Dark Weimaresque British singing trio The Tiger Lillies celebrated their 30th birthday last year and today have released a new album COVID-19 Volume II on Bandcamp having already released COVID-19 Part 1 on BandCamp on 10th April with a semi-live launch party on YouTube on May 1st.
The Tiger Lillies won an Olivier Award in 2002 and got a Grammy nomination in 2003. Wikipedia calls them “the forefathers of Brechtian Punk Cabaret”. I first saw them in, I guess, the mid-1990s, when incorrigible performer Tony Green insisted I go see them at the monthly London event Torture Garden. (It was a surprise to me, too.)
So I thought I would have a chat with composer/singer Martyn Jacques about the new Tiger Lillies album while maintaining a discreet coronavirus social distance of around 580 miles – He has lived for the last ten years in Berlin. We talked via FaceTime.
JOHN: You live in Berlin and the other Tiger Lillies’ founding member Adrian Stout lives in Athens. That sounds a bit complicated.
MARTYN: Well, with this job, we’ve been travelling around for 30 years and you lose the link with the UK. In the end, you don’t have to live in only one country. We’d be doing a gig in Prague one weekend, the next weekend a little tour in Greece, the next weekend in Berlin. You don’t have to live in London, though I don’t think it would have worked if we lived in America, cos that’d be too far. But, with Europe, we could live anywhere.
JOHN: You’re planning to turn your COVID-19 song cycle into a stage show…
MARTYN: We did a show called The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
and, for that, we had two screens – one in front of us and one behind, with all these projections. We had this really amazing, hot artist – Eugene Cavill from the Lebanon – he did the artwork for the new album – and he’s got all these drawings of the virus with people dying, severed limbs and stuff; it all looks sort-of psychedelic. So I thought we might use that two-screen idea again for a COVID-19 stage show.
JOHN: COVID-19 is very of-the-moment.
MARTYN: It’s what we do. We write about what’s going on. We write about unpleasant things. We’ve written songs about rape, paedophiles, pretty much everything really that’s unpleasant.
JOHN: Well, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera is unpleasant. The song Mack The Knife is appallingly nasty in the original lyrics.
MARTYN: Exactly… Even things like Punch & Judy. It’s abuse. A man kills his wife and his baby. I did an album on Punch & Judy
and did Mack the Knife.
Basically, I really like to write about very unpleasant subjects. I did an album on zoophilia, Farmyard Filth which was about having sex with different types of animals. I write about the most unpleasant things all the time. I did Cockatoo Prison – a whole album about prison inmates, but trying to sympathise with them.
I’ve spent 30 years writing about unpleasant, nasty things so, for me, it’s actually very very easy for me to write about COVID-19 now. It seems there’s no-one else writing songs and making music about it. I am perfectly suited to write horrible songs about this very unpleasant disease.
JOHN: Do you think writing about lots of sick, dark stuff is somehow cathartic for you? It gets it out of your system?
MARTYN: I suppose so. But I think what really gets it out of my system is performing it in front of an audience and taking people on a journey. Sadness and beauty and grotesqueness.
And… I’m not doing that any more because of the coronavirus lockdowns. It’s a very weird time for me. Very strange. I’ve spent the last 30 years travelling around the world making people laugh and cry in theatres and now, all of a sudden, I’m not doing it. That’s a bit of a shock to my system.
You are a writer, John, and, even though this horrible virus has occurred, you can still write and be creatively satisfied. Whereas, with me, the main thing I do is write songs but the other thing I do is go out onto a stage and perform them. That’s what I’ve done for most of the last 30 years. And I can’t do that any more. So it’s quite traumatic to suddenly have that happen.
JOHN: So half of how you satisfy your creative urge has been suddenly taken away…
MARTYN: More than half, probably. Writing all these songs is an outlet but the writing is not really where the outlet happens. The outlet is when I’m in front of an audience of people, actually singing the songs.
JOHN: Your lyrics tend to be about horrible things, but you tend to also include bits of humour.
MARTYN: Well, black humour is just waiting to be exploited in horrible things. I’ve used black comedy a lot through the years. I have literally had audiences weeping with laughter and then suddenly I start singing a song which is really, really sad and there is no humour in it. People are waiting to carry on laughing but then there’s nothing funny and now I’m not joking.
It’s something I’ve done through the years that has been a great source of pleasure for me. To take an audience on a journey where one minute they’re laughing and the next minute it’s sad.
JOHN: Marilyn Manson played a Tiger Lillies song at his wedding in 2005 and other fans include The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening and Mel Brooks, who made The Producers…
MARTYN: Yes, that is one of my favourite films.
JOHN: Sort-of bad taste, but acceptable…
MARTYN: Yes, being Jewish, he has the edge on me there. At one point, I was going to do a show called Three Hitlers. Probably about five years ago, on my Facebook page, I put up all these pictures of Hitler – but pictures of him with, like, make-up on, transgender Hitlers, make-up, lipstick. I put these up and… Oh, the hate! The hate! I got so many hate messages. It made people so angry. I pissed people off so much.
JOHN: Was annoying people enjoyable?
MARTYN: It wasn’t so much enjoyable. But it was fascinating. There were about maybe ten really good pictures of Hitler in drag.
It took Facebook quite a long time – three or four weeks – to get on me. I was putting up the pictures and getting all this hate. My thing is I try to create argument and debate when I do things like this. And there were all these other people saying: “Actually, there is nothing wrong with this. It is actually taking he piss out of Hitler” – Which I was.
It was fascinating to see all these people standing-up for me. And all these people hating me.
JOHN: What did Facebook say?
MARTYN: Well, they threatened to ban me.
JOHN: Why would making fun of Hitler be against their rules?
MARTYN: Well, you know what Facebook are like. They’re a bunch of chickens. They’re sheep. Cowards.
JOHN: I think your favourite artist is Hogarth. He is in much the same vein as The Threepenny Opera.
MARTYN: Definitely. And John Gay – The Beggar’s Opera – Macheath (Mack the Knife) is in that. It’s all the same thing – Hogarth, The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera – it’s all about the street. Nasty, unpleasant things going on.
JOHN: I think you described The Tiger Lillies as an “anarchic, Brechtian street opera trio.”
MARTYN: (LAUGHS) That was probably Ken Campbell. Did you know him?
JOHN: I met him a few times. Didn’t know him. Ken Campbell influenced everybody.
MARTYN: He directed the first show I ever did. Fungus The Bogeyman at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. He was crazy. He was always nice to me. But, God! He used to make some of the actors in Fungus The Bogeyman cry; he used to make them weep. I remember once coming round the corner at the Belgrade Theatre and there were three actors all in floods of tears with Ken Campbell.
I stopped and looked and he said: “Keep… walking… Martyn…”
I don’t think he liked actors.
JOHN: So what next?
MARTYN: I’m doing an album about Sigmund Freud at the moment.
JOHN: The man or the ideas?
MARTYN: The ideas.
JOHN: Is that sick enough for you?
MARTYN: (LAUGHS) Yes. He’s very odd. Very strange. Really weird, actually. Pretty sick. Pretty dark.
… MORE ABOUT THE TIGER LILLIES AND THE COVID ALBUM HERE …