The Tiger Lilles, from left to right: Mike Pickering, Martyn Jacques & Adrian Stout – photo by Felix Groteloh Photowork
The Tiger Lillies can tell you a lot about life. That life is not always pretty is no secret, but the British trio Tiger Lillies create beautiful music and lyrics expounding hard truths, painful thoughts, and disgusting acts. Occasionally, however, there are tender and loving feelings where you might least expect to find them – but there they are, love combined with hate and the gentle in a rough and damaged life. No one is safe. Much like an artist such as Marquis de Sade, singer/writer/band leader/accordion player Martyn Jacques torments the experiencer with slices of life. But, in a better way than de Sade, the Tiger Lillies cut a wide swathe of topics from bestiality to prostitution to love. Nothing is off limits. They’re a menacing band.
When I reached out to the Tiger Lillies’ people to ask about an interview, I was hopeful, but a little afraid. What, if the interview were even granted, would it be like? After seeing the band twice in Seattle, and one time getting them to sign an album, I knew Jacques might not be horribly intimidating. He was kind during the signing. With real pleasure, I found him a wonderful interview and intriguing person. Known for his high vocals, his backstory is something along these lines: grew up in Slough, England. Spent some time living above a brothel in London, created the Tiger Lillies in the ’80s as something completely different to what was happening in Britain in the time, and then became an icon of the strange everywhere. They now perform throughout the year, every year.
The success of the trio relies on the instant recognizability of something primal – but never basic – in music. A troubadourish band who makes unsettling, thematic albums about farm animals, death, religion circuses, Edward Gorey, frightening fairy tales and more – basically dinner table topics to avoid – all in a Brechtian style. Their catalog is now up to 35 albums. And they’re coming to you, Seattle this week.
How do you go about taking care of your voice? It’s such a gift
Martyn Jacques: I think the most damaging thing to my voice is actually going out after the show, and being in a noisy bar, drinking. I like doing that. It’s nice to go out. Obviously bars are really noisy places, and you tend to shout. I think it’s more tiring for my voice, doing that, than actually the singing. That’s something, I guess, I should avoid more. Apart from that, I don’t really look after it. I try not to talk too much during the day, and rest it as much as I can, but nothing special.
When and where did you begin singing?
MJ: I sang in the church choir for a little while, and then you’re voice breaks. When you’re a boy, your voice breaks when you’re about thirteen. You have this lovely voice, and you lose it. It’s quite sad actually. You’ve lost something. For a few years, you can’t sing at all. You try to open your mouth and this horrible, cracked noise comes out. When I was about sixteen or seventeen, it came back. I remember when I was about seventeen, and I started singing in a big, open factory/warehouse space and I thought, wow, I can sing. I was very happy. Also I found that I could still sing with the higher voice, which was very surprising.
How do you decide whether to sing in your lower range or higher range in a song?
MJ: I don’t anymore. I’ve given up singing in the low range. I’ve been singing in the low voice for the last ten years. When I started the Tiger Lillies, I didn’t sing in a low voice. For the first ten years I didn’t sing in a low voice, and the next ten or twelve years I did sing with a low voice. But now I’ve stopped. I’m just singing in the high voice again. I don’t know why. You do things like that, when you’re an artist, I suppose. I decided that what was the really distinctive thing about the Tiger Lillies was actually my high voice.
Do people come to you with ideas for Tiger Lillies albums?
MJ: Yes, they do. I’m doing a version of Hamlet. A Danish theater producer came to me and suggested that. People come to me with ideas. It’s a good way of keeping yourself inspired, by taking a theme and writing a collection of songs on that theme. Our music is very theater-based, inspired by Brecht and Weill quite a lot. It’s theater music, really. It fits really into theater, and working with directors and actors. We’ve done things with dance, and circus. We did a couple of circus shows as well, which we toured and played quite a lot. It fits into the theatrical spectacle as well.
I have yet to see one of the Tiger Lillies plays in Seattle.
MJ: We did Shockheaded Peter in Seattle, at the Moore Theatre. It was great. We stayed at the Moore Hotel, next to the Moore Theatre. It was a bit of a dive. The Nitelite Bar, do you know that? It’s old Seattle probably. It’s fun.
How did you select the accordion as your instrument?
