LOS ANGELES — Oliver Sim was happy to be a monster. Too happy.
On the London set of the short film “Hideous”, which premiered Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival, the 32-year-old musician lived out his fanboy fantasies of becoming a creature from a horror film.
“They said, ‘You have to relax your face, you have to stop smiling,'” Sim recently recalled, explaining how a makeup artist who stuck a textured prosthesis to his forehead told him to turn it down a notch.
Sim knows he doesn’t have a reputation for smiling too much. Since his teens, he’s been in the xx, a band whose minimalist take on post-punk is synonymous with moody restraint and understatement. Thirteen years after the group’s debut, he releases his first solo album, and while it’s not exactly a laughing matter, it’s topped with a dash of humor and camp. The album’s title, “Hideous Bastard”, gives a good indication of the brutal melodrama it contains.
“I think it’s a bit more who I am as an individual and not one of the three,” Sim said. Both of his band members have released their own solo music, which he likes: “Like the Spice Girls, they all had their own identities, I wish the three of us all had our own identities.”
Sim’s vocals on “Hideous Bastard” are paper thin and melismatic. The lyrics are wry and heartbreaking. “A lot of humor is very British,” he said. “For me it’s hilarious to start a song with ‘I’m ugly.'”
Oliver Sim is far from ugly in the conventional sense of the word. He is tall and slender, with giant amber eyes that he says turn a little green when he cries. One April afternoon, he wore baggy khakis and a fresh tan thanks to a weekend at his bandmate Jamie xx at Coachella. Something darker lurked beneath his blue-and-white striped button-down: 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 moody and luscious orchestration, opens the album and the final verse packs a punch: “I’ve been living with HIV since I was 17, am I hideous?”
Those lyrics are true. Oliver Sim has been living with HIV for 15 years. Many of his friends and family were aware of this, but this is the first time he has chosen to discuss his status publicly.
“I wrote that song knowing that a lot of this record had to do with shame and fear and I knew I was dancing around something that gives me the most shame,” he said.
Sim said he was inspired by musicians like John Grant and Mykki Blanco, who create challenging and nuanced work, as well as being open about their HIV-positive status. “To me, this is the opposite of shame,” Sim continued. “If I was most ashamed, I would have made a record without talking about these things.”
When Sim first wrote ‘Hideous’, he played it for his mother. “She gave me great advice,” he recalls. “She said, ‘How about having some conversations before you do this?'”
He has done that for the past two years. “It’s been difficult,” he said in an expletive. “But each was easier.”
Sim also spent that time reaching out to other gay musicians, seeking both advice and camaraderie. “First of all, 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 band Bronski Beat in the 1980s, became a pen pal, then a friend and collaborator, contributed to three songs on Sim’s album and appeared as a glittering alien in the short film “Hideous.”
Set entirely to tracks from Sim’s album, the film 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 exchanged music from the xx,” Gonzalez said in a video interview. “So it was very emotional.”
Their correspondence led to the film ‘Hideous’, a pastiche of early silent film, 1960s British television, 1970s glam rock and 1980s gay pornography. The film is largely impressionistic, but tells the story of a pop star who comes out as gay on live TV. The excessive ridicule he faces from the public literally turns him into a monster.
“I have to kill Jamie xx, which I’ve always wanted to do,” Sim said, referring to the monster’s first victim played by his bandmate. Sim speaks with great affection for his bandmates (whom he swears are funny), but he also loves to prank them. “If I were to criticize the band, there wasn’t much sense of humor,” Sim later said with a roaring laugh.
Horror has long fascinated Sim, and during our afternoon in Pasadena, he visited the shooting locations of one of his favorite movies, “Halloween,” reenacting poses as both the killer, Michael Meyers, and the last girl, played by his favorite actress. , Jamie Lee Curtis.
“I can 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 place he hadn’t visited since the xx played a show there in 2012. Sim doesn’t remember much from that night, other than driving around in a golf cart and getting a star hit from the actor January Jones. “It was a very drunk time,” said Sim, who is currently sober and on a 12-step program.
We passed a bust of Burt Reynolds who greeted Oliver as ‘Mr. Burt” and stepped around two headstones labeled “DADDY”. Sim always walked through Brompton Cemetery in London to attend primary school. He remembers his mother warning him not to stray from the paths. As a child he was unaware that the cemetery was a popular sailing area for men seeking anonymous hookups.
At the age of 13 – when he had already reached his current height of six feet but was even thinner – Sim mustered the courage to buy a pint at a local gay bar, unaware that it was aimed at ‘bears’ , a term for gay men who are large and hairy. The other customers ignored him.
“I let that pint work for three hours and then had a ‘Dancing on My Own’ moment,” he recalls.
As his teenage years progressed, he gradually became more comfortable with his gay identity. Then, at the age of 17, he was diagnosed with HIV. “It happened at a time when I was just starting to open up about my sexuality,” Sim said. “I was just opening the doors and it kind of closed the doors again.”
The stigma surrounding HIV made a lasting impression on him. “It started marrying my sexuality,” he said. “As if sex itself is something destructive, dangerous or embarrassing.”
“And I think I wanted to take that apart, to separate those two,” he added, referring to his new album. But Sim stressed that HIV is only part of the story he tells about “Hideous Bastard.”
“This record isn’t about HIV,” he said. “I’m not being naive, I know it’s going to be talked about and it will be a defining part of it, but that’s not how I see this record. It’s about shame, it’s about fear and it’s festive.”
After the cemetery, Sim wanted an ice cream. His publicist knew a great spot in Los Feliz with flavors like cookies and jam and everything bagel. Before entering the store, Sim lit a cigarette and smeared Jamie Lee Curtis. “I think I wanted to be her: angry and sexy,” he said.
Sim doesn’t come across as angry. Nor does he appear gloomy or withdrawn, as he has often been described in the past. Personally, he was quick to laugh and easy to talk to. As we drove through Los Angeles, he recounted a recent date, sang along to Janet Jackson’s “Together Again,” and professed his love for the reality TV show “Selling Sunset.”
“I don’t think I’m the shy, clumsy person that might have been written or portrayed,” he said, tapping a cigarette. The pandemic also made him realize that he wasn’t quite the introverted person he always thought he was.
“I thought this was life for me,” he said of his time in solitude. “I quickly realized it wasn’t.”
“I’m on this journey,” he added, “where I realized I love people.”