Deeper Truth & Elusive Beauty: An Interview with The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus
After two decades of silence, the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus surprised fans — many of whom (myself included) had long ago given up hope that we’d ever hear anything more from the enigmatic outfit — by announcing that they would be reuniting to perform several concerts, reissue their previous recordings, and record a new album titled Beauty Will Save the World.
While the last couple of years have seen some amazing reunions (e.g., My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive), the RAIJ’s reappearance is something truly special, due in large part to the mystery that has always surrounded their activities. After we’d exchanged a few messages, the RAIJ agreed to answer a few questions about their origins and history, their reunion and new album, and their artistic and aesthetic approaches.
Nowadays, you can find info about the most obscure indie artists thanks to the Web, social media, etc., and yet there’s relatively little information about RAIJ floating around today. What is RAIJ’s history and line-up? When and how did the band begin? What were/are your goals and influences? Why the long absence? Have RAIJ members been involved in other projects?
We genuinely don’t mean to be obtuse or try to create an air of mystification, but line-up and personnel has always been very fluid. There is a core of people who are generally involved and a host of collaborators who have made really important and beautiful contributions to the project. Similarly we have never tried to cultivate obscurity, it’s just that neither have we ever gone out to promote or “market” ourselves. Every moment of every day we are bombarded by people trying to sell us things. Culture and music are just competing commodities. The things that we really value are the things we discover not the things that are sold to us. We’re content to be discovered.
The idea for RAIJ grew out of our fatigue with music and bands and a desire to do something more radical and immersive. It began initially in 1985 and to start with it was entirely about performance, and finding ways to integrate film, imagery, and performance elements to create environments and experiences that confounded expectation and interrupted the mere consumption of music. I suppose this is the “aim” of the RAIJ.
The non-musical elements have always been fundamentally important. They are not a backdrop or a negotiable extra. They are literally the beginning and the essence of what we do.
This has made recording a bit of a challenge. We weren’t sure how we would do it and it has maybe been a bit hit and miss at times. Somehow we are trying to condense the breadth and richness of a multi-media performance into a single medium.
Two decades have passed since the release of The Gift of Tears and Mirror. What led you to resurrect RAIJ after such a long absence and play some concerts? Were there plans to record a new album prior to those concerts, or did that come later? How did it feel to reunite and perform, and create new music again?
There was no conscious decision to regroup. The offer to re-release the back catalogue came from a French label and we said “Yes.” We have always believed in saying “Yes.” If anyone asks us to perform or record, we start with an assumption that we should do it. It seems rude to decline and disappoint.
The new album followed on from the new recordings that we made for the box set. It felt like we had more to say and there was a really fertile and positive feel about those sessions. The performances have reinforced that feeling and generated a new momentum. It’s strange but in the meantime none of us have done anything musical or even anything especially creative. It does seem to be something that happens only when we come together and when we meet in this particular space — the RAIJ.
What is the significance of the new album’s title (Beauty Will Save the World)? Is there an overarching theme for the album?
It is a quotation from Dostoevsky that seemed to encapsulate the idea that was emerging through this project. It is an idea that is very much at the heart of Orthodox theology and the idea of “restoration.” The Orthodox writer Kallistos Ware said that, “man’s function is not to exploit and dominate nature, but to hallow and transfigure it.” We have always believed that there is a deep parallel between what we try to achieve and the much more profound and sacramental work of the icon painter. Icons are glimpses of a transformed and glorified creation. When we take fragments from films, musical sources, audio and radio samples, etc., we are not deconstructing, but are trying to reassemble and reconnect things in a way that reveals a deeper truth and a more elusive beauty.
It’s hard to realise and equally hard to discern, but if we can occasionally reveal something that touches some people on that level, then that is everything.
Can you discuss the recording of the new album? Considering the songs’ blend of experimental, electronic, and more folk-oriented elements, how does your songwriting process work?
We’re still listening to early mixes and trying to work out whether they are quite ready for release. This is not the same thing as being finished or perfect. Our method — insofar as we have one — is pretty much founded on a kind of wabi-sabi principle. We’re not aiming for perfection or completion, but something that encapsulates the fragility of things and the transient nature of beauty in this world. Songs or recordings are never really brought into the studio in a fully formed state, and hopefully they remain a little bit that way even after we have recorded them.
Does the new album have a label and release date yet?
The autumn, but it could be a movable feast. We have an in principle agreement with Baltic Sub Records in Liverpool for a vinyl release, but that may change. We’re not a very decisive or focussed group of souls. But it will happen. (Editor’s Note: The band is currently discussing plans for a digital release, too.)
Are there plans to release any live recordings of the recent concerts?
Quite possibly. We were hoping to have the Leipzig show recorded and filmed, but Andy who was going to do this for us was unable to get across to Germany in the end. We have a couple of UK dates planned for September so we would like to have them recorded and see what they’re like then. There are so many new opportunities to share and disseminate creative content that didn’t exist in the past.
As was the case with your earlier music, the new album is replete with religious imagery. (For example, “Before the Ending of the Day” is based on a 6th century Latin hymn.) Is this use of religious imagery primarily aesthetic in nature, or does it hold deeper significance for you?
It’s an interesting question and I suspect you know the answer. I think it’s one of the reasons why we will never receive serious or mainstream “recognition.” People are discomforted by the thought that this might be for real, that we are sincerely exploring religious ideas and idioms rather than merely adopting them as post-modern fashion appendage.
We are concerned with and believe in the sacred; and think that this is the true nature of the aesthetic.
Your music makes heavy use of samples from films, old TV and radio broadcasts, religious recordings, and other sources. How do you select the samples that you use? Is there a specific aesthetic that you aim for?
It’s entirely intuitive. There is no deep or conscious selection process. It comes down to a sense of “that fits” or “this” provides the stimulus for a piece or a performance. I suppose the aesthetic is about depth, distance, and a sense of something that is just beyond understanding and perception. They are phrases and sources that seem to resonate in another kind of space. We like Marshall McLuhan’s idea of acoustic space, and how he thinks electronic media will break down the post-enlightenment rational world view and re-awaken a more primordial way of making sense of things.
You’ve released re-mastered editions of your previous recordings in the After the Endbox set. What was it like revisiting those older albums after so long? Are there things that you would’ve done differently on them?
They’re not perfect and that’s fine. The re-mastering was really only about enhancing overall sound quality. There was no desire to change anything or revise or rewrite our history. That would feel profoundly wrong.
Your music has often been associated with “apocalyptic folk” artists like Current 93 and Death in June, as well as artists like Dead Can Dance and Les Joyaux de la Princesse. Do you feel any kinship with those artists, musically or otherwise?
To be honest it’s not a movement we know much about or feel connected to in any way. There seems to be a kind of new age/mystical feel to some of that stuff, which is fine, but we’re not sure we really belong in that category. They could probably talk much more intelligibly about what they are doing. They seem to have a sense of direction and belonging and a much more defined aesthetic. We really are journeying in the wilderness with very primitive and imprecise navigational aids.
Is there anything you’d like to discuss or mention that wasn’t covered above?
No. Only to say, thank you very much for your support and encouragement over the years. It is why we do it.