MJ: I actually didn’t get an accordion until I was 29. When I got it, I loved it. I pretty much thought straightaway that it was the best instrument for me. It fits my voice. It’s a more distinctive sound. The high voice and the accordion seem to make it instantly recognizable as the Tiger Lillies.
Was it difficult to learn?
MJ: Not really, no. I’ve been playing the piano since I was 15 – guitar as well, so I had the musical knowledge. It was pretty straight forward for me to learn to play it.
The Tiger Lillies are very appealing for Halloween.
MJ: I think what we do fits Halloween. We’re not a very good for New Year’s Eve. You can almost come to see us if you knew nothing about us. You could almost sit there and think, this is a Halloween band. We wear makeup all year round. We sing weird songs.
We’ve just come from Mexico as well. Mexicans really like us. Accordions. . . death. . . makeup. Fits into Day of the Dead as well.
How did you select your makeup style?
MJ: I didn’t wear makeup for the first five years. It started to evolve because we started to do theater shows. We’d do a theater show and it felt good with the makeup. It added to the ambience and atmosphere. I did decide to sing in a higher voice and play the accordion when I started the band, but the actual makeup didn’t come until we started to do theater shows.
Do you change the makeup for different tours?
MJ: It’s constantly changing. If I see a photograph I can pretty much tell when it was . . .if it was 10 years ago, 5 years ago. It’s changed again. I’ve got a bit more Pierrot-type makeup now.
I think many of the Tiger Lillies’ songs are feminist. Do you feel that way as well?
MJ: I think they’re quite feminist. They’re about being free to do what you want. You could interpret them as being feminist. A lot of our fans are women, and they like what we do. I like our audience. We get old ones, we get young ones, you get ones with loads of tattoos and you get ones that look quite normal. It’s a mixture of different kinds of people, which is nice. I’ve got some friends, and they have a band, and 90% of their audience is male. I wouldn’t like that. We appeal to a lot of different people.
Not just the macho side.
MJ: If you make that kind of music, I guess that’s what happens to you. I’d hate that. But they wouldn’t come see us anyway because I sing in a high voice and wear makeup. It probably alienates macho guys anyway.
What kinds of things do you read?
MJ: Because I’m always doing different projects, I tend to read what I’m doing. We’re going to be doing a project on Edgar Allan Poe, so I’ve got to start reading lots of Edgar Allan Poe. We’ve done four albums this year. One was on First World War poetry, so I spent a lot of time reading that. We did a version of Wedekind’s Lulu, so I was reading that a lot. I’ve just done a show on Édith Piaf, so spent lots of time reading about Édith Piaf. My reading tends to be directly related to my work. I really enjoy it. I would never have read Hamlet.
Do you have any recurring dreams?
MJ: I used to have a dream that I was still living at my mother and father’s when I was 30, and I didn’t have a girlfriend. My mother and father were very protective of me – overprotective, over-nurturing – and so I wanted to escape. I did escape, but it was still a fear and nightmare I had for many years after, that I didn’t escape, that I was still there. That was the most common reoccurring dream I had.
You had to become your own person.
MJ: I probably rather overdid it. I really did over do it. I made this bizarre music and wore these strange clothes. Really broke away and really did impose my own persona and character. I’ve often thought that if I ever wanted to thank anyone, one person, for the existence of my career and the Tiger Lillies, it would be my mother. It was her that made me do everything, create everything I’ve done, even if it was a reaction against her. It’s still the case that she was the one that made me and inspired me to do it.
What did your parents think of what you did?
MJ: They never supported me, and they never helped me in anyway. They disapproved of me doing it [but] by the end of their lives they were proud. They saw that I made a success of it. I showed them reviews from the Times or something, and they’d see these glowing reviews, and they knew that I was playing and selling out theaters. My dad even saw me at a show in the West End of London. He was proud. In the end they were very proud.
Do you remember what kind of toys you played with as a child?
MJ: I suppose I used to play with my teddy bear. I had two teddy bears when I was a little boy. I’ve still got them both. One of them, Winston is in Warsaw, Poland. The other one, Rupert lives in London. Two old bears.
interview by Dagmar
For tickets and more information on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s shows, check out Teatro ZinZanni’s event page.