No lily livers allowed
Tiger Lillies deal in extreme emotional content. Article from The Age Newspaper, Melbourne
No lily livers allowed
By Stephanie Bunbury
October 8, 2004
Tiger Lillies deal in extreme emotional content.
Until he was 30, Martyn Jacques was living in a tiny flat in London's
vice district, selling drug paraphernalia in the market and taking
sporadic singing lessons. "I was living a kind of shady existence," he
says. "I had a few criminal ways of making a living, just surviving; I
never had a job, I didn't like working. That was really what I did for
about 10 years before I bought an accordion and started the band."
Jacques, whose remaining hair is long and hangs in a stringy grey plait
down the middle of his back, is the guiding spirit and piercing
falsetto voice of the Tiger Lillies. At 19, when everyone else was into
punk, he was listening to Kurt Weill and Billie Holiday."
There isn't very much that's inspiring to you in the last 30 years, is
there?" the group's drummer, Adrian Huge (really Hughes, but Huge
sounded more cabaret), chaffs him as we sit squeezed into a dressing
room after their show in Edinburgh. "Not much," says Jacques, morosely.
The show is a uniquely bleak and visceral version of Punch and Judy,
one of Jacques' favourite slivers of folkloric darkness. "I've always
been interested in the past. Punch and Judy is, for me, very strange
and dark, rather like gypsy music and circuses. That's the kind of
thing I like." And suffering, of course - the songs of Edith Piaf or
Bessie Smith, songs that come out of addiction or perennial sadness. He
mentions a song called Crack of Doom. What's that about? "It comes from
an old gypsy saying - the crack of doom is coming soon," Jacques says,
It's just about how we're all doomed,
that everything we do, our dreams, hopes and desires are all nothing
and will turn to dust.
It's basically about that."
They sound dismal, but actually the Tiger Lillies can be a barrel of
laughs, sometimes within seconds of singing about ultimate misery.
They're tough laughs, though. One of their many gigs - they play 250 a
year - is with a hard-edged cabaret circus, "not glitzy like Cirque du
Soleil", says bass player Adrian Stout, that includes an aged Russian
clown, Ukrainian tumblers and an aerialist from New York, all washed
down with the Tiger Lillies' songs of sex and death. "A lot of bands
just want to make people happy. That is not our objective."
certainly isn't. Just the names of their songs announce their
perversity - Banging In the Nails is a religious number, while songs
from their Farmyard Filth album are mostly about bestiality. Sex With
Flies is a cult favourite. "A lovely little song," muses Jacques.
Because they're really rather more cabaret than pop, they bring out
some plastic hammers as props for the crucifixion song.
the fly song, drummer Huge covers himself with big plastic flies. "It
took us a long time to work out that what we were making, if it is
anything, is probably a bastardised version of theatre, more than
anything else," says Jacques. "And it's theatre people who have been
Even so, they talk like a band - what it might
be like to have a hit, how you relate to record companies, the baffling
indifference of the rock press to what they do. Musically, they hover
somewhere between cabaret, jazz, blues and what is perhaps the most
desperate music in the world, gypsy song, all delivered on their weird
combo of accordion, double bass and a miniature drum kit that, Huge
assures me, fits neatly into the boot of a Ford Sierra. The three of
them often pile into the car to tour. From the start, they were most
popular in countries such as Germany and Czech Republic, places with a
tradition of cold-comfort cabaret."
I suppose we're interested
in extreme emotional content," says Stout, "but mixed in with music
from all over the world." Grassroots genres such as jazz and blues came
out of darkness, he says, but have been bleached to beige acceptability
by time and commerce."
We're usually looking for things with
that kind of power, to resurrect them with their original spirit. All
the music we make is fairly raw and simple, so we don't play jazz with
lots of modern inventions, chords and harmonies and rhythms. We take it
right back to when people were exploring something."
a relative newcomer. He joined the band about seven years ago when the
original bass player "managed to find a rich woman", as Jacques says
with mock resentment, and left. He knew Huge because they both played
in the resident country band in a Buddhist bar. Neither of them was a
Buddhist, he hastens to assure me. "It was just 'My wife's dead', the
usual kind of country and western."
He was interested in the
genre. "I've always been in the fatal world, really, attracted to songs
of despair and hopelessness." Huge was there because he thought he
should learn to play drums a bit faster, never really having learnt
them properly. He had been a Tiger Lilly since answering Jacques'
original advertisement for people to form a band. At that time he was
working as an accountant for Burberry, back before it went highfashion.
"But that's all I can tell you, because it was so boring I go to sleep
if I talk about it." Fifteen years later, he's still visibly glad to
have left money behind. It was hard work being a Tiger Lilly even just
a few years ago, trying to work in the groove of Weimar to bar crowds
who were largely interested in drinking. "I used to stand up there and
scream," says Jacques, "while the Adrians thrashed away on their
instruments. There weren't many dynamics involved."
But, gradually, a following accumulated in their wake. There are bleak, dancing souls like theirs everywhere.
Luckily. There were times back in Soho, says Jacques, when he was
teaching himself to play piano and recovering his unearthly upper
register, when he would slump into depression."
Because I didn't know. I always hoped I'd eventually make a living from this, but I didn't know."
The Tiger Lillies still suggest to me a band of wandering minstrels,
always only one step ahead of the debtors' prison. Remembering the
Adrians in their eccentric retro tweeds, and Martyn Jacques, who seems
to have been plucked straight from some fin-de-siecle garret, I don't
think they would mind that image. The Tiger Lillies aren't at all cool,
but they are genuinely edgy.
"You never know with this," says Stout.
"When you're a musician, it's all hope. I suppose there can come a
point where you realise you're no good, but otherwise you have to keep
going, saying, `I'm going to be all right', until something happens.
And then you either have to get a job - or you get away with it."
The Tiger Lillies play at the Famous Spiegeltent, Arts Centre
forecourt, from Monday until October 16 at 9.15pm, as part of the
Melbourne International Arts Festival
Copyright ? 2004. The Age Company Ltd.