Something Just beyond Expression: An Interview with Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus
In this interview from Jesus the Imagination, Volume II: The Being of Marriage, Michael K. Kivinen engages with members of what be the most innovative and inspiring group in ostensibly "Christian" music of the last thirty years. Among the most underground of underground musicians and artists, Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus continues to inspire those who take the aesthetic and prophetic strains of Christian art seriously.
Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus “regard themselves as a creative collective rather than a band.”1 They took their name from a fictional terrorist organization in Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s final work, That Obscure Object of Desire. Hailing from Liverpool, England, they make textured, evocative music that defies succinct description without resorting to multiple, cumbersome hyphenations, such as art-rock, psych-folk, or world-beat. Their soundscapes incorporate all of these genres and more—liturgical, chant, ambient, industrial, musique concrete, and even classical—into an organic whole that is at once unsettling yet oddly uplifting; beautifully eerie and eerily beautiful; entrancing and transfigurative.
Between 1987 and 1995 RAIJ issued two albums and two EPs. Then they dropped out of sight for nearly twenty years until the 2013 release of After the End, a boxed set that compiled all of their earlier material, along with two brand new recordings. In 2015 RAIJ released Beauty Will Save the World, their first full-length album in twenty-four years. It might not have rivaled the record sales of an earlier, better-known Liverpool band, but it garnered universally excellent reviews. Besides, pop stardom and commercial success are not the point of RAIJ’s art. Rather, their stated intention is nothing less than to “reawaken a sense of the sacred” in their listeners.
RAIJ’s core members are Paul Boyce (clarinet, keyboard, voice); Jon Egan (harmonium, melodica, organ, guitar, voice); and Leslie Hampson (percussion, piano, concertina, harmonica, guitar). This past November they started working on a new album. Also, in that same month, they generously granted an interview to Jesus the Imagination. In the conversation that follows they discuss their creative process, their inspirations and aspirations as artists, and the challenge of attempting to classify their music. We conducted the interview via e-mail. RAIJ received our questions on November 24, 2017 and sent us their deeply thoughtful answers on January 2 and 18, 2018.
MKK: Reviews of RAIJ’s music—most recently your 2015 album, Beauty Will Save the World—have been highly favorable. (For example, Prog magazine’s May 2017 review of the Mirror reissue describes your music as “willfully unclassifiable” yet “Thoroughly captivating.”2) Despite such enthusiastic endorsements, RAIJ seem to have remained well “below the radar,” if not largely unknown. What sense do you make of this?
RAIJ: One explanation is that we’ve done very little to promote or market our work. They weren’t activities that we felt drawn to. It would immediately have required clarification and explanation, and this isn’t something that we’ve ever found easy or comfortable. We’ve said elsewhere that we kind of liked the idea that people would have to discover or stumble on us almost accidentally, or by word-of-mouth.
The other reason may be to do with that “willfully unclassifiable” thing. We probably weren’t easy to review or explain. The music industry likes genres and categories and we seemed to be coming from somewhere else; somewhere difficult to locate and identify. There was probably also always a suspicion we might be religious, and that seems to make people deeply uncomfortable.
MKK: The inner sleeve of Beauty Will Save the World includes this quotation from Thomas Merton: “There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a hidden wholeness.” For me this resonates with the title of [Jesus the Imagination editor] Michael Martin’s book, The Submerged Reality. How does that “invisible fecundity … [and] hidden wholeness” inspire (and find expression in) your art?
RAIJ: It’s hard to say without having read Michael’s book, but we’re surely looking for the same thing. The Merton quote was one of a number of allusions and inspirations that came together in the process of making Beauty Will Save the World. It seemed to express something that we’ve been struggling to say and achieve through our work. We’ve described our work as looking for those traces or echoes of the sacred—what Peter Berger, in Rumours of Angels, call signals of transcendence. Modern civilization has reduced reality to what can be measured and verified. It’s the greatest irony that in trying to make the world explicable it has ceased to be meaningful. This is the legacy of The Enlightenment. The so-called light of human reason has occluded the uncreated Light of Tabor.
More than anything RAIJ is a project aiming to disturb and disrupt this distorted perspective—to rekindle a sense of mystery and awe or reconnect us with Michael’s “submerged reality.” This has always been the inspiration and hopefully occasionally it finds expression.
MKK: Please tell us more about your creative process, how the ideas, the music, and imagery develop and converge. How has your approach changed over the years?
RAIJ: This is the most difficult question. Sometimes we develop ideas in isolation, but when they enter the shared space there is a kind of alchemy that remains hard to analyze and explain. For some musicians the process of recording might be bringing an already developed and structured composition to realization. It’s never quite like that; whatever we're trying to create always seems elusive and obscure. The finished work—if it can be described as finished—is at best an approximation, or a half-glimpsed outline, of something that’s always just beyond expression.
We need each other for that creative process to happen. Individual ideas for pieces are really starting points for an exploratory journey that has direction but not necessarily a destination.
MKK: What impact do you hope your music will have on your listeners?
