The Tiger Lillies: Funny. Peculiar.

The success of the musical 'Shockheaded Peter' in the West End did bring them some celebrity, but, for most, the imaginative world of the is too dark and perverse a place to visit very often. Lewis Jones meets the criminal castrato, Martyn Jacques, and his partners in crime

'We're a famous people's band," says Martyn Jacques, the founder, writer and frontman of the Tiger Lillies, in the dressing room of the Komedia, a cabaret bar in Brighton. "We're not famous, but famous artists are fans of ours, people like Mel Brooks, Barry Humphries... what's the guy from The Simpsons?" Adrian Stout, the bass player, who despite his name is rather thin, supplies the name of Matt Groening.

"Matt Groening," continues Jacques. "Terry Gilliam. All these weird radical people. Marilyn Manson. It's very gratifying. We might not be famous, but we've got famous fans. Ha ha! Through a mixture of chance, luck and design, we've managed to stumble on to a vein almost of our own."

One might take issue with that "almost", for no one else does what the Tiger Lillies do. Jacques calls their performance "Brechtian punk cabaret", which is fair enough, but any number of acts on the Edinburgh fringe would probably describe themselves in those terms, and the Tigers are unique. In greasepaint and eccentric evening dress, accompanied by Stouton double bass and saw, by Adrian Huge (who is on the large side) on various percussion instruments, and by himself on accordion and keyboards, Jacques croons, warbles and shrieks his way through a repertoire of remarkable perversity, encompassing every conceivable neurosis and vice, and some that are almost beyond conception. (If you don't know their albums, there's a fair chance you saw them a few years ago providing grotesque musical accompaniment to dramatisation of the uncanny, cautionary tales of Heinrick Hoffman in the West End show Shockheaded Peter.)

Their album Farmyard Filth (1997) for example, is billed as "possibly the most extensive collection of songs dealing with zoophilia in recorded history". To tunes that owe much to music hall, by turns jaunty, rousing and wistful, the Tigers sing, among other things, of blasphemy, rape and matricide, and currently tackle all three of those subjects in the same song. After a recent performance in Hamburg, Jacques was approached by a German psychiatrist who said, "It's amazing how you manage to get absolutely everything in."

"We tend to do a lot of touring," Jacques explains, "because the kind of music we make doesn't really sell that many records. We've made a lot" - 16, so far, all for the Misery Guts label - "but we don't sell many, do we?" The other Tigers nod their agreement. "We're a marketing man's nightmare," says Stout cheerfully, and they all cackle.

Jacques sings in a falsetto of remarkable purity and range, almost like a classical castrato. "I'm a counter-tenor," he says. "I lived in Soho, and I didn't really work much through my twenties, but I used to go to the City Lit, and in the old days you could go there and do as many courses as you wanted, if you were unemployed, for something like 70p a year. So I used to do classical singing classes and jazz singing, that's the limits of my study.

"I was singing all different styles - Louis Armstrong, Lou Reed, and like a tenor - not particularly well, probably, but anyway I was practising. And when I was about 30 I got an accordion, and I thought, 'I know what I'll do, I'll play the accordion and sing in a high voice, and that'll be very original, and I'll make millions.' That's what I thought, and I was wrong. Ha! Here we are, 17 years later, in the Komedia, playing to 160 people. There you go, that's life. But anyway, we make a living."

Jacques grew up in Slough, and in one of his songs he concurs with John Betjeman's opinion of the place: "Well it's grim up north / But it's grimmer than that in Slough / I'll sing you a song / If you drop a bomb on Slough."

He left to read theology and philosophy at Lampeter but, though he has retained his interest in those subjects, he dropped out after a year to live in a squat in Finsbury Park, an unlovely suburb of London. "Next door to me was a very attractive young woman," he recalls, "who worked in the peep shows in Soho - probably why I ended up there. She was a speed freak but she was very artistic, and when I got an old Dansette record player she gave me The Threepenny Opera by Brecht and Weil, Small Change by Tom Waits and a record by the Birthday Party, which was Nick Cave's band - another interesting artist. I particularly loved The Threepenny Opera, with Lotte Lenya singing in German. I loved the instrumentation, and the pump organs, and that was probably my biggest musical inspiration."

In 2001, the Tigers released the album 2 Penny Opera ("It's one cheaper"), featuring such songs as "Bitch", "Bastard" and "Piss on your grave".

The biggest inspiration in terms of subject matter is Jacques' sojourn in Soho, where he lived above a clip joint or semi-brothel. "I had a market stall for a while, selling marijuana-smoking paraphernalia - chillums and pipes - with two other strange men. One of them was an old jailbird and druggie, and the other used to have birds singing on a ghetto blaster.

"This market stall was beautiful, covered in flowers, like an altar, with birds whistling, like a little jewel in the middle of Rupert Street, and the other stallholders were freaked out. But we did all right, for a while. I could see my stall from my window, and my girlfriend used to work in one of the clip joints.

"There were also heroin dealers living downstairs. One day, I heard this blood-curdling scream in the street, and this scream started coming up the stairs, and went into the room underneath me. I went down and the dealer had his face cut from cheek to cheek. Obviously a Triad, heroin thing. So it wasn't necessarily great, but from a song-writing point of view it was good material.

"I knew all the junkies and prostitutes, and I'd be hanging out in illegal drinking dens until four in the morning with all these weird people. It was a good life, and very inspiring for me, because later, when I formed the Tiger Lillies, I used a lot of this stuff. I always think of Toulouse-Lautrec, hanging round in brothels. I think for an artist it's good experience."

How did the band start? "I got the accordion, started singing in a high voice, put an advert in the Melody Maker, and somebody answered who was a friend of Adrian's [Huge, whose real name is Hughes], and he said he had a friend who played with brushes, so he got the job. The bass player couldn't play in tune, so I had to sack him half way through our first recording session. I got another friend to play bass for about six years, and then he married and went to live in a forest, so then Adrian [Stout] came, and has been in the band for 10 years."

Where did the name come from? "There was a prostitute called Tiger Lily, who wore lots of tiger skin, so it's sleazy. And there's the flower. And it's a play with the beautiful and the strong. And the lily is death, as well, and we sing about death a lot. It's hard music, I suppose, heavy and dark."

It is. Sometimes funny, and sometimes tender, it is consistently raw and often disturbing. The lyrics are inevitably flat without the music, but to give a flavour, here is the opening of "Smell": "I saw the piss running down your leg / I knew that you were not well / I saw the vomit come out of your mouth / And I knew that you were in hell/ And I love you though you smell."

"People can get upset," says Stout. "It tends to hit them in unusual ways sometimes. It's quite emotional. It's designed to create tension and confusion. It's not an easy evening or easy music. We challenge and disorientate the audience, we don't expect them to be wholly happy. We have to maintain the tension. The whole thing is about ambiguity."

"We had people in Germany the other day," observes Huge, in his only contribution to the conversation, "saying they thought we were all women."

"We did a show in Belfast," says Stout, "and there was a small accident. A trapdoor was left open on the stage and Martyn fell through it. Someone came up to me after the show and asked [in an Irish accent]: 'Was that woman all right? Was she hurt at all?' There's a confusion sometimes, which is not a bad thing."

"Compared to the Old Masters in the National Gallery," says Jacques, "I'm a complete pussy. The blood, the rape and so on, all that cruelty and inhumanity. And it's going on now, as we speak, in Iraq. If I manage to shock, then I'm succeeding in my aim."

The Tiger Lilies will next play at the Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1, 18 May to 3 June (0870 429 6883). For more information go to www.tigerlillies.com

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee