Self-described “Brechtian punk cabaret” trio Tiger Lillies recorded their upcoming album last week at Prague’s Archa Theatre. Between the two live shows, I spoke with the performers about the recording, a collaborative effort with the Prague-based Berg Orchestra.
Less than an hour until curtain on the second and final evening of “Bohemian Nights,” the musicians were still making adjustments to the performance. And perhaps that’s fitting: Bohemian Nights takes place in the midst of Prague’s “wild nineties,” when the Tiger Lillies first toured in Prague, with all its frenetic, improvisatory energy.
“Bohemian Nights” played for just two evenings at Archa Theatre in downtown Prague, but the performance will live on as the band’s 30th-anniversary album, “The Devil’s Fairground,” released next year. Michal Nejtek, who arranged the music for Berg Orchestra alongside Tiger Lillies frontman Martyn Jacques, stole a moment away to have a cup of coffee and speak with me about the show. We began by talking about the eleventh-hour adjustments.
“We are changing the number of bars, the number of repetitions, we are cutting something, and we are making introductions. Because Martyn has his own tempo, so he has to make his own introduction, and then the orchestra and the band is joining the piece. So it's not a typical situation.”
How do you feel about last night's show?
“It was energetic. There were some mistakes, but I think it was a nice energy for all. I hope.”
“It was the idea of Ondřej Hrab, I think, the director of Archa. It was about two years ago. And it was planned for the South Bohemian Philharmonic. Then we switched to Berg Orchestra, and the plan was from the beginning…that Martyn would write new songs about Prague in the 80s [90s]. They did it, and I made arrangements from the demos, and now we have to combine the demos with the most recent versions of the songs.”
I'm curious...obviously, Prague in the 90s, you were a little younger, your experience was perhaps different from theirs...
...I wonder if the depiction of Prague in the 90s that they are showing here is in any way familiar to you.
“Yes, familiar maybe to my imagination. Because I wasn't even in Prague, I was in North Bohemia, I was studying classical piano, so it was completely different. But I read more about Prague in the 90s. So it's the Prague of my imagination.”
The Tiger Lillies gave their first performances abroad in post-communist Czechoslovakia, nearly three decades ago. Martyn Jacques, the group’s frontman, spoke to me in his dressing room about the time and place that inspired the new music. He applied his signature black-and-white face paint as he talked.
“It was in the early 90s, and it was a different Prague than today. Because today there's thousands of tourists here, and at that time there were no tourists here. None. No tourists at all. Zero. … It was in a vacuum between the Soviet era and the capitalist era. It was in a vacuum between the two. So there were no tourists here, and the only foreigners that were here were weirdos that squatted places, like the Palace of Culture, and you know...all these big buildings were squatted by weird Americans with tattoos and long hair and everything. And it was just a weird, weird place. Fantastic. So we came over here, we used to play in bars, different bars around the town, squats, we'd play in squats, and it was great.”
How did you decide to come [to Prague]?
“We had this very strange English friend called Ben. Ben Anderson. He was a very small man. And he decided, and none of us know why, really, but he decided he wanted to come over here and he wanted to become Czech. He wasn't interested in staying in London, so he did this...we all thought he was mad. … I think he did some kind of language course and he learned how to speak Czech, and then he came over here and lived here and spoke Czech. So he invited us, he said, 'Do you want to come over here and play in the Czech Republic?' And we were like this little band, just starting, you know. So we came over here because of him. And he was like our manager, and he used to take us around the country. We would travel all around on a bus. Not a tour bus, on a bus, where people pay to get on, or maybe we'd get a train somewhere. We'd have to carry our instruments with us. And then we'd go from town to town. And people used to say, 'You've seen more of the Czech Republic than any Czech person,' because when you're a normal Czech person you don't travel around the Czech Republic going from town to town. And so we'd see all these funny little towns, and they all had rock clubs in them, you know, and it was just after the Soviets, so everybody was quite excited, it was like rock music everywhere, and rock clubs in every small town, so we used to play in these rock clubs and squats again.”
And were you interested in the Plastic People and Už jsme doma, or any of the Czech rock bands in any way?
“No, not really. But we were playing to a lot of Czech people. We didn't come over here and just play to these weird Americans that were here. We played to lots of Czech people. We used to play at the Shot-Out Eye [U Vystřelenýho oka], that was one of our big gigs, the Shot-Out Eye, you know. But we did play to the Americans as well, not just Americans, there were Europeans as well. Some of the squats were run by Americans. So we played in those as well. But not really...I think the only band that people used to talk quite a lot about to us was the Plastic People of the Universe, because apparently they were a bit weird, so they kind of related us to them.”
And at the time was your aesthetic already clearly defined? Or has that evolved over time?
“I didn't wear makeup at that time. I was playing accordion and singing in a high voice, though. The sound was basically the same. It's kind of got a bit more...now we use saws and theramins, and you know, things like that. So we've kind of evolved certain instruments, weird instruments that we didn't use back then, but I play piano as well, which I didn't actually play back then. I just played the guitar and the accordion back then.”
What is it like retelling this story to Czechs---working with a Czech orchestra, but telling a foreigner's story?
“See, the thing is, they're not foreigners' stories. And I'll tell you why. Because I had a Czech girlfriend. ... I had a very good close relationship with her. And she'd tell me all these stories about what it was like to be Czech. For example, one of the songs is called 'KGB.' Her father was sent to Siberia for ten years, and he was a democrat in the Velvet Revolution. I am still a foreigner, obviously, but I am telling them [stories] not just as a tourist, I'm actually telling them about...I'm writing this whole song about the KGB and how he was tortured by the KGB, and some of his friends, they couldn't walk, or they were blinded by them. I do have a bit of a link, a bit closer, than just being a tourist. I had a window, which was this girl.”
Could you talk to me a little bit about the Central European influences in your work?
“Oh yeah. I've always liked gypsy music, and I like the Taraf De Haidouks Balkan sort of music. And then I heard this Russian man singing and playing the accordion, standing on a bridge, and to this day I don't know who he was, but I saw him on the television singing in this very emotional way, playing the accordion. So I've definitely been influenced quite a lot by Central European, Eastern European music. Generally, European. There's even a bit of flamenco, there's definitely some Fardo music, Portuguese music in there as well. It's generally very much more European, I would say, than a lot of bands. But then I also like the blues, old-fashioned blues as well, and there's quite a lot of blues in there as well. So it's quite a mixture, really.”