“If it hadn’t been for John Peel, and my mate Bob who used to make me mix tapes, Jam Tarts might be doing harmonised versions of Another Day in Paradise, or Sussudio.”
I’m drinking a cup of tea in Li Mills’ Brighton kitchen, and she’s telling me about her musical awakening at York University. Li is the founder and director of Brighton’s celebrated 60-strong choir, famous for their covers of “punk, post-punk and indie” songs. She also does the song arranging, turning the raw material into something… well, something entirely different.
“I was into Phil Collins when I went to York,” she says. “But that soon changed. I ended up doing my finals thesis on punk rock. I wrote to John Peel to ask him if he could help me, and he practically wrote the thing.” She does a little ‘all-praise’ gesture in the great DJ’s memory.
She shows me the playlist for their Christmas gigs in the Con Club and St George’s Church, in Kemp Town, and I guess that Peel would approve of most of the choices. “The first song I arranged was Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen. But then everyone started doing that, so we took it out of our repertoire. A lot of our songs aren’t that well known. And the ones you will know, you might not recognise until halfway through. I love watching people in the audience trying to work out that the tango-based harmony they’re hearing is Every Day I Love You Less and Less by Kaiser Chiefs.”
‘The Tarts’, as Li calls them, have been going since 2004, starting as a group of Hanover parents and quickly growing into something much bigger. Here are some quickfire facts I learn: a third of them are men; they dress in red, pink and black; they have regularly played Union Chapel, Islington; because no-one wants to leave and things get a bit messy beyond sixty, there’s very rarely room for new members to join. Li is just mad about Nick Cave, so there’ll always be one of his numbers in there. Oh, and they have legendary after-show parties.
She’s delighted to be returning to the Con Club, where she has performed (supporting The Wave Pictures) in one of the other bands she’s involved with, a “lo-fi, multi-instrumental four-piece of Tarts”, called Suburban Death Twitch. “The acoustics are great there,” she says. “It’ll be a squeeze, though”. It’s not just the sixty choir members, you see. “For our bigger gigs we’re accompanied by musicians: a pianist, a cellist, two trumpeters, a percussionist, a violinist.”
All the songs in the December shows will have a ‘winter’ theme, to give the evening a festive feel. But not corny festive, of course. “Some of the songs might not feel particularly Christmassy,” she concludes. “When Nick Cave wrote Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow, I don’t think he was thinking about the stuff that comes out of the sky.” Alex Leith
The Jam Tarts are playing at the Con Club, 20th December, 7.30pm, £13 from Si’s Sounds/Union Music and lewesconclub.com