We first wrote about Santa Cruz native Oliver “Tree” Nickell in 2013, when his three-song EP Demons became something of a breakout hit. Four years later, he’s already had plenty of ups and downs in the music industry—but at just 24, he’s suddenly reached a new level of national success.
“The failure was crucial, because it was a big part of me learning how to do things right,” says Nickell by phone. “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.”
This year alone, he has signed to Atlantic Records, played the Lollapalooza and Outside Lands music festivals, and joined the Good Luck Have Fun collective—a group of Los Angeles artists featuring international acts like Louis the Child.
After moving to L.A. to attend the California Institute of the Arts in 2016 (from which he graduated this year with a B.A in Fine Arts), Nickell reacquainted himself with San-Jose-native-turned-Los-Angeleno DJ Getter. The pair began collaborating on several projects, and released the track “Forget It” in March 2016 through OWSLA, the label owned and operated by one of the biggest DJs in the world, Skrillex. Later that year, they made their broadcast debut on the late-night show Last Call With Carson Daly.
Three months after the release of “Forget It,” Nickell and Getter dropped its video, a cinematic-quality piece about a man so in love with his deceased fiancée, he tries to clone her—only to have each version die unexpectedly. While the video is as unnerving as it is beautifully shot, one aspect of it contains a bit of humor and a part of Tree history.
“That was the start of the bowl cut,” says Nickell, referring to his Beatles-esque mop top. That ’do became famous last month, when Tree was called out for it by rapper Killer Mike—half of the hip-hop group Run the Jewels—at Lollapalooza in Chicago. Nickell, performing the festival with his three-piece group under the name Oliver Tree, was rocking out in front of the stage and Killer Mike couldn’t help but laugh.
“Your fucking haircut is classic, motherfucker,” Mike said on stage, pointing at Nickell. “That beautiful kid, dressed like a weirdo with the haircut … I fucking love you, kid!”
Nickell got a good laugh from it all.
“That was pretty awesome,” he chuckles. “I recently 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.”
However, that probably won’t be happening anytime soon, as the haircut is an essential part of Oliver Tree’s new album, Turbo, and the character which gives the album its title. Nickell describes Turbo as a celebrity underdog—the awkward, anti-sex icon competing with a world of Justin Biebers.
“We all have imperfections, and this character definitely embodies that,” he says. “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.”
This past spring, Atlantic Records signed Oliver Tree to their label and began buying billboard space in Los Angeles with an image of Turbo in front of the words “Welcome to L.A.” Instead of selling a product, Nickell refers to it more as “corporate street art.”
Nickell’s plan for Turbo is to release one song a month online until the album—which has taken him the better part of the past year to make—has been released in its entirety. So far, four tracks have dropped, including a collaboration with Whethan called “When I’m Down.”
Sticking to his roots, the Oliver Tree band consists of Casey Mattson on keys and Amir Oosman on drums, both friends from Santa Cruz.
“It’s great to be able to keep people you grew up with and it helps keep me grounded,” he says. “We’re always honest with each other, and we all push each other to take it one step further.”