New York Press, May 13-19, 1998
"I love a little hamster up my rectum
I love a little hamster up my ass
It always makes me laugh"
Every once in a while you come across a band that mops up the scraps and unfinished business of musics past and puts the pieces together to form something entirely new. It's disconcerting. There's always that feeling that you've heard this music before but you can't put your finger on it; the narrower your definitions get, the broader the turf becomes.
For example, it would be entirely too easy and inaccurate to say that London's Tiger Lillies are a Pogues rip-off. On first listen, the rootsy acoustic sound might fool you. So might the punky aggression and the subject matter: Rum, sodomy, and the lash are topics favored by the Tiger Lillies as well.
But on a closer listen, the contrasts between the two bands become so clear that you wonder how you could have ever compared the two in the first place. Where can you place lead singer Martyn Jacques's shrill countertenor voice? What about the pan-European influences ranging across German cabaret, British music hall tunes, gypsy ballads, French chanson, Swiss yodeling, Spanish flamenco and Viennese waltzes? And then there are the American influences: grinding torch-songs, dirty blues and scum bucket jazz. Suddenly, the world opens up and names such as Jacques Brel, Spike Jones, Bessie Smith, Edith Piaf, Kurt Weill, Tom Waits, Georg Kreisler, Max Miller, George Formby, Louis Armstrong, Noel Coward, Sophie Tucker, Maria Callas, Federico Fellini and Johnny Rotten spring to mind.
And this huge musical landscape achieved by economical means: a stand-up acoustic bass, an accordion and a drum kit. That's all.
Singer / songwriter / composer Jacques founded the trio in 1989. Jacques, aka the "Criminal Castrato," he taught himself to sing while living in London's seedy Soho above a clip-joint strip bar, where he'd spend his time getting to know the workers and clientele. The Tiger Lillies are named after a famed murdered Soho hooker named Lillie who dressed exclusively in animal prints. Jacques, who supported himself by selling acid, would hang out all day in the streets, then head upstairs to turn the day's antics into songs.
The resulting subject matter reads like something out of Diegroschenoper. The Tiger Lillies best record, Ad Nauseam, is a dark suite of songs certainly worthy of Polly Peachum or Mackie Messer; it would make Brecht proud. "Murder," an accordion-driven waltz starts off:
"Murder is easy
murder is fun
it's better than sex
because I always come
I like to go browsing on Saturday night
I like her to struggle and put up a fight"
From there it works itself up into a frenzy extolling the glories of killing Vicars and disemboweling cats and dogs. As the song progresses, the stand-up bass thumps harder, the bar room snare drum pounds away and Jacques becomes more and more animated, screaming at the top of his lungs until he peaks out in a metaphorical orgasm that ends in the finale "I always cooooommme!"
Jacques' lungs are full of thick London fog, and the band creates a musical atmosphere blackened with sooty Weimar Republic bus fumes. It might've sounded nostalgic but it's not; the subject matter is timelessness, documenting the eternal parade of con men, beggars, cheaters, aldulters and drunks. It makes me nostalgic for the old Times Square.
Jacques says he has always lived on the dark side. He was born in Slough, a grim Southern England industrial town which he hated so much that he later penned a song, "Slough," that contains the lyrics "I'll sing you an song if you drop a bomb on Slough." He went off to study philosophy a theology college, but was thrown out after he placed a pig's head on the college's chapel altar with a couple of Marlboros stuffed up its snout. The church had to be reconsecrated by a local Bishop.
The experience was repeated a year ago when the band was booked to play a Good Friday gig at a church in Islington. The Tiger Lillies, with a keen eye for publicity sent out a press release stating, "What better day could there be to hear songs such as 'Banging in the Nails,' 'Jesus,' and 'Hell' and what more appropriate place for such a performance. So grab your crown of thorns, polish your nails and head down to Union Chapel for a night of bizarre and blasphemous balladry." When this hit the papers, a public outcry ensued and the concert was canceled.
