Ask iOTA why he’s gunning to be Australia’s next Eurovision hope, and you’ll hit an instant Waterloo.
“Look, I’m going to be honest … I’ve never seen it,” the musician-turned-stage star blasphemes of Europe’s gloriously tacky song contest. “It isn’t really my kind of thing. I’m interested in more subversive stuff. This is quite a mainstream thing for me to be doing.”
It’s an unlikely response from a performer best known for playing an East German trans rock star in a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a role that won him a Helpmann in his stage debut. Heels, make-up, glitter cannons – isn’t that exactly his thing?
“Well, that’s why I’m doing it,” he says of next week’s Eurovision: Australia Decides, SBS’s live show in which experts and viewers will choose the local who will be head to Rotterdam in May.
“I know I’m not going to win it, and I’m not there to even try to win it. And I don’t like competitions. Like, I hate Australian Idol and all that kind of stuff. Having to stand on stage while people judge me? No f—ing way. But in the end, I had a choice: I can stay at home that weekend, or I can perform with all this production and outfits and make-up, which is kind of what I do. So, that’s why.”
He’s not being facetious, “just realistic”, the 51-year-old says. His challengers include young names who have cultivated extensive social media followings through repeat reality TV campaigns: Jack Vidgen, Diana Rouvas, Casey Donovan. When he first learned of his competition, he followed them on Instagram; feeling “stalky”, he quickly unfollowed.
“It feels very intimidating,” he says. “I looked at everybody’s Instagram and they’ve got thousands and thousands of followers. I’m not going to win. There’s just no chance. But for me it’s just a really good way, for one show, for a whole lot of people to see me and what I do.”
For lunch with Hedwig while discussing the trashy glamour of Eurovision, excess is surely warranted. At least that’s what I tell my editors when the bill arrives. About two hours into our entrees – Nanjing-style braised pork hock with black vinegar tea, and tea-smoked duck breast with pickled cabbage and Chinese mustard – plus a couple of glasses of wine, the mains we long forgot ordering arrive.
He chose Spice Temple, Neil Perry’s modern Chinese restaurant, largely for its subdued environs. “I like it because it’s dark and it doesn’t get too clingy-clangy. It feels like you’re kind of up to something, some shifty deal,” he says.
Anonymity, or the preservation of such, is a recurring concern for the musician. “I don’t know how to negotiate fame,” he says. “When it first happened in ’99 with Triple J and it all sort of took off, I just pulled away from it. I’m uncomfortable with it, and I wish I wasn’t.”
That was the year his first album The Hip Bone Connection, with its haunting Jeff Buckley-esque vocals, was nominated for an ARIA for best independent release. “It was fantastic,” he recalls. “Triple J were all over it, crowds were getting bigger and bigger. Then I released a second album and, as all artists tend to do, I went arty. And no one liked it.”
2001’s Big Grandfather was an act of DIY petulance, a record he dived into after someone in finance at his indie label Black Yak casually whinged he’d spent too much making the previous year’s Little Carlos EP.
“I went off and said, ‘I’ll show them how much money I can save. I’m going to buy my own gear and make this album at home.’ Everything started to become an instrument – the kitchen utensils, bashing the oven. I would say, ‘Well, what would Tom Waits do?'”
He surprised the label with the completed album, thinking he’d done them a favour because it cost nothing. They were horrified. “I told them, ‘The album’s done.’ They went, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Yeah, check it out!’ They said, ‘What about the mixing?’ I said, ‘It’s mixed.’ I’ll never forget this – they just went, ‘You’re f—ing joking.'”
After bringing in professionals to tidy up his approach, the label eventually released the album. But without radio support, it – and iOTA’s burgeoning music career – “died in the arse”.
“I was devastated that people didn’t like it,” he says. “And I felt like a real sell-out when I was trying to do the third album, claw my way back with something more commercial, but they’d moved on. I was about to pack up and go back home to Perth because my career was over.”
