My friends say to get on the dating apps, so I do. I enter a profile and scroll for a bit. At my age, most of them are divorcees with kids. I leave it out for a week, go back to it and realise you have to pay to be seen in the first place.
I play billiards in the pub S. and I used to live next to, with a friend who just got married. It’s particularly lonely to walk back to my house through shabbier streets. When I get home I scroll through this weird marketplace again. There’s a woman on the app who says, ‘Looking for a way out of the existential void’. I swipe left, then regret it. I try to swipe right to get back to her profile, but end up liking pictures of dynamic women with fake eyebrows and studied selfies who are looking for someone who can make them laugh. I google how to scroll back to someone, and it says you have to pay.
My payment settings are set to my old card, which has expired. I find Apple Pay settings and try to remove my old payment method. It says I can’t, since I have an active subscription on an expired card (an app that lets you identify flowers by taking a picture of them). I cancel the subscription, delete my old payment details and enter my new ones. I go back into the app, but it only lets you swipe back to the people you’d rejected after you’d paid. So she’s lost to me, The One! Now all kinds of things pop up on my phone: super swipes, spotlights, unlimited rematches, boosts, gold, platinum… I delete all of it and am ready once again to throw my phone out the window. But of course I don’t.
Last autumn I went to Todtnauberg in the Black Forest with a friend to see Heidegger’s hut. What to say about it? It seems an obvious thing to write about: one those trips you think about writing about while you’re doing it. Maybe that’s why I haven’t: it puts me off. So what to say about it, now that it’s popped into my head again?
It was an ordeal to get there in a rental car from Basel Airport. We drove across the border and around a roundabout three times before we got onto the right motorway. Then on to the mountains as it got dark. By the time we got to the hotel I’d booked – which, it turned out, was half an hour’s drive from where we were supposed to be – they’d stopped serving food and we’d fallen out. The receptionist was a little scared by our argument. We ate fruit and nuts and slept in the same room.
The next day we made it. There’s no information about Heidegger in the village, not even in the tourist office: a big building with old pictures of the region. This is a tourist destination now, a skiing resort in winter. No wonder they don’t advertise him, I say.
Most of the restaurants and BnBs are closed. We walk around until we find one of those pointed pathway signs that says Heidegger-Weg. The path appears to run along the hills and around the village, which lies in a valley and doesn’t seem to have changed too much since Heidegger’s time, judging from the pictures in the tourist centre. Beautiful, imposing landscape; you can start to see where he came from. It’s not my bag exactly – I prefer flatlands.
We pass a couple of signs. We end up near what looks like the hut from the cover of a book my friend is carrying. We’ve read it’s private land, but we go up anyway. This isn’t it, I say, the cover’s wrong, it’s not the same as on Google images. For once I’m right. It turns out the hut is round the hill, more hidden. A slightly shabby cabin in a faultless location, it makes sense. How did he get his books and things up here, I wonder, it’s steep. A carpenter has put a wooden star on the top of the well, a copy of the one on his grave in Messkirch.
On the way back we stop at a Gasthaus and ask an old-timer in overalls sitting on the porch if they have a room. He shouts for the landlady, who comes out and says it’s only available for a week at a time, mostly in the winter. She seems suspicious, as Germans often do. We get talking, and it turns out this man knew Heidegger and his family well, and that this house is where Heidegger wrote part of Being and Time. He goes in and a minute later brings outs a plastic folder with old newspaper clippings and letters written in Heidegger’s hand. We make our standard middle-class noises, but the man isn’t impressed. He was all right, Heidegger, he says, polite and part of the community, but as far as his Denken went, it was null. No one cared that he was a philosopher. The only odd thing about him was that he always wore a suit and got some foreign visitors. As my friend was taking pictures of the letters, the landlady popped her head out and told the man to be careful about showing people those documents. He didn’t seem to care. We went on our way and I found a place on Airbnb, a newbuild with a sauna, designed for people on skiing holidays.
