Cheerfully performing in the worst possible taste

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ARTS: Cheerfully performing in the worst possible taste
By Ian Shuttleworth
Financial Times; May 12, 2003

The Tiger Lillies are whores.It's official; they say so in as many

words; whores, or "jetsetting tramps". The bizarre musical trio has

attracted a growing band of global cognoscenti in recent years, and

picked up a brace of Olivier Awards for a hugely successful theatrical

collaboration Shockheaded Peter, but the group still unashamedly

follows the money, out of bare necessity. That means playing between

250 and 300 live dates a year, anywhere and everywhere. The first

proposed date for our interview fell through as they were weekending in

St Petersburg; I finally caught up with them between their soundcheck

and the performance in Brighton.

It may be surprising that the

Lillies' critical cachet has not yet translated into solid bankability,

but not as surprising as the rise to prominence in the first place of

such a group. Adrian Stout plays contrabass and occasionally breaks

into Bavarian Schuhplattler slap-dancing; Adrian Huge plays what is

almost a toy drum kit, using everything from brushes to inflatable

mallets and a rubber chicken; Martyn Jacques, his face made up into a

black-and-white Expressionist nightmare, plays accordion or piano and

sings his songs in what he refers to as "castrato".


their material contains elements of Berlin cabaret, Parisian Left Bank

chanson and a raft of other genres from polka to klezmer. Their lyrics

concentrate almost entirely on freaks, lowlifes and numerous misfits

meeting a range of grisly fates. It's one part bleak poignancy to

several of pitch-black humour. They have released one album with a

circus theme, another devoted to various kinds of surreal bestiality,

from sex with flies to falling in love with a giraffe. Even political

comment is dealt with the same way: a criticism of French atomic trials

in the Pacific and the resultant birth defects among islanders is

encapsulated in the couplet: "Nuclear testing is all very well/When you

ain't got a bumhole, life can be hell."

This intensely

theatrical, bad-taste approach was born around 1990. Jacques, having

grown up in Slough (and subscribing fervently to John Betjeman's view

of that town's bombworthiness), had moved to London's Soho, where he

lived in a room above 20 Chinese waiters who slept in shifts and

peddled heroin. He was studying music (and making ends meet by selling

a little LSD), but eventually became disenchanted. Having experimented

with various vocal styles (he even went through a Frank Sinatra phase),

Jacques decided to make use of the upper register he fortuitously

retained after his voice broke, and to drop guitar and piano for

accordion accompaniment.

Percussionist Huge came to the group

from a string of undistinguished jobs in his native Dover, with nights

spent in an equally undistinguished comedy band; bassist Stout joined

in 1995, replacing Phil Butcher for an Edinburgh Fringe run. The Tiger

Lillies (taking their name, they claim, from a Soho prostitute who

dressed in animal prints) then began the slog of pub and college gigs;

they recall with a shudder one occasion when they were booked to play

at an Irish christening party behind a pub on the Holloway Road, "as a

sick practical joke".

The international component began early

on in the group's career. After a (literally) pants-soilingly

terrifying appearance before 1,000 people in the basement of Prague's

city hall, they were spotted by a small-time German promoter. This led

to "the annual tour of Mannheim, playing anywhere within a 100km radius

every January, with us shivering in the back of his pink Mercedes

ambulance". On one occasion they were engaged for the Christmas party

of the German computer company SAP, which was such a huge outfit that

staggered scheduling meant the party in question was held in April; two

women dressed as sheep gambolled through the audience, and perhaps

coincidentally the manager who had booked them was subsequently

transferred to America.

The Lillies cult grew steadily in

Britain and abroad until achieving a kind of breakthrough in 1998 with

Shockheaded Peter,a collaboration with Improbable Theatre's Phelim

McDermott and Julian Crouch, based on Heinrich Hoffmann's cautionary

tales about the punishments meted out to naughty children. The show

enjoyed enormous success, and played in various countries until last

year (with the Lillies being succeeded for the final London run by

David Thomas of American art-punk pioneers Pere Ubu). They now number

among their admirers the likes of Robin Williams, Matt Groening and

even Philip Glass.

Another fan was American poet and

illustrator Edward Gorey, whose work shares the same comically warped

outlook. (His favourite Tiger Lillies song was "Banging In the Nails",

a cheerful singalong ditty about the Crucifixion.) In 1999, Gorey

offered Jacques a sheaf of his unpublished writing to set to music;

sadly, he died three days before Jacques was due to meet him to discuss

the project, but it has at long last borne fruit in The Gorey End, to

be seen this month in London and Hamburg.

The group seem to

relish collaborations: they perform stage shows in Europe in tandem

with circus acts - "they do their numbers and we do ours" - and have

already been seen in London this year accompanying Canadian dance duo

Human Body Tattoo. The idea for Shockheaded Peter came about after

producer Michael Morris saw Jacques in a Ken Campbell-directed musical

stage version of Raymond Briggs' children's book Fungus The Bogeyman.

The Gorey End sees them linking up with the Kronos Quartet; originally

Terry Gilliam was to be involved in designing the show, but "he spends

all his time either making films or trying and failing to make films",

so the schedules never quite meshed.

And yet, despite all the

acclaim, the group never find themselves able to pause for breath. Part

of the problem is their unclassifiability: "Even if a record shop does

stock our albums," muses Jacques, "they could be in any one of

half-a-dozen different categories: are we a cabaret band? An indie

band? World music? Soundtracks?" Although the Shockheaded Peter CD was

picked up by Warner Bros and The Gorey End is released this month on

EMI, most of their 11 albums have been put out on their own Misery Guts

label and sold at concerts.

They relish the freedom of not

having to compromise their vision to fit in with corporate marketing,

but admit that it has its drawbacks. "We added up the figures," Jacques

says, "and we worked out that I earn as much as a chief electrician,

and the Adrians as much as a couple of bricklayers." Brickies with

Oliviers. Well, it's a few steps up from whores. 'The Gorey End' at the

Lyric, Hammersmith, London W6 from May 15. Tel 020 8741 2311. Then on to the Schauspielhaus, Hamburg on May 19 Tel +

49 40 24 87 13.