An interview with Richard Leviathan of OstaraWe were kindly offered this interview by Richard Leviathan of Ostara when the original recipient edited and failed to offer an English translation. I've been intrigued by Richard Leviathan for a long time. In fact ever since he came to my attention with his first group Strength Through Joy, a project he shared with Timothy Jenn, who operated in the realm of "apocalyptic folk" as it was then known, and whose releases appeared on Douglas P. of Death In June's Twilight Command label. At the time I jokingly referred to them as being an "Occidental protégé" of Douglas P., as he released and produced their two albums. The west and Europa have long been an influence on this Australian born artist. Strength Through Joy disbanded after two albums. And from its ashes sprung Ostara, a new musical vehicle for the words and music of Richard Leviathan, along with varied collaborators.
Somewhere along the path we lost touch with Ostara, as they moved from the acoustic folk of Secret Homeland to a more pop-folk hybrid found on albums such as Kingdom Gone, Ultima Thule, Immaculate Destruction, and The Only Solace. Last year we became reacquainted with Ostara following the release of Napoleonic Blues, an album issued by Soleilmoon Records. We wrote that "their music once acoustic strum, is now more varied and powerful, at times folk tinged, and at other times anthemic all filled with melodic pop hooks. The accessibility of the music belies the complex thought and meaning that Leviathan has compressed into a wonderful poetic form." Furthermore in our review of the pop-edged neo-folk of Napoleonic Blues we mentioned how Richard Leviathan "has proven to be quite the intellect, previously steeping his lyrics in mythology, symbolism and heady philosophical concerns but with Napoleonic Blues his poetic form and insights are condensed into lyrics that are more simple and direct." It was perhaps a misstep as Richard's lyrics have always been clever and intricate drawing upon history, philosophy and condensing them into a lyrical poetic form. Last year his poetic work was published as Odes, a collection of elegiac pieces to some of his favourite poets, novelists, philosophers and historical figures.
Napoleonic Blues, Ostara's most recent album, is a concept album, described as "a reflection on the persistence of the past in the chaos of the present". Unlike many acts in the neo-folk genre who fixate on Europe, and its victories and defeats. Ostara cast their gaze far wider with a global view that stretches from the deindustrialisation of Detroit in America to the embattled zones of Gaza and Tehran in the Middle East. Paradise Down South, the previous Ostara album, ruminated on the effects of the global financial crisis and Napoleonic Blues furthers this crossing ages and spanning continents mixing philosophies, history with the tribulations facing the modern world. As Leviathan so succinctly extrapolated on Napoleonic Blues the problems of today continue to be steeped in the past and in history.
This interview digs deep into his motives and love of history that stretches from the Weimar Period, the Third Reich to Norse and Greek myths, Gnostic cosmology and the Christian roots of America. Ostara are often viewed as a neo-folk act with all that comes with it. Richard Leviathan is of Jewish origin, and it's this that intrigues me and in this interview he expands on views surrounding his Jewish ancestry, Palestine and much besides as well as the inspiration of Yukio Mishima and the literature of Japan.
I hope it is of interest to readers who are aware of Ostara and Richard Leviathan as it provides valuable insight into the themes that permeate and circulate around the lyrical concerns that Richard Leviathan brings to Ostara, wrapped around his stunning pop-folk sensibility. This interview was conducted following the release of Napoleonic Blues. Ostara are currently working on a new album, Eclipse of the West, which will be released in 2018.
This interview was conducted by Sergio Volumen. Thanks to Sergio for conducting the interview and to Richard Leviathan for kindly offering it to compulsiononline in this unedited form.
Thank you for accepting this interview, Richard. Can you introduce our readers what is your project Ostara about and how did you start it?
Ostara was born out of the ashes of my first endeavour, Strength Through Joy, both originally consisting of myself and Timothy Jenn, who left in 2002. It has been essentially a solo venture ever since with various collaborations. The music is intrinsically Neofolk but with what Wikipedia has called a hybrid-pop element. I like this description because, although I have always been part of the dark side of music, I appreciate strong melodies, levity as well as gravity and a kind of chiaroscuro that combines the sinister with the delicate.
The last two albums were recorded with the American label Soleilmoon Recordings. Are you happy with this change? What make them stand out from the other options? They have an impressive collection of varied artists in different genres.
