Phil Jamieson, musician and performer, American Idiot
It’s so much more than playing with three other guys in a band – there are so many moving parts in this theatre business that you don’t want to be that guy that screws up ...
One would think that playing countless sold-out shows to thousands of adoring fans would prepare you for a stint in theatre. According to Phil Jamieson, the two worlds couldn’t be any more disparate. As the front man for legendary rock group Grinspoon, Phil has had more than 20 years in the rock and roll limelight, but when he was offered the role of St. Jimmy in the Australian production of American Idiot he had to start from scratch. Not that you’d know it, though – Phil owned the stage during the musical’s initial run at QPAC in 2017, so it came as no surprise when he signed on for its second season this year. Ahead of American Idiot’s run at QPAC in April, we gave Phil a call to talk about pre-show nerves, morphing into St. Jimmy and the enduring legacy of Green Day’s American Idiot.
Take us back a little bit to the time Green Day started breaking through, because it would have occurred around a similar time to when Grinspoon formed. Were you a fan of Green Day at the time and did their music help shape any of your work?
I believe Nirvana was massive by 1992 and I was in year 10. Nirvana had a massive influence on me at that time, and I could be wrong, but I think Dookie was ’94. By that point I was so immersed in misery, teen angst and grunge that Dookie was a complete breath of fresh air. It was happier, the melodies were lighter, the songs were shorter and it wasn’t as proggy as grunge. There was all this stuff happening with Green Day that I really liked, but it didn’t really influence me as a songwriter – I just really appreciated it and liked it a lot. I thought it was awesome, (Billy Joe Armstrong) is an awesome songwriter and I really liked his attitude towards his songs – I think ‘Longview’ was about masturbation and what song about masturbation isn’t good? There was really great stuff happening with Green Day just before I started Grinspoon in 1995, but then I didn’t really pay them much attention after. We were doing our thing and Green Day was doing its thing and, coincidentally, it wasn’t until American Idiot came out in 2004 that they piqued my interest again.
What were your thoughts on that record when it came out?
The first single was obviously ‘American Idiot’ and then ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ came out not long after, and I was like, “Oh, wow”. It sounded different to anything Green Day had done before, and then I listened to the record and realised there were nine-minute songs on there with seven different movements. It was a like a rock opera and it was really ambitious and at the heart of it – even though those songs were nine minutes each – there were seven great songs in those nine minutes. It was just a great record. So then as they got their nous together and Green Day grew and grew and grew I could see that Billy Joe was a real showbiz guy – he was punk but he loved showbiz, you know? He loved the lights and the makeup and the costumes and I have a lot of affectation for that as well.
The period it was created and released was a contentious time in America and you could argue that history is repeating itself. How do you feel that American Idiot album stacks up after all this time relevancy wise?
What, an album about the media saturation of America and how people are getting dumber by the minute listening to it? Who would have thought such a record would be so relevant in 2017? Back then I don’t think Twitter was around, so look at today and the media saturation we have now. In reference to the record and its themes of political alienation and media saturation and the like, the musical – while it touches on that – it has a bit of a different narrative to it.
When did the opportunity for the production first come your way?
So I got an email from my manager saying, “This is a bit weird, but is this something you might want to do?” I immediately said yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I want to do this? This is great! I wasn’t immediately thinking of the repercussions of that, and when I first got to rehearsals I realised that I was in a musical with 13 other incredible, talented people that are half my age and can do cartwheels. It dawned on me that I would really have to have a fast learning curve. I realised quickly that this is not easy – it’s very challenging and I learned a lot in a short amount of time. It’s a really flattering thing to be even thought about for this, and to get to reprise the role again is really nice.
You’re a seasoned performer, but this area of the arts was obviously new for you. Was a project like this something you’d ever even considered attempting before?
No. I guess the opportunities are limited. I did musical theatre in high school, I was Joseph – and I was pretty fucking good, to be honest (laughs). But I never thought about it again. All of my sisters are dancers, they’re all in theatre and stuff – one of my sisters is an actor. I’m surrounded by it, in a way. They’re all really pissed that I’m in the musical to be honest (laughs). I didn’t think about it – I didn’t think the opportunity would arise and I didn’t think a role would suit me. I couldn’t see myself playing Aladdin, for instance. There are things that just wouldn’t work for me, but this kind of landed and I couldn’t say no to it because it was an opportunity to learn, to grow and to challenge myself. I’m 40, man. That opportunity was really healthy for me and I learned so much.
What were the nerves like coming into the performance part of the production?