I meet a lot of people in the pubs and shops these days, hear a lot of stories; people are chatty here. It all seems random, but it isn’t. How many millions of things had to happen to bring us together? What hidden works of history and bodies? We only know a fraction of them. What is it that lets it all come together in the moment when we address each other, sit down to speak, drink a pint, play bar billiards?
I am aware that some readers will be surprised or puzzled by the suggestions in these pages that the later Heidegger’s reflections often leaned in the direction of a refashioned “metaphysical” outlook; but as I see it, the texts themselves tell the tale, and I am hopeful that readers will join me in attending closely to what they have to say. Moreover, I gently remind readers that genuine thinking, by whatever name, is inevitably led to consider, in one way or another, all things and ultimate matters. Heidegger’s vision of Being was, in the end, simply too far-reaching and all-embracing to be limited to the sphere of the human. We are part of the story, to be sure, but not the whole story of what he poetically described – inspired especially by Heraclitus’s sayings – as this “shimmering kosmos.”
TO FOLLOWERS of their work, RAIJ have always been elusive. Interviews with the group have been few, marketing has been minimal, and their early performances were notable for their shrouding the front of the stage with sheets of paper or cloth so that audiences could see them only as silhouettes.
Of this low-profile approach Jon Egan says: “We never set out to create an aura of mystery or anonymity. We just didn’t want to be asked to explain or justify our work. The creative process is itself shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. We accept that, and simply wanted the work to speak for itself.
“We were also deeply uncomfortable with the whole process of marketing and promotion. The things that you really value in life are not the things that are sold to you but the things that you discover. We were always happy to be discovered. We are now a little bit more willing to engage, so long as we are not expected to explain and deconstruct what we do.”
RAIJ’s music is not easily deconstructed. It is multi-layered, and draws on a range of influences, from obscure European film soundtracks to Orthodox Christian liturgies. “Beauty Will Save The World” is a quotation from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot but, Egan says, “it also paraphrases an idea from Simone Weil, who proclaimed beauty to be the experimental proof of the incarnation. It’s an idea that weaves in and out of the album through the musical elements and in many of the quotes, sources, and samples that kind of glue this project together.”
Another track on the album, “Repentance”, has an audio sample from Peter Adair’s 1967 film The Holy Ghost People, a documentary about a community of Pentecostal Christians in Appalachia. Egan says: “During the recording process, the piece accidentally overlapped with the next track, ‘Sama’, which is based on a text by the Sufi poet and teacher Ibn Abbad. Somehow, a recording accident helped us to discern an underlying affinity between what might seem to be two very different spiritual traditions and cultures.”
Music critics have struggled to categorise RAIJ into any one strand of contemporary music. The online music periodical Heathen Harvest wrote: “While Christian imagery and liturgical extracts reside within [the Apocalyptic Folk genre] en masse, there really is no comparison to The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus as far as thematic efforts are concerned. Possessing an eclectic world mix of chants, percussion, and even jazz elements, they stand alone in the ever-expanding sea of the Apocalyptic genre. Theirs is an otherworldly mix of haunting fragility and strong brodaccio wrapped into one esoteric and beautiful package.”
I asked Egan about the Holy Spirit.
“Christianity is a shared position for the RAIJ, and beyond that there are different forms and shades of personal commitment. The shared position is that Christian ideas and experience are a vocabulary for the pursuit and rediscovery of the sacred.
“In particular, we have been influenced by the Orthodox tradition and its understanding of restoration. For the Orthodox, the icon is not a representation of something sacred: it is a sacred object; it’s a fragment of glorified nature, a moment of eternity framed in a finite space.
“The Eastern Churches have always stressed God’s immanence and the active agency of the Holy Spirit. This is an idea that has appealed to us. There is a beautiful quote from the Orthodox writer Kallistos Ware — ‘Man’s purpose is not to dominate and exploit nature, but to hallow and transfigure it.’ This is the perfect imperative for the artist. Our creative methodology, how we go about identifying and collecting the sources and fragments that are part of our compositions — to us this is not about deconstruction: it feels like restoration. We are trying to reassemble and reconnect things in a way that reveals a deeper truth and a more elusive beauty.