Labels come and go and some reflect the character of the music better than others. I was with several labels before, some that did not survive and others that were too "big" and in which I was just a number. Soleilmoon has been going for years and is reliable, supportive and suitable in an age when the artist has to take on a lot of the burden himself.
Perhaps, related to this change, the lyrics in the last two albums have more symbolism and subtle references to different and even more obscure historical characters. It is extraordinary how spread out in time and space are these references. Leaving apart Europe as your obvious preference, what moments in history and regions fascinate you?
I am drawn to the greater Occidental sphere, which inexorably contains the Near East or Asia Minor since so much of our western culture and civilisation draws from that region, is coloured by it and in turn alters it to reflect itself. History for me is a vast canvas that spans many ages and situations. It can also be a series of smaller portraits, not just of heroes and villains but also of those who are nameless but embody the suffering and triumphs of the great ruptures and raptures of time. I think all the artists that I admire encompass a sense of history in some form, even when it is conveyed in a purely temporal or personal work. I have been moved by the Weimar period as much as by the Third Reich, by figures like Claus von Stauffenberg who, outside of his Hollywood depiction, had a strong connection to the literary and conservative traditions of Germany. Napoleon is endlessly fascinating, not just as a general and emperor, but for having emerged at the tail end of the medieval world and the birth of the romantic and modern epoch. The Norse and Greek myths, Gnostic cosmology and the Christian roots of America are other key sources of historical reference.
Napoleonic Blues is your seventh and last album. Titles like Secret Homeland, Kingdom Gone or Immaculate Destruction preceded this new play on words, what is the meaning of Napoleon and blues on this record?
I guess every idea has a shadow that makes it real in a deeper sense of being inherently complex. So much of the poetic nature of language is a conjunction of polarities. Word play can sometimes get tiresome, as in some of the lyrics of Marilyn Manson where it becomes gratuitous for being too obvious or semantically clever. But when it reflects a genuine urge to convey the conflicting nature of truth, ambiguity is vital, nuanced and powerful.
Looking at the startling cover by the artist Konstantin Antioukhin it is difficult to imagine what awaits inside the vinyl record. However, after listening few times both sides everything starts making sense. At that exact moment, one can also go to Youtube and watch videos for few of those songs so new meanings turn up. What is the importance of the artwork and music videos in Ostara?
The visual is very important to me. I am not someone who overtly personifies the music with things like masks and uniforms. It is very much about weaving imagery around the words and music to visualise the invisible, which is accentuated by association in the same way that music influences a still or moving image. The soundtrack to a film serves its chosen medium while the artwork of an album serves to illustrate the sound, secondary to its primary content but still essential to its character.
Back to music. This album has an important collection of really catchy chorus where the responsibility lies completely on your own voice. You also chose to use predominantly acoustic instruments over electric ones. The result is stunning, specially in 'Pyre in the Sky' where I can find myself looping the chorus ad infinitum. Is this going to be the rule in your next album?
I have come to realise over the years that simplicity in music can be intricate and three or four chords can carry a whole song with the right mood and arrangement. The songs certainly don't come together instantly and a lot goes into the production to make it whole, but at root there is that "less is more" quality that is built around voices, guitars, some strings and the little extras that add nuance. It's an approach that will be persistent for some time to come but it's often hard to predict what will happen next.
I remember you mentioned you didn't have any formal music training. What are the instruments you would like to master that you haven't tried yet? Does this feel for you a limitation when it comes to composition or do you prefer to work with other musicians to add different layers/perspectives? (Stu Mason?)
I never had a guitar lesson, partly because I am left-handed and it just behoved me to teach myself at the very late age of 22. I had one singing lesson in my life and was told I was a high baritone, which surprised me. I have composed for cello and can play basic piano and percussion so it's like a one-man band but without major expertise in any form. I find music and song writing very intuitive and natural but production is a much more convoluted and complex challenge. There are some advantages and limitations to working alone and balancing the need for artistic control with the desire for collaboration is essential. Sometimes that has worked and sometimes it hasn't and when a collaborator becomes too influential and dominant, it can end in discord and disaster. Music is one of those art forms where egos collide like stars and obliterate friendships instantly.
There are many songs in Ostara's albums about love and romance. Are they coming from your personal experiences?
