The Tiger Lillies: Funny. Peculiar.
"Independent on Sunday" article from 14 May 2006. Lewis Jones meets the criminal castrato, Martyn Jacques, and his partners in crime.
The success of the musical 'Shockheaded Peter' in the West End did
bring them some celebrity, but, for most, the imaginative world of the
is too dark and perverse a place to visit very often. Lewis Jones meets
the criminal castrato, Martyn Jacques, and his partners in crime
Published: 14 May 2006
'We're a famous people's band," says Martyn Jacques, the founder,
writer and frontman of the Tiger Lillies, in the dressing room of the
Komedia, a cabaret bar in Brighton. "We're not famous, but famous
artists are fans of ours, people like Mel Brooks, Barry Humphries...
what's the guy from The Simpsons?" Adrian Stout, the bass player, who
despite his name is rather thin, supplies the name of Matt Groening.
"Matt Groening," continues Jacques. "Terry Gilliam. All these weird
radical people. Marilyn Manson. It's very gratifying. We might not be
famous, but we've got famous fans. Ha ha! Through a mixture of chance,
luck and design, we've managed to stumble on to a vein almost of our
One might take issue with that "almost", for no one else
does what the Tiger Lillies do. Jacques calls their performance
"Brechtian punk cabaret", which is fair enough, but any number of acts
on the Edinburgh fringe would probably describe themselves in those
terms, and the Tigers are unique. In greasepaint and eccentric evening
dress, accompanied by Stout on double bass and saw, by Adrian Huge (who
is on the large side) on various percussion instruments, and by himself
on accordion and keyboards, Jacques croons, warbles and shrieks his way
through a repertoire of remarkable perversity, encompassing every
conceivable neurosis and vice, and some that are almost beyond
conception. (If you don't know their albums, there's a fair chance you
saw them a few years ago providing grotesque musical accompaniment to
dramatisation of the uncanny, cautionary tales of Heinrick Hoffman in
the West End show Shockheaded Peter.)
Their album Farmyard
Filth (1997) for example, is billed as "possibly the most extensive
collection of songs dealing with zoophilia in recorded history". To
tunes that owe much to music hall, by turns jaunty, rousing and
wistful, the Tigers sing, among other things, of blasphemy, rape and
matricide, and currently tackle all three of those subjects in the same
song. After a recent performance in Hamburg, Jacques was approached by
a German psychiatrist who said, "It's amazing how you manage to get
absolutely everything in."
"We tend to do a lot of touring,"
Jacques explains, "because the kind of music we make doesn't really
sell that many records. We've made a lot" - 16, so far, all for the
Misery Guts label - "but we don't sell many, do we?" The other Tigers
nod their agreement. "We're a marketing man's nightmare," says Stout
cheerfully, and they all cackle.
Jacques sings in a falsetto
of remarkable purity and range, almost like a classical castrato. "I'm
a counter-tenor," he says. "I lived in Soho, and I didn't really work
much through my twenties, but I used to go to the City Lit, and in the
old days you could go there and do as many courses as you wanted, if
you were unemployed, for something like 70p a year. So I used to do
classical singing classes and jazz singing, that's the limits of my
"I was singing all different styles - Louis Armstrong,
Lou Reed, and like a tenor - not particularly well, probably, but
anyway I was practising. And when I was about 30 I got an accordion,
and I thought, 'I know what I'll do, I'll play the accordion and sing
in a high voice, and that'll be very original, and I'll make millions.'
That's what I thought, and I was wrong. Ha! Here we are, 17 years
later, in the Komedia, playing to 160 people. There you go, that's
life. But anyway, we make a living."
Jacques grew up in
Slough, and in one of his songs he concurs with John Betjeman's opinion
of the place: "Well it's grim up north / But it's grimmer than that in
Slough / I'll sing you a song / If you drop a bomb on Slough."
