The Tiger Lil­lies and their unique take on Ham­let

The out­ra­geously suc­cess­ful founder of the Tiger Lil­lies spe­cialises in ri­otous laughs, schlock hor­ror and un­bri­dled silli­ness, writes Ju­lian Tomp­kin

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

‘They’re be­gin­ning to drop off … I sup­pose I am get­ting to that age.” Mar­tyn Jac­ques is vis­i­bly rat­tled. He has just re­ceived word that an old friend has died in Cam­bo­dia. “I didn’t know what else to do, so I jumped on Face­book to look at his page to see what oth­ers were say­ing — that’s what you do, isn’t it? I saw that his last up­date was 18 months ago, when he wrote ‘the booze is so cheap and avail­able here’. That was his last post — now he’s dead.”

De­spite its ghoul­ish and of­ten grace­less re­al­ity, death is a theme close to Jac­ques’s beat­ing heart — along­side those other all-time favourites zoophilia, pros­ti­tu­tion and gon­or­rhoea.

As the front­man and linch­pin of cult cabaret shock­ers The Tiger Lil­lies, he’s tan­goed with death, laughed with it and even down­right ridiculed it. It could be ar­gued he’s even built a ca­reer on it: “To a de­gree,” he ad­mits, “but I’d say shag­ging just tips the scales, by a slim mar­gin.” None­the­less, dit­ties such as Kill You on a

Mon­day, In My Hearse and Piss on Your Grave re­main firm crowd pleasers next to clas­sic Tiger Lil­lies tunes such as The Pimp Song. “I’m a gen­uine de­viant,” Jac­ques of­fers with a mod­est whiff of hubris. “I’ve been do­ing this for more than 25 years.”

Twenty-five years is a long time for any­one to main­tain a ca­reer in mu­sic, let alone a group whose rol­lick­ing 1994 de­but, Births, Mar­riages

and Deaths, was fol­lowed in 1995 by Spit Bucket (fea­tur­ing song ti­tles such as Gouge My Eyes Out and Blind Willy). But while the band’s paean to zoophilia ( Farm­yard Filth, 1997) may have sent record la­bels and ra­dio play-lis­ters scur­ry­ing once and for all, the Tiger Lil­lies soon found a sym­pa­thetic ear in the un­like­li­est of places: Lon­don’s West End.

“Shock­headed Peter was a sur­prise,” Jac­ques ad­mits of the 1998 theatre pro­duc­tion he cowrote, based on the ad­mon­ish­ing and blithely ex­ag­ger­ated chil­dren’s rhymes by 19th-cen­tury Ger­man au­thor and psy­chi­a­trist Hein­rich Hoff­mann. “Sur­prise” is an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic un­der­state­ment for a bloke who spends his work­ing hours in rather over­stated stage make-up, singing about the world’s nether re­gions in a sin­is­ter (and, some­times, serene) falsetto. The show went on to win an Olivier Award in 2002 and turned Jac­ques into a vir­tual su­per­star among its pre­pubescent au­di­ence. The show re­mains in the in­ter­na­tional reper­toire, fa­mous for its blend of ri­otous laughs, schlock hor­ror and un­bri­dled silli­ness.

“Kids love me,” Jac­ques says with a chuckle. “They are not usu­ally al­lowed to see me, but when they do they ab­so­lutely love me. They look at me and go, ‘Ooh, he’s bad’ — the rare mis­be­hav­ing adult. I mean, adults tend to be a bit bor­ing re­ally — they be­have them­selves and have bor­ing con­ver­sa­tions. Chil­dren love it when you mis­be­have. And I am known to be a lit­tle naughty.”

Born in 1959 in Slough, Jac­ques spent his for­ma­tive years run­ning from — and chas­ing — trou­ble in Lon­don’s then unre­deemed Soho district. “I lived above a brothel,” he re­mem­bers nos­tal­gi­cally. “I was sur­rounded by a colour­ful as­sort­ment of char­ac­ters, and per­haps was even one my­self. I’ve been a drug ad­dict. I sup­pose I can also say I’ve been a pros­ti­tute. I have cer­tainly dab­bled with all sorts of drugs and sex­ual vari­a­tions, or per­ver­sions. I have writ­ten lots of songs about drugs and ad­dic­tion and pros­ti­tu­tion, and the low life — I made an al­bum called Low Life Lul­la­bies (1998).

“If you’re go­ing to write songs about such things it’s good to have spent some time liv­ing it, spent time with pros­ti­tutes and drug ad­dicts, and I cer­tainly have. The best part about be­ing an artist is you don’t have to be a hyp­ocrite. If some­one ac­cused me of sleep­ing with a la­dy­boy I could just say, ‘Well, if I did, so what?’ ”

De­spite his in­deco­rous ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties, mu­sic was al­ways Jac­ques’s pre­ferred pro­fes­sion — he just wasn’t sure in which guise. It was the 1980s, and the tec­tonic roar of punk was still rat­tling Bri­tain, and nat­u­rally had an im­mense im­pact on the mis­chievous boy from Slough.

