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

musical inspiration."

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."

"People can

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."

"Compared to

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