He left to read theology and philosophy at Lampeter but, though he has
retained his interest in those subjects, he dropped out after a year to
live in a squat in Finsbury Park, an unlovely suburb of London. "Next
door to me was a very attractive young woman," he recalls, "who worked
in the peep shows in Soho - probably why I ended up there. She was a
speed freak but she was very artistic, and when I got an old Dansette
record player she gave me The Threepenny Opera by Brecht and Weil,
Small Change by Tom Waits and a record by the Birthday Party, which was
Nick Cave's band - another interesting artist. I particularly loved The
Threepenny Opera, with Lotte Lenya singing in German. I loved the
instrumentation, and the pump organs, and that was probably my biggest
In 2001, the Tigers released the album 2
Penny Opera ("It's one cheaper"), featuring such songs as "Bitch",
"Bastard" and "Piss on your grave".
The biggest inspiration in
terms of subject matter is Jacques' sojourn in Soho, where he lived
above a clip joint or semi-brothel. "I had a market stall for a while,
selling marijuana-smoking paraphernalia - chillums and pipes - with two
other strange men. One of them was an old jailbird and druggie, and the
other used to have birds singing on a ghetto blaster.
market stall was beautiful, covered in flowers, like an altar, with
birds whistling, like a little jewel in the middle of Rupert Street,
and the other stallholders were freaked out. But we did all right, for
a while. I could see my stall from my window, and my girlfriend used to
work in one of the clip joints.
"There were also heroin
dealers living downstairs. One day, I heard this blood-curdling scream
in the street, and this scream started coming up the stairs, and went
into the room underneath me. I went down and the dealer had his face
cut from cheek to cheek. Obviously a Triad, heroin thing. So it wasn't
necessarily great, but from a song-writing point of view it was good
"I knew all the junkies and prostitutes, and I'd be
hanging out in illegal drinking dens until four in the morning with all
these weird people. It was a good life, and very inspiring for me,
because later, when I formed the Tiger Lillies, I used a lot of this
stuff. I always think of Toulouse-Lautrec, hanging round in brothels. I
think for an artist it's good experience."
How did the band
start? "I got the accordion, started singing in a high voice, put an
advert in the Melody Maker, and somebody answered who was a friend of
Adrian's [Huge, whose real name is Hughes], and he said he had a friend
who played with brushes, so he got the job. The bass player couldn't
play in tune, so I had to sack him half way through our first recording
session. I got another friend to play bass for about six years, and
then he married and went to live in a forest, so then Adrian [Stout]
came, and has been in the band for 10 years."
Where did the
name come from? "There was a prostitute called Tiger Lily, who wore
lots of tiger skin, so it's sleazy. And there's the flower. And it's a
play with the beautiful and the strong. And the lily is death, as well,
and we sing about death a lot. It's hard music, I suppose, heavy and
It is. Sometimes funny, and sometimes tender, it is
consistently raw and often disturbing. The lyrics are inevitably flat
without the music, but to give a flavour, here is the opening of
"Smell": "I saw the piss running down your leg / I knew that you were
not well / I saw the vomit come out of your mouth / And I knew that you
were in hell/ And I love you though you smell."
get upset," says Stout. "It tends to hit them in unusual ways
sometimes. It's quite emotional. It's designed to create tension and
confusion. It's not an easy evening or easy music. We challenge and
disorientate the audience, we don't expect them to be wholly happy. We
have to maintain the tension. The whole thing is about ambiguity."
"We had people in Germany the other day," observes Huge, in his only
contribution to the conversation, "saying they thought we were all
"We did a show in Belfast," says Stout, "and there was
a small accident. A trapdoor was left open on the stage and Martyn fell
through it. Someone came up to me after the show and asked [in an Irish
accent]: 'Was that woman all right? Was she hurt at all?' There's a
confusion sometimes, which is not a bad thing."
the Old Masters in the National Gallery," says Jacques, "I'm a complete
pussy. The blood, the rape and so on, all that cruelty and inhumanity.
And it's going on now, as we speak, in Iraq. If I manage to shock, then
I'm succeeding in my aim."
The Tiger Lilies will next play at
the Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1, 18 May to 3 June (0870 429
6883). For more information go to www.tigerlillies.com