Life on the Ostrich Farm
A history of the band
The mid 1990’s are regarded in some circles as a high-water mark for hip-hop, rock ‘n roll, and popular music in general on the radio. Bands like Nirvana, A Tribe Called Quest, Beastie Boys, and Soundgarden were leading the way, garnering both critical and popular acclaim. Dozens of new bands flooded the airwaves with new sounds and were breaking away from the Classic Rock era while defining a new one of their own.
At the same time certain geographical locations like Seattle were getting a reputation for bringing up new bands. Western Massachusetts was one of them.
It was in this context that Ostrich Farm hit the scene. It was late summer of 1995. Tony “St Mix” Jillson and Chris “Bion” Millner were both from Western Mass and friends since high school. They played in bands together in the mid-80’s, at the local campus centers, town halls and clubs. But they each moved on to pursue other things. Tony had been in New York City, where he’d lived for seven years working as a comic-book artist, stage technician, and playing music. Chris was in San Francisco, co-founding The Molecules and touring with them as well as with others from the San Francisco area.
Over the years they had been in touch, and were talking about some kind of long-distance collaboration when “tragedy struck”. In July 1995 a close childhood friend passed away tragically and unexpectedly. Tony came back to western Mass for the funeral and to visit with friends. During his visit, tragedy struck again when his stepfather succumbed to lung cancer. This was close on the heels of the death of yet another childhood friend, photojournalist Cynthia Elbaum. She was killed by Russian jets while covering the war in the Chechen Republic. This occurred the prior December, making for three close people dying within the space of a year.
It was at this point that Tony made the decision to stay in Western Mass, for at least a little while. His mother was suddenly alone, and Tony wanted to stay and help her through the grieving process.
And someone needed to take care of the birds.
Ostrich Farm, not in name only
Tony’s stepfather Dick “Hodgie” Hodges was somewhat of a maverick, and had arrived on an unusual type of retirement plan: raising Ostriches. In the early 90’s there was a lot of hype around Ostrich meat and other Ostrich related products like feathers, leather and ointments. It was the next big thing, and Hodgie was willing to go all in.
Over the span of only three years, Hodgie created barns and pens, and the couple made trips down south to purchase several breeding pairs of Rheas and Emus, cousins to the Ostrich. They also purchased Ostriches with another family across town. It was a fun and exciting project for Hodgie and Tony’s mother Helen to partner in.
But the actual care of the birds was Hodgie’s job, and Helen was not a part of the daily chores. It was clear she would need some help.
Tony moved back to his childhood home and took up the mantle of ostrich farmer. The family had built a two story barn/garage in the late 80’s that served as Hodgie’s man town, as well as space on the second floor for Helen’s studio and recreation room, where family gatherings were held.
Tony remodeled this space, converting the second floor to a living loft with kitchen. The first floor garage became headquarters for Ostrich Farm rehearsals.
Chris and Tony were now in close proximity and poised to start a music project in earnest.
Chris was the Bass player. That was what he played from the start, in the 80’s. He grew up listening to everything: Progressive Rock, Jazz, Funk, Modern Classical, Music Concrete, Experimental, Punk, Noise, Improv, etc. He would listen to most anything that came recommended. The origins of his funky, effects-laden Bass style can be drawn from his extensive collection of Parliament-Funkadelic albums, featuring the Bass virtuoso Bootsy Collins.
But there always seemed to be something about keyboards that held a fascination for Chris. His favorite musicians were mostly keyboard players, especially Dave Stewart. Not the Eurhythmics Dave Stewart, the National Health Dave Stewart. Chris bought a Fender Rhodes, first a vintage one circa the 1970’s, then a more gig-friendly digital one. Chris started to double on Bass and Keys.
Tony was the guitar player. He grew up listening to Progressive Rock. Yes, Genesis, ELP, and King Crimson were in heavy rotation for him in the early 80’s. This was extremely unfashionable at the time, but he did not care. It was great music nonetheless. Then Chris started playing some of his record collection and other artists entered the mix. They would spend hours at Chris’ house listening to vinyl imports that Chris would bring home from excursions to NYC.
That was when Tony first heard Parliament-Funkadelic. Growing up a white kid in Ashfield Massachusetts, one did not hear much “Urban” music. It was not a thing. It was one of the whitest places on the planet. The P-Funk sound was very attractive to Tony and Chris, not only because it had that familiar heavy rock-funk, Hendrix kind of sound, but was less structured and more free-flowing. It was very freaky, counter-culture, and anti-establishment. It was a party.
