It’s not really a surprise that Adrian Stout from The Tiger Lillies is in another country when he picks up the phone. With large scale tours rare for them in Britain, you’re more likely to find this unconventional cabaret trio performing all over the world.
“We’ve always been able to find places to play in Europe, because we’re quite small and mobile,” the multi-instrumentalist tells me. “Even back in the 90s we’d do quite a lot of shows in places over here. We’ve got further afield as time has gone on.” They’ve already been to Romania and Hungary in the last month. Tonight, it’s Innsbruck in Austria, then on to Germany, Switzerland and Czechia.
Formed in 1989 by singer-songwriter Martyn Jacques, who has since been joined by Stout and drummer Budi Butenop, The Tiger Lillies have a singular mission to study the hidden fringes of human experience. Their smart use of theatrics, videography and elaborate staging has seen them attract a sizeable following all over the world. “We have slowed down a little bit,” Stout admits. “In the early 2000s we were doing 250 gigs a year, between theatre shows and concerts. We’re trying to back it up a bit, so we don’t kill ourselves.” Later this year sees them taking productions to as far afield as Ecuador, Columbia, and America. Although soon you won’t need to dust off your passport to catch them live as the next two months sees them tracing their way around Britain with a Bernard new live show.
From The Circus To The Cemetery
Originally intended as a casual retrospective, From The Circus To The Cemetery brings together many of the Olivier award-winning band’s most loved numbers and some sparkling unreleased material. Calling in at Hove’s The Old Market on Thurs 1 – Fri 2 June, it promises a more stripped back affair. “This is going to be just songs. When we initially started planning this tour, we wanted to play our greatest hits. But recently, we’ve started putting new numbers in again. Mainly because Martyn doesn’t want us to become some kind of jukebox playing the classics.”
A giddy mixture of vaudeville, punk, folk and cabaret, the trio are relishing the opportunity of performing favourite numbers on home soil. “We do usually play with a big set, costumes and props, but it is nice to concentrate on performing songs and reacting to the audience. We’ve always moved between those two worlds. From where there’s a big production and other people involved, to just the three of us on stage.”
The last three decades have taken the band on the road with shows as diverse as a rebellious version of A Christmas Carol to an adaptation of the wild cautionary tales found in German children’s classic, Struwwelpeter. They’ve done over 40 albums and created shows with everyone. Working with circus performers and world-renowned choreographers in their visually-rich, narrative driven productions.
Unsurprisingly for a band founded on European folk traditions and unapologetic social commentary, the war in Ukraine has offered a lot of inspiration recently.
“We’ve got friends who were doing a performance arts piece in our Edinburgh show a couple of years ago. Now they’re now on the front line. It’s unbelievable.” Until recently, the band were regularly performing in Ukraine and Crimea, as well as working with Ukrainian performers on several different projects. “We also go to Russia a lot, and there’s plenty of people who don’t want the war. I know people who used to come and see us in Moscow, who had to go and live in Azerbaijan because they didn’t want to get drafted.” The countless faces of the conflict have been providing a rich source of inspiration, as the band attempt to find some way of quantifying the horrors affecting so many of their friends.
“We’ve been writing a lot about what’s been going on, and how it’s been taken over by the gangster government of Putin and his cronies. Martyn just wanted to express how he feels about the situation, as he does. We wanted to find some way of processing it, and hopefully we can do some good in any way that we can.”
Those songs are being turned into an album, with proceeds going to charities working in the region. The band are also headed to Kiev and Lviv for some shows in July. “We can’t do much, but we are going to go over there and find out what people are going through on the ground. That’s going to be eye-opening.”
The Tiger Lillies have always tackled difficult themes head on, pushing at the edges of civilisation to see if anything might push back.
Theirs is a twisted fantasy world, where Dietrich, Brecht and Brel walk hand in hand through darkened streets. Jacques’s unique falsetto floats alongside Stout’s ethereal use of theremin and musical saw while everything is underpinned by Butenop’s uncompromising percussion. The eschewing of boundaries in their lyrics spills out to their approach to music genres. With ease they can jump from oompah bangers to heartfelt torch ballads without missing a beat.
Across the broad scope of their back-catalogue, this genre-bending trio evoke the spirit of the Wermer Republic’s nightlife. This almost mythical period was characterised by an abandonment of conservative values and social norms. The Great War, revolutions and a rise in extremism increasingly compelled young urban Germans to express opposition to the surrounding nightmares through subverting art and identity.
After the Second War, this spirit would flourish again, in places like an isolated West Berlin and Eastern Europe. “We used to play a lot in places which were on the edge… former Soviet countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary. We’ve also played in Russia a lot. The people who would come to our shows saw that their society was on the edge of one thing or the other. Our music has always responded to that slightly unsteady nature of society.”
Stout says Jacques is still very influenced by things like the Wermer years and Threepenny Opera. This explicitly manifests in the band’s use of expressionist style make-up, which turns its back upon naturalism. He tells me Marlene Dietrich was a very good musical saw player. “When I was in Hamburg in the 90s, we used to play in a small cabaret bar, and a woman there had learnt to play it from watching Marlene Deitrich films.”
The Tiger Lillies inhabit a bawdy fantasy world of murderers, sex workers, and dope fiends.
God turned his back upon the subjects of their songs long ago, leaving them to be consumed by hubris and despair. But while Jacques observations are sometimes confrontational, they remain curiously non-judgemental. No matter how desperate their circumstances or foul their actions, these drinkers, oafs and perverts were all driven to a dead end by something.
There is a question about why British people tend to shy away from the peculiar, macabre and sinister side of their cultural traditions. Meanwhile, our European neighbours gleefully continue to embrace them. “People on the continent tend to hold on more to their folk music, whereas our tradition has been pushed to the side of society. We’ve replaced that kind of thing into soap operas, where we find the visceral thrill of society on the edge.” He points out that England is a densely populated nation. So perhaps many don’t want to hear so much about the horror outside our door. “They want to watch it on the telly, where it’s safe.”
Stout points out that you can walk around the National Gallery and see paintings of executions. “Christian art is full of people being hurt. There’s quite grotesque stuff full of humanity. British people have always had a dark sense of humour. We come from that tradition… looking at the edge of things and being thrilled by how the sausage is made.”
Maybe the British reveal their shadowy side in other ways.
English has a more inbuilt capability for darker humour than the Germanic languages or French. There’s certainly more subtle implication and innuendo than other tongues. “The English can say quite a lot without saying very much. Other languages tend to tell it straight. The Germans pretty much say what they mean. They don’t have the same language to express things like satire.”
“One of the best things about our culture is how we can be sarcastic. There’s that thing about finding a way to take the mickey out of someone. We are a bit cold possibly, but we do like to laugh and make others laugh.” This is reflected by The Tiger Lillies own output. There’s a lot of humour alongside the social realism.
While some of their subject matter might be repellent, amongst the chaos and decay there is always a certain exquisite delight. The Tiger Lillies have always offered an intrinsic ability to find beauty in the strangest of places. They might be diametrically opposed to the shiny pop offerings of the latest K-Pop starlets. But it seems their fascination and appreciation for life is boundedly authentic. “It shouldn’t be ugly when we talk about our subjects. Martyn has got a beautiful voice, and he does enjoy creating an atmosphere around some quite tragic subjects. It’s about finding that kind of contrast. The beautiful can enhance the darkness. We’ve always been trying to walk that very fine line between the grotesque and the gorgeous.”
The Tiger Lillies play Hove’s The Old Market on Thurs 1 – Fri 2 June.