“There is no conscious premeditation to this process. We are searching for, or maybe being guided towards, something that is just beyond understanding and perception. It is meaning or beauty that resonates in a different kind of space — what was once called the sacred.”
In these explorations, RAIJ do not always offer easy listening, or viewing. The track “Nativity” from Mirror features the repeated vocal, “Where is this child, that we too may worship?” filtered through a loudhailer over fierce electronic sound distortion. The poet Anthony Wilson witnessed the band performing this at the Harry Festival in 1992, and recalls their “ending their set with ten minutes of cacophonous feedback”.
The new material is more melodic than some of these earlier pieces, though still intense.
Looking forward to their performance at Greenbelt, Egan quotes Emerson: “Simplicity is difficult because it requires nothing less than everything.”
“Whatever and wherever the sacred is, it can only be approached in a spirit of innocence, and we can only be guided by a kind of insatiable nostalgia. That ache and restless yearning . . . is so difficult to analyse and explain, but it is maybe the most perfect realisation of what we have been trying to communicate throughout the album, which is the unceasing longing for transcendent beauty.”
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 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 analyse 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 Daily 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.
It feels clichéd at this point to describe the music of the U.K. group Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus as a “shared secret,” but in the early ’90s, that’s exactly what it was. Their albums seemed to materialize out of nowhere. You heard about them from a friend who heard about them from another friend, who happened to have a burned CD that they’d loan you for a week so you could make your own. (To wit: I was a fan of the band for decades before I knew what the cover of their haunting 1987 masterpiece The Gift of Tears even looked like). Not only were there no interviews, the band wasn’t even written about, not even by the fledgling alt-music press. If you travelled in Christian circles, as I did, they had an almost occult aura; their music drew on Christian and religious themes, but their name came from director Luis Buñuel’s film That Obscure Object of Desire, and they could just as easily have been witches as saints. The lack of any kind of public presence only caused their eerie mystique to grow.
Listening to the group’s two albums—the only works to their name—only added to the mystery. Mirror, from 1991, recently reissued by Occultation Records, felt like the soundtrack to some unsettling ritual, taking place in a deep wood late at night. Their songs were built around ominous, chant-like vocals, full of chilling acoustic guitars, baleful, minor-key synths, and melodies that drew heavily on Medieval modalities. Nowadays, we might call their music “folk horror;” in the ’90s, it felt almost forbidden.
And then, just as quietly as they appeared, they vanished. Even after the arrival of the Internet, information about them was scant—just a few bare-bones fan-created websites (which usually employed white text on a black background), which generally contained brief summaries of their history with no concrete details. But all of that changed in 2015, when the band reappeared after a 20-year absence with Beauty Will Save the World, a record that is just as gorgeous and harrowing as any they made during their initial run. The news of their reactivation travelled much in the same way their music did the first time: via emails from friends, or posts in small-ish Internet interest groups. And while it’s certainly easier to learn about the band now—they even have a Facebook page—their music has retained all of its spectral beauty and glorious ambiguity. We sat down with Jon Egan who, along with Paul Boyce and Leslie Hampson, form the group’s core membership, to discuss their history, and how creating mystery isn’t just a PR stunt—it’s the very core of their art.
One of the things that comes up when talking about your music is the fact that the band always seems shrouded in mystery. But when I read other interviews with you, you’re very clear about the fact that you never set out to be a ‘mysterious’ band. Where do you think this reputation came from?
I think it came from reticence. We always felt a little bit tongue-tied. We struggled to answer questions about our music. It seemed to be something that could only be articulated through the music itself. I think so many artist interviews are really just marketing, so the answers aren’t necessarily authentic or true or explanatory—they’re just part of a marketing exercise. All of that just felt intrinsically uncomfortable for us. Ideally, the work should speak for itself. It shouldn’t require any kind of explanation from us.
