The Ostrich Farm: Power-funk trio defies predictability
By DAVID BURRUTO
Special to The Recorder
Their improvisation and unique quirks defy easy categorization - but ambiguity, for them, is the band’s greatest achievement.
ASHFIELD — Woodpecker Hollow Farm is host to ostriches, rheas, and a power-funk trio called, appropriately enough, the Ostrich Farm. The band comprises guitarist and vocalist Tony Jillson, drummer JJ O'Connell, and bassist Chris Millner. Jillson, besides playing guitar, is also the owner and operator of the working ostrich farm. The farm itself is a strange mix of a music studio and breeding ground for ostriches. The unusual birds are literally a captive audience for the band's equally unusual music.
The trio formed in the-summer of 1995 when Jillson returned to Ashfield from New York City, where he bad been playing in an "art rock" band called “Wisdom Tooth" and performing solo.
"I was doing a solo thing down in New York," says Jillson. "I was playing guitar and singing. I had a bass and drums on a DAT tape. It was like a one-man-band type of deal."
While in New York Jillson maintained contact with his longtime friend and Valley native Chris Millner, exchanging ideas and imagining future possibilities. Millner was living on the West Coast and was actively involved with several projects, including playing with a national act called "The Molecules." Millner toured both the United States and Europe with the Molecules but as bis interest to the West Coast faded, he headed home.
"I was able to come back in anonymity. That's kind of the point, at least for me: to be able to have the bead space to create our thing," says Millner. "This is what is so cool about being out here, and being from around here, too. 1 think certain cultural isolation forces you to make things more original because you just get little bits and pieces."
Upon returning to the area, Millner and Jillson began playing together regularly, blending their
jazz, funk, and rock backgrounds into the concept-oriented and big-rock mix that evolved into the Ostrich Farm. Drummer JJ 0’Connell was the final element necessary to complete their sound, and he was easily enticed.
"I met Chris (Millner) and Chris was like, 'I know this place up m Ashfield. There's drums there and you can just come up and jam,'" says O'Connell. "What really attracted me was that I didn't have to bring anything. I started learning their music and it took off from there."
In choosing a name for the band it was no coincidence that they turned to the farm for inspiration. A band with a quirky groove can easily share the name of the odd and out-of-place birds.
"It's sort of funny because since then ostriches have become this symbol. Like in the Coke commercial. When you pop an ostrich into the picture, suddenly, It's like, 'This is off-beat, this is really weird,'" says Millner.
In the past two years the Ostrich Farm have produced two tapes and have refined their particular sound. Their improvisational blend, including jazz, funk, and rock, is not easily identifiable. They employ sounds and techniques from a wide variety of music and technology. Their most recent release, titled "Total Brain Control," contains four songs that reflect the band's recent interests and influences.
"I have been listening to a lot of hip-hop and a lot of disc-jockey work. I am really interested in the idea of loops. Doing things really long and repetitive and trancelike ... things with very few changes," says Millner. "So we have songs that are one or two riffs. In a lot of ways that could be traced back to funk or rap."
By employing electronic samples and repeating sounds into their performances, the Ostrich Farm produce hard-edged and beat-driven music. Beyond the electronics, there is little else predictable about the Ostrich Farm. The band members utilize their impressive improvisational skills, which take them in many varying directions from performance to performance. Their improvisation and unique quirks defy easy categorization — but ambiguity, for them, is the band's greatest achievement.
Categorical ambiguity, although both a hallmark and a pursuit of the Ostrich Farm, has proved to be a double-edged sword. The trio is an enigma for booking agents, as they bear a similarity to many styles of music while simultaneously clashing with just as many. "They can't categorize what we do at this point, so they don't know who to book us with; and there aren't that many people they can book us with," says Jillson.
Despite their difficulties in being appropriately paired with other groups, the Ostrich Farm's musicians refuse to abandon their goal of creating their sound. Through their concept-based music and an emphasis on their stage presence, the trio set themselves apart.
"Any amount of listening to our tapes or any amount of reading about us anywhere is only that," says O'Connell. "The whole thing is, when we three get on the stage, you're not going to see the same thing ever again."
The three have carved out a special niche for themselves both on tape and performing on stage. To play, practice, and produce their music among the great birds on the Ostrich'Farm is indeed a unique endeavor. Playing among the ancient breed of half-dinosaurs transplanted to the New World for domestication is also the perfect parallel for the band and their music. The band draws from many different influences, and the farm has proved to be an excellent creative space.
"The ostrich invokes a prehistoric feel — something big. At the same time, it's a modern thing too. How many ostrich farms are in New England? I would say in that aspect it's influenced us," says Jillson.
David Burruto of Amherst is a journalist and a musician, performing as
a band member and a radio DJ.
