What strikes you most when chatting to Martyn Jacques – songwriter, accordion player, pianist, falsetto and frontman of The Tiger Lillies – is just how much he loves his job. While his on-stage personae is a man weary with the world, the real Jacques is full of optimism, bursting with energy and seemingly very happy with his lot. From back rooms in pubs to major international tours, 30 years of Tiger Lillies, he says “has always been fantastic”.
My first experience of this extraordinary band was at West Yorkshire Playhouse (as it was then) in 1998 in Shockheaded Peter, the ground-breaking musical that went on to an acclaimed West End run and international tour. For me, it was one of those rare moments of seeing (and hearing) something completely original.
“There are very few shining beacons of originality” says Jacques, “I set out to make music that is uncharacterizable, that nobody knows where to place in a record shop. I’ve always tried really hard to sound different, but we are all inspired by what’s gone before. It’s bringing those influences together in a new way that creates something unique”.
Early musical influences once again play a part in Jacques’s new album and Edinburgh show, One Penny Opera. How has it taken so long, I ask him, to draw on Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, a play packed with Tiger Lilli-esque characters.
“It’s actually the second time I’ve done it. Our 2001 album Two Penny Opera was the first, and we’ll perform some of the songs from that in the show in Edinburgh too”. In fact, Weill and Brecht’s 1928 ‘play with music’ is one of Jacques’s earliest musical influences, since, as a young man, a neighbour gave him three old records, one of which was the original recording with Lotte Lenya as Low-Dive Jenny. “I listened to it all the time” says Jacques, “I thought it was wonderful”. Only later did he realise that Threepenny Opera was in itself a re-working of John Gay’s 18th century The Beggar’s Opera.
“Mainstream music is often a way young people discover what comes before” Jacques says. His neighbour probably did him favour, fast-tracking his musical tastes well beyond the mainstream. The other two records of that fateful trio? Tom Waites and The Wedding Present. Jacques acknowledges the influence of the former, less so the latter.
“Making original music is like being a good cook” he muses, “there’s only so many ingredients and it’s about finding a more imaginative way to put them together”. He’s not complacent in any way about this. “You have to study a lot” he says.
Jacques is certainly a hard-working musician. Regularly touring across the world and banging out album after album, each one rich with new themes and ideas. Many of them are the result of collaborations – from the inventive theatrical team behind Shockheaded Peter to American drag artists Justin Bond (Sinderella), from Nan Goldin (The Ballad of Sexual Dependency) to Shnur, frontman of the Russian ska-punk band Leningrad (Huinya).
“Collaboration can be rich and wonderful” Jacques says, “but they don’t always work out”. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Shnur started spouting antisemitic rhetoric that means Jacques strongly regrets having worked with him. There’s only a little comfort in the fact that the album was a commercial disaster for Shnur.
Two Penny Opera, though, is all Jacques own work, another album full of deliciously dark debauchery. The pandemic didn’t slow the prolific output, with five albums (Lemonaki, Covid-19, Litany of Satan, Requiem for a Virus and One Penny Opera) released since 2020. Now the band are back in person with a run of 22 shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.
What does Jacques enjoy about the Fringe? Firstly, he says “it’s not a bad place to spend August, wandering the lovely city and seeing some shows”. Come 9.20pm every evening, though, you’ll find him in his happy place: on stage in a room crammed full of fans. “It’s hugely rewarding” he says, “to have such a dedicated following”. Edinburgh, though, is one of those places where the uninitiated will wander in. I’ve seen many horrified punters leave Tiger Lillies shows and, of course, Jacques is fine with this. “There have been gigs programmed and marketed to the wrong people where the whole audience have left”. He chuckles at the memory of an Edinburgh International Festival appearance, a tribute to Monteverdi’s Madrigals of Love and War, where the festival’s classical music audience sat aghast “in the seats at the front” while the Tiger Lillies fans were relegated to “the cheap seats”. On returning for an encore Jacques discovered the front of the auditorium completely empty.
I ask Jacques if he feels it’s getting harder to be controversial. Does he worry about cancel culture? He’s not really sure, or whether he cares. “We won’t stop doing what we do. Our audience know what to expect and love us for it. We will carry on being subversive. I hope we manage to offend a few people”.
If you’ve never experienced the Tiger Lillies they will be back somewhere near you soon. They’ll shock you with bawdy lyrics, make you laugh with ludicrous tales and surprise you with beautiful ballads. What’s next after Edinburgh? I ask Jacques. “We’ll be back in London at the brilliant Wilton’s Music Hall in September with The Last Days of Mankind. It’s inspired by the Viennese satirical writer Karl Kraus whose play lays bare the horrors of the First World War, a fierce condemnation of big business, hapless democracy and warmongering press”. The Last Days of Mankind begun life in Edinburgh a few years ago when the band played alongside Ukranian and Serbian artists in a pan-European production at the Leith Theatre. There will be just eleven London performances and three hundred copies of the album. That’s about five thousand lucky fans who’ll get to experience it. “You don’t need to be playing stadium gigs to be successful” says Jacques, “Being successful on a smaller level is very rewarding. Nobody is telling me what to do. I make the work I want to make”. Long may he continue to make it.