Space Oddities

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. ■

The Valley Advocate

bring the noise



Daily Hampshire Gazette

By Tzivia Gover, Staff Writer

(Dec. 29) TURNS out there’s a hip-hop band based less than two miles from my rural Ashfield home.

I listen to The Ostrich Farm’s new CD, heard the heat duty urban rhythms and songs about giant squid, prehistoric birds and guerrilla love, and got curious.

So, on my way home one evening, on a night when the group was meeting to practice, I drove up the long dirt driveway to the 12-acre farm where I met the men known on the CD liner simply as St. Mix, Bion and Some Guy on Drums. 

I was disappointed that there were no ostriches in sight. But the setback was only temporary. I found that there were several unusual birds including emus (Australian Ostriches) and rheas (the South American version) longing in the barn. Most of these birds are taller than I am. One is 6  feet - most of that being neck and legs. They wander in pens outside the cluttered garage where the band gathers Wednesday nights to play.

The birds are not just part of the scenery, although there certainly make the snow-covered scene more intriguing. It turns out they have music of their own: an air-thumping bongo beat that echoes from the feathered breast of the two emus, and a low bellowing like a fog horn which mergers somehow from the endless throats of the rheas.

During practice sessions, “You can see the birds, you can hear them, “ said drummer (sic) Chris Millner of South Deerfield. The birds influence the band, but “I don’t think we influence the birds,” he said, as he plugged patch cords to amplifiers, preparing to make music.

Under the tinted blue and orange lights in the garage practice studio the band swung into action. The took a song or two to warm up, but then Tony Jillson’s guitar struck a friendly rhythm which soon turned into a haunting melody, like a trip through somewhere mysterious. Millner and Jillson breathed noises which may or may not not have been influenced by the breathy outbursts of the birds. Meanwhile, drummer J.j. O’Connell’s arms and elbows flew infall directions, kicking up a storm of sound.

They Call their unique mix of contrasting musical styles “Half-machine mutant tribal disco metallic space-dub meltdown.” “Tribal Industrial Hip-Hop,” thats the short version,” said Millner.

Translated, that seems to mean that the band counts its influences from all corners: from Steely Dan to radical experimenters from New York and San Francisco’s who challenge the definition of music - and what stands between it and just plain noise.

The lyrics to “Life on the Ostrich Farm” tell a bit of the band’s story:

“...When I got the call he said, “Hey Man can you come up now, I got got some bad news brother and I need you up here right now/ ... Now I got a farm.../ ain’t no ordinary farm, ain’t no doubt about it/ ....Big birds running round jumpin’ in the sky/ Big birds stretchin’ up about a mile high.”


Basically, Jillson, who had been living in New York for eight years, trying to break into the music scene there, was called home to the family’s Ashfield farm after his stepfather died two years ago. Jillson, 31, was charged with helping his mother care for the birds. He now lives in an open-plan loft above the garage with his girlfriend.

He rekindled a musical alliance with Millner, 31, his high school buddy who had been spending recent years in the Bay Area delving into alternative music and exploring “musical abstractions.” He’d been disillusioned by the urban music scene and also recently returned to the area.

Soon after they began playing together, Jillson and Millner heard O’Connell, 28, playing in a band called Free Weed. They invited him to be their drummer, and The Ostrich Farm was born. 

Jillson and Millner had envisioned a hip-hop band. But O’Connell, whose Top 40 tastes run more to Elton John and Arrowsmith (sic) shook up their preconceptions. 

“We’ve found a common musical zone where the three of us can come together.” Said Jillson.

The band is just past two years old, and have already released a CD this year on which they refer to themselves collectively as The Brothers Barnyard. The disc, which has a clean, professional sound, was self-produced with engineering help from Mark Miller.

They hop to break the boundaries that classify styles of music. “You go hear a band and the first song is completely cool. Then the next song is the same. Then the next song is the same,” Jillson lamented. “Why cant one band cover several different bases?”

Ostrich Farm definitely does that. One minute they’re covering a Led Zeppelin tune, and the next they’re tossing off street-savvy raps.

Hear them play Jan. 24 at The Bay State Hotel or Feb. 8 at Grandstands in Northampton.

© 1997. All Rights Reserved. 


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