At 24, Oliver “Tree” Nickell has experience more in the record industry than most ever dream about. At 20 the Santa Cruz musician was signed to a record label and released his debut EP, Demons, featuring a cover of “Karma Police” with the blessing of Radiohead frontman and guru, Thom Yorke. Four years and many life experiences later, Nickell is back as Oliver Tree, and ready to take the industry by storm. Our correspondant, Mat Weir, had a lengthy chat with the Euphoric friend and found out more about the artist’s triumphant year where Oliver Tree found himself graduating college, getting signed to a major label, writing songs and performing with names like Getter, Whethan and Louis the Child, not to mention playing two of the biggest music festivals in the country. Somewhere between all that, he was able to finish his latest album, Turbo, but don’t take our word for it. Nickell says it better anyway.
Mat: How is it being back home
Oliver: It’s great! So beautiful here with nice weather. It’s been great getting to see the family and friends. How about you? How is Santa Clarita?
M: Right? I’m down here, you’re up there. It’s been nice seeing my family and friends as well. Been helping my family pack and get ready to move to South Carolina.
O: It’s nice you can do that. Not everyone has the opportunity or time so it’s great to hear you can help.
M: Exactly. You’re done with school now, right?
O: Yeah, I graduated in May and I’m really glad to be done. It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life.
M: What did you graduate with?
O: Bachelor in Fine Arts with an emphasis on Music Technology. A lot of Music Theory, really. Lots of programming and theory, really. I was surprised, I didn’t think it would be that hard. It really took a lot out of me in two years.
M: So you’re now working on an album with a new band?
O: Yeah, I’ve been wrapping up this album over the course of the last four months but have been working on it for a year. I signed with Atlantic over Spring Break, so they’ll be helping me release this first album.
The first album will be called “Turbo,” named after the character who will be the star of the album.
M: Oh yeah, the bowl-cut kid who rides the Razor scooter.
O: Yes sir!
M: People have been coming up to me lately and asking, “What’s up with Tree? He’s been acting kind of weird lately.” I told people to wait, I knew you were doing something.
O: (laughs) I’ve been cooking it up and slowly show the world more and more, little by little. So this is kind of the final version of what I want to show to the world. We had our first two gig. The first one was Lollapalooza and the second was at Outside Lands then next weekend. It was pretty incredible to have two amazing festivals to start out the project.
M: I saw you got a shout-out by Killer Mike at Lollapalooza.
O: Yeah that was pretty awesome. I just tweeted him and asked if he would cut my hair at his barber shop. He said ‘Deal’, so we’ll see. I might have to go to Atlanta for a haircut.
M: If you do, you’ve gotta get someone to film it.
O: Oh yeah. Might even have to do a music video, but at least a vlog about it.
M: And what’s the new band? Where are the new musicians from?
O: The piano player on the album is Casey Mattson and he’s someone I grew up with in Santa Cruz. He went to Gault, Branciforte and Harbor as well. In middle school we used to walk home and freestyle. The drummer , Amir Oosman, played in a local band called Jumanji. He went to UCSC and CalArts to get his Master’s. So right now it’s a three piece and we’re keeping it with Santa Cruz local musicians. It’s great to be able to keep people who are close friends, and it helps keep me grounded. We’re always honest with each other, it’s not like we’re a bunch of ‘yes’ men. We’re all pushing each other to take it one step further.
M: The video you did with Getter, “Forget It,” was so awesome. You had described it to me the last time we had coffee but it wasn’t released yet. Watching it was pretty epic.
O: Thanks man. That was the start of the bowl cut, too. I ended up making some Vines with Getter and it got almost a million plays in the first week. So I started getting into the Vine culture with comedy videos.I discovered this character, Turbo, kept getting all the likes so I decided to make him the main character of this album. He’s the one people kept relating with.
M: Who is Turbo to you?
O: He’s an underdog. He’s competing against people like Justin Bieber and Beyonce, all those pop acts. He’s basically a ‘people’s choice,’ an alternative solution to the other pop acts. In my mind, he’s someone that’s more relatable than someone who is extra perfect. We all have imperfections. This character definitely embodies that. I mean, he rides a scooter! That’s the underdog of extreme sports! It’s laughed at by all the skateboarders but people are doing triple backflips on it now.
M: Hahah, I like that.
O: For Outside Lands, landed a 360 on my scooter after doing a 40 minute set. It adds more to the show and makes it more of an experience.
