Tiger Lillies make most of their macabre topics, unusual sounds

NEW YORK - By their own admission, the musical trio The Tiger Lillies are a "marketing man's nightmare." from Winston-Salem Journal - Jan 5, 2006

NEW YORK - By their own admission, the musical trio The Tiger Lillies are a "marketing man's nightmare."

The hulking lead singer, Martyn Jacques, plays the accordion, ukulele

and piano and sings in a falsetto voice that belies his physical size.

The drummer, Adrian Huge, plays a child's drum kit, and the bassist,

Adrian Stout, sometimes uses a saw. Oh, and their songs depict

prostitution, crucifixion, murder and other depravity.

"Maybe I just lack subtlety," said Jacques, who writes all the lyrics

and is quite polite and soft-spoken in person. "I just couldn't write a

whole album of John Denver songs about birds and prairies and beautiful

senoritas and all that. I couldn't actually write it. For me, it's a

question of keeping myself interested and actually writing about

challenging subjects."

Best known in the U.S. for appearing in the off-Broadway production of

Shockheaded Peter - a collection of cautionary children's tales in

which most of the kids meet with nefarious ends - the Tiger Lillies

have been described as "Satanic folk" and would almost certainly draw

hordes of protesters if they were more well known.

However, the Tiger Lillies' CDs are available almost exclusively

through their Web site ( or at the 200-250 shows

they play around the world each year.

"That's sort of the main triumph of the band," Stout said, "that we make a living and continue to do it."

On stage, the Tiger Lillies cut a memorable swath. Jacques, with a long

ponytail that reaches down his back and his face painted white, is an

almost ethereal figure, alternating his singular voice between whispers

and screams.

Huge, a burly man with black-rimmed glasses and a porkpie hat, comes

across as a percussion savant using objects as diverse as baby dolls,

plastic hammers and rubber chickens as aural objects. This guy's been

described as "James Joyce on drums" by David Byrne, the former lead

singer of Talking Heads. The lanky Stout almost seems to be the

straight man in the group, casting a somewhat bemused eye at the antics

of his bandmates.

The band formed about 16 years ago after Jacques, then a 30-year-old

who had spent a significant amount of time living above a brothel in

the Soho section of London, first acquired an accordion. Influenced by

works such as Three Penny Opera and gypsy music, he began to experiment

with different sounds.

"I just found that singing with a high voice and playing the accordion

was an interesting and unusual combination, which I didn't really think

anyone had ever done before," he said. "Probably loads of people had

done it before."

"And died of starvation," Stout added dryly.

In its earliest incarnation, the band had most of its gigs in small

"folk cellars." Soon, it moved to playing in bars - and competing for

the attention of the not-always-interested patrons.

"You've got lots of people, they're all drunk, they're all shouting and

you're performing through bad PAs," Jacques said. "So, the music

actually evolved through performing in the bars and it became much more

raucous and aggressive to compete with all these people shouting."

While far from a commercial smash - Huge doesn't think the band would

be financially feasible if there were four members - the Tiger Lillies

have managed to make a living by touring almost constantly and

collaborating in works such as Shockheaded Peter. The band has also

appeared in another experimental piece called The Little Match Girl,

based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen, and is also involved in a

piece inspired by the macabre stories of H.P. Lovecraft.

For the people who know the Tiger Lillies only from their stint

off-Broadway - Jacques won an Olivier Award, the British equivalent of

a Tony, for his performance in London - attending one of the band's

concerts can be a jolting experience.

The subject matter can include everything from drunken sailors and the

prostitutes who service them to a guy who has fun kicking babies "or

maybe an old lady" down stairs. A recent concert in Brooklyn included a

jaunty song with the chorus "cancer, it's so good for you." One of

their albums, Farmyard Filth, is about bestiality.

"I like to take people up and down. Make them laugh, make them feel

sad, disgusted, scared, you know, all sorts of stuff," Jacques said.

"Shocking people is actually getting a reaction out of people, and

that's actually something that I want to do. It's not just that I want

to shock them, but it's one of the range of emotions and responses that

you get."

And it seems to resonate with a loyal audience. During the Brooklyn

concert, Jacques approached the microphone near the end of the

performance and inquired in a menacing whisper if there were any

requests. Audience members began shouting out song names, with the most

prominent being "Banging in the Nails," sung from the perspective of

one of Christ's unrepentant crucifiers.

Blasphemous? The Tiger Lillies wouldn't argue otherwise.

"We're all messed up but some of them (the audience members) actually

know it and they actually understand and get what Martyn's singing

about," Huge said. "They are people that actually get it and there's

not much to get in a lot of other music. We'll have people that come up

to us and say 'You're the only band I've ever heard that understands

me."' Jacques quickly adds with a laugh, "They usually twitch when they

say that."