In 2005, out of nowhere, producer (and fan) David Hawkins approached iOTA to play Hedwig. “I’d seen the film and loved it but I was desperate, had no idea what I’d do next so I jumped at it,” he says. His soul-baring performance was hailed as the “theatre debut of the year” by the Herald; his Helpmann win in 2007 was over The Boy from Oz himself, Hugh Jackman.
“It was amazing,” iOTA recalls. He vividly remembers his first night on stage. “I’ve jumped out of a plane before, I’ve bungee-jumped – it was way scarier than that. I could’ve died I was so scared. I remember downing a couple of whiskies and then walking up the aisle just petrified. I’m always a bit scared but I get over it. There’s this other guy that takes over, like ‘Oi! Get the f— out of my way!’ People still talk about it today. It has that ‘Did you see Hedwig?’ kind of thing. It’s nice to be a part of that.”
Stage success led to film forays, most notably as Mad Max: Fury Road‘s breakout Doof Warrior. “It was crazy what happened with that character considering I was only on screen for 90 seconds,” he says of the global attention that came with playing the film’s axe-playing, flame-throwing madman (wrapped in the skin of his dead mother, as iOTA insisted of the character’s back-story).
He’s turned down offers on other Hollywood projects since, he says – a “sphinx god or something” in Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt, a “small pirate-y part” in the last Pirates of the Caribbean. Screenwriter Natasha Pincus, who iOTA met while recently performing in Lazarus, the show David Bowie wrote when he knew he was dying, said she penned a script for him about a homeless guy who lives in his car, which is currently chasing funding. “It’s very deep and complex and it ends up somewhere you could never imagine, but it’s very me,” he says.
Music as well remains a constant, even if no one hears it. “I’m always working on new music; I just don’t push it. I don’t know why. Maybe I don’t think anyone will care,” he says. “I really like money, I just don’t like fame. I think if I had the confidence or figured out a way to negotiate that, I could probably rule the world.”
I really like money, I just don’t like fame. I think if I had the confidence or figured out a way to negotiate that, I could probably rule the world.
Instead he’s chosen small-town tranquillity. He lives on NSW’s Central Coast with his partner, a masseur, surrounded by mountains, ocean, lakes.
“When I work, I work very hard. When I’m not, it can be mind-numbing,” he says. “I don’t have anything to do with anybody. I’m not very social. I just want to be at home with my slippers. Occasionally I watch TV but it just makes me angry, I shout at it a lot. ‘You f—ing idiots!’ I like to sit and just stare at the walls sometimes. I get a lot of ideas from that, just letting your mind wander.”
Along with yoga and meditation, lately he’s fascinated with micro-dosing, the use of undetectable amounts of psychedelics, like mushrooms or LSD, to help treat depression. “I’m into all that airy-fairy shit,” he says. “UFOs, Bigfoot. I don’t necessarily believe in it, but I find it interesting. I want to feel like there’s magic in the world.”
Our mid-week millionaire’s banquet ends with a pineapple and rum chocolate bar, wrapped in cellophane, and paired with a glass of 23-year-old Guatemalan rum. Eurovision is decadence, this rum is my duty.
“Even my agent was like, ‘I dunno, what about this?'” iOTA reiterates of his unlikely return to the spotlight. “They know what I’m like. I say no to lots of things. But sometimes you’ve got to take a step in a different direction and just try something. I’m scared of fame and I don’t want people noticing me on the street, but I love doing what I do… But I want to disappear when this is all over.”
Eurovision: Australia Decides airs on SBS on February 8, 8.30pm.
THE BILL PLEASE
Spice Temple, 10 Bligh Street, Sydney. (02) 8099 7088. Mon-Weds, 12-3pm, 6-10.30pm; Thurs-Fri 12-3pm, 6-11pm; Sat 5.20-11pm; Sun 6-10pm.
Robert Moran is a culture reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age