Written by: Malahki Thorn
Originally Published, Thursday, April 15 2004 @ 12:09 PM PDT
Heathen Harvest: Please brief our audience on how Ostara started and who the founding members were.
Richard Leviathan: Ostara began in the Spring of 1999. It consisted then of myself (Richard Leviathan) and Timothy Jenn who left Ostara in 2001. He has been replaced by guitarist and composer, Stu Mason and we also work with drummer Tim Desmond and occasionally with Kartsy Hatakka from Finnish band Waltari who plays keyboards on some of the compositions.
HH: What were the founding members musical experiences before forming Ostara?
RL: Timothy Jenn and I founded in Strength Through Joy in 1991 after we met at university in Adelaide, Australia. I had absolutely no previous musical experience but Timothy was a bassist in a Goth group in Ireland. The two STJ albums, ‘The Force of Truth and Lies‘ and ‘Salute to Light‘ were produced by Douglas Pearce of Death in June between 1994-5. We subsequently moved to Europe and toured with DiJ and NON/Boyd Rice during 1996-7. We also recorded two collaborative albums with Douglas and Boyd, KAPO! and Scorpion Wind respectively.
HH: Can you explain the ideals and ideas that formed the band’s conceptual foundations?
RL: Ostara is the ancient name for Easter and I have always been interested in the esoteric dimensions of this association both from a pagan and mystical perspective. This includes an orientation towards a spiritual and metaphysical path that incorporates a number of traditions but within a modern or post-modern context. I am especially interested in the disjuncture between faith and atheism, meaning and nihilism, God and the Void, that seems to characterize the contemporary period.
HH: What was the connection between Ostara’s beginning and the ending of the previous musical project Strength Through Joy?
RL: Basically, Timothy Jenn no longer wanted to use the name Strength Through Joy as he was moving to Germany so we agreed to change it to Ostara (‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ as someone once said!). But this complemented the musical development towards a more subtle and original sound and so the two events were well timed. Timothy then became increasingly distant from the song writing and performance and so we parted company after seven years of collaboration. Stu Mason and I are now in full control of the project.
HH: Ostara has consistently been described in the musical press as a neo-folk / pop music hybrid. Is the band comfortable with being described as pop music?
RL: Yes. I like some pop music but I still enjoy being part of the Neofolk scene as I have learnt a lot from the alternatives it offers in terms of imagery and ideas. To bring powerful lyrics to a melodic sound is something that has preoccupied me for a few years now and I am pleased to be able to pursue a hybrid style without losing the essence of what Ostara is primarily, having emerged from this very unique and specific genre.
HH: Has the band intentionally striven to create music that embraces pop sensibilities?
RL: Yes but only out of an organic evolution as opposed to a deliberate effort to create pop per se. It has become a part of the general framework of the song writing and performance. However, there is a diversity of styles within Ostara and the ‘pop‘ element is just one intrinsic aspect of this.
HH: Ostara’s founding members look to be in their 30’s. This would make Ostara part of the second generation of neo-folk / post-industrial artists. Can you tell us what music and bands have left an impression on Ostara or contributed to the members desire to work in the neo-folk post-industrial music scene?
RL: Oh, and there I was thinking that I still looked 25!! Yes, I have just turned the magic 33 and Stu will soon be 29. Obviously, Death in June and early Current 93 were a big influence although I would also add Boyd Rice, Laibach, The Doors, Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush, Love, Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, Swans and Nine Inch Nails among my favourites. Of the newer generation, I like Forseti, Foresta di Ferro, the revived Changes, some Blood Axis, Ain Soph and Nový Svět.
HH: The neo-folk scene is defined by song writing and musical compositions that tend to lean heavily towards traditional folk arrangements with only slight rock influences if any. Ostara has changed this landscape even further by now adding a new member to the band who plays electric guitar. Can you explain the evolution of Ostara and how the band came to include its new members?
RL: After Timothy left, I decided to alter the sound and find someone who could bring a new dimension to Ostara. Electric guitar and electronics seemed to be the logical choice and Stu Mason specialised in both of these things. He got in contact after I advertised for musicians on the Internet and I liked him the moment I met him. I was also listening to harsher music at that stage (NIN, Marilyn Manson, Ramstein) so this also influenced the change.