From the Progressive Rock, Tony learned to love guitar. From P-Funk Tony learned to Groove. He purchased an electric guitar from local country singer Tex Lamountain, and started to get his jam on.
JJ “Some Guy On Drums” O’Connell was the drummer. JJ was a recent transplant from Bangor Maine. He had gone to college on a baseball scholarship, and was thinking about pursuing that, when the music bug caught him. A mutual friend had recommended him to Chris, as he and Tony were putting together their new project. JJ was exactly what Chris and Tony needed to drive their sound. Someone with chops, a solid sense of time and the ability to Funk and Groove. He was the stabilizer, as Tony and Chris pursued their eclectic sound. He also needed to Rock hard and bring the volume.
Over the fall of ’95 and winter of ’96 they convened at The Farm and worked on the material that Tony and Chris each brought to the table. In January 1996 Producer - Engineer Thom Monahan was brought in to handle the recording. Thom has worked with Monsterland, Ray Mason, Scud Mountain Boys, Pernice Brothers and many others since.
Tracking to 1/2” Reel-to-Reel, they recorded more than an album’s worth of material. Later that winter they released Life on the Ostrich Farm on cassette.
Side One included: “Talking Trash”, a Rap assault on our culture of disposable products; “Take You Home”, an uptempo hard funk song, “Mr. Blardo Goes on Vacation”, a commentary on the RV scene; “Skyline”, a sunny jazzy Funk; “Let Your Load Loose”, a sprawling Country inflected Rock-Funk; “Life On The Ostrich Farm”, Ostrich Farm’s de facto theme song; and “East Coast / West Coast Transcontinental”, on the relative merits of same.
Side Two: “Europe is Syrup”, a funny rocker in 3/4 time; “Space Anthem”, a Cosmic Hip-Hop theme; “Kymeera II", on the ephemeral nature of lust; “Down Under the Black Light”, slow Metal-driven dirge Rock; “On The Airwaves, Today”, an Industrial-edged paean to hanging in there; and “Inside Your Stereo”, a spooky, quiet Hip-Hop.
Guests included Monahan playing Harmonium on “Inside Your Stereo” and singer-songwriter Ellen Cross supplying backing vocals on “Take You Home”, “Let Your Load Loose” and “Kymeera II”.
After finishing this project, they started gigging locally. They would play mostly in the Northampton area, from Dance clubs like Club Metro, to Rock clubs like The Grotto, Pearl Street, the infamous Bay State and even the Iron Horse. They had a reputation for ferocious, high-energy sets, and gained a certain amount of notoriety. Some of this notoriety was deserved, as when they were barred from the Iron Horse for throwing McDonalds hamburgers into the audience ( To illustrate the song “Mr. Blardo”. The burgers were still wrapped). Some of which was not, as they were unjustly accused of releasing mice(?!?) into the crowd at the Grotto (it was the band after them…).
The next recording project was Total Brain Control, in mid-1997. This was a four-song EP recorded at the popular Slaughterhouse Studios in Hadley by engineer Mark Miller. Miller and Slaughterhouse were known for their great drum sounds, and their drum room, complete with meat hooks still hanging from the ceiling.
The songs included “The New Millenium”, an Industrial powerhouse of a song, featuring an octave lowered Whammy Pedal married to the beat of Ubzub, Ostrich Farm’s ubiquitous drum-machine; “Giant Funky Squid”, featuring the Fender Rhodes; “Oversize Load”, a hip-hop relationship song; and “Pre-fab Houses”, with a Devo-Like first part married to an old School Rock Rave-Up for the second part.
Once again Ellen Cross provided backing vocals. Dave Noonan of The Gaslight Tinkers and The Equalites provided extra percussion. The EP was mastered by Chris Ryan at Big Bang Studios in Northampton. Both “New Millenium” and “Pre-fab Houses” became instant crowd favorites at shows.
Later that year they met up with Producer/Engineer “Zeuss”. Zeuss at the time was involved with the band Doomnation. He has since gone on to be an in-demand Producer and Engineer for the likes of Shadows Fall, Rob Zombie, Queensrÿche, and many others in the Metal genre.