When it comes to rock and roll, I like the mistakes of it – I like that side of things. You don’t make a mistake in theatre. (laughs) That’s definitely fucking frowned upon! It was hugely nerve-wracking being in this show, and I believe it still will be when I get to QPAC. I get really nervous playing this role and I think that’s healthy and I try to use that in a positive manner, but before the show backstage I am a bundle of nerves. I guess because of the team around me – it’s so much more than three other guys in a band – there are so many moving parts in this theatre business that you don’t want to be that guy that screws up.
There’s a different type of audience that comes to theatre shows as well …
Right! I try not to think about the expectations of audiences at all – once you go down that path you’re suckering yourself and you’re doomed. I treat it like anything. Also, it’s a different theatre crowd that we attract. With this production it’s almost a gateway musical, in some ways, because people that listen to rock and roll and go to see bands will love this production, and people used to going to the theatre and are used to seeing Matilda or My Fair Lady will love this production too because it’s so different.
What was it about the role of St. Jimmy in particular that you thought you could bring something to?
I’ll be honest, I didn’t know. The producers thought I could bring something to it, first and foremost. I just said yes immediately, (laughs) but to be honest I didn’t know. Then I researched the character and kind of got to understand it more. I guess he plays the villain, and what’s not to love about a villain? He’s a fundamentally flawed individual who leads the main character down a path of hedonism and becomes quite attached to him. I didn’t know I could do it, I wasn’t confident at all. I told you about how nervous I get – I guess the producers saw it in me, hence why I was asked.
Once rehearsals started, what was your approach to owning that role and making it your own?
We had very limited rehearsals, so even up until the first few performances I was still figuring out the character. I was working out in front of an audience how to do this. As my performances grew I learned that my relationship with Johnny – the lead character – was the crux of my whole show and how I could make it my own. I developed – is paternal the right word – a relationship like that with the main character. It was a jealous, paternal thing and that’s how I envisaged it and I also had a great director in Craig who led me that way as well – to be sympathetic but also a little bit jealous of Johnny’s journey.
After the initial QPAC run, was there a euphoric feeling within you when you stepped off the stage?
(laughs) Oh, I never felt like I nailed it – there was always something I wanted to tweak after every performance. I was never completely satisfied and in theatre there’s not the same euphoria as rock and roll. A solid performance is what they want, they don’t want these rock and roll moments – they want to be solid. I didn’t want to be just solid, I wanted to be fucking amazing, you know? But just being consistent is what is best in theatre – especially doing eight shows a week. The feeling was strange. It was good, but it’s very different to rock and roll. It’s euphoric, but it’s a different kind of euphoria.
Was coming back for seconds in the upcoming run of shows a no-brainer?
Oh, dude – I was so, so, so glad to be asked back. The production is amazing. There are some slight casting tweaks that I think are going to be out-of-this-world for people when they hear about some of the casting. It was a no-brainer for me. The experience I had in Brisbane in February and March last year changed the way I approach my performing in general. I finished a Grinspoon tour in October and I approached it differently compared to other shows because of this theatre experience and I think it’s been incredibly healthy for me to do – just to take a little more pride in the fact that people are coming to watch us play. You can treat everything like theatre, in a way – even this interview! (laughs) I’m so excited by the additions and tweaks shake and stir have made in order to make the show bigger. It is going to be amazing.
Is there any way that you personally are looking to up the ante when you step into the shoes of St. Jimmy?
Yeah! I start doing it again at the Opera House in January, so there will be nuance there because it’s a larger space. But Phoebe Panaretos, who plays Whatshername, was one of the people who took my hand and said musical theatre is not that scary. She said to me that she changes her performance every night, just slightly. That’s what I do, too. I don’t want to get bored – the nuances sometimes work and something don’t. Maybe people don’t even notice that, but I notice. There will be slight things that I bring and I’ll try to push further but a few nights later I might not.
For people that couldn’t attend the first QPAC run and are debating on whether to check American Idiot out this time, what would you say to them to convince them to see it?
Look, the world of sales is funny, isn’t it? (laughs) It’s a really beautiful story that has, at the crux of it, a really emotional, raw love story. I wouldn’t be in it if I didn’t like it and I think it’s worth seeing. It’s a musical for everyone, you get to see the musical gear on stage – they’re not hidden away – and there are really great moments and performances. I’m not great at doing the full pitch, but it’s a great opportunity that might not come around again.
American Idiot will be returning to QPAC’s Playhouse from April 13–21. You can purchase your tickets here.