The Men Who Sing The Shock Songs

The Tiger Lillies arrived in Russia this week to record a new album and to promote their new CD, a collaboration with late writer Edward Gorey.

 The Men Who Sing The Shock Songs

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The Men Who Sing the Shock Songs

By Sergey Chernov
Friday, Sep. 12, 2003

The Tiger Lillies arrived in Russia this week to record a new album and

to promote their new CD, a collaboration with late writer Edward Gorey.

Moscow can't seem to get enough of The Tiger Lillies.

And, no, east Asian perennials with spotted flowers have nothing to do

with it. The lillies in question are 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 here in

April 2000.

After that first show -- at the then newly

opened club Project O.G.I. -- counterfeit versions of Tiger Lillies

albums appeared at music kiosks all over Moscow, 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 (still unfinished)

documentary 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 -- regarding

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 this week.


Tiger Lillies arrived in the northern capital Sunday to begin work on a

collaboration album with popular local ska band Leningrad, whose

frontman and creator Sergei Shnurov said this week that The Tiger

Lillies had a considerable influence on his work.

After four

days in the studio, The Tiger Lillies will head to Moscow to perform

three shows, followed by gigs in Donetsk, Ukraine and St. Petersburg.

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, namely with German playwright Bertolt Brecht

and German composer Kurt Weill.

"Brecht and Weill were big

influences for me -- 'Threepenny Opera' in particular," Jacques said.

"It was one of the records I used to listen to when I was very young,

when I was about 20."

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 Billie

Holiday, the New York Dolls, Tom Waits and "the intellectual aspect of


"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 the accordion, is backed by double bass

player 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


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, fantastic 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 sings:

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 nails.

Despite the songs' graphic imagery, Jacques likens his lyrics to the

images one might see at the Tretyakov Gallery or the Hermitage State


"If you go to some national gallery Ц 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. I mean, 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 10 p.m. on Saturday at Project O.G.I. (members only) and at 10 p.m.

on Tuesday and Wednesday at B2 (8 Bolshaya Sadovaya Ulitsa. Metro

Mayakovskaya. Tel. 209-9918).