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,

all matter-of-fact."

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

our friends."

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."

Stout is

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.