HH: Can you tell us about any new band members and their previous musical endeavours?
RL: Stu still works with an American electro-punk band called Skamper. Kartsy is the front man of the popular group Waltari and Tim Desmond also plays drums for Skamper and a number of minor groups in the UK.
HH: On the last two albums Secret Homeland and Kingdom Gone Ostara was comprised of Richard Leviathan and Timothy Jenn. Timothy is missing completely on the bands newest album Ultima Thule. What has become of Timothy? Has he left the band?
RL: I have no idea. He withdrew from music in 2002 and no one has heard anything since. Perhaps he decided it was not for him anymore.
HH: If Timothy has left the band, can you please explain the circumstances around his leaving or else explain his absence?
RL: I became increasingly focused on developing Ostara and Timothy started to lose momentum. There were personal reasons behind this but, in the end, if a group can’t function effectively it will perish, so something or someone has to give way. I wanted Ostara to continue and prosper whereas Timothy was putting a brake on our progress. The rest, as they say, is history.
HH: The music of Ostara has always excelled when it comes to lyricism. Can you tell us how you go about song writing? Who participates when the music and songs are being composed?
RL: I write all the lyrics and usually create a melody around them or compose words to a tune from guitar, piano or a capella. Sometimes the melody comes out of a walk in the woods or even in the supermarket, little whispers to the soul you could say! I enjoy writing lyrics and see this as the main ingredient in the formation of any song.
HH: The lyrics of Ostara have always focused on esoteric themes. These themes remain distinctly open to interpretation and are noticeably devoid of deity references. Can you explain the motivation behind writing songs and lyrics that address esoteric and spiritual matters?
RL: It is just innate and intuitive. I always look for ways to transcend the personal, even if I am writing about something close to my heart. Of course, I do read a lot of related books on history, mythology and the occult but I try not to make too many direct references to these areas. I prefer to engage with the mystery directly, which often means obscurely!
HH: The music of Ostara seems intertwined with the history of Europe. How has the Europe’s past and future influenced the music of Ostara?
RL: I was drawn to Occidental history from an early age and, despite a non-religious childhood, I became very interested in religious and spiritual themes, including paganism and Christianity. The crisis of the modern world and the catastrophic events of both the past and present are unavoidable facts that are hard to ignore and so they recur in a lot of the Ostara lyrics. Europe is an ancient land with a rich but troubled past and this ambivalence is intrinsic to our identity and experience of the new Europe.
HH: Many songs also express references to exile and redemption. Can you explore these recurring themes?
RL: Exile of course is a major preoccupation of the ancient and modern Jews and, being Jewish, I am influenced by that tradition. I do, however, see a positive side to this theme and I like the image of the Wanderer which has echoes of both Odin and Ahasuerus. It is also so central to the image of the outsider as explored and experienced in the modern age. Almost every modern writer and artist has sensed this as a primordial characteristic of our existence, a sense of personal or even metaphysical exile that can lead to a heightened awareness of reality but always at a price. Redemption and Loss are just two sides of the same coin.
HH: The album titles of Ostara’s albums also shed light on the bands creative vision. With album titles such as Secret Homeland, Kingdom Gone and Ultima Thule there seems to be a recurring theme of searching for a lost paradise or a remembrance of a way of life that has been sacrificed. Can you explain for us this exploration of homeland, conquest, fallen kingdoms?
RL: Yes, the idea of paradise lost or of a forgotten kingdom is a perennial theme and one which becomes especially strong in an age of skepticism and materialism. There is something nostalgic and even romantic in this sentiment but the main thing for me is the feeling that the kingdom is gone forever and will never return. It is something that we can strive towards but the mission is quixotic and the most we can achieve is some kind of elevation of the self beyond the purely mundane and everyday world. All the kingdoms of history are subject to decay, even the kingdom of heaven as represented by religions.
But, there may still be a hidden residue, the original Platonic Idea of the transcendent realm through which the human comes into contact with something extra-human or divine. This is always somewhere between the spaces, among the ruins of the ideals that once drove (and still drive) some people towards self-sacrifice and even martyrdom.
