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Stop Making Sense

Oliver Sim

Oliver Sim has become best known as the baritone-voiced bassist of British pop band The xx, but is now forging a parallel career as the dramatic protagonist, with a story to tell. Influenced by his love of film and television, Sim has finally found a space to be confident, and truly be honest with himself. 

 

I don't think I will ever get used to hearing my voice when I transcribe these interviews. It is so weird to hear it back, like another person. It’s like I also never really listened back to my old band's music after we were done. How do you feel about listening to your early music in The xx? Well it's been about 10 years since the debut was released and I just listened back to it for the first time!

Wow! 10 years. How did you feel about hearing it after all that time? I wasn't going, “Oh, I wouldn't do that. Now, I would change this.” I just listened to it and I was like, “Okay, that was a moment in time.” But it took 10 years to switch off that much like part in my head.

That makes sense. I once interviewed Tracey Thorn and we spoke about how at the time her first band Marine Girls was getting a revival of interest, especially their minimalist sounds. Tracey seemed quite surprised, as the sound created was more out of necessity than desire. They didn’t have a drummer, so they didn’t have drums. That’s 100% how The xx started. I remember, putting out that record and people asking us during interviews about how we found the restraint to make it sound so sparse. We were only 15 and I'd only just picked up an instrument. We didn’t have tonnes of equipment, so we couldn't have made a bigger sound. I felt like a bit of an imposter, because it's like being congratulated on something that was not intentional. Now, I think we've become better players and had access, so it has become more of a conscious restraint, but at the time, absolutely not.

If The xx started when you are about 15, there must have been quite an early interest in music? I definitely come from a family of music lovers, there was always good music playing in the house. My mum and dad were both really big Talking Heads fans. I remember my mum would always, like, clean them x. She put on the VHS of Stop Making Sense.

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The VHS? Not a CD or vinyl? Yeah, VHS! I remember it clearly. To a six year old me, David Byrne was like a cartoon character. Big shoulders and the tiny little pea head. He was so fun and goofy! Now that I think about it, I was lucky, because when my parents divorced, my mum had almost like a second puberty, in which she got super involved with new music. It was the same time that I was actually going through puberty, so we became buddies in that sense, and she also took me to my first gig.

Who was that? The White Stripes, I was obsessed with them! She actually took me and Jamie (Smith). We went so early to that show. She also took me to my first festival, and to see artists like Peaches, and I think even Queens of Stone Age.

That’s a pretty cool mum! Yeah I was pretty lucky.

What made you want to move from being a fan to an artist? Well, The xx started on summer holiday, when we had a break from school. We just spent it in London and it was in the privacy of Romy’s (Croft) bedroom. We made a MySpace, but that’s it. Kids at school that were in bands and they would like plaster posters at school. We started like gigging when we were 16, and it was mostly just doing covers. I slowly got the nerve to kind of start writing my own songs, however I try not lean into the whole idea of like, we were so shy, which people thought we were. I don't think we would be that shy, I just think most kids back then were that way.

We really didn’t need to be so aware and socially active online back in the day. Yeah, we went to The BRIT School in London, where people like Amy Winehouse and Adele went. It’s a performing arts school, and we were just not those kids. Romy and I would write separately because even as my best friend who I have known since we were three years old, the idea of writing personal lyrics together felt too scary. We used to iMessage songs. Romy and I are both massive gays, so we're not singing to one another. And so it's like parallel stories so it didn't matter that it was like a bit of a patchwork.

[laughs] Oh yeah, that makes sense now I am thinking about your song structures. Yeah, and then Jamie was making his own music at the same time. He was one of our closest friends, so he kind of started by making beats for us. He would make a CD of beats and we'd have to say to the sound guy, “Track two please!” And then we have to start playing. [laughs]

Was he not performing on stage? No, we were asking for him to perform live, but all he ever said was, "No, no!" However he eventually got an MPC and that’s when he finally considered it. I remember the first show very clearly, it was at a lesbian music festival in Bournemouth, I think it was called Ladyfest. That whole day was an attack on my nervous system. We were meant to take the bus down, but we missed our bus. So we had to take the train, but we didn't have tickets. So we had to hide in one of the toilets on the train with all of our gear. It was like a two hour journey.

Oh my God, you were in the bathroom for two hours? Yes, I remember it so well! It was Romy’s fault! [laughs]

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Ha! So you mentioned your writing process can be quite solo, were you writing songs for yourself during this time as well? Or is this something more new? I really only started writing for myself for this record. To be honest, The xx truly fills me creatively in every way I need, so I never saw myself doing my own music. This hasn't come from dissatisfaction from like where I'm at being in a band. I love it! That being said, I think seeing Jamie's solo career and how that positively affected The xx for the better. He learned so much! Jamie came to the last record with so many new ideas, so I thought maybe this is something we should be doing, both Romy and I. Just like some kind of musical polyamory. I just care what they think about me and I want to impress them and I want to come back to the next record. 