The Recorder, Greenfield MA
Arts & Entertainment
Thursday, May 22, 1997
The Valley Advocate
When Ostrich Farm burst on the scene in late ’95, sounding like the Chili Peppers might have if they had graduated from art school, the Ashfield-based trio seemed determined to bring new meaning to the phrase “freaking the funk”. Four years on, with their newest release, the funk is all but gone but the freakiness remains. At time, the trio seems too interested in weirdness for weirdness’ sake. But when they’re on, this band can surely whip up a seductive racket. The album starts on a New Wave-ish note with “Spiral In,” a song that channels the over-caffeinated term of early ’80’ nerd-punks like Devo and the Feelies through drum machine-generated polyrhythms and Middle Eastern-inflected guitar. “You Want It You Bought It” recalls the band’s frat-rap beginnings, highlighting the spirited give-and-take between frontmen Tony Jillson and Chris Millner. Comparisons to the Beasties and their Caucasian spawn are inevitable, but the Farm excels in bringing unconventional twists to conventional sounds. “Blacklight” revives vintage metal with some ultra-heavy riffage, proving that no genre is beyond the band’s skewed sensibilities. Though they’re no longer freaking the funk, Ostrich Farm proves that, in the right hands, art-punk can be just as odd.
The Ostrich Farm’s B-boy bouillabaisse
By Michael Strohl
To get to Woodpecker Hollow Farm, one must travel outside Amherst, north on Route 116 for about 25 mites, through the tourist Mecca of South Deerfield and the sleepy hilltowns of Conway and Ashfield, taking a left on Route 112 and then another right onto the road toward Plainfield, off of which you'll find the farm.
You wont find a premises populated by cows or chickens, but by ostriches, its here that the Ostrich Farm, a local trio, practices and makes its symbolic home.
A friend of mine claimed she once spotted a UFO out this way, and on my first trip up to the farm, a rainy May evening on which the resulting fog lent an appropriately eerie feel to the wooded landscape, I didn't doubt her. At first, it seemed in unlikely place for one of the Valley’s most forward looking bands, but in a way it all sort of makes sense. It's definitely out there, and so is this band.
“I’ll never forget puling up here for the first time," said J.J. O'Connell (a.k.a. Some Guy on Drums), recalling the semi-hallucinatory impression with which one inevitably leaves this place. The music of the Ostrich Farm, too, imagines a kind of alien landscape, mashing up funk, hip-hop, space-rock and industrial into a mix that’s entirely in sync with current developments such as post-rock but also
harks back to the late '60s and early ‘70s, when stylistic cross-fertilization was the norm.
"At one point in rock history, it was commonplace for bands to try out different things," said bassist-keyboardist Chris Millner (a.k.a. the Man from Outer Space). It's something that's starting to come back now with bands like the Beastie Boys — a lot of different influences are starting to come together. 'With this band, I ready wanted something that was a melt-down composite of my various interests. I think we all did.”
What's unique about the Ostrich Farm is that they achieve this act of hybridity within the parameters good-time, groove-oriented rock (though the band admits to trying to downplay that image), a potential disaster area for parry-boys and high-minded conceptualists alike. Both Millner and Jillson did their time as part of New York's avant-jazz scene. Thus their music often is as engaging conceptually as it is viscerally, containing audible echoes of mid-period Talking Heads, early Devo and perhaps more distantly, Bill Laswell's troupe of avant-funk minimalists, Material. Songs like “Take You Home" and "Let Your Load Loose” stretch the spirit of the Mothership into new shapes, mixing booty-coercing Funk with heaping doses of scientific abstract shit.
Like many of their contemporaries, the Ostrich Farm don't think in terms of genre distinctions. The main thing is to play something with same integrity and emotion," said Millner, who listens to everything from Led Zeppelin and the Beasties to Jungle. "Something you can really get into and say, yeah, that's the fucking shit," he said. To me, that’s more important than any musical genre, whether its Folk or Japanese traditional music. Either you hear it or you don’t”
Having lived in places like Brooklyn and Oakland, Millner and guitarist Tony Jillson (a.k.a. St Mix) have heard their share of hip-hop, which they've managed to incorporate into the band’s sound without coming off like phonies.
“I look at it this way," Millner said, acknowledging the sensitive racial politics that surround rap in this country and the reluctance white artists feel in incorporating its sounds, “I’ve lived In East Oakland. Tony and I have both lived in Brooklyn. We've both been the only white person on our blocks. Sometimes I feel a little reservation. I don’t want to be a white rapper. But I've learned a lot listening to hip-hop. Sometimes I’ll just sit down at my piano and turn on a rap station and get ideas from just playing along with the grooves and Jams."
I don't think we're faking it," Jillson added. "We're not trying to cop the urban slang."
"We're just a bunch of goofy white guys and that's how we rap.” Millner said. I wouldn't put myself up against the skills of someone like Q-Tip, but I do what I do. It's just another element of the music. And I think it's relevant."
In other words, they're just keeping it real. ■
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