HH: References to the Nordic runes and Northern lands of Europe are found throughout Ostara’s music. Does this reflect the personal spiritual identification of the band? What is the bands connection to the Northern lands and myths?
RL: I do have a special affinity for the North and its associations in mythology and history. This is not an exclusive orientation as I am just as interested in the other sacred regions of the world. But the Northern polarity is something that once obsessed the whole of the Occident. The Greeks believed that they originated from Hyperborea and the Romans pursued the land of Ultima Thule in their expeditions. The Norse myths are a very powerful element of our cultural history and filtered into Christianity to frame the medieval world-view. In the 20th Century, the destructive and horrific aspects of this obsession with the Northern homeland remain a dark but addictive influence on our reckoning with the modern age. We currently live in the UK which still retains some of its Nordic heritage, although Siegfried is now incarnated as David Beckham!
HH: The bands name “Ostara” is as far as I understand a pagan name for Easter. Easter of course is a Christian ritual that was used to smother out the older Pagan traditions that it came to replace in Western culture. Other Pagan or traditional references appear in Ostara’s music as well. Is the music intended to carry a spiritual message?
RL: Yes, but nothing in a New Age sense. I prefer to embrace old myths in the same way that a modern poet might seek an identity with the tangled thread of the past. There are many layers of tradition buried one over the other and the task of acquiring knowledge is to follow the deep grain of the ages and sometimes also to go against it. I am not self-consciously spiritual. It is something that, on the contrary, emerges from an immanent or intuitive urge.
HH: Ostara’s songs often ask the listener open ended questions. In my own listening experience, this philosophical and spiritual probing has inspired a lot of personal thinking. Is Ostara aiming to ignite the fires of imagination and thought in their listeners or is this consequential?
RL: This tends to happen also in the process of writing. I may intend to write one thing and something different comes out forcing me to change direction and alter the meaning of the text. To think is automatically to question and when put into an artistic medium, it can provoke something both in my own mind and potentially in the mind of the listener. So, the monologue becomes a dialogue, a correspondence between the self and the other.
HH: Being a non-deity identified Pagan I have personally found excessive references to deities to be cumbersome and proselytizing in some music in the neo-folk genre. Ostara has cultured a vary unique form of neo-folk that embraces nature based Paganism and Northern European spiritual references while refraining from coming across as proselytizing. What is the secret to your successful approach to integrating music, spirituality, philosophy and history?
RL: Again, I try to be true to my instincts and accept the fact that, while I am drawn to many traditions, I cannot truly belong to any of them in a formal sense. I need the freedom to move in and out of different modes of thought and meaning, like reading between the lines or finding meaning in the irruption of the chaotic and unexpected nature of life rather than in fixed concepts of truth. I like the idea of the hidden god or the gods of dark places. This is something you find in the esoteric traditions and in the mystical side of religions. Meister Eckhart‘s sermons, Zen Buddhism and the Rosicrucians come to mind here.
HH: In all three of Ostara’s albums a good number of love songs filled with romance and passion can be found. These songs are often filled with longing, love, and all of its trials. Does Ostara draw from personal feelings and experiences when writing and creating these romantic songs?
RL: Yes. Love is perhaps the most powerful and intimate of experiences because it breaks down the isolation of the self in the presence of another. The distances that separate individuals suddenly collapse into a reeling abyss of powerful emotions. Love liberates and ensnares at the same time and thus brings both intense joy and deep suffering. Most love songs are about the joy of being in love but many of the greatest are concerned with its tribulations.
HH: Both Kingdom Gone and Ultima Thule end with songs that have references to the fall of Western culture. Both songs also refer to the September 11 bombings of the World Trade Center Towers. This particular bombing event sent shock waves around the world. Ostara has chosen to sing about the event. Can you explain your feelings concerning the bombings?
RL: It was both spectacular and horrific. Not even Hollywood could have dreamt up such a spectacle and the fact that it was a media event was highly significant. The plotters knew that it would be captured on film and that the image would be repeated again and again forever. It happened right from the very beginning. CNN even played a pop song about New York combined with the footage of the planes crashing into the towers as a soundtrack to one of their ‘breaks‘ in transmission!
