent your experiences visually as well as lyrically. Is that something you look for in other artists’ music, to better understand it or gain a greater sense of authenticity?
Yeah, some of the people that I really fall for are people that create a whole world and interact with more than just music, be that fashion, art or film... something I can really get lost in. But making a film for me... I think I have made a record that is quite confessional and quite honest, but I didn’t want it to shout that, it didn’t need to be me performing in a stripped-back way. I think fiction can be just as meaningful as documentary film. It can be just as honest. I think the way I digest things, if it is delivered to me in a package that is shouting at me 'this is how you should feel, this is real’, I will almost automatically go 'bullshit, not it’s not, why are you shouting at me?'
I have made something that is meaningful, so I can afford to make something more fantastical and I think presenting it with a coating of fantasy and entertainment and showmanship makes it more digestible. It’s why I love horror, it’s taught me so much. It can be dark and absurd, but it can also teach me things, teach me to laugh at fear.
If you could send one piece of music, film, art or literature back in time and present it to 17 year-old Oliver, what would you choose?
It’s difficult to know what my 17 year-old self would be able to digest. I did a few shows where I covered Nancy Boy by Placebo and when I first heard that song as a teenager there was so much I didn’t understand, like I didn’t know what lube was or what the chorus meant but I felt like whatever it means, it means something other and I love it, LOVE IT. I don’t understand it but I need it and I want it. And now as an adult I think it’s genius and it says so much.
My own song Fruit I would send to my 17 year-old self, and the visuals that go with it. Me actually putting myself out there, I think I would find that encouraging.
Perfume Genius - Ugly Season
I love Perfume Genius. He is probably my favourite contemporary artist. He is fantastical, confessional, I just adore him and the way his career has evolved, though I was not expecting this record. What Brian Molko meant to me as a teenager, Perfume Genius means to me as an adult. He is able to be earnest but also hilarious. I toured with him once with The xx and I got really worried I came across as rude because every time I passed him in the hallway, I wouldn't look him in the eye! If he only knew I watched him play every night.
Being part of a band for song long, you must become used to certain comforts, like shared responsibility, companionship and collective vision. Did you find that the majority of conversations around identity were targeted more towards The xx as a unit, rather than each of you as individuals? And did that in any way prohibit you from being more open about who you were and what you had to offer?
Everything in The xx is a democracy, a shared interest. In the band I do bring parts that are exclusively me, but my love of horror isn't shared, Romy and Jamie aren't fans and they see it in a very different way to me. But having said that, making this record with Jamie was very different to the way we normally work, because it wasn't meeting in the middle. Jamie took a step into my world... we don't have the same record collections or references but he sat down with me and watched the films that have inspired me and he listened to the records that have inspired me. And also, he is a straight man and got involved in some really queer conversations, which I think is really cool of him, very gracious and very different to how we normally work.
Jamie has definitely brought parts of himself into this record and you can hear it but he would turn to me in the studio and go 'where do we go from here?' and it was terrifying! That's not how this normally works, it's normally a discussion! I am so glad I have done all of this but it has given me an appreciation of the dynamic of being in a band. I love being in a band and I haven't done this out of dissatisfaction for that. If anything I want to learn some new stuff and bring that to the next thing we do together. Jamie came to the band with so many new ideas and ways of working and it made us better and I want to do the same. It's like healthy dating outside of that relationship.
Eli Keszler - The Scary of Sixty-First (OST)
This is a film that came out last year and it's really absurd, about an apartment that is haunted by the victims of Jeffrey Epstein. But the soundtrack is amazing. I leant into a lot of the horror soundtracks I love, like Goblin and more contemporary things like this, those analogue synths that are very beautiful but very ominous at the same time.
Is Hideous Bastard a creative expression of feeling more at peace with yourself or do you feel more at peace with yourself as a result of making the record?
The latter. I didn’t start this record thinking I wanted to share any answers at all. The music has helped me a lot but it’s like all of the stuff around the music that has really helped me. It’s much easier for me to be honest in songwriting than sat down here with you talking because songwriting is a conversation with myself, there’s no back and forth. Making music and all of the conversations I have had to have with collaborators or in interviews, each has been an act of therapy in a way. I came into this record with so many questions, very few answers and I’ve left it with even more questions, but I feel a lot better for it.
Now that you have made a solo album and with all the joys and learnings and challenges that came with it, is there any part of you that regrets not doing it sooner?
I couldn’t have. It would have been a very different record if I had made it five years ago. It would have been an album of love songs and although they are revealing and they are confessional, I can also hide a little behind that. I wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t have had enough confidence to even start.
I really believe this album and the accompanying films will be completely transformative for so many people. Outside of the positive impact going on this solo journey has had on yourself, is that one of the biggest compliments writing these songs can really give you - that they mean something to someone else?
Definitely. I remember when I wrote Hideous and I came to Jimmy Somerville and said I’d love for him to be a part of this song where I had shared my HIV status and his advice was not what I expected at all. I thought he was going to come from a ‘for the cause’ sort of stance, but he said I hope you are doing this for yourself, that you’re not trying to see yourself as a martyr and that you feel ready to do this. If it resonates with anyone on top of that then fantastic, cherry on top.
I’ve really tried to reach out to a lot of people. A big part of my agenda for this record was that I love Romy and Jamie but I need to make some more friends! Being in a band with my two best friends gives me the perfect excuse to believe I don’t need to speak to anyone else, but I have reached out to more experienced queer artists, like Jimmy, like Elton and John Grant and the biggest message I have learnt from them is to take care of yourself. Since Hideous has come out I have made a conscious effort to not delve too deep into this, not out of fear of finding anything negative, but I have noticed that when you share something personal, people share a lot of personal stuff back. It’s incredible, but I am not equipped to dish out advice, so all I can try and do is share my own thoughts and feelings and hope that that does something.
Do you consider Hideous Bastard a turning point in your life and what is the greatest lesson you will take from it into your future?
It's definitely a turning point in my life. I have experienced no moments where I suddenly feel so much more liberated. It's always a slow burn, like realising you and I sitting here talking like this, I couldn't have done that three years ago. Or me playing a show without Romy and Jamie, realising I couldn't have done that however long ago... it's a nice marker of how things are shifting. I've made an album about fear and shame, not to beat myself up, but to air those things out. My life has been about trying to conceal things I was ashamed of; why would I want people to see or hear these things that I think make me ugly or different, or unlovable in some way. But this has been the opposite of hiding, the opposite of shame, so I don't see this album as a Debbie Downer, it's really celebratory even though on paper some of the themes are quite heavy
What does being happy mean to you?
Oh my god, that's a big one! I think it's complex. The whole black and white thinking of happy or sad, dark or light, I now have quite a balanced view on it and that is something I have tried to do in the music as well. If a song is maybe a bit heavy in subject matter, bringing some joy to it, even sonically, is a truer reflection of how I see the world. In a day I can be happy or sad all at once. Happy is a balance of things.
Oliver Sim - Hideous Bastard
Available on deluxe crystal clear, red or black vinyl variants.
An Evening With Oliver Sim
Rough Trade is very excited to present a special evening with Oliver Sim at Rio Cinema, inclusive of a Hideous film screening, Q&A, live performance and album signing. Book your ticket below and join us on Monday 12th September.