Homegrown producer, Tree, branches out, embraces all things weird
Though the record comprises only three songs, local producer and singer Oliver Nickell says he spent the better part of a year cobbling together the pieces for his debut EP, Demons.
“It was incredibly time consuming,” the 20-year-old Santa Cruzan says of the album, out now on R&S imprint Apollo Records. “I really wanted to emphasize quality over quantity.”
Nickell, who records under the moniker Tree, obsessed over these tunes. Some of the songs on Demons have close to 100 tracks layered on top of each other. Instead of playing with preset synthesizer sounds, much of what you hear on the album comes from field recordings and found sounds which he collected and then repurposed.
“Virtually anything that makes a sound is an instrument,” Nickell says, clearly excited about the finished product and speaking at a rapid clip. “Cracking eggs, barking dogs and toasters—you can make drums out of that.” He also took sounds and bent the natural tone of the sample, turning it into a synthesizer patch and creating a melody.
Considering the patience it takes to turn found sounds into the kind of coherent beats heard on Demons, it stands to reason that Nickell has also spent a fair amount of time perfecting his highly idiosyncratic vocal delivery, which warbles in and out of sung notes, hip-hop verse and spastic spoken word. Though his singing (if you can really call it that) will turn some people off, it is also sure to simultaneously draw others in with its immaculate and inimitable strangeness.
Nickell got his first big break at a fairly young age. In early 2011, while still a senior in high school, he was put on a bill opening up for dubstep behemoth Skrillex at an event produced by local EDM production company Vital SC. Ironically, it was this huge opportunity that led him to separate from Vital and strike out on his own, decidedly weirder, path.
After the first Skrillex show, the higher-ups at Vital told him he needed to start making original tunes, and he did. But there was a problem. When Nickell got behind the boards he didn’t produce the kind of wobbly, snarling dubstep popularized by Sonny Moore. It was more of what you might call classic IDM— intelligent dance music—with a heavy dose of experimentalism. He has far more in common with small niche acts like Baths than with any arena-filling producer.
And so he moved on, continuing to make music his way—which is to say without worrying about fitting neatly into one genre or another.
“I personally don’t like to label it,” Nickell says of the music he makes as Tree. “I prefer that people just put an ear bud in and listen. I want to take it in any direction that feels right at the time.”
And if that direction includes completely reimagining a classic Radiohead song—interrupting the original tune with one of his Silly Putty-esque raps in the middle of it—well then, so be it.
Nickel does just that on Demons, transmogrifying “Karma Police” into a song that at once feels new and vital, while still showing respect to his elders.
While any artist can fairly painlessly cover a song within the vast BMI and ASCAP licensing books, it isn’t as easy to get permission to sell a cover that injects new lyrics into a preexisting tune. For that, Nickell relied on help from his label, R&S, which picked him up shortly after he broke ties with Vital. A representative from the label reached out to him after hearing some of his tunes on the music-sharing site SoundCloud.
The good folks at R&S approached Radiohead, showed the group a rough demo of the cover and got the all clear. That’s when they shipped Nickell out to London to record the version of the cover that is on Demons—pulling in the drummer from Snow Patrol to perform on the recording.
It’s been an amazing ride, he says, and it seems it’s only just beginning. Just a few months ago, the label offered to pay him to do music full-time, and Nickell has moved back home to Santa Cruz from San Francisco, where he was trying to divide his time between going to college and making music. It’s a challenge he doesn’t miss.
“Once the label said they would take care of me, it wasn’t even a question really,” he says, sounding as if it all is still sort of sinking in. “I didn’t even know that was a reality, that you could get a job making music!”
Nickell says he is “stoked” to be back in Santa Cruz, where he has “a ton more room to create” and where he sees a rising music scene that he wants to help build. “I want to keep expanding.”
Tree’s debut EP, Demons, is available now on 12” vinyl and download via bit.ly/treedemons. For music and info, visit treecollaborations.com. Photos: Dina Scoppettone