The new album by London synthpop quartet Bas Jan deftly combines the everyday and the esoteric. Examples? Fonts on British road signs and the tragic history of Irish witchcraft… 

“I don’t want to celebrate the ordinary,” says Serafina Steer. “But I have found making the record a way of being seen in my ordinariness. It’s uplifting to be able to share those bits of humanity where you’re not necessarily living your best life. You might be feeling utterly crap in a car park. But it’s about trying to bring the joy.”

She pauses for a second. 

“No, that sounds like utter rubbish. I feel like I’m speaking another language!” 

The new Bas Jan album, ‘Back To The Swamp’, is their third. And, I’d argue with mild-mannered stoicism, their best. It’s 10am on a bone-chilling winter’s morning, and precisely 75 per cent of the band have popped up on adjacent windows on my screen. It’s like a synthpop ‘Celebrity Squares’. I’m joined by founder and frontwoman Serafina Steer (who is erudite and thoughtful, despite her unnecessary apologies), violinist Charlie Stock and drummer Rachel Horwood. Only bassist and sax player Emma Smith is missing – she’s in Mexico, playing live with Pulp. As excuses go, I’ve heard worse. 

We’re discussing the lead single from the album, ‘At The Counter’, and its accompanying video. Both are brilliant and encompass everything I love about Bas Jan. “Living my best life / I’m at the pet shop,” sings Serafina to angular synthpop accompaniment, as the quartet descend, blank-faced, onto a retail park in Enfield. I assume they spent weeks obtaining permission from Pets At Home, and didn’t just turn up to film guerilla-style? 

“No, it was guerilla-style!” smiles Serafina. 

“We were all worried we’d get chucked out,” adds Charlie. “We ran in and said, ‘We’ve got to be really quick – split up, and we’ll meet round the back of the fish tanks!’.” 

“In the pet shop, they didn’t care,” says Rachel. “I bought something for my cat, and the woman was really chilled about it all. They weren’t bothered in the toy shop, either. It was only in the supermarket that we thought, ‘We’d better hurry up in here’.” 

“Didn’t one of the staff say, ‘She’s wearing orange lipstick’?” asks Serafina. 

“Yes, that was in Aldi!” laughs Rachel. 

It all reminds me of Madness, I muse. While their 1980s contemporaries spent half a million quid on ‘Mad Max’ sci-fi sets and exotic yachting jollies, Madness just turned up to a school field in Kentish Town with their sax player on a wire. One of my favourite frames in the ‘At The Counter’ video, I say, is a lingering shot of a discarded Skips packet. 

“I like stuff like that as well,” says Rachel, who’s also the video’s director. “That’s probably why I didn’t pick the packet up. And it’s funny you talking about Madness – I used to really like their videos. I had a tape of them when I was a teenager, so I guess that might have seeped in a little bit.” 

“The trumpet player on the album, Joe Auckland, plays with Madness,” adds Serafina. “That’s why he can’t play at our launch. Oh look, Rachel’s shrunk!”

This startling revelation feels a bit like the cliffhanger to a 1960s episode of ‘Doctor Who’, but blimey, Rachel has shrunk. No, hang on… her two-year-old daughter, sitting in on the conversation, has just grabbed her phone. We all wave hello to the pair of tiny eyes peeping above Rachel’s kitchen table, and it begins to feel – rather splendidly – more like a relaxed coffee morning than an actual interview. 

‘Margaret Calvert Drives Out’ is another stand-out track on the album. It’s a touching homage to the designer of Britain’s road signs, with lyrics by writer and performance artist Sally O’Reilly. 

“I approached Sally and asked if she would like to collaborate, and she’s always fecund with ideas,” says Serafina. “She said, ‘How about if I come up with 30 ideas for a song and you choose something you like?’. One was things overheard on a building site, another was the band members’ favourite recipes. But then she suggested Margaret Calvert – and I hadn’t heard of her.” 

photo: Aurora Horwood

It’s wonderful, I tell them. A touching tribute to sans-serif fonts and the silhouetted cow on the “cattle likely to be in road ahead” sign. That’s what I mean by celebrating the ordinary – Bas Jan are a dab hand at pointing out the everyday objects that have become so everyday, we barely notice them. 

“Totally!” says Serafina. “That does make sense. I would really like to find an alter ego and write from that perspective. But I want to have some emotional sincerity in my stuff, too. Maybe it’s just a lack of imagination…” 

Still, while we’re here, what are the band members’ favourite recipes? They all enter into meditative deep thought. 

“I’ve just cooked some amazing mushrooms that my friend picked,” says Serafina. “I don’t know what they were called, but they were really delicious.” 

“I like cauliflower cheese,” says Charlie. 

It’s a good fallback, isn’t it? A staple. 

“No!” snaps Serafina. “It’s contentious. A lot of people struggle with cauliflower cheese. It’s divisive.” 

Formed in 2015 by classically trained harpist (and regular Jarvis Cocker collaborator) Serafina and Canadian artist Jenny Moore, the band’s line-up was initially fluid, but now seems reassuringly settled. The name is a homage to Bas Jan Ader, a Dutch conceptual artist whose most celebrated work – ‘I’m Too Sad To Tell You’ – is a three-minute movie depicting him singularly failing to hold back tears. It’s a genuinely affecting watch. Even more so when you discover that he was lost at sea in 1975, aged 32, attempting to cross the Atlantic on a 13-foot sailboat that was later discovered drifting off the coast of Ireland. 

“I hope we’re not going to end up like that,” says Serafina, when I broach the subject. 