So this inspired you into developing yourself as an artist? Yeah, I care what Jamie and Romy think, I want to impress them. I wanted to come back to them and learn a whole bunch. But also part of the reason was I wanted confidence. My identity is 1/3 of this band, so I was figuring if I could make a record of my own. When I first started writing this album, I actually committed to this being my own music, but I had such an existential crisis. I think what we've built with The xx is something that has quite a strong DNA, and I'm not going to try and imitate that. But it just begged the question, “Who the fuck am I? What do I sound like? What do I have to say?” And that was really overwhelming at first, but finally I realised I can try absolutely anything, and I don't have to stay loyal to what I've built with The xx. This is something all for me, so I'm gonna try everything and see what lands. It’s like what we were talking about with The xx, everything came from limitations and making mistakes. So I start working on the first few songs I made ,and they were fucking terrible. They will never see the light of day. But eventually, I made one mistake and I liked it. It sounded like something of my own, and I leaned into that.

What made you know it was the right one, and it was you? I think it was definitely a feeling. I am incredibly hard on myself, and I think I made something that brought me joy, and this feels like something my teenage self would particularly enjoy and something of my own.

As a period of experimentation, was this process long? After a few songs, I realised I had common threads and whether that be sonically and thematically very clear. I was writing a lot about shame, and I didn't set out to make a record with a theme, but I think it was very much like where I was at in my life. To be honest, I was deep in therapy, and the whole, like concept of sharing was very new to me, especially talking about things that I felt ashamed about a bit. To free myself with them, that was completely new. My whole ethos in the past has been like, “Fuck no, I'm gonna talk about the things that I feel ashamed about or make me different or ugly and unloveable in some way.” I was not gonna highlight that. That's been my whole way of working in the past. So writing about it was a new and positive thing, but I know it is heavy, so I wanted to include some joy and counterbalance the dark themes. I lent to a lot of male vocal groups, because I think there's something special, you know, I sampled The Beach Boys twice on this record, which I don't recommend by the way. It is so expensive.

Hahaha, I can imagine. Those boys are pricey! [laughs] Exactly. Jamie and I did some of that work for this record in Australia. We were like road clipping from Sydney to Byron Bay listening to The Beach Boys, and there is something that just activates me about them. I think part of it is like a childhood memory which will always touch my heart like being with my family but also I don't know, I think the whole idea of men singing together does sound tender and beautiful. It’s a very emotional sound to me. 

Your debut does feel very emotional and considered, and a lot of thought went into everything. I had the visualisation of the record, before I had record, and I worked with some fantastic creatives. I then decided I wanted to make a film ideally with someone like director Yann Gonzalez. I wanted to just contact this guy because I love what he does. I messaged and was like “Hi, I'm Oliver, I'm a huge fan. Be my friend!" He was my penpal for a year before asked if he would work with me. The music and the film and the artwork all kind of happened simultaneously. They informed each other.

Did the film help give you directional inspiration to your writing process for the album? 100%. You know, there were songs that I wrote, like "Run The Credits" as an end track to the film I want to literally run to the credits. There's another song on the record called "Unreliable Narrator", which is in the middle of the record. It was inspired by this scene in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman is doing his morning skin routine, and he was saying something like, “You can shake my hand, and I might seem like personable, but quite simply, I am not there.” I fucking love that. The idea of facades was so interesting to me, and it was like a plot point halfway through this record. I thought that was interesting. So it is what we made as a scene.

You were quite good at acting in this film, did you enjoy it? As I spent half of the time performing under like two inches of prosthetics, it felt it would allow you to do so many things you wouldn't normally do.

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As it was putting a barrier between yourself and your character? Yeah, it felt safe. I’ve also been working with a stylist called Ben Scofield, and we were chatting, and I mentioned how I have spent my whole career behind my bass, and the guitar became my shield. Also, most importantly, it keeps my hands busy. I had no idea what to do with them. He came back to me with a really slinky glove. It was so genius because feeling like a character or something makes such a big difference. I love a prop!

Hands are so important, people notice a lot during a performance.  Are you now more comfortable with performing? I've recently done a series of piano shows, and which have been really fun. I enjoy the piano shows as there's something really camp about it, like the whole idea. I love it because something so fucking earnest about it, with a hint of humour. It is also so confrontational, that gives you a little bit of power.

With your debut is finally out in the world now, are you going to tour, or take a break? I think I still want to keep making music for myself and I would love to, like, share it, but album is a dirty word that I'm not saying! [laughs] I am also working on new music for The xx. I want to keep doing both simultaneously. It keeps things interesting! 

Interview by Ilirjana Alushaj Photography by Corinne Schiavone Styling by talent