Martyn Jacques: ‘When you’re surrounded by people who love you, the bitter people in the corner don’t matter’

The Tiger Lillies

The Tiger Lillies - Credit: Archant

Martyn Jacques of the Tiger Lillies recalls honing their unique sound ahead of their show at the Roundhouse, finds Zoe Paskett

Genre-defying is one of those catch-all and irritating terms used to describe musicians when you don’t understand their influences. But in some rare cases, it can be used in a way that doesn’t do the band an injustice.

The Tiger Lillies is one of those bands.

You could say they are part pre-war Berlin caberet, part gypsy, part punk and part operatic sad clown, but that wouldn’t mean much to anyone who hasn’t heard them before.

“I sang in a high voice and played the accordion and there you go!” says Martyn Jacques, lead singer and founder of the group in 1989. “Who does that? Nobody. So if you start off with that as the basis, you’re in a class of one already.

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“That’s why it took me 15 years to get on stage, because I was trying to find something different. I wanted to be original.”

First starting piano as a teenager, Jacques spent the next decade and a half honing his musical skills by teaching himself and attending evening classes in opera singing, jazz piano and jazz guitar.

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“I wanted to play piano as a boy and my mum said, ‘if we buy you a piano it’ll be stuck over there in the corner and you won’t touch it’, so she wouldn’t buy one,” he says. “But I started playing when I was 16. It’s hard the first few years. It’s not easy to learn how to play an instrument, sitting there for hours working, working, working, practicing, practicing, practicing.”

His main instrument, the accordion, he didn’t learn to play until he was 29 years old but now forms the characteristic basis of the Tiger Lillies’ music.

“If I meet people in their late 20s and early 30s, I always use that as an example of how you can start things when you’re older.”

After years of solo preparation, the band began when Jacques put an advert in Loot looking for a drummer and a double bass player and “only two people replied, so they got the job!” The line up has shifted around over the years, but currently sits at Jonas Golland on percussion and Adrian Stout on double bass, musical saw and Theremin.

They don’t function like a normal touring band, but do a number of theatre shows and concerts that carry on throughout the year.

“We just work, really,” Jacques says.

Their first album in 10 years not to be tied to one of these theatre shows is to be released on January 26, to coincide with the start of this year’s In the Round at the Roundhouse, where they perform on February 3. In celebration of the venues 50th anniversary year, a series of intimate performances will take place in the main concert area.

The album, Cold Night in Soho, is a look back over memories of Jacques’ years living above a brothel, traversing with prostitutes, drug fiends and various other local characters, in a portrait of the area that can no longer be seen with the new builds and restaurants.

But in amongst the debauchery, there are familiar scenes. “Finsbury Park” tells of the days when Jacques used to live on Thorpedale Road, though he concedes that “it was probably a bit rougher back then”.

“Dance Floor” memorialises their early gigs at Upper Street’s King’s Head pub where they used to play regularly – with a slightly different atmosphere than it has now.

“One of the striking things was the fighting,” he says. “It used to be quite violent. Not in the same way as at that time when there were gangs; it was more individuals getting drunk and having fights.

“I’ve got incredibly fond memories of playing there. The PA system wouldn’t work properly, the piano was pretty unplayable. Every time we played, the place got completely packed and at the end the people would stamp on the floorboards.

“It was an amazing time and obviously we went on to bigger things but in many ways those concerts were the most magical thing we’ve ever done.”

They really did go on to bigger thangs, playing regularly at the Royal Festival Hall.

However, it was Jacques’ first gig, in a cellar in Queen’s Park, that set him on that path.

“I did the first song and when I finished people cheered and I was just so relieved and overcome I wasn’t sure I could carry on standing, I thought I’d have to sit down because I was so nervous, but I carried on and I remember walking off the stage at the end of the concert and thinking, I’ve found myself a living.”

The Tiger Lillies’ sound is unique to say the least, and while “95 per cent loved it”, they didn’t manage to capture everyone’s imaginations.

“We used to go into the audience after and sell cassettes and we were at this pub on Highbury Corner and I remember going up to this one guy and he said ‘these people really like you don’t they?’ And I said ‘yeah’ and he said ‘I think you’re f***ing s***’.

“But when you’re surrounded by people that love you, it doesn’t matter, the few bitter ones standing in the corner.”

The Tiger Lillies play on February 3 at the Roundhouse as part of the In the Round series, which also presents Martha Wainwright, Julian Cope and Ed Harcourt to name a few.

A full line up and tickets can be bought at Jan 26 – Feb 4.

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