In the past, the Tiger Lillies have taken on projects adapting “Hamlet,” “Shockheaded Peter” and the upcoming “Lulu,” but “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” had a special appeal to the band’s singer and songwriter Martyn Jacques.
The band will perform “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” on Thursday, Oct. 24, at 8 p.m., at the ’62 Center.
“I’ve always like writing songs about the sea,” said Jacques. “I wrote an album about the sea about 12 or 14 years ago, and I think it’s one of my favorite albums. I’ve always liked the subject. It seems like a very rich subject, to write about the sea, because you’ve got so many different aspects to it. The life of sailors, the brutal, cruel adventure, pirates, prostitutes, the whole thing. Plus there’s all the mythology of the sea, King Neptune and mermaids, so for a songwriter it’s very colorful, there are lots of songs you can write about it.”
The idea of adapting “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” has been with Jacques for 20 years because of the nautical connection, but also because of the maximum opportunity for the weird things Jacques loves to write about.
“The other thing about the Ancient Mariner is the drugs thing,” he said. “It’s almost like a psychedelic drug thing going on. Or opium. Maybe it’s more opium than psychedelic. You’ve got this whole weird, drug-fueled thing going on. It’s just very colorful, interesting, dark, weird, all the things I like to write songs about and make music about.”
Jacques had begun conceptualizing it as a song cycle for an album, but almost immediately shifted that to working towards a stage version. He tapped photographer Mark Holthusen to create the visuals required for that venture. Jacques loved his photography and the band had worked with him previously on band photos, but had never done any theatrical designs before. As Jacques worked on the songs, he became more convinced that Holthusen was the one to help the band bring them to the stage. The first work, though, was finishing the adaptation, so that the two parts came together to tell the story most effectively.
“I just wrote a collection of songs,” said Jacques. “I looked at it, read it through and I just wrote songs, some about this bit, some about this part. I didn’t use the words at all and just wrote songs about what was happening in it, and so there wasn’t particularly an order even. There was just a collection of songs about different bits, not very accurate or anything, but then when we started to do it and started working on it with Mark and he did all the visuals.”
“Then I started to think, ‘okay, this is actually the beginning, this is the middle,’ then I thought ‘I’m going to add the actual poem changing it and adapting it a little bit, but I’m going to add bits of the poem to this song because this song is actually talking about this part of the story,’ so I then started adding some of Coleridge’s words into the songs, to try and help tell the story.”
One of the themes that leapt out at Jacques was the Christian one, a common encounter for him when he adapts older works.
“I’m not Christian and I’m quite not very well-disposed toward religion generally,” said Jacques. “For me, it’s quite an unhealthy and unwholesome part of the human condition really. There I am working with Coleridge. The whole story is religious — the Mariner is a sinner and he kills the savior, which is the albatross, and then he suffers, he’s in purgatory, he goes through hell, but eventually he’s released from that and becomes a teacher and tells his story.
“I haven’t really distorted or changed it. I have pretty much told the story. It’s a good story and I like it, and I don’t really have a problem with it. So even though, as I said, I don’t really like the church very much at all, I think that the way Coleridge tells the story, it doesn’t have all that nasty morality that the Catholic Church has. It’s much more talking about suffering and evil-doing. It’s more of a spiritual story than a horrible, nasty little religious story.”
The Tiger Lillies are known for their eclectic projects, and one of the most unusual is their musical involvement with Troma Pictures’ sequel film, “Return to New ’Em High,” a sequel to their 1986 B-movie of which Tiger Lillies bass player, Adrian Stout, is a fan. The band is allowing the producers to use a bunch of their songs for the film.
“I suppose if it’s really awful, really horrible, we might lose a couple of fans who think ‘Oh, my god!’ but I don’t really care,” Jacques said. “I’m not bothered. I’m not that precious about what I do. I’m happy to let people use our music.”
Jacques said they always get oddball requests for collaborations, the most memorable being Edward Gorey, who passed away before “The Gorey End” was completed after he got the ball rolling by sending the Tiger Lillies a box of unpublished stories to work from. That album was nominated for a Grammy, and speaks to Jacques’ enthusiasm for such collaborations, as well the right to work with other artists materials.
“I’m going to make sure when I die I’m not going to have one of these horrible estates that protects every word and syllable,” he said. “You get that a lot with artists and it ends up you can’t do anything with their work because they’ve got a lot of lawyers protecting it. I’m going to try and make sure that that doesn’t happen with me and people can do what they like with it. It’s silly. Artists should be allowed to take other people’s work and be inspired by it. They shouldn’t be limited.”
With this production of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” that is what the band is essentially doing — reworking the creation of someone else. Jacques wants to make sure that anyone can do that with Tiger Lillies material if they want in the name of artistic creativity. After all, that, Jacques says, is what art is all about.
“It’s difficult sometimes,” he said. “When I did the Edward Gorey project, I was lucky, because he wanted to work with me, wanted to do something with me, so his estate couldn’t really stop me from doing it. When you’ve got lawyers, and most estates have lawyers, that tends to be their main job, trying to protect. That’s what they do, they try to protect their client, but that’s almost the opposite of what art should be.”
“Artists shouldn’t protect their work from being used. That’s the great thing about things that go out of copyright, you can just use it and be inspired by it. If you’re an artist being inspired by other artists, there’s nothing wrong with that in my opinion.”