They re-recorded “New Millenium”, and “Life on the Ostrich Farm” and made recordings of new songs “Little Rubber Head”, and “Metro”. These songs found Ostrich Farm diving further into the Industrial-Dance-Metal pool. Along with “OOWWEE” a funny-funky hip-hop song featuring a Walt Disney song looped backwards, “White Van” a spooky intro piece, “New Millenium Reprise”, and the previously recorded “Giant Funky Squid”, and “Little Rubber Head (Junior Remix), the songs formed the next release Its The Other Red Meat.
“Junior” was an associate of Zeuss’. He was given the individual tracks of “Little Rubber Head” and was left to his devices to remix as he saw fit. This is a practice that is now common, but it wasn’t at the time.
Its The Other Red Meat was Ostrich Farm’s first CD, released in late-1997.
Summer of 1998 found Ostrich Farm back at Slaughterhouse Studios to record The People in the Hills. It was felt that this was the place they were best able to do everything they wanted. The only thing they could not do was use the bathroom. There was none!
This was the first time they were able to block out a solid two weeks and record a whole album at once.
Recorded that session were:
“Spiral In”, a middle-eastern flavored Rock song
“Girl Like You in a Place Like This”, a blistering uptempo Rocker with a Latin-tinged bass line
“Goddess of Love”, a loping echo-driven guitar song about the nature of lust. A recurring theme.
“Creeps In My Backyard”, like the title suggests, a scary creepy tune.
Boo Doo, a stomper.
“Hazy Thoughts (With the Hypnotist)”, a down-tempo tune featuring the Rhodes.
“You Want It You Bought It”, featuring Chris and Tony swapping lines back and forth.
“Man From The Future”, in which a sampled guitar is employed for the first time.
“Closer and Closer”, a chilled-out fairy tale
“The Weather Channel”, an instrumental that might have been right at home on it’s namesake.
“Blacklight (Re-Animator)”, a big dark place. Which out for the Re-animator.
“The Chamber", a huge set-piece. Very Big Drums, Very dark.
“Men Working Things Out”, an Uptempo scorched-earther.
“The Edge of Nowhere”, in which the band chills out and drifts off…
What’s an MP3?
In 1998 it was the nascent days of the internet. Folks were starting to learn about downloading music and it was the “next big thing”. Ostrich Farm was big on being ahead of the curve. A new website MP3.com had come into being, as a legitimate alternative to Napster. Napster was getting a lot of press; folks realized they could not only download music, they could get it for free. Ostrich Farm wanted to capitalize on the downloadable music push (and had no money to print CDs) so they released The People in the Hills on MP3.com. Bands could upload their music to the website and people could buy either the downloads or purchase a physical CD.
Unfortunately the promise didn’t pan out. MP3.com was out of business a couple years later. Folks didn’t want to buy music any more; Napster had taught them that they didn’t have to. It didn’t help matters that the quality of MP3 wasn’t good at the time (it’s still not), and a CD made from fuzzy sounding MP3’s still sounded like fuzzy sounding MP3’s.
Ostrich Farm pressed on, still holding out hope that somewhere, somehow, they would get the attention of someone that could help further their career. They continued to play successful shows at The Bay State and Pearl Street in Northampton. They also played shows in Boston at TT The Bears, and The Middle East. In New York City they played at The Spiral and The Knitting Factory. Portland, ME played host to some memorable shows as well.
At around this time Ostrich Farm became the backing band for singer-songwriter Ellen Cross. Many people found this to be an odd pairing, but it only exemplified the band’s eclectic nature. They loved, and we’re able to play well, different types of music. If it was good music, then they were all in. They made some recordings, and played shows with her in Boston.
If you build it, they will record
In 2000 Ostrich Farm was ready for their next project. They had a slew of new material. What they did not have, was money. There was no record label, and no budget for a recording studio. So Tony built one on the cheap. He annexed one of the garage bays downstairs in his house, and constructed two sound-proofed rooms; one control room and one live room. As far as recording format, Tony was getting more into computers, and Pro Tools had come out with an affordable system.
We Must Rock was recorded with Tony engineering. In a way, it was liberating in that for the first time, they could take their time with the recording process and not feel rushed. Tony in particular had felt like there were things he had wanted to do with the guitar sounds that couldn’t be done because of time and money constraints. Things he wanted to get just right; parts he wanted to do better, or get right.