It’s especially complicated given the kind of music you make, where mystery is so central. It’s hard to get too deep into talking about what you do without feeling like you’re trying to ‘lift the veil’ or something. Even though the ‘elusive’ nature of your band wasn’t some grand plan, do you feel like there’s a degree to which having a level of anonymity enhanced people’s experience with your music?
Yeah, I think it did. ‘Mystery’ is a word that means a lot to us—we are ourselves interested in and fixated on mystery. I think we look at the world and we don’t find it explicable. It hasn’t been, and shouldn’t be, deconsecrated. The world is alive, and emanates mystery. What we’re trying to do with our music is reconnect people with that sense of mystery, that sense that there’s a depth and uncertainty to everything that we take for granted. This is especially crucial in the secular, materialist, capitalist world, where everything has been reduced to commodity and brand.
I think that sense of ‘sacredness’ is one of the things that attracted me to your music. At the time I discovered your albums, I was attending a very conservative ‘Bible college’ that approached the Bible from a rigid, literalist perspective—which over time started to feel somewhat antithetical to the very nature of religion. There’s something about that tendency toward literalism that I think is particular to the American interpretation of Christianity.
The literalism of both Christian fundamentalism and secular culture are flip sides of the same thing—our collective alienation from the idea of mystery. It’s the idea that, in some way or other, we want to be self-sufficient, we want to be in control, we want a rule book. We want to make the world explicable, and we want to put ourselves at the center of it. And I think we’ve lost that notion of the sacred; whether you’re at the secular end of the spectrum or the fundamentalist end of the spectrum, we have made the world mundane. We’ve impoverished the sense of reality to the point where the poetic, the mysterious, and the beautiful are all concepts that we’re increasingly detached from.
There’s a lovely quote from Thomas Merton. When he was teaching at Gethsemani, he was in charge of the ‘junior monks.’ And they thought, ‘Here’s this guy who’s been a poet, a campaigner for peace and civil rights, a countercultural icon—we’re going to get some really interesting readings, and we’re going to be subjected to some really interesting, contemporary ideas.’ And yet everything he gave them to read were the Gospels and the Church Fathers. And they got sick and tired of this, so a little delegation came to him and said, ‘Why are we reading this old stuff when there’s so much interesting new stuff happening in the world?’ And Merton said, ‘If you had to draw a pint of water from the Mississippi River, would you go to the delta or would you go to the source?’
For us, Orthodoxy is the source, and I think that’s why it appeals to us on a spiritual level, and I think it’s why we understand the deep intimacy between the Orthodox notion of beauty and the Orthodox notion of the sacred—because they both speak eloquently about how they see creation, and they see it in a way that’s radically different from the modern materialist consumerist worldview we have today.
What I like about your work is that it’s not necessarily specific to any one religion—you draw on multiple sources of truth. There’s an adaptation of a Sufi poem on your latest record.
I think we find that there is deep affinity—a depth—when all religious and spiritual traditions discover commonality. I think what’s happening today in the world, people are searching for connection and identity, and they’re finding it in ways that separate themselves from one another, and in ways that give rise to sectarian disputes. If anything, we’re trying to preach that the deeper you go, the closer you get to something that is fundamentally and irreducibly human.
A lot of those central tenets have been carried throughout your work. Another thing that has remained constant—in a more tangible sense—are the group’s core players. You’re surrounded by a rotating cast of musicians, but the heartbeat of the group has always been you, Leslie, and Paul.
And Paul is the common denominator. I was at school with Paul, and Paul lived across the road from Leslie. Les was a percussionist, and Paul and myself played in a really crap band. We were trying to merge punk, Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground, and every other kind of experimental music into one entity, and it was just incoherent. We gave up. We thought, ‘There’s no way we can express ourselves through music,’ so we started making films. But then we had to create some sort of means to show those films with live music, and so Les joined—initially as a musician, but then became integral to the whole thing. And I think we [gradually] discovered that if we wanted to express ourselves, it wasn’t through making films.