9/11 was both a symbolic and an actual incident – it hit the psyche as hard as it smashed those buildings. I certainly did not sympathise with the terrorists but I couldn’t help being impressed and shocked at the same time. The West had been struck right at the heart by an extreme faction of an ancient faith that was enacting its own nihilistic self-dissolution. This was indeed an event that represented more than just the struggle between East and West. It was an apocalyptic rupture at the core of globalisation, reminding us that the world is still a very violent, unstable and divided place.
HH: Can explain the thoughts that led to you covering these events in your art and music?
RL: I just remember being compelled about 24 hours after the event to write something. The increase in the number of suicide bombings in the Middle East was already on my mind but this massive attack simply could not be ignored. I was also aware of certain positive reactions to 9/11 (both from the East and the West) that disturbed me and I needed to get to the bottom of what it meant in the wider scheme of things.
HH: In many ways, the conflict currently existing between the East and West can be seen as modernized Christian civilization and Muslim traditional non-industrialized society clashing. Your music references these politics. Can you elaborate on your feelings about this conflict?
RL: I think that the conflict demonstrates the limits of Western power and values in the world at large and shows the absurdity of the concept of the ‘end of history’ and the triumph of liberal democracy. Liberalism is the privilege of the affluent nations and serves their interests better than it does the rest of the world. It also conceals the conservative and reactionary elements that have prevailed in America and other Western countries since the Kennedy bbbbbb. Furthermore, there is a historical and cultural conflict that does not permit the full integration of other nations and peoples into the Western fold, no matter how close the relationships on a political and economic level.
HH: Can you tell us what brought you to music as a means of personal creation and expression?
RL: I fell into it by accident at the relatively late age of 21. I was more used to writing verse and prose but this translated well into lyrics and so my musical career was born and evolved slowly but surely after that.
HH: You previously worked with Douglas Pearce of Death In June on a musical project called Kapo. It is well known that Douglas P. and his musical project Death In June have faced harsh accusations and censorship based on political extremist’s interpretation of his music. Has Ostara ever experienced similar threats of censorship or accusations of Nazism etc.?
RL: Yes. We were banned twice in Europe, once in Nurnberg and also in the Netherlands (of all places!). The assumption of guilt is usually made from the beginning by people who have no interest or intention of understanding the music or its content. They react upon rumours and provocations alone. But anyone who knows me would realise that I have no political agenda and that making music for me has nothing to do with ideologies of any kind, even if the lyrics and imager veers towards a vaguely political direction in some instances.
HH: Fairly recently Kirlian Camera has been fighting off similar accusations and has even had venues shut down to them. All of this attack and censorship is based on a minority’s interpretation of valid artistic expression. These extremists seem to be attacking almost everyone in the neo-folk / post-industrial music scene. What are your thoughts on these censors and their tactics?
RL: It is pointless and counterproductive. There are extremists living in Europe who want to blow up trains and kill as many innocent people as possible. The threat posed by a music group with no apparent political motivations pales into insignificance. Even if a band is political, no one has the right to stop them from playing. Criticism is always a better way of dealing with controversy than censorship.
HH: Richard Leviathan recently showed up in a new band called Foresta Di Ferro. Can you tell us about the band and Richard’s involvement with the band?
RL: This is the project of Italian industrial artist Marco Deplano who has ventured into Neofolk territory with FDF. I collaborated on several songs for the album ‘Bury Me Standing‘ which was released by Hau Ruck! this year. It is a powerful work with a mixture of styles but held together by the general theme of fanaticism as suggested by the title. We will be performing together at the Hau Ruck! festival in Vienna this May.
HH: Is the new album Ultima Thule being supported by a tour in Europe or North America?
RL: Yes. We just did three dates in Europe (Germany, Italy, Spain) and there are more to come. A few US dates are planned for June.
HH: As Ostara fans are feasting on the new offering Ultima Thule, is there any new music in the works by Ostara or its members that we should be anticipating?
RL: We are working on a new album which will be called ‘Immaculate Destruction‘. I won’t say anything more at this stage!
HH: Do you have any comments?
RL: Thanks for a very interesting and thorough interview. Hope it makes very un-pleasant reading!