Ostrich Farm pushed on with the recording of their 20 track magnum opus.
The songs included were:
“The Stomp”, a Dance Rocker initiated by an atonal guitar-blast.
“Living in a Hole”, a Rhodes-driven Rocker
“The Experiment”, with dramatic dynamics a vocals delivered with Chris’ growly tone,
“Safari”, a Latin Rocker
“Desert Rock”, a slow burner that steams towards it’s triumphant ending chorus.
“Climb That Mountain”, a slow groover.
“Jungle Deathmarch”, Reggae-meets-Doom Metal
“The Step”, a jazzy hip-hop affair.
“This ’n That”, a song about inclusivity.
“Play”, a slow sexy number. Ellen Cross once again providing vocal support.
“Slow Safari”, a slowed down Bachelor pad type version.
“Brave New Tango”, an uptempo Latin affair.
“Into The Underworld”, with the crowd-pleasing “Bumble-ahh Bumble-ahh” chorus.
“Hide Them Pieces”, an Industrial Metal song about greed and globalization.
“Forest Hicks”, a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks”.
“Chameleon Slum”, weirdness produced with kitchen pans and turkey calls.
“Jungle Institution”, Rock-meets-Dub
“Drums of Monkey Calls”, a drum-heavy instrumental born of a jam session and a mis-routed cable. A happy accident.
“Back To School”, about a school for troubled rich kids.
“Primitive Goat Man”, a dark slow burner, again with dram produced by dynamic swings in volume.
Placed on the Disabled List
Before mix downs could take place, the recording sessions were unexpectedly derailed for a time, and the project had to go on hiatus. Tony had met with an unfortunate accident with a table-saw. He nearly lost an eye when a piece of the table-saw blade shot into it, requiring two surgeries. He was sidelined for a couple months.
The band reconvened when Tony’s eye had healed and they finished mix-downs. But the momentum lost from Tony’s incident proved to be fatal for this lineup of Ostrich Farm. They played one more show at The Barn at Hampshire College and called it a day in the Fall of 2001.
At it again…
In the summer 2004, Tony and Chris decided to take another crack at it. This time they would form Ostrich Farm as a hip-hop-centric duo. They enlisted the aid of several guest-stars, including MC Stash, Rus-T, Sadie Ware, and JJ “Some Guy On Drums” O’Connell.
Supernatural Power was released in late 2005 on CD via CDBaby.com, as well as iTunes and other streaming services. The result was 14 tracks of their own brand of “Art-Hop”. The track list:
“We Must Rock”
“o one o two”
“Snow Keeps Falling”
“Sweatin’ It (Feat. MC Stash)”
“Power To The People”
They then embarked on an innovative and wildly experimental series of monthly workshops/ podcasts, a weird mix of songs, improv, stand up, and guest spots. These established a new approach where "the group" became an amorphous unit for various influences of it's members. Musical splinter cells?
Once again in the forefront
In 2005 the Ostrich Farm was featured in the Valley Advocate for being one of the first podcasts to originate from the Pioneer Valley. During the course of these podcasts they were joined by hip-hop artist N.T.T. (ex Action).
They recorded most of their podcast shows live while in residency at the former Café Koko’s (Corner Cupboard) in Greenfield. They performed regularly at the Paper City Brewery in Holyoke on Friday nights, and also at The Basement in Northampton. A CD release show was held at The Elevens in Northampton.
Instead of a rock band, DJ software Ableton Live was employed, complemented by acoustic guitars, horns and keys.
Several performances were taped on the Valley Homegrown show at Greenfield Cable TV.
In 2006, Chris assembled his “O-Farm” side project. He created A Kid’s Guide to O-Farm World, Operation: Ostrich and Music for the New American Century, from samples, out-takes, podcast snippets and whatever else he could lay his hands on. Released on CDBaby.com.
The last Ostrich Farm show was at a party in Shelburne Falls in summer 2006.
The Beat Goes On
Tony then went on to collaborate on a project with hip-hop artist N.T.T.. In 2010 he released a solo project, Your Table Awaits at the Rapa Nui Lounge as St Mix and gigged locally with a full band. In 2014 he released For Cynthia as Tony Jillson. This album was in memory of his friend Cynthia Elbaum. It featured music in a more Classical vein, for the first time using a live string section. Chris has formed the local group Krunkelstiltskin, with several releases to their credit.