M: How was Outside Lands?
O: It was incredible. We didn’t think anyone would show up for us but it ended up being thousands of people. That was pretty amazing. I got to play on one of the mainstages and there were like 15,000 people, as far as the eye could see.
M: Which did you like better?
O: They’re extremely different and every performance was different. Out of seven days, I played five shows and they were all different. At Lollapalooza on Friday I played with my band and on Saturday I got to play with Getter. After the “Forget It” song we rapped as Terror Reid and Oliver Tree. On Sunday night I played with Whethan. Friday at Outside Lands my band played and on Sunday I got to perform with Louis the Child. It was great because I got to give teasers of my show to massive audiences. Having that many people show up was incredible.
M: How did you get hooked up with Louis the Child?
O: Through Whethan. We’re part of this group called Good Luck Have Fun. It’s a lot of really cool artists, keyboardists and people out of L.A. It’s basically a group that formed about 8 months ago and we ended up getting bought by major labels. It’s cool to be a part of it.
M: Sounds like you’ve been hustling it!
O: This last summer I went to Nicaragua to work on the album and my label got me 20 bus billboards for advertisement.They’re really cool because they don’t even say Turbo’s name, just “Welcome to L.A.,” basically corporate street art. They aren’t really advertising anything.
M: When are you looking to drop the album?
O: We’re basically just dropping one song a month for the next year .Since the project is so new, we’re just going to slowly roll it out.
M: Do you have any tours planned?
O: We have a winter tour planned but right now we’re working on music videos and the show. I’m doing photo shoots and finally starting to make more content for the internet. These days music just isn’t enough. You’re selling them on what else you can do and your personality. Art stays number one, but there are other things that need to go into it.
M: How did you learn to do so much in the music industry?
O: Nowadays, you can tutorial anything on Youtube, whether it’s a program or whatever. It’s about efficient on a computer. You’ve got to be able to Google things properly and “feed” yourself. Relying on people is one of the hardest things, that’s why I made the Oliver II project. I never wanted to have to wait for anyone else. A big part of evolving and growing at a fast pace is being self-sufficient. I never knew how to record our songs until I had learn because nobody would help me. At the end of the day, I thought, “If nobody is going to show me, I have to figure out this shit on my own.” So the internet is a very powerful tool and you can find anything out there if you know how to look in the right search engines. But everything I do–from art design to writing, producing–is all from learning on the internet. I would always try to go one step above and beyond to make everything perfect. No one was willing to do the 30 takes I would do, to fall down multiple times and get back up. But I would be the guy to do it because if it was bad, it would fall on my shoulders. I can’t expect anyone else to do that.
M: You can take the responsibility for it. So you’ll be sticking around in L.A. for a while?
O: Yeah, it’ll be the place for the next couple years. The music and entertainment industries are here and there’s a lot of opportunity to create. Will you be moving back?
M: Naw, not yet. Im just down here for a few more days and then I’ll come back to visit. I have no plans to move down but I always threaten it.
O: It’s hard to do things without a community. It’s weird, but the internet exists in real life, in L.A. The community exists not only online, but in real time. Those relationships and friendships are crucial. It’s like how you’ve got to DJ in real life and not just online.
M: People will remember you better if they know your face.
O: And being around people who are better than you really pushes you to try to get to that level. The failure I’ve had previously has been an incredible part of this because it gave me everything I needed when things got serious. The failure was crucial because it was a big part of me learning how to do things the right now. I’ve done things from the ground floor and up on a small scale and now it’s time for me to do it on a larger one.
M: So where are you going with the music now? You played these two big festivals and performing with a live band but still working with electronic music.
O: I go to the electronic place because that’s where the opportunity is, not necessarily because it’s the music I listen to. I want to go where the crowds are. It comes from a necessity. What I do with my band is different. We’re not going to be opening up for DJ acts, it’s something separate. We’re trying to play theaters and festivals, not clubs. It’s a band so we’re looking to open up for other bands. We’re going in an alternative space.
M: It seems a lot of DJs and artists are starting to play live instruments while spinning.
O: Yeah, I mean watching a DJ can get boring. People want more. If you go to shows in L.A. you’ll see a lot more pyrotechnics and fireworks even in the dubstep world. Over time I see it evolving more. I think people want to see something extra; something more to watch and experience. I’m trying to combine both of those worlds to see what rock could be, or at least an alternative version.