Yes, but in a sort of metaphysical sense as the lover is sometimes a person, sometimes a kind of universal symbol and sometimes both. I am fascinated by the Troubadour tradition in which the Lover is also the Muse and the singer is seduced by his fidelity to his own soul or to God. You find this in Sufi Dervish tradition as well. In northern Europe it is associated with the pursuit of the grail as the symbol of life, love, death, immortality and the stone of suffering and redemption. There is a sardonic and ribald side to this as well that the Provencal minstrels expressed vividly. The poet is sometimes mocked by the woman and has to live in eternal sorrow, his only compensation being the music itself. As a child, I always loved the character of Cacophonix in the Asterix stories. He was the hapless bard that everyone ridicules and I felt truly sorry for him while laughing along with his misery.
Talking about love and symbolism, Ishtar brings together love, war and sex. What are your feelings about these three powerful experiences?
The myth of Ostara is distantly related to this Assyrian goddess since the Spring, while plentiful and benevolent to life, also carries within it the violent and disruptive power of Nature that Stravinsky explored in his seminal work. It precedes the feast of Beltane, which is heralded by Walpurgis Night, the inverse of Samhain, when the living are as frightening as the dead, if not more so. The epicycle of creation and destruction is perpetual, as envisaged by Hinduism and the pre-Socratics for whom being and becoming, love and strife were essentially one and duality was an illusion. The myths of most cultures reflect this truth and even Christianity cannot escape it, hence the apocalyptic and eschatological nature of its vision. It is the attempt to separate these elements into unrelated opposites that distorts our view of reality and pursues Utopias and ideals that are not of this world and thus destructive to it. We are living in a time where immense disruption is occurring but where the conveniences of technology, material wealth and insularity make us detached and atomised while at the same time giving us the ability to create new ways of communicating and engaging with older traditions and alternative modes of thought. The odyssey is in the palm of our hands but we still need to immerse ourselves physically and spiritually, not just mentally, into what remains of the enduring past.
I always found your compositions somehow very positive. Not only because most of the songs are proper acoustic folk with different tempos and you don't doubt to use melodic backing voices but the imagery in the lyrics. Is this just a perception or are you trying to share positiveness from your own inner world?
I think the positive is a spin off of the negative, that there is this sense that suffering is in some ways good or at least leads to something higher. I am not an optimist in the sense of "everything will be alright" and have always hated that mawkish cliché. But deep down, in the midst of a volatile world and a life full of contradiction and inconsistency, there's a will to persist and harvest from pain a renewed sense of endurance that learns to love fate and accept struggle as the pride as well as the price of life. The sun also rises, as Hemmingway said, yet a lot of the time I am more in love with the dusk than I am with the dawn, knowing perhaps that it is the darkness that precedes the light.
During your last Nuremberg gig in October you commented before to start playing your hit 'Bavaria' that the song was inspired in the city. Sacrilege for Franconians! What are your favourite corners in Europe to find inspiration?
Ha! Yes, Franconia is the true realm of the Holy Reich. All of Europe interests me and I never tire of exploring it when I can. To me, it's all one multifarious tapestry, torn in places but woven from an ancient thread, like the Bayeux embroidery. I have always been a Pan-European and this transcends politics and the ruptures of identity that have occurred in the past and recently. You can exit the Union but you can never really exit Europe.
For our readers that don't know your work, I'd say you are an excellent writer with extensive knowledge of philosophy and mythology apart of musician. I only read your contribution in Troubadours of the Apocalypse and Odes, your own book published in 2015. Is there anything else available? Do you have any specific area you would like to leave your testament?
I continue to write verse, music and prose and would like to leave some kind of mark in all three as I see them being inseparable though distinct forms. The word is what matters most and so every song, poem or text is grounded in the literary or poetic ethos that has been close to me from an early age. As I get older, I'd like to publish either a novel or a play and I am still considering pieces that are in process for that purpose.
In your book Odes, you wrote few references to Jewish eschatology, Lurianic Kabbalah and the Zohar on your poem about Zion. What interest you most about Jewish mysticism? Have you thought about including this topic or even dedicate an entire album with Ostara? None but you have the authority to do it in the neofolk scene!