It’s become increasingly difficult for us to execute our vision [for live performance], so what we do now, primarily, is record. It’s incredibly difficult to find space to perform because there are too many of us [the group performs as a nine-piece—ed.], and because we don’t fit into a conventional performance space. The other thing which has become obvious to us is that there is a secular presumption that what we’re doing is suspect. A venue we know very well, when we asked about performing there, they said, ‘Yeah, but you’re a bit religious, aren’t you?’ From their point of view, they thought that would grate on their audience, or their self-image, or their brand—whatever. And that’s become a recurring theme. We haven’t crossed over into the levels of popularity that other so-called ‘neo-folk’ artists enjoy because I think there’s a sense that we’re not on that page—that we represent something that is still a little bit disreputable, and a little bit controversial, maybe.
Which is funny, because so many of those neo-folk bands openly draw on Pagan themes and traditions.
Oh, yeah, [apparently] that’s fine. And they do it either in a kind of ironic, post-modern way, or then there’s the more sinister end of the neo-folk spectrum, which is really a kind of quasi-fascism—which is something that worries us enormously. It worries us that we get lumped in with neo-folk artists who I regard as being almost Nazi apologists, or artists who flirt with dark, dangerous, fascistic ideas and motifs in a way that I think is shameful and irresponsible. There’s this idea that you can appreciate their art without buying into their ideology. To me, their art and their ideology are joined at the hip. Especially now, with what’s happened in your part of the world with Trump, and what’s happened over here with Brexit, there is something ugly on the rise. I’m reminded of that quote by W. B. Yeats [from his poem “The Second Coming”]: ‘The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ It’s from this prophetic vision of the second coming, and you begin to feel a little bit apocalyptic when you see the way the world is moving at the moment.
Hearing you say this, I’m reminded of something you said in an interview, where you described your music as providing ‘restoration.’ I’d be curious to hear what you feel humanity to be restored from, and what it needs to be restored to.
It’s extremely difficult to not become overtly spiritual while talking about this, but I think humanity needs to be rescued from the delusion of self-sufficiency, and I think it needs to re-root itself in a sense of the sacred and the Divine. This comes back to the core of both Orthodoxy and Sufism, the idea that you only begin to realize your obligations to other people when you’ve plumbed the depths of your humanity until you reach a point of connectedness to what religious people call God. And I think that’s what we’re saying when we talk about ‘restoration.’ You’ve got to recover the authentic potential of humanity and stop living in this kind of distorted, subverted, tediously narrowed notion of humanity that is only leading us toward literal self-destruction.
We talked earlier about the fact that, initially, you had set out to become filmmakers. Film figures prominently in your work, especially those of Andrei Tarkovsky. What draws you to his films?
We just collectively fell in love with Tarkovsky’s work. We talk about our music as not being music, but almost like simulating the memory of music, or the residue of music. We saw our music as being a soundtrack to something. It was trying to delineate or describe something that was not visible or not yet audible. And when we saw Tarkovsky’s films, it was almost as if we saw the film we were trying to write the soundtrack to. It’s just beautifully transfigurative—the depth, the beauty, the mystery. All of his films, in a sense, are about that journey toward restoration, that journey back toward a sense of wholeness.
Another touchstone, obviously, is Luis Buñuel. The name of the band comes from That Obscure Object of Desire. That’s an interesting combination, to me, Tarkovsky and Buñuel, because one of them is very spiritual, and the other is a bit more interested in absurdity. I wouldn’t necessarily think of the two in the same space.
