20 Gory Years

An acquired taste: The Tiger Lillies

Celebrating 20 years of Brechtian-punk, The Tiger Lillies begin their Australian tour of Songs from Shockheaded Peter and Other Gory Verses on July 24 in Sydney, before visiting Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Darwin. Anne-Marie Peard spoke with founder Martyn Jacques about his inspirations and his quest for originality.

Like anything truly addictive and mind altering, The Tiger Lillies are an acquired taste. Often described as debauched, macabre, obscene and sordid, their inspired punk cabaret continues to defy genre and balances on a summit of originality that many aspire to, but few dare reach.

“The mainstream for me is just utterly depressing and dull. I’m not interested in that kind of world”, said founder Martyn Jacques. “If you’re not trying to do something in some original, unique and exciting way, then it’s just not worth doing at all – for me.”

Jacques (vocals, accordion and piano), Adrian Stout (bass and saw) and Adrian Huge (percussion, kitchen utensils and toys) began their rejection of the seen-it-all-before in 1989. Their brief visit to Australia is part of a world tour celebrating those 20 years since their formation.  After Australia, they go to New Zealand, Edinburgh, Prague, Budapest and New York. And that’s just the next month!  Not bad for a band who spent the first few years playing in “tiny bars and wine cellars”.

Jacques explained his early ideas. “I found this old beaten up accordion and thought I’ll sing in a high voice (because I could always sing in a high voice) and I’d already been playing the piano for 15 years … My earliest inspirations were people like Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil, and The Threepenny Opera, and people like Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf and I thought of just mixing these things together … and brought in some Billy Holliday and blues and just went for it really.”

Fans embraced their unique vision and masterful musicianship and the bars were soon “filled with drunken fans”.

“We were trying to be original and develop an original style and an original sound and hoped that this originality would lead to us becoming successful.”

Broader success came as the “arty farty” set began to notice the crowds and soon the depraved trio were appearing at arts festivals and playing in theatres. The result is an ever-growing mass of fans who are very proud to be called members of The Tiger Lillies’ cult.

For Tiger Lillies’ virgins Jacques explained, “We’re entertainers. We try to actually amuse people and make them feel happy at the end of the evening, but we do it in a rather difficult and challenging way.”

The challenge that can quickly slap an unsuspecting patron in the face is that Jacques’ haunting falsetto voice sings about freaks, violence, death, blasphemy, addiction, bestiality and all possible combinations of the deadly sins.

Imagine if Brecht had written a Carry On film – as a musical – and Ken Loach had been asked to direct it. The resulting “Carry On One-Legged Transsexual Crack Whore” begins to scrape the surface of the images and wonders that emerge on a Tiger Lillies’ stage.

“We cover subject matter that is a bit dark and quite strange but a little bit more twisted and more perverse than your usual TV violence. We like unusual directions with strange characters and things.”

Characters like Masturbating Jimmy and Aunty Mable (an old, transsexual whore with a plastic leg) are very hard to forget. As are favourite songs like “Banging in the Nails”, “Cancer”, “Piss on Your Grave” and “Hamsters”.

The shock is turned up to eleven, but Jacques said, “I’d hate to perform and have everyone leave depressed.” The unexpected joy of The Tiger Lillies is that out of the putrid and rotting remains of their stories emerges an experience that is remarkably positive. It is challenging to describe how a song about kicking little babies down the stairs is rib-crackingly funny; perhaps by showing us the worst in the world, they are daring us to see the best.

The twentieth anniversary tour show is Songs from Shockheaded Peter and Other Gory Verses and features songs from ‘Shockheaded Peter’ and ‘The Gorey End’ – two of their most “commercial” albums (Jacques added the inverted commas) that are somewhat “nicer” (I added the inverted commas) than the likes of  ‘Farmyard Filth’ or ‘The Brothel to the Cemetery’.

Shockheaded Peter started as a puppet theatre show that went on to win an Olivier Award. It was inspired by Heinrich Hoffman’s tales of naughty children who come to gruesome ends.  Hoffman’s books are “sort of the Alice in Wonderland of Germany”, says Jacques, and the album is “a kind of absurd and ironic collection of songs based on this book … (about) children dying doing innocuous things, like sucking their thumb and getting their thumbs cut off or walking along looking up into the sky and falling into a river and dying.”

The Gorey End is based on original works by underground writer and illustrator Edward Gorey, best known for his A-Z picture book of children meeting grisly ends, but Jacques insists that this album isn’t also about children dying, but simply about “people dying after doing fairly innocuous things, but they tend to drink gin and are prostitutes and things.”

Jacques meeting with the legendary Gorey sounds like a story from a Tiger Lillies’ song. Jacques said, “He was a fan, he really liked us and so he sent me this big box of unpublished manuscripts and asked if we’d like to do a show together. So we were going to do a show together, but unfortunately just before I was going to meet him, he died.”

As a fan, no doubt Gorey would still have been thrilled with the result. The Gorey End was also nominated for a Grammy for the Best Classical Crossover Album, as the other collaborators were the celebrated and influential Kronos Quartet. Kronos have spent the last 30 years expanding the range and context of the string quartet and are well known for their work with minimalist composers like Phillip Glass, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. As Jacques said, “They are very game and are up for doing unusual and strange things.”

The Tiger Lillies world is unusual and strange, but one that still shakes the complacent and continues to fight the utterly dull.

For tour dates visit www.tigerlillies.com

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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