A couple of weeks ago, I chatted to singer/songwriter Martyn Jacques of The Tiger Lillies in Berlin, where he lives, about the release of their second album about the COVID-19 pandemic – COVID-19 Vol II, now available on Bandcamp.
Tonight (Friday 19th June) they are having a live launch party for the album on YouTube.
Well, that’s the simple description of it… It is actually more complicated than that, as fellow Tiger Lilly Adrian Stout, who is currently living in Athens, told me in a FaceTime call…
JOHN: So you’re doing the live launch party tonight. You sit in Athens, Martyn sits in Berlin. You play live with each other, just like a stage show. That’s easy, then…
ADRIAN: In an ideal world, that would be how we do it and we have tried to, but the problem is the online audio delay…
I have to physically shift the audio to compensate for the delay – sometimes it speeds up; sometimes it slows down. So I have to do lots of tiny little edits to get everything in sync with Martyn.
We set up a Zoom meeting. So we both see each other on-screen. Then Martyn plays, but he doesn’t listen to me. He just plays without any headphones. And I listen to him, so I play along with him. It would be better if he could hear me, but he doesn’t need to. If he tries to hear me, he hears me half a second late, so he can’t really play with me. He can see me – he can see what I’m doing – he can react – but he can’t hear me.
So I drop in my audio afterwards in post-production and then I make a video which I send to him and he watches it.
As far as I’m concerned, I am playing with Martyn live but, because of the half-second delay, I have to compensate for that afterwards.
It IS a live performance. I actually am playing along with Martyn live…
It’s just I have to do some post-production stuff to sort out bits that might be half a second out.
Martyn says it feels like a ‘real’ gig to him. He is performing. He can see me. He doesn’t necessarily need to hear me. He’s performing in his own world most of the time. Martyn is in his own reverie of performance and I play with him.
It is kinda the same thing we do in a concert, but we are doing it in two different countries.
JOHN: So the online audio signal on Zoom can both slow down and speed up within the same recording?
ADRIAN: Yeah. The video is buffering. It’s speeding up a little bit; sometimes it slows down a little bit. I have sometimes had to move individual notes to get them in time with Martyn on the faster songs… to get it musically where it should be. I think it’s to do with the way it streams across the internet. It drifts. Sometimes the link just disappears while he’s playing. It is quite skittish.
It took me six or eight hours to adjust the one-hour performance you’ll see tonight.
JOHN: Is it in the nature of Zoom to do all this skittishness?
ADRIAN: It’s not really designed to do what we’re trying to do with it.
JOHN: It must do your head in.
ADRIAN: It is quite frustrating.
JOHN: Perhaps this is the future of worldwide performance.
ADRIAN: I’m not convinced. It’s a stopgap during the pandemic.
Last week, there was a bar here in Athens that put on a live gig. The band was in the bar and the bar was open so people could stand outside watching it from about 2 or 3 metres away. But I have to say I didn’t feel very comfortable. It felt a bit risky.
JOHN: Risky? I think The Tiger Lillies actually played during a riot in Athens?
ADRIAN: In 2011, there was a big protest movement going on in Athens about the Greek financial bailout. The demonstrators basically occupied the central square opposite the Parliament. It was like a whole camp. It was like M*A*S*H. There were about 10,000 people or more. They had field tents and there were people there manning it 24-hours a day.
They asked us if we would go down and play a few songs for them. As we were playing, there were people rioting, storming the police barricades. People in combat gear. Molotov cocktails being thrown. The police were returning that with tear gas and rubber bullets. You could smell the tear gas coming in. It was like a cross between M*A*S*H and the First World War. It was a very surreal concert to play.
JOHN: So, in the middle of all this anarchy, The Tiger Lillies are playing with painted faces?
ADRIAN: Well, a lot of the demonstrators had put this white stuff – Maalox – you drink it to treat heartburn and acid indigestion – they had put it on their faces to protect themselves from the gas. So they all looked like they had white-painted faces as well.
JOHN: At one time, The Tiger Lillies were described as a comedy band.
ADRIAN: I think maybe when we first started we a bit more of a comedy band. I joined in 1995; within about two years, we were in our comedy phase. It was lots of jokes; lots of props.
Previously to that, we had played to rough pubs in London where we had to try and play loud and fast and hard to be heard over the noise of the audience – that was sort-of our punk phase. There wasn’t a lot of room for nuance.
Whereas, around 1997, when we started playing in smaller cabaret-style venues and theatres in Germany and so on, we felt we could stretch out a bit so we could start telling stories they might actually listen to and we started buying loads of props – those whirly things you whizz around and little battery-powered dogs that would flip over. We had a song called Car Crash about Princess Diana and we had a Barbie Doll and used to drive it off the stage.
Then we moved into Shockheaded Peter, when we moved into a more theatrical kind of world. We also did a circus show – with contortionists and acrobats and all that sort of stuff. But when we started doing Shockheaded Peter more full-time, we dropped a lot of the props, because it became crazy to carry round suitcases with little bits of plastic in them.
Martyn was always writing new songs, so the material was always moving on. We’ve moved on continuously. Each phase only lasts about six months. We must have done about 45 albums by now.
JOHN: Is COVID-19 ripe for comedy?
ADRIAN: Black comedy. The whole affair has been rife with it. We had the whole toilet roll debacle which we used for a song in the first album. And now we have Donald Trump telling everyone to ingest bleach and we got a song out of that one as well. But this album is definitely more serious than the first one because the situation is a lot more serious. The first one was more absurdist.
In the first phase, it was the public who were acting bizarrely. In the second phase, it’s the governments that have been behaving bizarrely. This album is a lot more about loss – more tragedy in it. Martyn is a bit more riled-up. Angrier. Seeing a lot more injustice.
JOHN: I hear The Tiger Lillies have a following in Russia and Mexico. That’s surprising.
ADRIAN: l think any place where they’ve had a significant amount of death and tragedy and they sort-of drink themselves through it as well. We’ve been big in Russia since the 1990s, really. We used to go there a lot and still go there a couple of times a year and play to a couple of thousand people.
There’s lots of underground stuff going on in Russia and I think the waltzes are very like the oompah stuff. Russians love ska music. It’s very similar to traditional Russian folk music. There’s a whole punk/ska scene there. The death oompah stuff we do goes down there very well.
There is a band called Leningrad who covered some of our songs in the 1990s and that’s how they got to know us. The singer Sergey “Shnur” Shnurov. – he’s like the Shane McGowan of Russia – did some gigs with us and we did an album with them. So we’re quite well-known in the Russian underground punk/ska world.
JOHN: I’m surprised there’s a musical connection.
ADRIAN: It’s like the Czech polkas – like military bands playing polkas.
Mexican mariachi stuff all comes from Central European marching bands and the Central European thing is something we mine a lot. Lots of Austro-Hungarian soldiers went over to Mexico in the 19th century. There was Czech-Bohemian music over in Texas and Mexico.
And they love us in Mexico. It’s the whole accordion/death thing and the make-up. I would have thought they’d seen it all before, but they seem to think it’s wonderfully charming and flattering for us to be singing songs about Mexico with accordions
JOHN: But to get back to the point of this blog – your launch party tonight on YouTube at 7.00pm UK time (8.00pm CET)… It’s free…
ADRIAN: Well, yes, but we would hope they would donate the £10 entry fee.