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The Tiger Lillies - A Tribute (Of Sorts) To Monteverdi

As a pioneer of the operatic form, 16th century composer Monteverdi seems a safe enough bet for Edinburgh International Festival’s classical music programme. Put the maestro’s work in the hands of The Tiger Lillies, however, and, as with much of Jonathan Mills’ mix and match grenade-lobbing debut programme, Angry Of Morningside looks set to make a come-back.

The Tiger Lillies, after all, are stars of Shockheaded Peter, the grotesque junk opera whose compendium of utterly nasty Hoffmann-inspired Victoriana became a global phenomenon. Any patina of respectability such acclaim may have brought to such a thoroughly frightful trio’s Brecht and Brel inspired back-street sleaze won’t have prepared audiences for the inspired one-night stand that is The Tiger Lillies – A Tribute (Of Sorts) To Monteverdi. This collaboration with Concerto Caledonia suggests both parties might have more in common than you think.

“I’d never heard of Monteverdi,” Tiger Lillies songwriter Martyn Jacques admits, “because I’m not very well educated. Then Jonathan Mills gave me a double album called Love And War, because he seemed to think we were doing something similar. So I wrote 15 songs, and now we’re doing them accompanied by lutes and harpsichords and all these original instruments.”

Monteverdi is The Tiger Lillies latest humping of the canon’s more delicately perceived sensibilities into pants-down submission This year already they’ve collaborated with Alexander Hacke, bassist with metal-bashing German industrialists Einsturzende Neuebaten on Mountains Of Madness, a Freudian electronic romp through the works of American horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft, instigated by film-maker and illustrator Danielle De Picciotto. Projects on gothic illustrator Edward Gorey, Mozart and Macbeth have also appeared.

“Working in this way gives things a structure,” according to Jacques. “I just used to write things for the hell of it, but I’d never heard of Lovecraft either, so I get to read or listen to all this stuff and get inspired. Monteverdi was actually quite subversive, I found out, and mocked the church and the state much like I do. He’s also very graphic in his depiction of violence.”

Last time The Tiger Lillies graced Edinburgh was on the Fringe with their take on Punch and Judy, involving puppets to illustrate Jacques’ typically scabrous take on an already brutal children’s story. A surreal, large-scale version had already been produced in Vienna using The Tiger Lillies songs, but with actors rather than Jacques himself mouthing the words. The band’s own small-scale self-produced version was infinitely more hand-knitted.

“Pure hell,” is how Jacques describes it. “We’d just done Shockheaded Peter, one of the biggest shows of the decade, so there was all this expectation, and thought we could do something without a director or a producer. We just turned up with no money, and it was a disaster on every level. Even the venue went bankrupt. If we’d been in some old room somewhere we might’ve stood a chance, but in the old cinema we were in we were finished before we began.”

2007 has been a busy year for The Tiger Lillies. Live, as well as the Monteverdi project and Mountains Of Madness, the band are currently in Greece, performing a double bill of Stories Of the Sea alongside their take on The Little Match Girl. On record, they’ve already released Urine Palace, recorded live with a 35-piece Swedish Orchestra, and the more prosaically named Live In Soho. A version of A Tribute (Of Sorts) To Monteverdi, recorded with Concerto Caledonia’s David McGuinness playing harpsichord, is already in the can.

Then there’s The Tiger Lillies Book, a lavishly illustrated collection of more than 300 song lyrics culled from the last 20 years. And the small matter of a Montreal radio station who were forced to defend their airing of Bang In the Nails, a typically provocative piece of Tiger Lillies narrative told from the point of view of a Roman soldier involved in Christ’s crucifixion.

“Every so often these Sex Pistolian controversies sprout up,” Jacques sighs philosophically. “Once we happened to be booked to play the Union Chapel in London on Good Friday, and whoever was doing the publicity thought it would be a good idea to say that anyone turning up dressed as Jesus or Mary Magdalene, or who brought a hammer and nails, could get in for free. We were on the front of The Islingron Gazette, who called us a Satanic rock band, it made the Sun and The News Of The World, and the somewhat cowardly promoters pulled the show. Then when we played Sydney Opera House there was this preacher outside, who wondered whether such a bastion of Australian culture be playing host to degenerates and perverts.”

The Live In Soho album, then, is something of a welcome homecoming for Jacques, who lived in London’s most colourful neighbourhood in the 1980s, and arguably based The Tiger Lillies entire oeuvre on the experience, soaking up the sleazy atmosphere in much the same way he absorbed Monteverdi.

“There were Chinese heroin dealers living beneath me”, Jacques remembers, “and I used to hang out in illegal drinking dens till five in the morning with prostitutes and drug addicts. This was before AIDS, and most of these people are dead now. I had a good time, but I was fortunate I never got into drugs.”

Formed in 1989, The Tiger Lillies pasty-faced junkshop orchestra arrived at the fag-end of that decade’s generation of Brecht/Weill-inspired ‘alternative’ cabaret. In the intervening 18 years, while Shockheaded Peter raised their profile, without pushing the point, Jacques trio of troubadours similarly straddle the current vogue for all things burlesque and decadent. Which might also go some way to explaining The Tiger Lillies east European affinities, as well as a vague kinship with acts such as The Dresden Dolls, who plough a similarly styled furrow of expressionist melodrama.

“We supported them in Boston,” Jacques says, “There were 1000 people there all looking like me, wearing bowler hats and white faces. But where I’m an over-weight 50-year-old, they were all about 15.”

Given The Tiger Lillies influence, is A Tribute (Of Sorts) to Monteverdi’s appearance on The Edinburgh International Festival, then, the first sign that The Tiger Lillies are being belatedly embraced, albeit in a manly platonic fashion, by the higher echelons of the UK’s artistic establishment?

“Oh, I don’t care,” Jacques says with cavalier flourish. “I just do what I do. If you start ot take yourself seriously you become boring. But,” he grudgingly admits, “it’s nice when people pay you respect.”

Beyond Monteverdi, The Tiger Lillies are planning two familiar sounding works, one called The Freak Show, the other based on The Seven Deadly Sins. More immediately, they’ll be working on a Christmas show in Brooklyn. Panto purists, however, might well balk at a show called Suicide At Christmas.

“Its theme,” explains Jacques, “is showing various ways to commit suicide, all with a Christmas theme. I’ve done a book as well, called Suicide For Children, giving advice to young people.”

While the Quebecois Christians who complained about Bang In The Nails almost certainly won’t see the joke, Jacques is at gnomic pains to point out that “people think that just because you sing something or write something, that you must necessarily believe it. I’ve noticed changes in my work over the last 20 years, but I’m basically very proud of it. Where when I was young there was a certain idealism, now it’s more bitter and twisted. More honest. Less deluded. I never worried about being commercial. Every generation of artists are either old or dead by the time they’re accepted by the cultural mainstream. Maybe I’ll be one of the lucky ones, and just be old.”

The Tiger Lillies - A Tribute (Of Sorts) To Monteverdi, Edinburgh International Festival, Usher Hall, August 25, 8pm, 1 hour 50 minutes duration.

The List, August 2007



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