RAIJ: We talked about RAIJ as a project that aims to interrupt the consumption of music. Anyone who ever witnessed an early RAIJ performance will know what we mean by interruption. They were immersive, frenetic onslaughts designed to break through any rational preconception or audience expectations. Not surprisingly there weren’t many spaces or venues that were willing to put us on and, to be honest, this is still a bit of a problem.
When we started recording we didn’t want to abandon that initial objective, but we needed to find more subtle and bespoke means. It’s always been about taking listeners to places that are unfamiliar, equivocal or liminal.
For a long time, we were fascinated by the theology of icons and the Eastern Orthodox idea that art was not a representation of the sacred but itself sacred and transfigurative. This idea was only really grasped in the context of Beauty Will Save the World. Dostoevsky’s quote—along with the Simone Weil quote that appears on the vinyl artwork—express the insight that what is truly beautiful is also beautifully true. Icons are about restoring a true image—of the world and humanity. So for us the purpose of our work must be in some way to restore the listener’s true perspective—to reawaken a sense of the sacred and a reconnection with Merton’s hidden wholeness. We’re not saying we ever succeed, but it’s the only possible motivation for what we do.
MKK: Many of your recordings incorporate audio clips from other sources (e.g., an interview excerpt from the Holy Ghost People documentary figures prominently in the Beauty Will Save the World track, “Repentance/Sama”). Often these clips are in non-English languages. To what extent does your use of such material depend on the listener’s understanding its content and meaning, and how much of it is for the impact of the sound itself?
RAIJ: It’s all about meaning, but that may not make the process any more intelligible. Meaning is elusive. Sometimes it might be literal or literally poetic, as was the case when we used R.S. Thomas’s Bright Field, and sometimes it might be about the acoustic quality of a sample or quote; very often it's rooted in the process and context of discovery.
There has to be a kind of resonance that’s both immediate and intuitive. It fits in a way that a clue or a map might give us bearings or take us closer to a destination. It’s extraordinary that so often samples or sounds that are discovered almost by accident seem to provide the missing component that brings a piece into focus. The recording of the St. John of the Cross poem in “Song of the Soul” was a spur of the moment discovery and yet it fitted the piece perfectly, both melodically and thematically. That’s happened so many times. In a way these accidents or benign collisions are integral to the creative process. They go beyond individual contributions and ideas; they need the shared space and the specific moment.
MKK: After releasing your first two albums and two EPs in the ‘80s and ‘90s RAIJ “disappeared” from the music scene for many years. The aforementioned Prog magazine interview quotes Jon Egan as calling this lengthy absence from recording and performing a time of “waiting for ‘the appropriate inspiration or prompt’ to come.” What inspired or prompted RAIJ’s return?
RAIJ: It was more of a prompt than an inspiration. There was never a decision to fold or conclude RAIJ. By its nature it's open, exploratory and contingent. We were in different places and doing different things, until the invitation from Infrastition [record label] arrived to re-release the back catalogue. Almost immediately we agreed that a new release needed new material, otherwise it would seem as if we were putting RAIJ definitively into the past tense. From that initial session the inspiration followed and the idea for Beauty acquired an irresistible momentum.
MKK: In an interview with BandCamp Daily3 you described Thomas Merton instructing young monks to “go to the source” in their studies by reading the Gospels and the Church Fathers. In that same interview, you cited The Velvet Underground as one of RAIJ’s influences. There would seem, at first glance, to be some degree of tension between the Velvets’ use of noise (at least on their first two albums) and the “urban realism” of some of their lyrics on the one hand and the fountain sources of Christian theology and mysticism on the other. At the same time, it occurs to me that one could think of listening to The Velvet Underground as “going to the source” of alternative music. In that sense there is a parallel. Am I grasping something here? And would you discuss how you reconcile these ostensibly disparate influences in your art?
RAIJ: Chesterton observed that the most conspicuous difference between the traditional depiction of the Buddha and the Christian saint is that the latter’s eyes are wide open. For Merton, and the Christian tradition in general, the purpose of contemplation is not to cultivate detachment or indifference; rather it’s a route to a deeper sense of connection and immersion in the mystery of Incarnation. There’s no shortage of urban realism in the Gospels, and to paraphrase St. Maria Skobstova, salvation is visceral.
Merton’s appeal is rooted in this apparent paradox—a man who yearned for solitude and silence and was yet profoundly committed and connected to the world.
Of course, The Velvet Underground have been an enormous source of inspiration for alternative musicians and counterculturists in general. The appeal to us is partly in the simplicity and purity of their music. It’s like it’s been subjected to the acoustic equivalent of Occam’s Razor, stripped of any indulgent virtuosity or superfluous adornment. John Cale performed in Liverpool last year and gave an interview to a local music magazine where he talked about the influence of his time with La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, and the importance of the drone as a compositional device for the Velvets. So, in a sense they were going to the source and utilizing something that is an almost universal foundation for devotional music. On one level, their music can be classified as noise, but perhaps ontologically it’s closer to silence than much of the inane and commodified outpourings of popular music.
