SEX PISTILS Prostitution, intoxication and insanity are just a few light themes covered by the Tiger Lillies.
Freak-cabaret trio the Tiger Lillies return with a fresh bouquet of psycho ballads and fetid ditties . By LD Beghtol
SEX PISTILS Prostitution, intoxication and insanity are just a few
light themes covered by the Tiger Lillies (from left, Adrian Huge,
Martyn Jacques, Adrian Stout).
Photograph by bLUE
Sometimes you take your epiphanies where you find them. For Martyn
Jacques, angel-voiced frontman of London's devilishly debauched trio
the Tiger Lillies, it came in the shape of an accordion. A dozen years
ago, Jacques was a 30-year-old ex-punk living in squalor above a Soho
brothel. He'd played all sorts of instruments in all sorts of what he
calls "very dreadful" bands, but still looked in vain for the perfect
accompaniment for his voice (a piercing falsetto that rivals Diamanda
Gal?s's operatic shriek) and his highly theatrical persona: that of a
bedraggled late-Victorian minstrel declaiming caustic, often profoundly
funny songs about modern life as observed from the gutter.
"One day, I suddenly decided to try an accordion," the soft-spoken
singer confides in a mock-conspiratorial tone. "So I went out and
bought one for ?40, and I felt straight away: This is it."
Armed with his trusty squeezebox, a contrabassist named Adrian Stout
(who isn't), a drummer named Adrian Huge (who is rather stout), and a
catalog of scabrous neo?music hall ditties that detail death, sexual
depravity, intoxication, prostitution, insanity, bestiality and other
sordid goings-on with great relish and often canny insight, Jacques set
out to conquer the world.
After a decade and almost a dozen
albums, the group's sinister cabaret has garnered it a devout cult
following among those with a taste for the smart and unseemly. Fans of
the Tiger Lillies include cartoonist Matt Groening, actor Robin
Williams, film director Terry Gilliam and ex?Talking Head David Byrne
(who recently booked the group, along with bands from his Luaka Bop
label, for a show at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall). Mainstream
recognition came in February of this year, when Jacques's delightful
"junk opera," Shockheaded Peter, won two Olivier awards (the British
equivalent of the Tony): one for best entertainment and another to
Jacques himself for best supporting role in a musical. Starring the
band and a versatile troupe of actor-singers, Shockheaded Peter opened
to rave reviews in England in 1998 and triumphantly toured the world
over the following four years, including prestigious runs at Broadway's
New Victory Theatre in 1999 and the Piccadilly Theatre on London's West
End in 2001.
The group returns to New York this week with
its Death and the Bible tour, which will include selections from its
recently released Two Penny Opera CD (an elegantly vicious piss-take on
Kurt Weill's Three Penny Opera). Also on the bill are wicked ditties
written to unpublished Edward Gorey poems from the band's upcoming
Gorey End album (featuring the Kronos Quartet), slated for release in
March. Jacques had collaborated transatlantically with Gorey, the
American master of the macabre, but in a plot twist worthy of the
morbidly ironic tales beloved by both, in April 2000?just days before
the composer was to arrive in America to perform the songs in person
for the author?Gorey dropped dead of an apparent heart attack. "Such a
strange thing, that I first saw his face in his New York Times
obituary," Jacques deadpans, noting as an aside that "all the money due
his estate from the new record will go to a bat-preservation fund."
Fame?or wider infamy, anyway?has been long coming for the members of
the Tiger Lillies. The two Adrians had worked together in assorted
blues, rock and jazz ensembles before donning lederhosen to join forces
with Jacques, whose pre?Lillies years were fraught with misadventure:
The singer tells lurid if far-fetched tales of backstreet drug
dealings, and of getting brutally stomped by skinheads in seedy London
dives. And though he hints at all manner of extravagant sexual
exploits, Jacques emphatically denies that the band was named after a
notorious prostitute called Tiger Lily?and that she also happened to be
his mother. (He also gleefully admits that he started both rumors
himself, years ago.)
The Lillies' 1994 debut, Births,
Marriages and Deaths, was a corrosive introduction to the trio's
splenetic social commentary and satire, and the grandly profane The
Brothel to the Cemetery (1996) solidified their burgeoning reputation
as musical miscreants. One song, "Banging in the Nails," declared what
fun it was to crucify (and piss on) Jesus Christ, and provided many New
Yorkers their first exposure to the band's dark delights when the
twisted cabaret duo Kiki and Herb began performing the song several
years ago. For Herb (a.k.a. Kenny Mellman), it was love at first
listen: "When I heard 'Banging in the Nails,' I knew we'd get along,"
he says. "They're mining the same freak-show aesthetic we are." (For
his part, Jacques says, "I fully expect, by the time I'm 65, to be a
drunken transvestite singer, so having Kiki and Herb as my prophets
seems fine to me.")
Things took a turn for the bestial with
1997's concept album Farmyard Filth, a merry sing-along about hamsters,
German shepherds, giraffes, pigs and sheep?and the amputees, pensioners
and transsexuals who love them. Songs like the jaunty "Hamster" ("I
love a little hamster up my rectum / It makes me feel so bright and so
gay / What they do with their claws, the way they do gnaw / It makes me
orgasm every day!") and other equally explicit tunes set the tone.
Jacques boasts, "It is possibly the most extensive collection of songs
dealing with zoophilia in recorded history."
understandably, wider recognition in the U.S. remained elusive until
the comparatively accessible Shockheaded Peter hit these shores.
Created in 1997 with celebrated British director-writer-puppeteer
Julian Crouch and his creative partner Phelim McDermott, Jacques's
chamber opera is a sublime musical setting of Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann's
merciless 19th-century story collection, Strewwelpeter. It's a series
of gruesomely funny cautionary tales about kiddies who don't?or
won't?do as they are told, with highlights including "Snip Snip" (about
the bloody fate of an inveterate thumb sucker) and "The Dreadful Story
About Harriet and the Matches."
To a fellow whose work was
more closely associated with the sewer than with the hallowed halls of
high art, the show's accolades came as a surprise, if not necessarily
an honor. "Some performers spend their whole lives coveting something
like this, but to me the Olivier means nothing," Jacques says. "It's
very sweet, really, but I keep mine perched on a large heap of
accordions and banjo-ukes in a corner of the lounge."
irreverence has served the group well thus far, and even if his brand
of wittily blasphemous fun isn't for everyone, the singer calmly
asserts that his work is quite moral underneath all the filth and fury.
"I'm actually very respectful of other people's religious
beliefs?unlike your George Bush," Jacques declares waggishly. "If you
haven't got a sense of humor?about life, religion or sex?you're
The Tiger Lillies play St. Ann's Warehouse Saturday 16.