“Punk was vi­tal,” he ex­plains. “It was in­tel­li­gent non­con­for­mity and re­bel­lion — I was hugely in­flu­enced by that. You look at [Ber­tolt Brecht’s] The Three­penny Opera and it’s also in there — that re­bel­lion. Punk isn’t just one time and place. It’s been there since the be­gin­ning, this mix­ture of in­tel­lect and re­bel­lion. Peo­ple who don’t swal­low the bull­shit we’re sup­posed to con­sume and be­lieve in.”

In­deed, while the rest of Bri­tain was bliss­fully groov­ing to the mu­sic of Span­dau Bal­let, Jac­ques was tun­ing into a very dif­fer­ent Ber­lin: one of co­caine, strip­pers, jazz and mob­sters. Brecht’s en­dur­ing mu­si­cal proved noth­ing short of a rev­e­la­tion to the then 20-some­thing Jac­ques, de­spite its age. A “stripper and speed freak” named So­nia gifted Jac­ques a record­ing of The Three

penny Opera, along with a record each by Nick Cave’s the Birth­day Party and Tom Waits.

“I sup­pose things started to make more sense from that point on,” Jac­ques laughs. “Thank you, So­nia, wher­ever you may be.”

Piqued by the ram­bunc­tious cabaret of Brecht (and his col­lab­o­ra­tor Kurt Weill), spell-

bound by Waits’s sideshow weltschmerz and Cave’s de­spair­ing junkie’s lament, Jac­ques set about try­ing to ar­rive at his own de­fined sound and per­sona — one that re­flected each of th­ese new in­flu­ences, and in­fused it with his own gaudy ten­den­cies. But it would take a chance (re) dis­cov­ery of the ac­cor­dion for it all to fi­nally fall into line: and so were born the Tiger Lil­lies, the self-pro­claimed sul­tans of delin­quent Brechtian punk cabaret. The band in­cludes drum­mer Jonas Gol­land and long-time bassist Adrian Stout.

Jac­ques’s fas­ci­na­tion with Weimar Ber­lin goes be­yond purely the aes­thetic, and he now calls the Ger­man cap­i­tal home. He greets me in front of his stu­dio in the city’s ef­fort­lessly hip Kreuzberg district — di­rectly op­po­site Gor­l­itzer Park, a long stretch of park­land oth­er­wise known as Ber­lin’s big­gest il­licit drug su­per­mar­ket.

“I am a loyal cus­tomer,” he says, laugh­ing, of the dozen or so men loi­ter­ing in the park, look­ing ut­terly bored as modish young par­ents stroll past with their de­signer prams.

In­deed, while much of the phys­i­cal ev­i­dence of the Weimar Re­pub­lic may have long dis­ap­peared, now in­terred deep within rub­ble mounds on the out­skirts of the city, Ber­lin’s an­ar­chist spirit trudges on — fu­elled by low rents and liv­ing costs.

“I feel at home here,” Jac­ques con­tin­ues, dressed im­mac­u­lately in a vest and bowler hat, with a long pony­tail drap­ing out the back. “And you know why? There are no bloody Christ­mas lights in this part of town, and that makes me very happy,” he adds, his grumpi­ness jeered mag­nif­i­cently by the lu­mi­nous rain­bow-painted ex­te­rior of his stu­dio.

In­side, the boxy stu­dio is jammed with in­stru­ments. I nar­rowly avoid tripping on a Ja­panese taishogoto. He picks it up and gives it a strum, set­ting off an ethe­real ori­en­tal drone.

“This is it — the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of a life,” he says, thought­fully look­ing around at the in­stru­ments star­ing down from the walls, and a grand pi­ano wedged into the cor­ner of the room. “Mu­sic’s it — it’s all I know.” Fol­low­ing the un­ex­pected tri­umph of Shock

headed Peter (both ar­tis­ti­cally and at the box of­fice), Jac­ques sud­denly found him­self an “in­de­mand” col­lab­o­ra­tor, and the theatre and arts fes­ti­val com­mis­sions came rolling in. “It wasn’t planned,” he says, laugh­ing apolo­get­i­cally. “It just sort of hap­pened, and I was sud­denly earn­ing a de­cent liv­ing.”

For a ha­bit­u­ally sar­donic trage­dian — his the­atri­cal cred­its in­clude scores for down-and­out clas­sics such as Woyzeck, Frank Wedekind’s

Lulu and Songs from the Gut­ter, a show (and forth­com­ing al­bum) ded­i­cated to arch-vagabond Edith Piaf — Ham­let seemed a pre­des­tined fit, al­beit one not recog­nised by Jac­ques un­til it was sug­gested by Martin Tulin­ius, artis­tic di­rec­tor of Copen­hagen’s Republique Theatre.