Of course, the other appealing aspect of the Velvets, for us, was the immersive multimedia nature of their performances. These weren’t recitals or even rock concerts, they were almost liturgical experiences designed to overwhelm and re-program consciousness.
MKK: Your music has been compared to that of “apocalyptic folk” and “dark ambient” acts such as Current 93. However, my understanding is that you were largely unaware of (and unaffiliated with) that movement. Also, much of that movement’s music and imagery draws on occult (e.g., Crowleyan) and Pagan sources, whereas yours owes more to Christian mysticism and iconography with some Sufi influence (e.g., “Repentance/Sama” again). What would you say is RAIJ’s niche in the landscape of “alternative music” generally and “Christian Rock” specifically?
RAIJ: We really didn’t want to upset or antagonize anyone in the “apocalyptic folk” world, but as that genre has descended deeper into the penumbra of its occult and Far-Right fixations, we've had to make a bit of a stand. It’s a movement rooted in disenchantment and a sense of disinheritance, and is possibly a rather exotic precursor of the more recent manifestations of populist disquiet.
We’ve never really seen ourselves as occupying any niche. Christian Rock seems firmly implanted at the evangelical end of the Christian spectrum and any musical genre seems limiting and, in a sense, to be missing the point. It sometimes seems odd to be described as musicians, so the idea of belonging to any kind of genre is even more constraining. A reviewer once commented on the diversity of styles and influences evident on an RAIJ album, but then remarked that somehow all the pieces were equally and essentially connected to an aesthetic that was itself inaudible and impossible to define. Whatever it is; it’s beyond the music—we’re back to the idea of submerged reality.
MKK: Who are the performers in the photograph that accompanies this interview? And would you say a few words about the other musicians who play and sing with you on record and in concert? The women have beautiful voices!
RAIJ: The vocalist in the picture is Jess Main who sang most of the vocals on Beauty. (Jon Egan’s daughter Eilis sang on “All is Grace”). The cellist is Eliza Carew. Jess was working in Liverpool and was a friend of Keith Hitchman, an Anglican Priest who has been an RAIJ fan, friend, and fellow-traveler over the years. Keith introduced us when Sue McBride was unable to come over from Ireland to take part in the Beauty recording sessions. Sue was an original collaborator and her daughter Hannah still plays flute and piano with us. Jess was immediately sympathetic to the RAIJ approach and spirit, as was Eliza. She was recommended to us by a friend in the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. She was studying at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and is now studying in Italy.
The other current collaborator is Zander Mavor who is Hannah’s partner. I think the energy and musical talent of the younger collaborators has given us an enormous amount of inspiration and contributed massively to the realization of Beauty.
Dave Seddon was very much part of the first two albums as a sax and piano player and writer, but he is now concentrating on his other creative outlet as a poet. He was involved in the first session of the Beauty recording but decided not to get involved after that.
There were many other valuable and important contributors on the early recordings and performances. Bronek Kram (guitar and bass) was also a big influence on the visual and film elements of early RAIJ performances, and Angela Mounsey’s vocals and accordion feature on Mirror and the Paradis and Liturgy EPs. Bill Dawson’s sax playing on both Mirror and Gift of Tears is another really exceptional and beautiful addition to the sound.
Finally we have always valued relationships with engineers and producers—Kevin Wright, Paul Lloyd (both of whom died tragically young) were as important to Mirror and Gift as any of the musicians, whilst Andy Foxxe was an absolutely fundamental part of the creative alchemy of Beauty.
We have been blessed to work with so many talented people, it sometimes feels as if the recordings are things that happen around us directed by an impulse we cannot identify and executed by people whose talent we can never emulate.
MKK: You’re currently working on a new album. What would you like to tell us about it?
RAIJ: There is a connecting thread that seems to have been presented to us through a series of chance encounters, discoveries and small epiphanies. It’s too early to say any more than that.
MKK: Thanks for taking time to speak with Jesus the Imagination. What else do you hope our readers will understand about your work?
RAIJ: Thank you. We are not sure we’ll ever succeed in making our work understandable to ourselves let alone your readers, but we appreciate the opportunity.
The Gift of Tears (1987)
Beauty Will Save the World (2015)
La Liturgie Pour La Fin Du Temps (1994)
The Gift of Tears / Mirror / La Liturgie Pour La Fin Du Temps (1994)
After The End (2013)
1 Tim Cooper, “Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus: Mirror.” The Quietus. (9 May 2017). http://thequietus.com/articles/22375-revolutionary-army-of-the-infant-jesus-album-review-mirror
2 Rob Hughes, “Mirror: Vinyl Reissue for Liverpudlian Early-90s Obscuro-Classic.” Review of Mirror, by Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus. Prog (May 2017) 111.
3 J.E. Keyes, “Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus on the Value of Mystery and Sacredness.” BandCamp Daily. (15 May 2017). https://daily.bandcamp.com/2017/05/15/revolutionary-army-of-the-infant-jesus-interview/