If it turns out the American electronic music explosion of the 2010s has given us anything of lasting value, it will through artists like Oliver Tree Nickell (yes, his real name). A wiry, wired young man from Santa Cruz, California, burning with adolescent creative energy, Tree has absorbed all the buzz and power of the current music scene and much more besides and is constantly alchemically forging it all into his own new forms of electronically-enhanced funk. Already a seasoned pro - “a song writer, singer, rapper, multi-instrumentalist, producer, director and composer” – at 20 years old, he is all about creating “something timeless and real” without sacrificing any of the live-for-the-moment immediacy that fuels living scenes.
To understand all that has gone into his sound so far, perhaps it's best to let the man himself reel off his musical apprenticeships... “I grew up in an extremely musical house with instruments everywhere around me: my parents even met for the first time at college in a flute class. Growing up, I took piano and guitar lessons throughout my childhood. In elementary school I was chubby kid who played baritone [sax] in the school band. In middle school I started seriously writing songs, lots of gigging, played guitar and sang lead vocals in a band. By the time I got into high school I got super deep into drugs and lost all structure in my music life. I switched over to playing synthesizers in a psychedelic jam band; we would take a vial of acid into the studio with an assortment of other drugs and seriously play the same song for hours on end, pulsating a huge wall of sound until the morning.
“In high school I also started a rap group for laughs with my friends and we would go record after we got out of classes, and also that time that I started getting really into DJing and started producing a little bit. By the time I was 17, I had already played shows alongside artists such as Skrillex and Nero, etc. By my 18th birthday I decided to merge all my different music projects together, taking everything I had learned over the years. the initial result was Tree.”
Even in his dubstep days, the genre fusion was there – even though he regards them as juvenalia, his tracks made back when he was 17 are full of funk samples, wildly bratty next-generation Beastie Boys rapping, tripped-out synths and a deep sense of groove that is maybe lacking in some of his more moshpit-friendly US contemporaries. A trawl through YouTube shows a ready-made artist, unique and charismatic, who could quite easily have made a career, perhaps a very successful one out of what he was doing then.
However, his finely-tuned antennae made him conscious of the hype that surrounded and still surrounds dubstep. “Dubstep is still a pretty happening thing here in America,” he says, “but with that being said, I feel it is already coming towards a demise. It is over the next few years that we will begin to see whether the dubstep producers will take the imagination to make a journey back to more interesting music that is based around some actual theory and experimentation.” And with that in mind, he set about doing just this himself – building a musical persona that nobody who heard his earlier work in any of his musical lives could have predicted.
“I wanted a project,” he laughs, “where I could make any style or genre of music without people giving me a bunch of B.S. about 'wheres the drop??'!” He stepped aside from DJing and releasing for a year to “find out what sorta music I really wanted to make,” relocated to San Francisco to attend college at SFSU and started a small art collective called Tree Collaborations. This has grown into a rotating family of multimedia artists, animators, painters, decorators, musicians, street artists and designers, with even a clothing line to its name. And at the heart of it all is Tree's own music, made using “literally anything that makes sounds, whether I'm recording air compressors, my dog barking, my toaster or breaking eggs in the kitchen; it's found sound audio collage, all original, all organic!”
He cites his greatest inspirations as Gorillaz, Flying Lotus and the Anticon-affiliated indie/hiphop/psyche-pop fusioneer Baths – and it's easy to see why. Each of these acts uses the rhythms and techniques of hip hop to build a launchpad towards complete musical and broader artistic freedom. In the multimedia, collective nature of Gorillaz, in the off-kilter rhythms and interpolations of exploratory jazz of FlyLo, and in the refusal of genre and scene boundaries that makes Baths the unique artist he is, you can see the possibilities for what a 21st century artist can be that very few people are really taking advantage of, but which Tree understands deeply and completely.
The connection with Apollo/R&S records – with its roots 30 years deep in the European underground – was the final piece in the jigsaw for Tree the musician. By striking up a relationship with a label with such history, he is signaling as clearly as is possible that he too is playing the long game, looking past the waves of hype to the distant horizon of possibility that a true artist always has in their sights.