Macabre cabaret

Defying categorization, the British three-man Tiger Lillies band brings sordid visual and musical mayhem to Tel Aviv.

Macabre cabaret (photo credit: Andrew Atkinson)
Macabre cabaret
(photo credit: Andrew Atkinson)
Singing about the devilish personalities of the underbelly of English society with the voice of an angel is just one of the many contradictions The Tiger Lillies’ front man Martyn Jacques brings to the table. First and foremost would be that Jacques doesn’t necessarily see the prostitutes, drug addicts and lowlife thieves he writes about as being devils – they’re more like interesting subject matter.
“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,” said Jacques, who’s bringing his internationally renowned perverse cabaret show to Tel Aviv on Saturday night at the Barby Club.
“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.”
And what he knows is pretty sordid. Imagine Tom Waits singing about his usual motley crew of societal misfits but in an operatic voice dripping with British sarcasm and wit and music more fitting for Bertolt Brecht’s Three Penny Opera, and the macabre world of Jacques and his band begins to be revealed.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post from Los Angeles, where later that night The Tiger Lillies are going to appear before a soldout audience that will include one of their most vocal fans, Matt Groening of The Simpsons fame, Jacques recalled how Brecht’s work opened up his eyes to a whole new world that was very different from the “horrible London suburb” he had grown up in.
“I do love that underworld lifestyle, and it all goes back to the Three Penny Opera, which is all about prostitutes, gangsters and thieves,” he said. So enamored with the the “other side” was he, that when Jacques decided in his early 20s to learn how to sing in an operatic manner, he secluded himself in an apartment above a strip joint that doubled as a brothel, where he lived for seven years learning to sing passionately and savagely about the characters and life he knew up close.
The Tiger Lillies were born in 1989, when the accordion-playing Jacques advertised for musicians and recruited the two Adrians – percussionist Adrian Huge, who regularly uses kitchen utensils like spatulas and toy drum sets to create his cacophony, and double bass player Adrian Stout, who more often than not appears on stage in a kilt. They fit right in to Jacques’s visual and musical mayhem.
While their music defies categorization, Jacques offers that’s he been influenced by the music of Eastern Europe, such as klezmer.
“I definitely see klezmer in our music, along with Gypsy elements and Greek music,” he said. “I love klezmer. It’s a great style. And I also own some old Jewish cantorial records, which are quite nice.”
Of course, most people haven’t heard klezmer-style music that touches on subjects like bestiality and murder, but that’s just another of Jacques’s contradictions.
And it’s what the band’s fans love about the group and what has allowed them to reach career peaks like 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 perhaps for his most glaring contradiction, for someone who appears barely in control of his senses and emotions in concert, wearing a sinister white face and prowling around like a Dickens character, Jacques in conversation is a sweetheart. I guess that’s where the tiger and the lilly come from.