Formed in 1995 by singer/songwriter Martyn Jacques, British macabre musical trio The Tiger Lillies have been enlivening our world for almost three decades with their Brechtian punky cabaret. In the midst of a European tour, and just prior to a string of highly anticipated UK dates (tickets available here), The Midlands Rocks decided this was the perfect time to catch up bassist/backing vocalist Adrian Stout for an exclusive chat.
Now it makes perfect sense, but it was quite a radical idea to fuse cabaret and punk when The Tiger Lillies formed in 1989. What gave you the original idea?
Martyn had tried to start a band in the 80’s called God and the Supreme Beings, but it hadn’t really got that far. So he decided he needed to make a new band that was very unique, with him singing in a high voice and playing the accordion. The most suitable accompaniment to this was a small drum kit played with brushes and a double bass, which was quite radical in the late 80s with synths and guitars being the fashion. He put an add in Loot ( a listings magazine) and only one person replied. That was Adrian Huge, who bought some brushes on the way to the audition. Then Phil Butcher offered to step in for the first 5 years, I joined in 1995 by accident and I’m still here. The theatrical aspects came later, there really wasn’t any cabaret scene back then, it was called performance art and we fitted in with the poets, strippers and comedians of the day. I think trying to incorporate Brecht, Weill, Brell, jazz, European folk, surrealism and comedy is still quite radical even today. No one else has really tried to cram as much into a band as we have. “When you explore the past, you enter the future” Vivienne Westwood.
Can you remember your introduction to punk? And to Cabaret? What sparked your interest in both?
I was inspired to play bass by punk, the first big concerts I saw were The Stranglers and Ian Dury and The Blockheads in 1981. I saw PiL, The Damned, The Clash, Bauhaus, The Cramps and lots off other bands when I was a school and so my musical journey was ignited by the DIY attitude of punk and post punk. It showed me that you just had to pick up an instrument and find your own way with it, which is what I have done, and continue to do to this day. Cabaret is not something I was exposed to early on, but I did see musicals and bands like the Bonzo Dog Do Da band and Bob Kerr’s Whoopee band who showed me a surreal Dadaist approach to performance that probably shaped my appreciation of more outlandish possibilities.
Where there any limitations when fusing the two art forms? And what musical avenues opened up for you?
The Tiger Lillies have been on a progression of developmental performance over the last 30 years, and I believe it’s down to the environment which we performed in more than anything else. Originally we started playing in small folk cellars, and the band wrote and played long sensitive ballads akin to Jaques Brell, then after that we moved into noisy London pubs and we became louder and more aggressive so as to be heard and make punters pay attention while they were drinking. Next came theatres in Germany where we could start getting props and playing more dynamic songs that had dramatic quiet and loud moments as the audience were seated and listening. Then when we stared in bigger theatres this allowed us to explore long form narratives with video and actors such as The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, Berlin Alexanderplatz, the Last Days of Mankind.
We also keep the band going in parallel which can mean we had a lot of work for many years, unto 250 shows a year, which was unsustainable really. Now we hope to be more balanced musically and personally.
Martyn Jacques and Adrian Stout have been on this amazing musical journey together since 1995. That’s longer than most marriages last! What’s your secret to a harmonious relationship?
Not over analysing probably helps. I trust Martyn to write interesting songs and he trusts me to find suitable accompaniment. Also not talking in the van. Personal space is very important so you can appreciate when you are interacting. We don’t need to analyse the songs much, often I’ll record a song after hearing it once, the add whatever I feel it needs to support the lyric. It’s rare Martyn asks me to do something specific, so I can explore what I do with whatever instruments I want.
New drummer Budi Butenop joined in 2021. What’s the prerequisite for Joining The Tiger Lillies? Has Budi altered the band’s chemistry in any way?
The adds in Melody Maker used to say “must have GSOH and own transport”. The first one is the most important requirement for the Tiger Lillies, a sense of humour is key, especially for a drummer in this band as that’s where the most potential for comedy resides. Budi has really stepped up ans is contributing a lot of great ideas and physical performance as well as playing very good drums. And I don’t want to kill him which is a huge plus.
The band are known for tackling some unorthodox subject matter in your songs. Have you faced much opposition along the way?
