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