Wild Flowers

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.