The dynamic artist talks to the Sentinel ahead of his appearance in Bohemian Symphony at Sydney’s State Theatre – a night of Queen music performed by an orchestra.
There’s a singular, almost defining, image from probably the greatest action film of the 21st century so far.
A masked figure, swinging from a bungee tethered to a juggernaut, bristling with oversized amps, urges his marauding brethren onwards with gonzo riffs summoned from a flame-throwing double-neck guitar.
Well, that’s iOTA right there – in the role of the so-called ‘Doof Warrior’ in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
If not playing himself – then he’s playing a certain rock n’ roll life force which the artist himself gleefully adores. Compelling, carnal, unstoppable, scary: it’s rock-star cynosure taken to a bonkers but kinda logical extreme.
The out-sized thrills that, iOTA explains, he’s loved since he was a kid.
“For me it’s all connected,” says the singer/songwriter/actor/visual artist, on his formative influences. “Suzi Quatro and Bowie, and The Sweet and Queen, Rocky Horror and Mad Max live to me in the same universe of rock ‘n’ roll and leather and black and makeup and chaos and violence and catharsis … you know, all those fun things.”
iOTA has drawn on said fun things in an eclectic range of artistic pursuits: from roots rock to cabaret to painting.
Along the way, he’s won praise and plaudits, including a number of Helpmann Awards: Best Male Actor in a Musical (for Hedwig and the Angry Inch) in 2007 and Best Cabaret Performer (for Smoke and Mirrors) in 2010 – a production which (by the way) also netted him Best New Australian Work and Best Original Score.
Don’t stop me now
He now finds himself lending his formidable pipes to an evening of Queen backed by a 24 Piece Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Ellis. It’s actually the second time he’ll do so – the first, held in January, eliciting demand for a repeat showing.
What does it take to sing such legendary songs? And one originally sung by such a ludicrously talented – and defiantly ludicrous – performer?
“It’s about trying not to overthink it and just enjoying the song as you would,” he says. “Even if that does mean you decide to put on the moustache – whatever it is that gives you joy, then just do it – because the audience is going to feed off your excitement and your joy.”
“I will be swanning around somewhere between parody and authenticity,” he concludes, before adding wryly, “Hey, that’s my life.”
Queen – and artists like them – loomed large in his life when he was growing up in Pinjarra, an unassuming country town located 83km south of Perth.
It was all grist to the mill of an impressionable young mind.
“I first saw them when ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (the song, not the movie – Ed.) came out and I was eight or nine or something … watching Freddie play the piano with his black fingernails – I mean that was enough to get my attention! And obviously the song is just crazy – and very inspiring. So he and they have always been a part of my life.”
Kiss and make-up
However, in fact, it was spiritual cousins of Queen that were his major childhood heroes. “My bedroom walls,” he explains, “were covered from floor to ceiling in pictures of Kiss.”
Transformed by stylised make-up and costumes into their superhero-cartoon personae, the hard rock quartet from New York City offered an out-sized allure, alongside – at least in their ’70s heyday – an intrinsic element of what iOTA calls “grit”.
He eventually underwent a transformation of his own – and like Freddie, Iggy and Bowie before him, changed his name (when he was 26), helping him embrace a performative identity.
This flair for the outsized seems to have extended through his art – including, naturally enough, his painting.
“It’s colourful, it’s big and it can be chaotic,” he says of this work, “There’s glitter and there’s space things and it’s abstract as well – it’s kind of a puzzle in a way, some sort of therapy. I make a lot of mess and – then find a picture or story in there and carve it out.”
Duality between rock “chaos and catharsis” on one hand and control – like the frenzied Doof Warrior tethered by a bungy chord – on the other, seems to figure a lot in iOTA’s artistic practice, especially as he gets older.
Discipline, for example, has to apply when it comes to managing his body through the rigours of singing. That includes limiting his alcohol intake to a bare minimum – something, he openly admits, he has found difficult at times.
Managing excess in the context of rock ’n’ roll – part of its DNA – that’s gotta be tough.
“Oh man, it’s fucken hard,” he says, with a chuckle, “It’s fucken hard because they seem to go together.
“But you don’t have to include drugs and alcohol in rock ’n’ roll – it still works. Because rock ’n’ roll is a discipline.
“I think especially as you get older, you can’t carry on like a twenty-year-old anymore. It takes a lot more warming up, it takes time and you can’t just crawl out of bed and rock on to stage. At 52, I’m not going to be able to do it.
“Getting older has been a great thing for me – I can’t handle the hangovers [and] I have no intention of getting another one. You find some kind of wisdom. And if you’re gonna make it further – to your eighties and your nineties, you’ve got to start looking after yourself a little bit better.”
But then, with this discipline, he also admits to being to being mercurial (Freddie Mercurial?) in his artistic pursuits; going where the muse, or fresh excitement, take him.
“Luckily, I have an agent and a management company that tries to give me [structure]. I think a lot of it is not being able to do anything for too long before I get bored.
“And I think managing a bunch of different creative outlets is better for me because otherwise it starts to feel like a job, no matter what it is.”
Show must go on
These kind of contradictions and dualities have always been part of rock. Especially when, back in the ’70s, dudes in heavy white makeup and platform boots were singing gruff songs about “wanting to rock n’ roll all night”.
Ultimately, what cuts through about iOTA’s art is a sense of his pure joy in expressing himself. And singing seems to be most important to him in this way.
When asked, if some God (Gene Simmons, perhaps, or Freddie Mercury) were to bestow on him just one artistic gift and take the others away, he replies: “I had a moment where I was singing a song on stage just the other day. We were just sound-checking [prior to the last performance of Bohemian Symphony] – there was no one there, it was just me and the orchestra. And I just looked up into the light and I thought, yeah, this is a beautiful moment. So if this deity can give me that every day then yeah, sure, I’ll take the singing.”
Bohemian Symphony – The Music of Queen Orchestrated will play at the State Theatre, 49 Market St, Sydney at 8pm, Friday, 12 March, 2021. Tickets ($99.90–$149.90 plus transaction fees) are available at www.statetheatre.com.au/show-calendar/bohemian-symphony.