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
‘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.”
CHILDREN LOVE IT WHEN YOU MISBEHAVE. AND I AM KNOWN TO BE A LITTLE NAUGHTY MARTYN JACQUES
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