A Brecht of fresh air

Maniacal Tiger Lillies front man Martyn Jacques talks prostitutes, Matt Groening and his band's darkly comic edge.

Tiger Lillies 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Andrew Attkinson)
Tiger Lillies 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Andrew Attkinson)
Martyn Jacques sounds excited.“Matt Groening is coming to our show tonight,” the loquacious front man for The Tiger Lillies said from his Los Angeles hotel room last week. He was referring to the uber successful creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, who is an unabashed fan of the cult favorite British macabre cabaret trio, so much so that he insisted that the group join last year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties elite music festival in England, which he was asked to curate.
It sort of makes sense that Groening, who has expertly used satire to poke fun at middle-class America, would find affinity with The Tiger Lilies, who take satire to the uncensored extreme as they use a broad and unorthodox palette to skewer British social mores.
For those entertaining the impulse to go see them on Saturday night at the Barby Club, be forewarned that The Tiger Lillies are not for the faint of heart or the easily embarrassed. Describing themselves as a “twisted fusion of pre-war Berlin cabaret and avant garde music hall in deranged anarchic gypsy style,” their musical mayhem features operatic castrati-style vocals and lurid yet laugh-inducing lyrics sung by by macabre, white-faced front man Jacques.
Jacques and his band mates – the two equally bizarre Adrians – Adrian Huge on percussion that often includes kitchen appliances and toy drum kits, and Adrian Huge on stand-up bass and often dressing in a kilt – have been celebrating the dark underbelly of British society both past and present as well as rallying against repression and censorship for almost 20 years, and over 30 albums.
As one critic wrote, “Jacques sings about life at the bottom of contemporary Britain with the voice of an angel.”
Imagine Bertolt Brecht’s Three Penny Opera performed by cross-dressing punk rockers with an obsession over prostitutes, pimps and thieves, and you’ll begin to understand what inspires Jacques to create a visual and musical spectacle that combines the perverse, the gruesome and the hilarious into one very un-politically correct but devastating farce.
It may help that he has long possessed a dual obsession with Brecht’s masterpiece and with ladies of the evening.
Three Penny Opera was the biggest inspiration on me. I heard it when I was about 20, and Brecht really got to me on a musical level,” said Jacques. “At that time I had never really sung, but it moved me to try.”
To focus on that task, Jacques holed himself up in an apartment situated above a Soho strip joint and sometimes brothel for seven years as he learned to sing opera with a castrati-style voice.
“That was good inspiration for my songwriting as well,” said Jacques.
“I do love that underworld lifestyle. It all goes back to the Three Penny Opera, which was all about prostitutes, gangsters and thieves.”
“Coming from a working-class neighborhood of London and having grown up amid all these inequalities and unfairness in society, it tends to give you more of an interest in those fringes. If I had been brought up in a nice middle-class environment, I probably wouldn’t have been aware of most of that stuff. As it is, from my high school, I would say that many of the girls are now probably prostitutes and half the guys are in prison, so I’m singing about what I know.”
JACQUES DESCRIBED a childhood that evoked images of Billy Eliot, in that he was never encouraged to develop his considerable musical abilities, which were in fact frowned upon.
“This is certainly a class thing as well. If I had been well educated and cultivated, I might be an accomplished opera singer now,” he said.
“I was a choir singer when I was 11 and had a lovely voice. But nobody encouraged me. You don’t go to sing with the Westminster Boys Choir, that’s not what was done in the horrible London suburb I grew up in. Nobody would have thought for a minute to nurture me or send me to a music school. I don’t hate my parents for it, but in my social class, that was considered rubbish – instead it was ‘go get some qualifications and get yourself a job.’” Jacques ended up breaking away from his parents by totally rejecting their values and going overboard in the other direction.
“I went to university, started taking drugs, got into punk, got into cross dressing, had some girlfriends who were prostitutes and completely rejected my parents’ values,” he said.
It wasn’t until he neared his 30s, though, that Jacques’ experimentations and musical training paved the way for The Tiger Lillies.
“It took me ten years to work out my style and how I wanted to do things,” he said.
He put the Tiger Lillies together by placing ads in a local music paper looking for a drummer who played only with brushes instead of sticks.
“Adrian the drummer was the only one who answered the ad, and that was because he went out and bought a pair of brushes. So he got the job,” said Jacques.
“He may be a great technical drummer, but he has character and that’s much more important.”
Featuring Jacques on a variety of instruments including accordion, ukelele and harmonica, The Tiger Lillies debuted in 1989, and have since won worldwide acclaim for their surreal style and lyrical content, which takes on everything from bestiality to blasphemy. Along the way, they’ve achieved peaks with their 1998 opera Shockheaded Peter, 2003’s Grammy-nominated The Gorey End which found them collaborating with the Kronos Quartet, and more recent theatrical presentations like Sinderella and Cockatoo Prison.
And like a secret club that you may not want anyone to know you’re a member of, but have paid lifetime dues to, the band has attracted a widespread following, including the Simpson’s Groening as well as veteran comic genius Mel Brooks.
“Can you believe that? Mel Brooks is one of my all-time heroes, and he came up to me after seeing us perform Shockheaded Peter and said that it was the best musical he’d seen since Three Penny Opera,” said Jacques.
“Mel Brooks said that to me! That’s it. I can now die.”
And while Groening is also on the Tiger Lillies’ cheerleading squad, we might have to hold our breath before we see Jacques performing a sordid operatic duet with Homer Simpson on prime-time TV.
“It’s funny with things like that. I never really want to push people. When you have someone that famous and successful as a fan, that’s enough. He once said ‘we should get you on The Simpsons,’ but I haven’t followed up on it. For me, it’s enough to know that my fans are my heroes.”