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The Tiger Lillies: «Oh my god, I hope no one will see this!»

 British libertines and blasphemers talk about where to draw the line  11/22/2013, 01:08
The Tiger Lillies: «Oh my god, I hope no one will see this!»
Photos by Roman Brygin

Macabre English cabaret trio The Tiger Lillies don’t sing about love and flowers. The main characters of their songs are prostitutes, drug dealers, sailors and suicide victims. In concert, they torture their instruments, while vocalist Martyn Jacques pulls faces and shoots into the crowd from an invisible gun. Sib.fm’s correspondents met the bizarre Brits and talked about fights at concerts, catharsis, nightmares and Sergei Shnurov’s thieving tendencies.

Your image hasn’t changed for over 20 years and seems to have become almost canonical, your concerts are about the same. Why do you hold on to this image and performance style?

That’s not true, I looked like this when I was 7! Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Actually, we wear different costumes in different shows. In Hamlet, we wear lots of big Shakespearian ruffs and collars. In our show Rime of the Ancient Mariner, we look like a bunch of painters and decorators. We complained that we look like painters and decorators, so they produced a new set of costumes for us, and guess what? We still look like painters and decorators! But it’s a fantastic show and it looks great. We’re behind a screen, so it doesn’t really matter what we’ve got on. But we’re supposed to look like dead sailors — we kind of look like dead sailors. So we do actually change, but people in Russia won’t see it. We had to be able to pack everything easily, couldn’t really go wild. We don’t have very much money either — no money and no luggage!

How do you live in the world of your songs? How do they affect you off stage? Maybe you have nightmares, for example, with the plots of your own stories.

I wouldn’t say that we’re at peace with ourselves, but I don’t have any nightmares at all. I was reading an interview with some artist who also does very disturbed and unpleasant things in his pictures and he said the same thing — he never has any nightmares. So maybe, actually, if you do it all through your art, you haven’t got anything left.

Maybe, if you have a very safe and peaceful life, that’s when you start having nightmares.

We get it all out on stage, it’s quite cathartic really. We haven’t got any energy left after our shows.

You work in the field of, let’s say, conceptual art, and must be used to perceiving what happens in your songs in a slightly detached way. How do you react to real, not artistic examples of death and violence? You’ve clearly got your own special relationship with these topics.

32 number of albums released by The Tiger Lillies

A lot of the people who come to see us play seem to find it all quite funny and entertaining. You see them sort of smirking and smiling. So I think they see us as being a bit like a horror show, it’s just entertainment.

Yes, but, frankly, it’s hard to imagine you at a funeral. In the respect that your inherent dark humour must have an impact on your sense of compassion and empathy.

Come on! We’re just absolutely, completely normal people, of course. We feel the whole range of human emotions.

Have you ever been in a situation where a fan comes up to you and says, «Your work is so close to my heart! I recently dismembered my wife»?

We used to have a lot of people who work in social services or the mental health industry who said that we made them feel a lot better, because they dealt with such strange, horrible things that laughing about them made it a lot easier for them to cope with their lives.


Pathologist Mikhail Travin told Sib.fm about man’s rich inner world

Are you ready to see what you sing about in the audience. Debauchery and violence, for example. Because everyone just sits around drinking — isn’t it boring?

We do have gigs with people standing up and jumping. We’ve had some fights in the audience too. The other night there was nearly a big fight in St. Petersburg. At the Cosmonaut club, this huge, big guy, really drunk, barged his way to the front and started jumping around. Two other guys started having a go at him and it nearly came to blows. We like people who are enthusiastic, having a good time and enjoying the music. I think if we started to attract a large number of neo-Nazis to our gigs, I’d have a good think about splitting up the band. Actually, we don’t play that often to people who are sitting and eating. We used to do quite a lot of cabaret dinners in places like Germany and Austria, but they used to eat before the show or sometimes in the break.

I can’t remember playing and suddenly spoiling someone’s dinner by being on stage.

The subject matter of your songs is unpleasant, to say the least. Why these exact themes?

Well, that’s what we are, you know. We’re not a soft, cosy, easy-listening band. They’re interesting characters and stories, hopefully. I think songs about love and flowers are a bit boring.

Do you have any limits or prohibited things?

I never sing about Muslims. We draw the line at Muslims. Do you want to know why? Because we don’t want to be killed! Their sense of irony and humour isn’t very finely tuned.


The Tiger Lillies wrote the music and starred in Sergei Bodrov Sr.’s film The Quickie

You are surrounded by several myths thanks to your scabrous lyrics and image. How does this affect your reputation?

It’s good, I like our reputation. It’s not all legends. Not at all, it’s true. I’ve lived with drug dealers and strippers.

You’ve had a few side projects like theatrical productions, collaborations with other artists and a symphony orchestra. What other experiments would you like to try?

Well, we could never play in space, ’cause you can’t wear a hat there! I think the only thing that I really want is for us to become more successful. In the coming years, I’d like us to play some bigger places. It’s a bit boring, I know.

I don’t think we’ll ever become unbelievably successful though, we’re not going to change.

It’s not that I’m unsatisfied with our audience. It’s good, but I just want to play for more people, and for more people to find out about us, get a bit more respect. It’s nice to become a bit more well-known, you know. I think it’s quite normal — every artist wants to be more successful really, and we’re no different in that respect.

1 number of times The Tiger Lillies were nominated for a Grammy; they didn’t win the award

Talking of collaborations, in 2005 you recorded an album with Sergei Shnurov. Why did you work with him, what makes him so good? And let’s cut to the chase: is it true that he stole a part of one of your songs?

He wanted to do it, he wanted to work with us and do an album. He’s a big fan, really likes us. I don’t think he stole anything from us, well, I suppose he sort of stole it. He used one of our melodies, but did it do us any harm? I don’t think so. Actually, I think the fact that he did an album with us and talked about us a lot probably helped us. I’ve got no complaints. We made a very nice album, I like it.


The Tiger Lillies and Leningrad album includes the songs Bitch, Drunk, Psycho and ten more in roughly the same vein

Would you like to do something with another Russian artist?

Nobody springs to mind, but if somebody has a good idea, then why not. I don’t think we’ve ever approached anyone ourselves, but if somebody comes to us and they want to do something, that’s fantastic.

Coming to Russia in 2013 doesn’t seem like the best idea, given the messageof your songs. Blasphemers aren’t much loved here, and you can get locked up for insulting the feelings of believers. Are you aware of local public sentiment? Do you not feel out of place here?

I think the operative words are «we’re a bit stupid».

What’s the law on blasphemy then?

We haven’t said anything that bad, really. We take a historical perspective and just have fun.

When was the last time you were ashamed?

Not saying! I don’t know, I don’t think I’ve ever felt that ashamed. «Shame» is a very strange word, anyway. I don’t get ashamed about anything really. Although I suppose sometimes you can feel a bit ashamed. For example, I had a horrendous attack of diarrhoea about a month ago. It was horrendous. But maybe that was more like embarrassment. Is it shame or embarrassment? I don’t know. I didn’t really have a mental choice. But there was a certain amount of shame. It was horrendous, just pouring down my legs. No, not at dinner... I completed sharted myself on the way home, it was just pouring out of me. I walked to a garage to use the toilet and I was thinking, «Oh my God, I hope no one will see this!»

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