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The usual death-oompah suspects

The Tiger Lillies are here for the Biennale of Sydney. Their contribution is a "post-punk neo-Brechtian opera", called Cockatoo Prison featuring a cast of singers and percussionists, it will be staged on Cockatoo Island, a relic of a bygone industrial age

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WHEN Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, directed a music festival in Britain earlier this month, he declared the Tiger Lillies to be his favourite band. That was some endorsement for the English group, who were sharing the bill at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival with acts such as Iggy Pop and Joanna Newsom.

Tiger Lillies founder and singer Martyn Jacques says his three-piece shares a common sensibility with Groening's irreverent television family.

"I think we say all the things that he would like to say but can't," says Jacques.

"The Simpsons can go so far, but it's the biggest TV program in the world. The Tiger Lillies fill up the rest of the spectrum, and we're the least famous band in the world. We can go all the way and he can't . . . We're two sides of the coin."

More a cabaret act than a rock band - Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill are Jacques's "spiritual inspiration" - the Tiger Lillies delight in shocking the bourgeoisie.

Their songs have such choice titles as Life's a C . . t, Masturbating Jimmy, and Banging in the Nails, about the crucifixion. Prostitutes, perverts and drug addicts populate their lyrics.

Musically, they chart a course between Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera, bawdy music-hall and sea shanty. All this is fuelled by Adrian Huge on percussion, Adrian Stout on bass, and Jacques's accordion and screaming falsetto. No wonder they've been described as "punk cabaret" and the "world's foremost death oompah band".

The Tiger Lillies are here for the Biennale of Sydney, the contemporary art festival. Their contribution is a "post-punk neo-Brechtian opera", called Cockatoo Prison. Starting tonight, and featuring a cast of singers and percussionists, it will be staged on Cockatoo Island, a relic of a bygone industrial and convict age.

There will be the usual cast of Tiger Lillies characters, all prisoners on the island: a pedophile, a rapist and a necrophiliac among them. Another smears himself with peanut butter. "Obviously if you smear yourself with peanut butter people don't think it's peanut butter," Jacques says cheerfully. "So one of the crimes is somebody who does that, but not with peanut butter."

The show chimes with certain themes in the Biennale program, as devised by artistic director David Elliott, one of which is "Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age". Cockatoo Prison features original Tiger Lillies songs, historical convict songs, and others recorded by Alan Lomax, the ethnomusicologist who recorded the singing of sharecroppers and prisoners in the American South.

Elliott's program has also issued a challenge of sorts to the intellectual heritage of the Enlightenment, with its faith in reason and scientific method. One of the Enlightenment's innovations was the system of prison design called the panopticon, with its suggestion of the all-seeing eye and, as Elliott puts it, the belief that "man could eventually know everything".

Jacques, for one, believes in the rehabilitation, rather than the permanent incarceration, of those convicted of crime. Even pedophiles, whom many would prefer to see locked up for life or dead, should be regarded compassionately and with care for their psychiatric treatment, he says.

"I'm talking about being compassionate towards other human beings, and that includes human beings who do horrible things to other human beings," he says.

"It's like the Old and the New Testament: the eye-for-an-eye approach of the Old Testament, or the forgiveness by Jesus in the New Testament.

"Some of us are damaged, or something happens that makes us damaged. I have very little tolerance for people who don't have that sense of compassion."

All of this is slightly at odds with the style of Tiger Lillies' delivery, which is angry, defiant and in your face, not to mention obscene.

"I'm not sure that [as] someone from a Brechtian position I'm encouraging empathy at all," Jacques says of his performance. "I'm probably encouraging conflict in fact. I'm not very liberal at all. I'm actually quite the opposite, I am very confrontational.

"I don't come across as a very nice person on stage, quite the opposite. I come across as something quite unpleasant. I suppose there's almost a revulsion towards do-gooders. I don't want to be good, I don't want to be nice, but I can't help it."

Jacques, 50, says his attitudes took form when he was growing up in Slough: the outer-London borough that was immortalised in the TV series The Office, and in a poem by John Betjeman: "Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough! / It isn't fit for humans now."

Jacques has also written a song about the town. "It's just a grim, horrible, ugly place," he says. "If you come from a grim, horrible, ugly place, you hate it."

He observed violence and poverty around him, and came to hate hypocrisy. Deciding that he would become an artist of some sort, he settled on music and spent his 20s finding his style. When he formed the Tiger Lillies in 1989, the blueprint was set: accordion, falsetto and songs about degenerates and perverts. The trio has made more than 25 recordings, and its musical Shockheaded Peter won the Olivier Award for best entertainment in 2002.

Cockatoo Prison has only three performances; all tickets have been sold, although the songs have been recorded for CD. There is also talk, Jacques says, of developing it into a theatre production on a larger scale.

All this creativity, says Jacques, springs from the alienation he felt as a teenager. He believes in the model of the artist as outsider, looking in.

"I'm an alienated outsider, from my adolescence onwards. I didn't feel that I belonged, I felt uncomfortable with people, the values and the way people acted, society and its attitudes towards minorities," he says.

"I feel quite an empathy for other outsiders, especially the ones who are real minority groups. I don't think I'm alone in that. Most artists who are any good are also extremely alienated, because I think that's what art does best: it's the sense of being an outsider that fuels the artistic act."

Cockatoo Prison is at Cockatoo Island, tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at 7.30pm.

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