Dark tales of the unexpected

After a triumph with the junk-opera 'Shockheaded Peter', the Tiger Lillies take on Jean Genet
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The Independent Culture

"How can I keep thinking up new subjects for new songs? I'm getting desperate. This is my thirteenth album," says the singer Martyn Jacques, who with his band, the Tiger Lillies, will be touring the UK performing songs from a new album, The Sea, as well as old favourites. "So I've focused my new album on one subject - the sea," says Jacques

This new album is full of songs about sailors, portside whores and pirates, and is inspired by Jean Genet's novel Querelle de Brest - a sordid and visionary tale of sailors on shore leave - which was filmed by Rai-ner Werner Fassbinder in 1982.

The Tiger Lillies, formed in 1989, is a provocative and avant- garde three-piece band that combines cabaret, vaudeville, music-hall and street theatre. Jacques sings opera-styled lead vocals and plays piano and accordion; the percussionist and drummer, Adrian Hughes often bangs away on kitchenware and toys; and Adrian Stout plays the double bass.

Jacques, the founder of the Tiger Lillies, says that he has always been fascinated by people who lead unstable lives, a fascination expressed in his dark and absurd songs about pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts and other social outcasts. This is, apparently, because he spent much of his early life living above a brothel in Soho. "But I think the problem is that I put no moralistic judgement in my songs," says Jacques, whose 1997 album, The Farmyard Filth, was about having sex with animals. "I think that upsets people, but it is meant to be challenging, not some kind of picnic."

The Tiger Lillies' last album, The Gorey End with the Kronos Quartet, featured the unpublished work of the late, morbid storyteller Edward Gorey, and Jacques has just returned from Los Angeles where he played with the Kronos Quartet. He also wrote the music for Shockheaded Peter, a "junk opera", and won an Olivier award for his performance in the show. He is composing music for a Tiger Lilllies production of Punch and Judy. So why has he never enjoyed mainstream success?

Well, one reason could be that Jacques is always dressed in Victorian attire - bowler hat, suit and tail flaps - even when he goes out to buy a pint of milk; he was recently described by the Los Angeles Times as "Queen Victoria's worst nightmare". "This is because the whole image of the band is based on another time - late-Victorian. Unlike most artists who become a third-rate version of Joni Mitchell or the Clash, I go to more interesting and obscure references. This means that I am unmarketable."

Jacques, however, is not likely to begin pandering to his audience any time soon. "When we perform, I don't talk to the audience. I don't smile, and if I do it is almost mocking," he says. "I hate showbusiness. But what I do is take people into strange places and uncomfortable subject matter. I may try to disorientate my audience, but it's not meant to be torture. I still want to entertain and for my audience to leave happy."

The Tiger Lillies play Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (020-7960 4201) on 13 November; tour continues to 25 November (for details: www.cmpentertainment.com)