Nevertheless, it’s proof that the band’s fascination with the mundane goes hand in hand with an interest in the decidedly more esoteric. ‘Back To The Swamp’ isn’t all retail parks and road signs. ‘Ding Dong’ is about Alice Kyteler, a wealthy 14th century Irish woman accused of witchcraft. Fleeing the country, she left her servant Petronilla De Meath to take the rap and become the first woman in Ireland to be burned at the stake. 

‘Tarot Card’, meanwhile, is concerned with slightly less perilous occult practices. 

“I’m not a tarot reader,” says Serafina. “That song came about because I was at a Christmas party, and a friend got out her tarot cards and read them for me and Emma. It was a quick one – three cards each, taking turns. I come from a slightly hippyish family, so I had quite a lot of that kind of thing when I was growing up. 

My mum used to read the ‘I Ching’, and my sister will often come up with a past-life explanation for something. I’m the straight one…” 

“Serafina’s sister also has insight into dream meanings,” adds Charlie. 

“My dad has kept a database of every dream that he’s ever had since the mid-1980s,” reveals Serafina, to gasps of astonishment all round. “And it cross-references, so if he has a dream about a black cat then he can check his database and find every other time that’s happened.” 

“That’s amazing!” says Charlie. “Sometimes I write my dreams down in the back of a book. Can I say this one? Or is it too stupid? I dreamed we were in the car, and Ben, our driver, was enthusiastically noting I had a Garfield hot-water bottle. Which is something I do take away with me, because I’m always cold. But then all these other hot-water bottles started appearing, and they were all slightly weird-looking Garfields with wonky eyes. So I was questioning their authenticity – ‘That doesn’t look like a proper one! What’s going on?’.”

She looks thoughtful for a second. 

“Maybe it’s to do with trust,” she ponders. 

“Or Ben’s integrity,” smiles Serafina. 

Go on then, try this. The night before the interview, I tell them, I had this dream in which the night sky above my house somehow tore open to reveal a gleaming white laboratory complex hidden in the dimension beyond. When I entered, I found rooms of featureless grey entities being schooled in the art of behaving like humans – walking, eating, sleeping – and I realised, to my horror, that they were us. This was what all human beings had once been, before they’d entered this earthly realm to act out the facade of everyday life. I woke up in a cold sweat, consumed by the dreadful, all-pervading realisation that life was ultimately cynical and pointless. 

All three band members look visibly shocked. 

“I had a dream last night that my partner wanted to go for a run,” says Rachel. “That was it. It’s why I don’t keep a dream diary. Mine are so dull.” 

The album has quite a melancholy feel, I suggest. There are ambient textures and mournful trumpets. Serafina seems slightly bemused at the suggestion. 

“I actually feel a lot of it’s more poppy and upbeat than the previous records,” she says. “I guess ‘Tarot Card’ has Charlie’s looped violin, so that’s got more space but, I don’t know, I don’t find ‘Ding Dong’ or ‘Over The Counter’ melancholy. Maybe I’m wired differently.” 

No, it’s probably just me. I see melancholy everywhere. ‘Cried A River’, though? That’s surely a heartbreaker. “There’s no going back / Cos I cried a river and the river ran deep.” 

“There are definitely struggles and sadness, but I was also hoping it was quite a strong and hopeful record,” says Serafina. “That’s what got us through making it, really – ‘We’re fucking going to do this!’. I don’t know, I always sound sad. I look sad as well.” 

There are two songs on the album that I found particularly resonant. ‘No More Swamp’ seems to be a defiant roar against encroaching depression (“I don’t have time to change my entire brain… no more swamp!”) but ‘Back To The Swamp’ suggests the temptation to wallow in torpor is sometimes oddly alluring. “Missing the mud / The sinking feeling / That was our drug.” 

“I don’t think it’s about depression so much,” explains Serafina. “More wanting to write about the stage of life I’m at in a way that’s more honest. I’m not 25. It’s about the puzzles and struggles of being 41 and having a kid and a family, and how things change. In the context of everything having to be fine – having to show up, and be responsible, and run lots of things. It was fun when I didn’t have to do that.” 

I identified with one line in particular, though. “I’d been trying to place the blame / On things like diet and lack of sleep.” I spent years looking to other factors for the causes of my low-level misery before realising it was probably just me. And I’m reconciled to that now, and better at dealing with it. 

 “I guess it’s a reckoning when you realise, ‘Alright, so I’m actually going to be me for quite a long time now’,” she nods.

“Why does it take so long, though?” asks Charlie. 

“It’s a readjustment,” continues Serafina. “I didn’t get worried about turning 40 before I was 40, but afterwards it felt like a big deal. And maybe some things I thought I wanted, I realised I didn’t want any more. My priorities shifted a bit.” 

So what does the future hold for Bas Jan? Plans for 2024? 

“There will probably be a bit of a hiatus,” begins Serafina. “Because Rachel…”

She pauses for dramatic effect.

“…is pregnant! REVEAL, REVEAL! So I guess we’ll be having a break. Although we always say that if crazy offers come in, we’ll consider them. So please put that in the feature.” 

Congratulations! When is the baby due? 

“End of April,” says Rachel. “I don’t know, we might do a few gigs before then. The cut-off point is probably March. But I don’t want to risk any big tours.” 

Blimey, yeah. The last thing you want is to go into labour backstage at Sneaky Pete’s or The Cumberland Arms. 

“There’s often not even a backstage!” laughs Charlie. “Where’d you go then?” 

“Behind the bar,” deadpans Serafina.

With that, it’s time to leave, but perhaps with a little renewed vigour – both to live our best lives and, indeed, to bring exactly that kind of joy to our everyday ordinariness. 

‘Back To The Swamp’ is out on Fire

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