Although I am of Jewish origin, I have never felt that I belonged as a Jew and was always drawn instinctively away from Jewish traditions, as if they represented something alien, limiting and parochial. Growing up in a secular household, I still knew I was part of it but my gut feeling was that it was not truly part of me. I was more inspired by the Occident, its cathedrals, its chivalry and its cult of the image, things that are largely absent in Jewish lore, except to some extent in a literary sense. It was only recently that I began to explore the mystical side of the tradition as part of a wider interest in Europe itself. Jewish experience is fascinating, rich and enormously complex and it is its uniqueness that makes it extremely difficult to confront without deep ambivalence. The historical experience of the Jews as a people is intimately concatenated with the European continent and retains a distinct if diluted identity therein. The Holocaust (a Greek term with pagan roots) is the dark culmination of the long relationship between Jew and Gentile, Judea and Rome, Judaism and Christianity, the Exile and the Holy Land and these are the temporal and historical manifestations of a perennial theme and narrative in which the Jews have been cast and have cast themselves. The legend is as powerful, if not more powerful, than the truth on which it is based. You can see this in the Zohar, the Bible and the Talmud but also in a tragic figure like Otto Weininger, who is condemned as self-hating but is far more complex and interesting than that. It is an ambiguous legacy that continues to this day and which exacerbates the Jewish crisis of identity: secular versus sacred, integration versus separatist, exile versus roots etc. To confront this in a work of art is to take on a massive burden and it is something I have attempted to do only on a small scale. An entire opus would be something that would probably amount to a kind of neofolk equivalent of the Ring Cycle! The analogy is not entirely coincidental since many of Wagner's characters and themes were derived from his view of the Jews as wanderers and outcasts. It is this peculiar relationship between Jew and Gentile that is most pertinent to my own experience as a kind of Goyish Jew.
Jerusalem is a recurrent allusion on your lyrics. What does it mean to you? I have to confess I spent some days wandering around the city looking for places with high levels of self-perceived energy without any luck, any recommendation from your personal experience?
I was there in 1985. This was two years before the Intifada and so we could walk from West to East and across to Bethlehem and Jericho. I enjoyed being in both the Jewish and Arab quarters, perhaps more so the latter as it felt more vivid and exotic to me. It must be quite different now but I imagine some things would be familiar as Jerusalem changes without entirely changing, owing to its enduring history. I would like to return but, as a Jew with a strong empathy for Palestine, I cannot go until the miracle of resolution is achieved.
Ostara's lyrics tend to focus on European history and its rich esoteric heritage. Being Iberia the main place for Kabbalah during mediaeval times, what are your views about this influence in the later western esoteric traditions?
I have read the Zohar as well as the Lurianic Kabbalah and I see them both as being part of the wider esoteric path, having been not only (partly) written in Europe but also conceived at a time when the hermetic tradition was emerging from a syncretic aggregation of sources in the late Classical period. The Zohar resonates with the same illuminating power as Plotinus' Emanations of the One while reflecting the less abstract and more palpable sources of Jewish prophecy. It also feels like it was written in Spain, its intensity burning with a nostalgia for the Holy Land that ultimately becomes part of Cordoba. Contrast the Lurianic books and you get a much colder and more Gnostic vision of the hidden divinity entirely removed from the world, the spirit of light trapped in the shards of the broken Temple. Of course, it goes without saying that Kabbalah was a big influence on the Gentile world. Jakob Boehme is one of the most notable mystics who integrated Jewish, Christian, Rosicrucian and alchemical sources in a way that unifies the divine with the human. This is where the more modern forms of magic, theosophy, anthroposophy and psychology ultimately have their root.
Back to Zion's ode, I can read between lines a criticism of Neo-Zionism. You also include a reference to Gaza in your last album. Can you explain your feelings on modern State of Israel?
I can illustrate this by personal example. I have an estranged relative who is a devout settler in Hebron and whose attitude is framed by the dogged belief that Israel is inviolable. It is peculiar how some Jews can be extremely race-conscious while cloaking this in a form of ersatz liberalism that is becoming increasingly conservative, reactionary and chauvinistic. If a European nation professed ethnic exclusivity as a core principle of its identity, heritage and law, they would be accused of racism if not fascism. And yet it is precisely the Jewish sense of history, the persecution syndrome and the past experience of catastrophe that makes self-preservation at all costs a categorical moral and political imperative. It's a siege mentality that justifies besieging the other, the powerless neighbour who is magnified into the perpetual threat at the heart of the Jewish psyche. Gilad Atzmon calls this "pre-traumatic stress syndrome", the expectation that something terrible is always about to happen to the Jews, which results in the Draconian "eye for an eye" tactics being visited more frequently and harshly upon the Palestinians. Everything goes back to the eternal past, the long shadow of the long persecution by the Goy. This is not to say that empathy is alien to Jewish thought. Quite the contrary. There are passages in the Bible that exhort the Jews to be open to others and the ethical philosophy of writers like Buber and Levinas expand vastly on this theme, but those kind of voices are now mostly coming from the opposition, the secular dissidents like Chomsky and the Neturei Karta orthodox sect, for example, for whom Israel and Judaism are absolute opposites. This makes for interesting times but it does not endear me to the country, especially at this darkening time when the two-state solution appears to be fading fast. What I will say about Israel is that there are dissenting voices within and beyond the Jewish diaspora and writers like Finkelstein, Chomsky, Sand and Atzmon are changing the way that some Jews see themselves, be it a significant minority.
