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.
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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
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.
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.
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).