“It seemed so ob­vi­ous,” Tulin­ius said back in 2012, af­ter the show’s de­but in Copen­hagen the pre­vi­ous year. “Who bet­ter to cap­ture the strange, am­bigu­ous at­mos­phere Ham­let pos- sesses?” The pro­duc­tion, open­ing this month at the Perth Fes­ti­val, cob­bles to­gether el­e­ments of theatre, cir­cus, cabaret and a “loose” live mu­sic gig to cre­ate what Tulin­ius has coined an “opera grotesque”.

While the pro­duc­tion fea­tures an eco­nom­i­cal cast of play­ers, it makes up for it with light­ing, pro­jec­tion and, of course, song. As with much of his the­atri­cal out­put, Jac­ques and his band haunt the stage along with the play­ers, all ric­o­chet­ing off one an­other in a pro­duc­tion that at once can seem chaotic as well as con­sum­mately or­ches­trated.

Jac­ques’s songs — re­leased as an al­bum in 2012 — some­times quote Shake­speare’s supreme tragedy ver­ba­tim, but more of­ten take lib­er­ties: he man­ages to sur­rep­ti­tiously sneak in the word “hand­job” rel­a­tively early in the piece, in the song Mad Ham­let. As with much of the band’s out­put, the songs can be both men­ac­ing and rous­ing — and oc­ca­sion­ally achingly ten­der. Alone cer­tainly has to be one of the most serene mu­si­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Ham­let’s brit­tle state of be­ing, with its haunt­ing re­frain:

“You’re alone / Well, this life is cruel / You’re a clown and you’re a fool /… You’re alone.”

“I still find it un­com­fort­able,” Jac­ques says of the po­lite the­atri­cal world, with its scripted for­mal­i­ties and cur­tain calls. “I mean, we’re a bloody rock band. In east­ern Europe, Greece, Turkey, Rus­sia, we’re known as a rock’n’roll group: peo­ple come to dance and drink, which was how it be­gan. Get­ting thrown out of pubs.”

But Jac­ques is acutely aware that, for all of his 35-plus al­bums over the past 25 years — he hasn’t writ­ten a proper band record of orig­i­nal ma­te­rial for more than a decade, the last be­ing 2004’s Death and the Bi­ble.

There’s a sud­den knock at the door. “That’s the en­gi­neer,” he grins. “We’re be­gin­ning a new band al­bum tonight, straight af­ter this in­ter­view, in fact.

“Some­times I do look at bands play­ing big venues and won­der: ‘ Why not? Why not us?’ ” he con­tin­ues with a glim­mer of re­gret, gaz­ing deep be­yond the four walls of his mod­est stu­dio. It’s a stark about-face for a bloke who once boasted he was thrilled when au­di­ence mem­bers left a show in dis­gust, and even named his record la­bel Mis­ery Guts Mu­sic.

“But we just do things dif­fer­ently I sup­pose — the Tiger Lil­lies’ way. It’s not a com­pro­mise, the theatre stuff. I’d say it’s ben­e­fi­cial, as it gives me new ideas, and pays the bills. But still, I’ve been known to do some ter­ri­ble things in those for­mal en­vi­ron­ments. I spit on stage. Pull the middle fin­ger to the au­di­ence. And I usu­ally stomp on the flow­ers when they are brought out at the end of the show. “I don’t play the game.” Both sides of the Tiger Lil­lies are on dis­play in Aus­tralia — the band played a rock show at the Syd­ney Fes­ti­val (as part of The Very Worst

of the Tiger Lil­lies 25-year ret­ro­spec­tive tour) and Ham­let will be per­formed in Perth this month.

With the in­ter­view done, Jac­ques moves to his pi­ano and pulls back the lid. “I am very lucky to have got out alive,” he of­fers, think­ing again about his friend in Cam­bo­dia.

“I al­most died twice, when I was slum­ming it in Lon­don — be­fore the band. I got stabbed in the ribs and back on one oc­ca­sion, and on an­other oc­ca­sion my flat burned down. It was dan­ger­ous liv­ing in that world — it’s a very dan­ger­ous place. Drugs and dis­ease. Gang­sters. But it’s a good train­ing ground for be­com­ing a suc­cess­ful artist. You get a bru­tal pic­ture of life — of real life. It’s a game of poker, life. You win or you lose. And I guess I could say I’ve won.”


The Tiger Lil­lies per­form Ham­let at Perth’s Re­gal Theatre from Fe­bru­ary 17 to 21.

Mar­tyn Jac­ques; below, a scene from The Tiger Lil­lies’ Ham­let

Left and below, scenes from the Tiger Lil­lies’ ver­sion of Ham­let

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