One of your promo pictures shows you standing in front of what it looks like Itsukushima Shrine in south Japan. Is Shinto an influence for you?
The Tori gate in the picture is in Miajima near Hiroshima and the contrast between the two places is very much illustrative of Japan itself. It is my favourite part of Asia and I have been many times. I am more familiar with Zen Buddhist thought than Shinto on an intellectual level but I like to immerse myself in the Japanese landscape, its gardens, temples and shrines that all have a Shinto spirit over which the later layers of Chinese Buddhist influence were raised.
Staying in the Land of the Rising Sun, I admire many of the authors of the mid 20th century that got into the challenging task of writing about aesthetics, specially In Praise of Shadows by Junichirō Tanizaki. You also dedicated an ode to Yukio Mishima who also represents that fight between their heroic ancient culture and the new post nuclear Japanese society. Can you tell us your views on those 'Apollos with samurai swords'?
I have read Tanizaki but but not that particular work. Mishima is a massive inspiration whom I first read at the age of 17, which is significant because that is when he started Confessions of a Mask and it was at that tender age that I started stumbling half-blindly into a new world of literature, philosophy and the sense of the forbidden that Mishima represents so poignantly. It is not just his astounding work but the way he completely embodies it as an aesthetic credo. He is ambiguous in many ways, an eccentric incarnation of Japan as traditional and western, delicate and harsh, erotic and purist, calm and cruel, noble and decadent, deeply masculine and subtly feminine. Yet he sought to transcend those contradictions by creating a mask, a persona and finally a sculpture of the mutable body consummated in the act of martial suicide. That final act was prepared in the very first work and was just an inevitable culmination of a single story with multiple chapters. It could only be conceived in a Japan that was torn between modernity and its ancient heritage, the new dawn and the old twilight, the metropolis and the floating world, the rationalistic technocracy and the aesthetic mask of the irrational. That bifurcated reality could never really be overcome and I think Mishima knew that. It could only come together in a storm of creative violence that brought the passions and the intellect together in a brief singularity where they are normally always in conflict with each other. This is true of all cultures in one form or another and at the heart of that schism between the ordering and chaotic forces at the core of human reality. Underneath they are just two sides of the same thing, like Yin and Yang.
Back to Europe, you mentioned few times in other interviews Cervantes and the term quixotic. Was this just random or is he an influence for you? What other Spanish authors have captured your attention?
Apart from Lorca, I have had too little exposure to native Spanish writers and consumed more of the Latin American authors like Fuentes, Llosa and Marquez. One of my favourite Iberian authors is Fernando Pessoa. "Quixotic" is just one of those terms that is used to death but which I find appropriate when considering the conflict between nostalgia and the present. I think it defines my interest in a thinker like Julius Evola for whom modernity was essentially negative and the spirit of tradition was a superior sphere that lay dormant behind it. Nostalgia is a dangerous Muse but an inevitably seductive one, without which we would lose our sense of the past. But it can also so easily become anodyne or parasitic, leading to delusion and to nihilism.
Apart of the big launch of the CD version of Napoleonic Blues on the 20th of January what are your plans for 2017?
The CD will be released on my birthday, which is the 31st of January and is a very special presentation with lyrics in a wallet format that looks great. I plan to return to northern Europe in the autumn for some shows but hope to repeat that as much as possible to cover more ground. New recordings are already underway as the drive to write is fervently addictive. I must be that time of life when middle age burns for the golden season!
Thank you very much for your time. Please feel free if you'd like to add any comment.
Ostara on Facebook - Ostara Facebook page
Ostara - official website
Soleilmoon Recordings - label for the releases Paradise Down South and Napoleonic Blues
All photographs of Ostara supplied by Richard Leviathan