More tigers than lily-livered

This weekend sees the return of The Tiger Lillies, a trio of London musicians whose accordion-driven operatic ballads have been drawing crowds at concert venues in both Moscow and St. Petersburg since the band debuted in Moscow in April 2000.....

By Sergey Chernov
Photo by Alexander Belenky / SPT

This weekend sees the return of The Tiger Lillies, a trio of London

musicians whose accordion-driven operatic ballads have been drawing

crowds at concert venues in both Moscow and St. Petersburg since the

band debuted in Moscow in April 2000.

After that first show

- at the then newly opened club Project O.G.I. in Moscow - counterfeit

versions of Tiger Lillies albums appeared at music kiosks all over

Moscow and St. Petersburg, the band's music was used in a handful of

soundtracks for locally produced movies and plays and cinematic

director Sergei Bodrov began work on a documentary - as yet unfinished

- about the trio.

It's no surprise, perhaps, that The Tiger

Lillies have made their mark on local music lovers: When the band takes

the stage, the radically falsetto voice of frontman Martyn Jacques

combines with lyrics that are often shocking - tackling themes such as

London's underworld, prostitution, murder and sex with animals and

insects - to produce a show that has few analogues in the world of

contemporary music.

"There are big things and there are

small things. Sex and death are big," said Jacques, sitting on a

kitchen stool in a St. Petersburg apartment earlier this month.

The Tiger Lillies arrived in St. Petersburg on Sept. 7 to begin work on

a collaboration album with popular local ska band Leningrad, whose

frontman and founder Sergei Shnurov admits that The Tiger Lillies had a

considerable influence on his work.

The two bands played

together with Jacques singing, after which Shnurov, who does not speak

English, overlaid his vocals in Russian with lyrics written or

improvized from word-for-word translations provided by a friend.

Out of 14 recorded tracks, 12 are Jacques' songs with Shnurov on vocals

and two are Shnurov numbers sung in English by Jacques. The album is

due early next year to give fans a break after Leningrad's long-awaited

new album, scheduled for October.

The idea of the

collaboration came about at The Tiger Lillies' concert at Red Club in

April. Shnurov, who borrowed music for Leningrad's 1999 hit "Diky

Muzhchina" ("Wild Man") from Jacques' song "Whore," paid his respect to

the trio by making a suprise appearance to sing the song with The Tiger

Lillies playing.

"Sergei is a really good singer, he is

probably even a better singer than people realize," said Jacques, whose

favorite vocalists include Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel.

"I think he's got seeds of greatness in him, in fact."


got an emotion. I think Sergei's voice is lived-in, he's a person who's

seen things, suffered," he said. "I think he's got that kind of voice."

After four days in the studio, The Tiger Lillies headed to

Moscow to perform three shows, followed by a gig in Donetsk, Ukraine

before returning to St. Petersburg for two more dates.

Though The Tiger Lillies may have influenced the work of Leningrad and

frequently perform at rock venues, the band distances itself from rock

'n' roll - even posting messages on its web site that read "How dare

they call us a 'rock' band?" beside copies of reviews - and claim its

roots lie in the theater, specifically with German playwright Bertolt

Brecht and German composer Kurt Weill.

"Brecht and Weill

were big influences for me - 'The Threepenny Opera' ['Der

Dreigroschenoper'] in particular," Jacques said. "It was one of the

records I used to listen to when I was very young, when I was about


In addition to Brecht and Weill, Jacques includes

cabaret and Gypsy music and Russian folk songs among his influences,

adding that he is also a fan of the music of the New York Dolls, Tom

Waits and "the intellectual aspect of punk."

"I've always

been interested in less popular things, the less commercial side of

music," Jacques said, adding that he moved to London's Soho district

six years ago to be closer to "unusual" people. "At the time, weird

people used to live there."

Jacques, who sings and plays

accordion, is backed by double bassist Adrian Stout and drummer Adrian

Huge. The band boasts a vast, ever-expanding repertoire of songs

written by Jacques, who said he never uses set lists during gigs,

simply playing what song he feels ought to be performed next.

The Tiger Lillies' 10th and most recent album, "The Gorey End" (2003)

is based on the poems and prose of the late U.S. writer and illustrator

Edward Gorey, who in 1999 wrote a letter to the band suggesting a

collaboration. The band agreed, but Gorey died the following year

before he had the opportunity to hear the resulting songs, which use

pre-existing Gorey texts chosen by Gorey and Jacques (and occasionally

reworked to conform to rhythms) as lyrics.

"[Gorey] was a

very eccentric man," Jacques said. "He used to draw pictures and he

used to write words to the pictures. They are very, very dark and black

- very Victorian - and he was quite similar to The Tiger Lillies in

that way, because they are also very dark and Victorian."

On the album, The Tiger Lillies are joined by San Francisco string ensemble the Kronos Quartet.

"We did a show called 'Shockheaded Peter' in San Francisco, and they

came to see us play," Jacques said. "They're always very keen on

working with avant-garde, unusual musicians, and I talked to them about

[Gorey] and the songs I'd just written and they were very interested.

They were fans of his as well."

The new album's lyrics are

dark, fantastical and at times absurd, but always considerably tamer

than The Tiger Lillies' previous texts. In one of the band's best-known

songs, 1996's "Banging in the Nails," for example, Jacques sung:

"I'm crucifying Jesus/Nail him to the cross/The poor old bastard bleeds

to death/And I don't give a toss./I'm bang, bang, banging in the


Despite the songs' graphic imagery, Jacques likens his lyrics to the images on show at art museums.

"If you go to some national gallery - any national gallery - you see

paintings of people being raped, violence, terrible violence, terrible

things going on," Jacques said.

"And if you look at

crucifixion, there's a man and he has nails in his wrists. His ribs are

cut and blood comes out. ... It's violence. It's obscene. And so much

of the Bible is graphic violence - and that's art. What's the

difference between that and what we do? I just wish people ... saw what

we do as art."

The Tiger Lillies perform at 8 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at Red Club. Links: