It’s been 10 years since Sydney musician iOTA’s last live tour, but he hasn’t exactly been idle in that time — he’s been beating Hugh Jackman for awards, getting paid to party with Leo DiCaprio, and blasting metal licks from a flame-throwing guitar while hanging from the top of a truck tearing through Namibia.
You probably heard of iOTA in the early 2000s through his music — he released five albums through 1999 and 2005, and was nominated for six ARIAs in the process — but that’s just scratching the surface of his eclectic career.
“I got really bored with touring [in 2005], and I was just at this weird point where I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore’,” he explains. “Out of the blue, I got approached to do something in theatre, and then that just took over.
“I’ve been so busy with that ever since. There just didn’t seem to be a point to touring, really. I could still make music and still do all those things I like doing, at the same time I was discovering a new part of myself through theatre.”
That first theatre role was as Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and he won the Helpmann Award for Best Male Actor in a Musical for it — beating Hugh Jackman’s turn in The Boy From Oz.
You could call that beginner’s luck, but the truth is, iOTA had been acting for years. Growing up as a closeted young man in a country town, struggling with agoraphobia and social anxiety, iOTA — or Sean Hape, as he was known back then — had to learn how to present a false face to the world.
“It was a different world,” he remembers. “I built a character up around myself that could go out and have fun, but there were a lot of drugs and alcohol involved. It’s hard for me to really talk about.
“I think that isolation has always been part of who I am, and I’ve just found different ways of dealing with it. And, you know, performing is one of those ways. Sometimes I wonder why I do it, because it fills me with so much fear. But when I step on stage, all the fear goes away, because it’s like fight or flight. For that one hour, I feel invincible. If I didn’t, I would fall over. It’s a strange situation to be in.
“The theatricality of iOTA is a total reaction to having been in the closet and having to become someone else. But at the same time, iOTA wasn’t my original name, so I’ve shed one character and become another one. I don’t think I’m really being the person that I am when I’m at home, in my lounge room, when I’m on stage. It’s just another character again.”
The band Sean had been playing with at country pubs eventually relocated to Sydney, and it was there that iOTA really bloomed. He came out; he changed his name by deed poll; he recorded those five albums, to varying degrees of success; he was nominated for those six ARIAs.
Then there was Hedwig, then the Helpmann, followed by a stint as Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show and another Helpmann for his original cabaret show, Smoke & Mirrors.
Then the movies came calling.
First, he played The Orchestra Leader in The Great Gatsby, thrown straight into the Hollywood deep end with Baz Luhrmann, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan and one of the wildest sets in history.
“It was a heavy experience, being involved with those people and that massive, massive production,” he says.
“When I got home after the first day on the set, I was just so exhausted. I was on set with 250 extras and some A-list celebrities standing right next to me and Baz Luhrmann yelling things and cameras flying over my head and explosions going off. And I’m someone who would prefer to be at home, being agoraphobic, you know?
“I was there for two weeks, and every day I was there was like a roller coaster.”
It was his next role, though, that would give him his own place in film history.
He played The Doof Warrior, the masked maniac playing a flame-throwing guitar atop a wall of speakers on a truck careening through the desert in Mad Max: Fury Road.
He was, in short, the most insane thing about one of the most insane films of all time.
“I’m a big Mad Max fan; I saw Mad Max 2 at the drive-in with my dad when I was 12, and I always wanted to be in that film, or have something to do with that film, so I was very excited to get in there and audition. I just went in there with the attitude that it was mine.
“I didn’t really know what the character was, even when they said I got the gig. But when I went into the headquarters to meet [director] George [Miller], they had a model of the truck, and this little dude just hanging on rubber bands. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, is that me?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, that’s you’.
“The kid who saw Mad Max 2 was just going, ‘F**k yeah! This is going to be the best character ever!’”
Miller didn’t provide any sort of back story for The Doof Warrior, and iOTA didn’t need one.
“It was just like, let’s get him up on the truck and start driving down the road. I didn’t feel like I really needed to know anything. It was all there.
“Hanging from the roof of a truck, with a working guitar, with all those speakers behind you, tearing through the desert, with sand dunes on either side of you for days and the wind in your hair… it’s just hurtling down the road and I’m playing the guitar! They’re taking corners and I’m just flying off the truck, hanging off bungee ropes, just going, ‘What the f**k? How did I get here? This is something else!’
“I just had to start playing and screaming my head off. What other character development did I really need?”
With six months to kill on location in the Namibian desert, though, iOTA did start to craft a Doof Warrior origin story of his own.
“I made up a little story about his mask being his mother’s face. My idea was that his mum was killed and Immortan Joe found him and he was clinging to her head, so they took him back and eventually they cut the skin off her face and he made a mask out of it, and he wears that mask on the truck when they go out to battle. So I had a little bit of a story there.”
The movie ended up being nominated for 10 Oscars, winning six of them. It was a haul that surprised just about everybody — except iOTA.
“Because I’m a fan, I was just going, ‘Oh man, this is going to be the biggest film ever, and everybody’s going to love it’. It just felt like it had been set up for greatness, you know?
“The first two were incredible, but they were 30 years ago. The third one was a bit how you goin’, and then there was so much time between drinks. It was just time for this film.
“There’s a lot of CGI going on now, but the way they treated everything in this movie was real. There were real stuntmen and real cars rolling and real explosions. It was just the right time for this film. Everyone was so excited about it, and I hear people raving about it all the time.”
After production on Fury Road wrapped, iOTA went back to what passes for reality. He recorded a self-titled LP, released last September, and a new album, Wolf Number Nine, that’s set to drop next week. He played every instrument on the album himself, a first for the mercurial performer.
“It’s the first time I’ve released an album that feels like it should actually have ‘iOTA’ written on it. It’s the purest version of my work, so I guess it’s more satisfying as an artist.
“I’d compare it to painting, and not having other people painting next to you and suggesting you use a lighter shade of green. This is my painting, and this is my work, and I’m really happy with the way it’s turned out. It’s not virtuosic playing, but I did it, so it’s cool.
“If you’re someone who has social anxiety, it’s a lot easier to do everything yourself and not have to deal with other people. It’s easier to set up your gear at home and not have to leave the house. It may not be the healthiest method, but I think it creates good art. Any kind of struggle is going to create good art.
“I look at what I created and I go, well, sure, I’m agoraphobic and I have anxiety… but look at what I made!”
iOTA’s Wolf Number Nine tour hits The Woolly Mammoth (633 Ann St, Fortitude Valley) on Saturday 19 March. Tickets are available here.
We’ve got 10 double passes to the show to give away — enter now for your chance to win! How To Enter: Enter via the form below. *Entrants agree to receive future promotional offers from Bmag. This prize is not redeemable for cash. Entrants must be at least 18 years old. Competition closes 9am, Monday 14 March. UPDATE: This competition has closed. Congratulations to our winners — Ann Martinez, Rodrigo Pineda, Vik Bhatia, Richard Haitoua, VB Sangeeta, Jesse Irwin, Dana Jackson, Nic Huntington, David Killin and Ben Brunckhorst!