Only from ourselves. Self censorship is something that we struggle with, not knowing where a line is or being able to see from outside. I think we have coped remarkably well with the way we approach sensitive or unorthodox subjects, we don’t punch down or go for cheap laughs, we have an understanding of the people and characters we write about. Some people at shows get offended, but usually that’s because they haven’t engaged with the lyrics enough to understand what a song is actually about. If you just catch a chorus, like Banging in the Nails, you won’t understand that it’s a Kubrick/Clockwork Orange reference to when Alex was pretending to be reformed while studying the Bible, but was in fact imagining himself as a Roman centurion crucifying Christ.
You’ll be dropping a compilation album soon. You have such a vast and deep discography: how did you decide what songs to include? Any surprises on the track listing?
Honestly, probably the album is the songs we get asked to play most when on tour. There will be volumes Two and Three where we go for more obscure songs from the catalogue, but this one will be our popular songs that people request. We will go to more obscure songs on the other volumes.
As a precursor to your forthcoming UK tour, you’re performing in Europe (including two sold out shows in Bucharest). How has it been?
We are currently in a van driving through Austria to Innsbruck, in the rain. 10 shows in 2 weeks. It’s good to be back playing live again after a tough 3 years. We are playing in 5 countries over the 2 weeks so we should be well prepared for the UK shows. So far we are getting very good audiences in Europe and hopefully that will continue once we get back to the UK. I’m really enjoying the old and the new songs at this point.
Do you have any strange stories from the road you can share with us?
Its hard to remember much from the early days. We would play in the Czech Republic in the 90’s and that was pretty wild. I was shown a large handgun by one ‘fan’ after a show in the countryside, our manger would get so drunk we had to carry him out to the van after the show each night. We played squats that couldn’t start the souncheck until the street lights came on as they whole building was wired to the lampposts.
In Russia the police would raid the venue while we ran out the back into waiting Lada’s while the audience banged on the roof. We got robbed of a lot of money at Moscow airport by the customs officers, they winked and told us pay up or you don’t get on the plane. We got on the plane.
In San Diego a large group of fans dressed as clowns in full makeup and costumes stormed the front of the venue and began to dance and jump in a very aggressive way, which terrified the rest of the audience so much we had to stop the show.
I understand you’ll be playing in Ukraine later this year? What are the logistics like playing in a country at war? It must be an exciting gig, but also one to create a touch of apprehension?
That remains to be seen, getting there is just a small part of the puzzle. It’s involves a trip to the Polish border then van by road to Lviv and then Kyiv, which I hope will be relatively smooth that far from the frontline. I have a friend who’s a journalist for Al Jazeera and he goes there fairly regularly so I don’t think we are in mortal danger, but the whole experience of performing in an archive warzone does increase the anxiety levels. I’m sure the shows will be pretty emotional for us and the audience. I will be terrified I’m sure but also exhilarated by the experience.
You hit the UK on 4th May for a series of dates. You’ll be dusting off some old tracks, any other surprises?
Well we are trying to cover the whole of the last 30 years with a song from most of the eras, but that is impossible. Probably as the tour continues we will decide to switch a few songs just to keep it fresh. We talked about playing our tribute to Princess Di, Car Crash, on the day of the coronation. We used to have a Barby doll in a remote controlled car run off the front of the stage when we first played it in about 1998. We are also playing a few new songs from our next album Ukraine so it should be a mixed bag.
How would describe a Tiger Lillies show to the uninitiated? And how would you tempt the wary along?
Makeup, musical mayhem and majesty.
If you have any sense of humour and enjoy live music with teeth you should come along.
Finally, aside from gigging, what are your musical plans for the rest of the year?
There is only the gigging, I am trying to get back working in my studio on some musical ideas, but after nearly 3 years of no work I’m happy to be back on the road playing for an audience. It was lonely and frustrating to be stuck inside for years, and I’m glad to be playing live again more than anything.
Catch The Tiger Lillies on the following dates:
4th May – Oxford Playhouse
5th May – Milton Keynes The Stables
6th May – Stockton The Arc
11th May – Bury St Edmunds Apex
12th May – Norwich Theatre
13th May – Cambridge Junction
18th May – Nottingham Playhouse
20th May – St Albans Arena
21st May – Taunton Brewhouse
26th May – Manchester Home
27th May – Leeds City Varieties
28th May – Liverpool Epstein Theatre
1st June – Brighton Old Market
2nd June – Brighton Old Market
3rd June – London Cadogan Hall
4th June – Wimborne Tivoli Theatre
9th June – Portsmouth New Theatre
10th June – Bristol Redgrave Theatre