Festival of Voice: The Tiger Lillies
Veterans of the UK’s cult music scene, The Tiger Lillies have long been purveyors of the weird and bizarre. Frontman Martyn Jacques talks to Charlie Cottrell about The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.
Any attempt to condense The Tiger Lillies into a single genre would be to do them a gross injustice. The face-painted, accordion-wielding trio have carved out an impressive cult following since their formation in 1989; the ever-eccentric Martyn Jaques’ poetic tales of obscenities, debauchery and tragedy, delivered in his piercingly dispassionate falsetto, continue to strike a chord with fans and critics alike. For the first time, the band brings one of their most popular performances to the UK, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The ballad, Jaques tells me, is supplemented with a backdrop of intimate photographs taken by American photographer, Nan Goldin. “It’s a collection of hundreds of images from [Goldin’s] life in Berlin and in New York in the 1980s and 90s, with a wide range of subjects and characters […] there’s people inebriated, people in clubs, people involved in their pre-sex rituals, things like that.” The usual, then.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, much like the rest of The Tiger Lillies’ back catalogue, refuses to shy away from uncomfortable topics: domestic abuse, drug-use, promiscuity. But this is the kind of culture in which Jaques himself once resided, and he is candid in his recollections. “I suppose I saw lots of those kinds of images that Nan photographed. I’m very familiar with drug additions, and the rest of it; I’m reasonably well qualified to write about it all.”
In keeping with the nature of his band, Jaques is nonchalant but refreshingly defiant in his rejection of the conventional. “You know, I’ve never even heard a Metallica album in my life. I wouldn’t even recognise their sound. I have no interest in any mainstream style of music.”
“It’s the same with films. My mum and dad, for example, would turn the TV off straight away if it had subtitles, and I’m the opposite. A lot of people find anything ‘arty’ a bit intimidating, but I get depressed if it’s mainstream.” The 58-year-old just doesn’t buy into the false pretences that are synonymous with modern pop culture, although perhaps that’s one of his less outspoken viewpoints. “Smiling people with their gleaming white teeth and their perfect bodies, running through meadows, I’m not interested. Dark and strange – for me, that’s what is interesting.”
Of course, The Tiger Lillies aren’t alone in their private rebellion against the meta-modern world that surrounds us. “We played to two-and-a-half thousand people in Moscow last week. We have followings in the most unusual places. But we haven’t got the machine behind us, so I suppose it’s a more organic following. We have very big followings in places like Mexico and Greece.”
Unusual places indeed, but this shouldn’t detract from the success that the band has had on home soil. A two-week stint in London’s fittingly rustic Wilton Music Hall this May suggests that The Tiger Lillies’ fan base is alive and kicking. Jaques is keen on keeping more commercial success at arms’ length, though. “We were invited to play Glastonbury once, in this shitty little cabaret tent. We told them no, of course.”
It takes an outlandish character to do what Jaques does for a living. Twenty-five years of the face paint, the falsetto and dark subject matter could well have taken its toll. But Jaques is still a sprightly figure. “I’m not complaining at all. I’d say I’m pretty happy.” Above all though, he is perpetually humble. “We’re so lucky really, because we can make a living, and travel all over the world, because there’s this alternative group of people out there just like us, who want something different to the mainstream.” Unorthodox, unusual, but never ungrateful.
The Tiger Lillies are playing as part of the Festival of Voice.
Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, Fri 15 June & Sat 16 June. Tickets £20
Info: 029 2064 6900 / www.shermantheatre.co.uk