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.
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.
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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."