That sounds awfully punk, but actually punk had nothing directly to do with the esthetic agenda of the Tiger Lillies. By the time he was in his late teens, Jacques had already written off rock 'n roll as boring and predictable. The bassist, Adrian Stout, told me that Martyn "has no interest in contemporary music. He hates guitars, hates American culture and isolates himself by listening to music from the 1920s and older." The band's Web site claims that they want to have nothing to do with contemporary trends in music, "fashion and commercial thinking that characterized years of conservative government." Stout's own brushes with pop music don't come much closer than a stint walking Garry Glitter's bass player's dogs and turning down an opportunity to play in Bob Dylan's back-up band at Wembly Arena because he had to do a Tiger Lillies gig instead.
Onstage, the band's a frenetic three-ring circus. Jacques, dressed in Victorian garb with long pigtails and a bowler's hat, screams loudly, flails like a madman and plays accordion with his eyes closed the whole time. He claims that he "sings from his feet" meaning that he puts his entire body into it and pushes the sound from the ground up. Stout dresses in kilts and leider hosen and the drummer, Adrian Huge (aka Patrick McHuge), whom David Byrne once dubbed "James Joyce on drums," punctuates his drumming with an array of noise-making squeeze toys.
The band got its start playing in pubs around London to a drunken patronage. They were viewed as complete weirdoes by the football supporters, misfits and alcoholics that happened to be there in the early days. Stout would get through those evenings simply by shouting louder than the barflies. In time, however, the supporters got used to and actually grew to like the band. Word began to spread; a cult following developed and began attracting members of the London hip art scene. Before long, the Lillies were getting booked all over Europe and today actually manage to make a living from what looks like a constant touring schedule. (It took me weeks to get a hold of them.)
The Tiger Lillies have always been a homespun hands-on type of operation. They have self-released eight CDs and have a repertoire of over 120 songs with new ones being written every day. They have no distribution for their discs; Huge hawks them at shows like a cigarette girl shouting "CDs, come, come!" Stout tells me, "We've sold 6000 CDs and we've met every person we've ever sold a CD to." For the time being their discs are available here only through their Web site.
Which is worth a visit in and of itself. All the latest scandals are posted, as well as bizarre tour stories such as the band's acquisition of an instrument called a "Fuck-Off Horn," taken from a factory which was used to call workers in the morning. The Lillies use it to punctuate songs like "Hamsters," cited at the beginning of this article. "Hamsters" is from last year's concept album, Farmyard Filth, which has got to be the world's most extensive collection of songs dealing with bestiality and zoophilia in recorded history. As the website promises "flies, sheep, hamsters, german shepards, giraffes, pig and calves, a veritable Noah's ark of beasts are paraded before the listener. Other subjects include amputees, pensioners and transsexuals. You have been warned." It's terrific stuff. My favorite is a ska-influenced paean to a giraffe called "Vagina" which laments the growth of a favored baby giraffe into an adult. It begins "My vagina in the sky / once in love we lied / we were young / and the same height / our love was paradise." But later "She's grown to such a height / her love is out of sight." The Web site has animations of the band members with their pants down around their ankles holding plastic sheep to their crotches. There are a number of sound samples as well.
The Tiger Lillies latest project is a collaboration with a theater company in a production of Dr. Henirich Hoffman's Struwwelpeter (ShockHeaded Peter). In 1844, so the story goes, Hoffman couldn't find any books to fire the imagination of his kids so he decided to write his own. Struwwelpeter contains such vindictive characters as the Scissors Man, who chops off children's thumbs if they suck them, and another who burns kids to death if they play with matches. It's right up the Tiger Lillie's alley. The stage set is done up as a big animation and looks like something out of a Tim Burton film featuring life-sized puppets and toys. The band performs live onstage every night, popping up through trap doors on the set and singing grotesque numbers. It's currently running at the Hammersmith Lyric in London and a soundtrack CD should be available soon.
One of Struwwelpeter's directors, Phelim McDermott, says of the Lillies "They are freaks in the freak band. In fact, we've made a freak of theater." The other director, Julian Crouch, says "The Tiger Lillies are a theater band in the Kurt Weill tradition. They are outcasts, and perhaps because of that, this performance will work for people who don't normally like theater."
"The Tiger Lillies make music for people who don't really fit," Jacques agrees. Then he says to me, "You must not really fit also, eh? After all, you're writing about us."
Surface mail at: The Tiger Lillies, P.O. Box 10578, London,UK SW1P 4ZD