The warp-factor three
In terms of unlikely events, the appearance of a band whose back catalogue includes the evocatively named albums Urine Palace, and Spit Bucket in the music programme of the Edinburgh International Festival, surely ranks high.
SARAH URWIN JONES August 22 2007
In terms of unlikely events, the appearance of a band whose back
catalogue includes the evocatively named albums Urine Palace, and Spit
Bucket in the music programme of the Edinburgh International Festival,
surely ranks high. But The Tiger Lillies, who on Saturday mount their
Tribute (of sorts) to Monteverdi in the Usher Hall, are not surprised
at all. "We're the band of choice for highbrow festivals looking to
round out their portfolio with a naughty night. They actually want us
to offend people," sniggers Martyn Jacques, "criminal castrato" and
accordion-playing lead singer of the group, whose cult following
stretches from Mexico City to St Petersburg.
This, says Jacques, when we meet in a cafe in London's Gloucester Road
tube station, is his first experience of Monteverdi, despite a
succession of classical projects: last year they played a Mozart
concert in Vienna as part of the official 250th celebrations.
When EIF Director Jonathan Mills sent him a CD of Monteverdi's
Madrigals of Love and War, his reaction was not encouraging. "I thought
Monteverdi was an alien. I couldn't understand what he was saying 400
years ago he was meant to be subversive, but it didn't seem very
subversive to me.
"I couldn't recreate the music, so I concentrated on the text instead.
I'm pretty pleased with the result. I don't really believe in ghosts,
but I do think there is an essence of Monteverdi."
What The Tiger Lillies have come up with - Songs of Love and War - is,
on the evidence of the preview CD, both aural seduction and assault in
the same breath. There is edgy beauty, rage and a sense of politics. "I
could say straight up that the world is going to pot and capitalism
isn't working, but sincerity is dull, isn't it? That's where irony
comes in. Basically, while more commercial artists are out there saving
the rainforests and feeding the world, we're in some bar that smells of
p*** playing to a bunch of alcoholics." It sounds a lot like
seventeenth-century Venice, as Monteverdi fanatics might note.
It's not easy to describe The Tiger Lillies, a three-man outfit who are
best known for their brilliant "junk opera" Shockheaded Peter which
toured worldwide in the 1990s, but if you took the spirit of the
lascivious, fornicating grotesques on the edges of medieval manuscripts
and shoved it into an underground cabaret club reeking of booze, fags
(remember that?) and sex, then added an accordion and transposed the
whole thing up two octaves to a maniacal falsetto, you might come
close. Critics talk about Kurt Weill and 1930s Berlin; The Tiger
Lillies call it "satanic folk", but that's simply to avoid just such
convoluted answers to the question: "So what sort of music do you play,
They are famous in Russia ("our records are in all the shops, but
they're pirate, so we never make any money") and "enormous in Greece"
(where they recently played a 1200-seat venue to sell-out audiences,
despite Jacques spitting on the front row every night - "well, they
would insist on talking through the gig"): Usher Hall row A take note.
They have played for everyone from the Rothschilds to neo-Nazis, from
the peak of an Austrian mountain to a platform above a kitchen in a
backwater Mexican restaurant. The more sedate audiences of the Usher
Hall do not worry them, because what The Tiger Lillies really want is
"I dream of business class!" says long-haired Jacques, a little
unfeasibly, protesting about flogging CDs after their concerts "like
barrow boys". It's a thin complaint: he loves hamming it up almost as
much as he likes spinning a line. "I don't want to be cultish. Perhaps
a mogul might read this article and take pity. I want people to buy my
records and make me rich, but it's ridiculous. We should rename
ourselves Commercial Suicide. Everything we do takes the p***. You have
three choices as an artist as you get older: you die, you disappear
into poverty and obscurity, or you become mainstream. The problem is, I
made a big career mistake. I really should have taken heroin or
something. You've got to be tragic if you want to be a legend."
Jacques, with what might traditionally be termed his "colourful" past,
has all the trappings of cult legend, from when he first picked up an
accordion while living above a brothel in Soho, to the suggestion that
The Tiger Lillies were Marilyn Manson's ideal wedding band. The band's
existence can be traced back to Jacques's failure of the 11+ exam.
"Instead of going to grammar school with my friends, I went to a really
rough state school in Slough, a cauldron of racial tension and knife
fights. I developed an enormous sense of alienation, like most weird
people. If you feel at one with the world and content in it, you
probably don't write about buggering hamsters."
Jacques assures me that, contrary to their image as subversive,
anarchic and rude, the band enjoy the quiet life - not just to placate
an Usher Hall audience that may consist entirely of old ladies. "Some
of our best fans, actually we have a fan in Russia, a famous singer
who's covered our tunes, who insists on trying to take us to brothels
every time we go there. It's terrifying. We're a bunch of wimps and
nerds really. It's not quite early to bed and a nice cup of cocoa, but
it's not far off."
Will he ever tire of bawdy inspiration, of urine and prostitutes? "What
else is there but urine and prostitutes? That's a good title actually,
I'll call our next album that. When I started out 20 years ago, I was
only mildly offensive, but then you realise people want you to be more
disgusting, so it becomes a challenge. The problem is, it's humour,
it's ironic. I've never stuck a hamster up my a***, no matter what the
lyrics say. But some people don't actually seem to understand that."
The Tiger Lillies: A Tribute (of sorts) to Monteverdi; Usher Hall, Saturday, 8pm.