In my head there’s a category for things that shouldn’t work but do. Spaghetti westerns are in there along with clog dancing and peanut butter with jam... and also into this mental knick knack box would have to go The Tiger Lillies.
The band is fronted by Martyn Jacques, a man with a falsetto voice and an accordion who delights in vivid and scary face make-up.
If he were to bump into a gun-toting, Clint-style clog dancer with a jam and peanut butter sandwich, I imagine they would get on famously. If not, I’d back the chief Tiger Lilly in a shoot-out any time.
Theatricality oozes from every pose and utterance of The Tiger Lillies. Indeed, their bizarre and darkly comic musical Shockheaded Peter, in which a succession of naughty children get their just deserts to shrill musical accompaniment, remains one of my favourite shows at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal.
Performed in front of small but appreciative audiences in 1999, it was of its time – a time when an occasional programming risk was acceptable if a show was deemed truly extraordinary (so not now with the city council subsidy about to go up in a puff of smoke).
Anyway, The Tiger Lillies – Martyn, Adrian Stout (double bass, musical saw, theremin, vocals) and Mike Pickering (drums, percussion) – are coming this time to Durham on their anniversary tour. According to the advance publicity material, the “Grammy-nominated godfathers of alternative cabaret” will be “celebrating 25 years of musical mayhem”.
For Martyn Jacques, the ride has been even longer than that.
He reflects: “I suppose it does seem quite a long time because it has been so rich and varied. Things have changed over the years and I have done a lot of different projects.
“But I didn’t actually start the band until I was 30. For 15 years I was trying to work out an original style and sound. It was very much thought through and devised.
“The main thing for me was originality. That’s what I was looking for and not just in the music – there are so many people making music – but the style. I think every artist looks for originality and that’s what really took the time.
“I was listening to lots and lots of different styles of music and opening myself up to as many influences as possible – then working out how I could put it together.”
So much for ‘musical mayhem’. The Tiger Lillies, it seems, are a particularly neat and enduring contrivance.
No apologies for that from Martyn Jacques, speaking on the phone in very unscary tones the night after the tour’s third gig in Milton Keynes (“nice venue”).
“It took 15 years to come up with the original sound and style but over the last 25 years we’ve looked at ways of changing it and doing different things with it.”
Of their arresting oddness, he says: “It can be restrictive. It can make it more difficult to become successful in any kind of mainstream way because being original isn’t particularly commercial. To be commercial you need to fit into a category, a genre.
“You couldn’t ever put us in a genre. I mean, when record shops existed, which part of the shop do you put us in? I can’t grumble because that was my aim, to be something that was completely different.”
But what’s the answer to the record shop question.
“Oh, cabaret,” says Martyn. “That’s what used to happen. We’re now known as a cabaret band. For about the first 15 years we were just weird; then we became a cabaret band.”
Tribute acts, I imagine, are thin on the ground.
“Oh, there have been a few. I remember in the Czech Republic there was a tribute band, in Prague. That was funny. But the thing is, we have influenced a lot of people, particularly on the cabaret scene. You see bowler hats, make-up – some of that is down to us.”
Martyn Jaques grew up in Slough, the town deemed so grim by poet John Betjeman that he invited the Luftwaffe’s “friendly bombs” to fall on the place.
But according to his own biography on The Tiger Lillies’ website, Martyn “spent much of his early years living above a brothel in London’s Soho”.
“I wanted to be a tran driver,” he tells me, “because there was a time when being a train driver was a very romantic thing. I’m 55. You have to be that age to have wanted to be a train driver because then you can remember the age of steam.”
There you have it. Martyn Jacques is a romantic. A self-taught musician, he chose the accordion and now has three of them – two green, one grey – and they are 72 bass, two octave versions custom-made by Fantini of Italy. That’s serious kit.
Martyn, who also plays the piano, has traversed the globe like a wandering minstrel. “We have fans all over the world so wherever we go there are familiar faces. We’re well known in Mexico, Greece and Russia, and we’ve played all over America and Australia.
“I think in somewhere like Mexico the accordion and the make-up and the songs about death fit in with the national sensibility. But the kind of music we make is very eclectic; it has bits of everything. In some cultures, though, it really does resonate.
“I was very influenced by The Threepenny Opera (the musical play by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill which opened in Berlin in 1928 before the pair fled the incoming Nazi regime) and I enjoyed Cabaret (the film harking back to Berlin’s decadent inter-war cabaret scene).
“All of that Berlin scene has been a big influence on my work.”
What of the extraordinary voice that, more than anything, is The Tiger Lillies’ trademark?
“It’s always been very easy for me to sing in a high voice,” says the man who does.
“Voices do change and they can deteriorate but if you think of great singers like Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, their voices may have deteriorated because of the abuse they did to themselves but it doesn’t necessarily mean a great singer becomes a bad singer.
“I think if you’ve got good ideas you can carry on. Hopefully I’ll still be singing in 20 years’ time.”
The fans will be hoping that’s the case. Among them are some celebrated folk including Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, who booked The Tiger Lillies to play at a festival and introduced them with the words “All these bands are my favourites but here is a favourite favourite”, and singer Marc Almond who deemed them “just brilliant and utterly fantastic”.
A critic in The Times, possibly tongue-in-cheek, declared: “In an ideal world, The Tiger Lillies would represent Britain in the Eurovision Song Contest.”
They would at least stand out from the crowd.
The current national tour, characteristically dubbed The Very Worst of the Tiger Lillies, will draw together people who have loved the shows (Shockheaded Peter was nominated for five Olivier Awards) and the albums. Martyn has created “about 35” of them, thereby ensuring that whatever struggling record shop The Tiger Lillies wound up in, they could hardly be ignored.
Finally, for the record, that Grammy-nominated creation was The Gorey End, a crossover product inspired by the American writer and artist Edward Gorey and featuring The Tiger Lillies and the Kronos Quartet, an American string ensemble.
Sample lyric (from the song Hipdeep Family): “In January cousin Fred,/ We found him in the attic dead.”
There will be plenty more dark stuff like that at the Gala Theatre, Durham, on March 22. For tickets tel. 03000 266600 or go to www.galadurham.co.uk