Well, what we liked about the surrealists was that, although they collapsed their radicalism into a Marxist vernacular, they were rebelling against the same reductionist view of humanity, the same reductionist view of reality, and the same reductionist view of the poetic potential of the everyday. I think Buñuel as a complex character. He lived his entire life both as a kind of atheist, and also as someone who was obsessively preoccupied with religious questions. But I think what attracted us to the name ‘The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus’ was the fact that there was an ambiguity to it. There was this provocative sense of ‘proclaiming a mission.’ The name is more problematic now, I think, because the notion of religion and terrorism have become inextricably connected in a rather horrible way. But at the time we liked that juxtaposition, the idea that one could assert spirituality in a way that was radical, challenging, and uncompromising. To be honest, we recently had an internal conversation about whether or not the name had become a bit of a barrier, or a bit of an albatross, and whether we should say ‘this project is now terminated.’ But for the time being at least, we’re still in this vehicle.
One of the reasons we’re talking today is because your 1991 album Mirror was just reissued. Looking back on that record now, what about it stands out to you?
I don’t think any of us had listened to Mirror a great deal in the intervening decades, and so we were kind of surprised by how much we liked it, I think. I was remembering how it was a much more difficult album to record than either The Gift of Tears or Beauty Will Save the World. But listening back to it, it does sound quite fresh. It’s got a depth and subtlety to it that we didn’t necessarily appreciate in the immediate aftermath of recording it. It took so much out of us that I don’t think any of us really wanted to play it that much once it was finished!
And to close, given the fact that your music is so hard to categorize, I was genuinely curious to know: Who were some of the artists who first changed your idea of what music could be?
Some of the commonalities between all of the members of the band are quite obvious: The Velvet Underground, Scott Walker. I think we all, in different ways, were influenced by different kinds of sacred and liturgical music and by classical minimalist music—composers from Messiaen to Arvo Pärt. The reason why our music doesn’t sit within a specific genre is because we’re not ‘musicians.’ We’re trying to create soundtracks for something, and whatever that is, it pushes us. I don’t think we’d ever define ourselves as being musicians—I don’t think we’re good enough to be musicians! I’ve got proper respect for people who are musicians, and it normally requires a great deal of hard work and technical discipline, and these aren’t virtues that we necessarily distinguish ourselves in.
If you don’t think of yourselves as musicians, how do you think of yourselves?
I think we think of ourselves as confused individuals, stumbling around in the dark, trying to find some recognizable landmarks. Trying to find our way home.
Are all these only accidental moments, which we refer to just for a more vivid depiction of the situation, or are they constitutive elements as it were, which have a role in building up the essence of truth as unhiddenness? Are all these elements bound together by an inner connection? Indeed, is the unity of this interconnection, that which holds everything together, nothing else but unhiddenness?
How lovely it would’ve been to have lived in the real world! To enjoy things fully the way some people seem to. Family. Football. Days out. Art. I wouldn’t have had to look on at life as if from behind a window, with this weird, vast space always in the back of my head. I wouldn’t have had to think about being in the moment as if it were foreign to me. I imagine I’d have had a career, a wife and kids, a car, and coped easily with the same routines day after day. I see how other men go about it, watch them almost with the eyes of a child, learn from them cagily, but sometimes in my arrogance they seem like one big illusion, the enterprises of men – something really decayed, removed from what’s essential in life.
Kafka loved an anecdote about Flaubert in which the latter sees a family on a fun day out and remarks: Ils sont dans le vrai. But is it that simple?
We’re all of us masters at hiding from the truth, it’s deep in our nature. We hide from ourselves, from each other and from God. Things themselves seem to hide from us – that seems to be their nature too. They emerge and pass out of sight, appear and pass away, like animals in the forest. Real life, says Heidegger, happens when beings become ‘unhidden’, when we help bring things out of their hiding places and step out of our own along with them, into the light of being itself. It happens in rare moments when we see links between ‘beings themselves, the human world, the work of God.’ It can only occur, he says, when you’re disturbed by a sense that real life is elsewhere.
But real life is slipping away, isn’t it? You can almost feel it — soon it’ll be almost nowhere to be found. We’ll have covered the world with ourselves and taught our own technologies to think for us, to hide us for good.
Everyone carries a room about inside him. This fact can even be proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one's ears and listens, say in the night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears, for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall.