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For the past quarter-century, when Martyn Jacques and his band, the Tiger Lillies, have passed through airports, onlookers have reacted with some variation of "I hope you don't mind, but are you part of a religious cult?"
"I usually manage to look away and leave it to the drummer, who tells them we make satanic folk music," Jacques says. "You don't have to start talking about sticking a hamster up your rectum if you don't want. But then sometimes you might want to impress someone."
The band has impressed many since forming in London in 1989, generally without the aid of a cloacal spelunking rodent. They are Grammy nominees, and their West End musical Shockheaded Peter won two Olivier Awards. Tony Scott directed one of their music videos, and Matt Groening asked them to record a song for an episode of The Simpsons.
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But most of their activity remains underground, played out in the footlights of small theaters and alternative spaces. Fans show up dressed as the band or bearing odd gifts like balloon sculptures or customized accordions. The trio is in the middle of a world tour for the new album Either Or. Its next stop is a two-night stand this weekend at the Goldman Warehouse to open Miami Light Project's 2013-14 season.
Onstage, Jacques leaps and howls in smeared makeup resembling that of a Weimar Republic clown loosed from an asylum. Some Tiger Lillies songs sound like an accordion, drum set, and upright bass heaved down the back stairs of a Berlin bordello. Others are as delicate as a consumptive dandy's final smoke ring. And indeed, there is at least one song in the Tiger Lillies catalogue about the rare pleasures of sticking a hamster up one's rectum.
But they also have nearly three dozen albums on other topics, such as lost sailors, gamblers, hopeful drunks, and other lonely souls just trying to make it to sunrise. Some songs have such propulsive grooves and catchy melodies that it's not hard to imagine them as pop hits despite the accordions and mention of blood.
"Somebody told me that he used to have sex with his girlfriend to our music, and I found that quite bizarre," Jacques says. "Maybe someone has murdered someone to our songs. Ours wouldn't be the worst music if you're heading in that direction. I'm sure people go jogging to us and use us as a weapon against their neighbors."
Traveling is also, well, interesting for the band.
"Because we travel so much and often in economy, we tend to wear our stage gear because it saves on the baggage," Jacques explains in a low home-counties accent a world away from his Tiger Lillies growl and falsetto. "So I'll be in my bowler hat, my braid, and baggy trousers; I wear the same clothes on- and offstage. I travel very light — just my accordion, my trousers, and a couple of changes of shirts."
Tiger Lillies fans attend performances similarly attired. However, Rebekah Lengel, the managing producer at Miami Light Project, was surprised by the diversity of the group's extensive fan base.
"We presented them as a part of Sleepless Night in 2011," an all-night performance festival in Miami Beach. She remembers, "They went on at 2 in the morning, right during daylight savings, during that hour that doesn't exist. It was totally rained out, but they played and they had all of these fans there dressed as Tiger Lillies dancing anyhow. And these were people of all ages and backgrounds."
The upcoming Miami Light Project season will also include dance, experimental theater, and a global music festival. "This season is probably one of the more diverse seasons we've had in our space," Lengel says. "And our symbolic tour around the world concludes back here in Miami with Here & Now," the group's annual program that commissions new works from South Florida artists.
"Miami is a very special place," Jacques says. "There is the architecture and the climate, yes, but there's so much going on to look at. All these girls walking around with short skirts and high heels, men in extremely long open-top Cadillacs... I love it! I suppose some people might say it is vulgar, but anything that has got some character is great."
The Tiger Lillies aren't immune to accusations of vulgarity, either.
"We've had people walk out, and we had one guy shout, 'Why don't you sing a nice song about women for a change?'" Jacques says. "But the thing is, we don't write nice songs about anybody."
Actually, there are some rather romantic songs about animals on the band's Farmyard Filth, a concept album about zoophilia.
"We got banned from playing in a church after they thought we had a song about having sex with sheep," Jacques says. "But it is actually about falling in love with a sheep."
To research the album, he spoke with some real-life zoophiles. "They told me about wearing things like steel-capped boots and crash helmets. Because, you know, when you start having sex with horses and those sorts of things, you have to be careful."
Growing up around the boozers and brigands who would later populate his songs, Jacques spent his youth among prostitutes in London's Soho.
"I don't, as people may think, visit towns and rush to the nearest pet shop and then back to the hotel ice machine."
But with the lines blurred just so, surely some of his friends — upon hearing his encomium to the animal's "vagina in the sky" on Farmyard Filth — must be wary about leaving Jacques alone in a room with their giraffes.
He laughs this off, describing his friends as "weird and colorful people," though a tinge of regret in his voice causes one to wonder if back in London there isn't a flat with an extremely high ceiling and a sign on the door warning that Martyn Jacques is no longer welcome.
It is an unusual world that Jacques and the Tiger Lillies inhabit. In live performances, once the audience recovers from its initial shock, the band is able to create an atmosphere in which beauty and individuality are celebrated above all else. The songs cease to be about characters and become about people.
"I like people who are like Miami," Jacques says. "There's too much conformity and too much grayness and not enough humor in the human race. Virtually everything we do is a kind of madness, really."