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Tiger Lillies screech into town

You will never hear anything quite like The Tiger Lillies. David Whetstone talks to the band's founding member, Martin Jacques.

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You will never hear anything quite like The Tiger Lillies. David Whetstone talks to the band's founding member, Martin Jacques.

When Martin Jacques first dreamed up The Tiger Lillies, he had his heart set on chart hits and success "in the Radiohead kind of way".

"Unfortunately, I was rather naive," confesses a man who dresses like a Dickensian rogue and sings in a very high voice while playing the accordion.

"I did actually believe originality would lead to success in the music industry. Of course, now I realise they want people to be marketable and to fit into categories - rock, jazz, whatever." Coincidentally, Radiohead are performing on Sunday at Newcastle Telewest Arena. But the more memorable gig might happen in South Shields on Wednesday when The Tiger Lillies perform songs from their 13 albums at the Customs House.

Many people, myself included, first encountered The Tiger Lillies when a madcap musical called Shockheaded Peter, in which they starred, came to the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, in 1999.

Fantastic and funny, gruesome and unforgettable, it lifted a cult pub band on to a higher plane.

Jacques recalls being approached by the producer, who had seen them in a bar.

He fancied creating a show based on the cautionary tales of a 19th-Century German doctor, Heinrich Hoffman, who took a rigorous approach to parenthood. "Comb your hair or a bear will pull your head off" - that kind of thing, acceptable then but out of step with 21st-Century sensitivities.

Jacques and the boys threw themselves into this, by turns bewitching and terrifying their audiences with outlandish actions, bizarre props and the kind of music you just don't hear anywhere else.

"It became a big success," recalls Jacques. "After Newcastle we went to London and played in the West End for 12 weeks. Then we went to America and did five weeks in San Francisco and on 42nd Street in New York.

"It was the thing that did it for us. Often it doesn't matter how good you are, it's all to do with how many people hear you. That brought us to a lot of people's attention."

Martin Jacques was born in Slough and can see why the poet John Betjeman called on "friendly" wartime bombs to fall on the place.

Perhaps in less drab surroundings, he wouldn't have developed such a colourful persona. They certainly didn't dampen his desire to become some sort of artist.

It was a calculated decision to choose music over the visual arts. But the extraordinary voice - what he calls "my screech" - was God-given. "I remember my voice broke and then it came back again. I found I could sing, very nicely and very clearly, notes in the upper register. I found it very relaxing and easy. If there was ever a big empty space, I used to love to go there and sing because you would get a big echo. I used to sing for hours when I was about 17 because it was just something I could do."

He began conventionally, playing piano and guitar. But in a relentless pursuit of originality, he bought an accordion at the age of 29. Combined with his castrati tones, he thought it would set him apart. He wasn't wrong. The Tiger Lillies were formed in 1989 after he advertised for musicians. The line-up now comprises Jacques, Adrian Stout on double bass and, on drums, Adrian Huge ("he was a Hughes but we changed it because it was too good to miss").

Despite rave reviews on the outer fringes of the business - Huge was once described as "James Joyce on drums" - the band scratched a living, proving that a cult following doesn't mean you won't starve.

It has been 14 years of adventures. Living above a Soho strip joint, Jacques wrote songs about the people on the sometimes mean and sleazy streets. There was a girl he knew who was murdered in an alley and was commemorated in music.

There were other escapades in Europe. The website recalls a recent trip to the Czech Republic, where the Lillies played in shacks, caravan parks and baroque theatres and Jacques was accosted by a Gypsy woman who accused him of seducing her daughter - a ruse, it turned out, to steal his wallet. At the other extreme, the trio recently performed for 1,400 people in a posh San Francisco hall alongside the Kronos Quartet.

The voice continues to be his salvation, along with a macabre sense of humour and a talent for song-writing and performing.

The Tiger Lillies were to have collaborated on a new show with the bleakly funny American playwright and illustrator Edward Gorey, whose drawings would have appealed to Dr Hoffman. Jacques set some of his unpublished writings to music but Gorey died three days before he was due to meet him.

It did produce an album, though. The Gorey End, featuring The Tiger Lillies and the Kronos Quartet, was released by EMI. The Tiger Lillies' own latest album, The Sea, is released on their own label, Misery Guts.

Jacques and the Adrians now number Robin Williams, Terry Gilliam and Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, among their fans. Success, though certainly not in the Radiohead kind of way, has brought security if not riches.

Tickets are ?12.50. Tel (0191) 454-1234.

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