Tiger Lilies ride their Urine Palace to Vancouver

Especially considering he's a singer and accordionist, Martyn Jacques has suffered more than his fair share of occupational hazards. He has had a microphone stand rammed in his face, insults and beer cans hurled at him, threats uttered...........

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By Jennifer Van Evra
Publish Date: October 25, 2007


considering he's a singer and accordionist, Martyn Jacques has suffered

more than his fair share of occupational hazards. He has had a

microphone stand rammed in his face, insults and beer cans hurled at

him, threats uttered, and almost every night, he watches a smattering

of people storm out of his shows in moral indignation and disgust.

So you can just imagine what happened when the Edinburgh International

Festival commissioned his London-based trio, the Tiger Lillies?known

for their pitch-black humour, and their dark cabaret-like songs about

murder, bestiality, disease, prostitution, and other unseemly

subjects?to create a show based on Claudio Monteverdi's Madrigals of

Love and War, and to perform it this summer for festivalgoers who were

accustomed to, and quite happy with, relatively traditional

interpretations of classical works.

"I think it was

purposefully commissioned by the festival to piss off their extremely

conservative audience?and they succeeded. There were 2,000 people

there, and the classical-music audience just walked out en masse. So it

wasn't a particularly pleasant experience," recounts Jacques, on a

cellphone from his home in London. "But then again, a classical-music

audience doesn't throw cans. They just don't clap and walk out."

At the other end of the spectrum, die-hard fans around the world

regularly pack the Tiger Lillies' famed live shows and creative

powerhouses such as The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Monty Python's

Terry Gilliam, and Marilyn Manson are outspoken fans of the group's

work. Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand says that "any description of

them is an injustice. They are completely peerless."

The group

has also collaborated with dozens of theatre companies, filmmakers,

visual artists, and choreographers, including Vancouver's own Holy Body

Tattoo. (Their 2001 performance of the steamy, tango-inspired

Circa?with the Tiger Lillies playing live on-stage?was unforgettable.)

They won major critical acclaim for Shockheaded Peter, their "junk

opera" based on the macabre children's stories in Heinrich Hoffmann's

Struwwelpeter, and in 2003, they were nominated for a Grammy for The

Gorey End, a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet and Edward Gorey.

(The legendary artist never got to hear the finished work, as he died

in 2000.)

Composed mostly of accordion, bass, and percussion,

the Tiger Lillies' music is rich with macabre, Kurt Weill?like

melodies, and evokes old-time travelling circuses, late-night tangos,

and Brechtian back alleys, with Jacques's gorgeous falsetto soaring

over all the dirt and dinge below.

It's not difficult to see

why the songs, some of which make the blackest Python sketches look

like Saturday-morning TV, could cause offence. "Kick a Baby",

"Masturbating Jimmy", and "Gonorrhoea" are just a few of the song

titles on 2007's Urine Palace, which the group recorded with the

30-piece Symphony Orchestra of NorrlandsOperan. On other albums?they

have released 22 since 1994?drunken sailors gawk at circus freaks,

pimps rule over whores, unspeakable things happen to hamsters and small

barnyard animals, and rampaging murderers run loose, while tormented

characters take their own lives. Some are tender, sweet ballads, while

others are hilariously jagged rants. But Jacques, who says he isn't a

particularly morbid person, believes that objectors may be taking the

songs too literally.

"My writing is quite Freudian in some

ways?the subconscious mind, darkness, dreams?and so maybe they are

working on a more psychoanalytical level," he says. (He describes his

childhood as happy, if overprotected?although he admits that he did, on

occasion, burn ants with a magnifying glass.) "And I think some of the

people that take offence to the words that I write are being a bit

simplistic, really.

"You don't have to actually believe in the

act of making love to a sheep to write a song about making love to a

sheep," Jacques continues mischievously. "It's just a thought. And we

don't act on all our thoughts, do we? Well, some of the ones that do,

of course, are the ones that are in trouble."

Norman Armour,

executive director of Vancouver's fast-growing PuSh Performing Arts

Festival, was one of the music lovers who did not walk out of the Tiger

Lillies' performance in Edinburgh this summer. On the contrary, he was

enthralled. "They did a retelling of the Orpheus story, and it was just

astounding. His [Jacques's] voice is just stunning," he recounts from a

hotel room in Bergen, Norway, where he is attending a theatre festival.

"It was this long, drawn-out ballad, remarkably haunting, and that's

the aspect of their work that I love."

On Sunday (October 28)

at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, the Tiger Lillies will be the

first group to perform as part of PuSh+, a new series of performances

organizers are hoping will give the midwinter festival a year-round

presence. (The second event is a five-day workshop with Cathy Naden of

Forced Entertainment that's being presented in collaboration with

Vancouver's Theatre Replacement, from November 5 to 9.)


think the Tiger Lillies are an inspiration to performing artists,

whether you're a dancer or a film artist," says Armour. "They are real

pioneers who continue to become more and more of who they are."

Back in London, Jacques is rushing off to meet with Misia, a renowned

Portuguese fado singer who is interested in collaborating with his

group. The Tiger Lillies recently paired up with a puppet-theatre

company for a piece based on the seven deadly sins, and a show about

freaks that features midgets is also in the works. But you can bet that

no matter what they do, it will be met with the usual blend of

adulation and outrage.

"We are quite weak little creatures, I

think, human beings," Jacques says with a sigh. "We very much have the

sheep mentality, and most of us?me included?bow to peer pressure. But I

am obviously trying to fight that as best as I can. Trying not to be

like other people, and fighting against morality and convention and


Ironically, even he sometimes feels like he has

crossed the line. "One of my most popular songs is the one that Edward

Gorey particularly liked, and that's 'Banging in the Nails'," says

Jacques of his blasphemous song about crucifying Jesus. "When I wrote

it, I did think, 'My God, I might be going a bit far with this one.'

And I remember my manager saying, 'You can't do that. Someone is going

to want to kill you if you do a song like that,'" he remembers. "But

then those are usually the good ones."