After having the chance to talk to 18 year old prodigy Oliver Nickell on his project, Tree, a lot about his music made sense. Oliver has always made bold statements in his music with lines like “We are the universe/ don’t forget that” and “Warrior inside us/ time for you to stand up tall,” and he has been able to pull off the lyrics with a sense of genuine, wide-eyed optimism. Those lyrics can only come from a person who’s been to incredible lows and dark places and had the ability to bounce back. Of course, like all good stories, Oliver’s life hasn’t always been all ‘carpe diem’ and enthusiasm. A truly amazing experience found Oliver turning his life around from a hopeless low. Being able to chat with Oliver gave me a glimpse into his vibrant world of art, sun, and seeking beauty in everything. Oliver’s words make it clear why he can pull off such big statements with his music. Read the full interview below…
PK: so when did you start making music and how did Tree come about?
Oliver: Well I started making music as early as i can remember. I would play piano and bash on the keys and sing when I was a young child. My parents made me take lessons when I was a little older and I hated it. I quit after a while and then at one point decided that I wanted to play guitar and started taking lessons when I was around 8. I played in a band in middle school and we played all kinds of shows and were super into it. by the time I go into high school I kinda got over it and got into electronic music. I started Djing and became super into the dubstep scene. After I stopped using drugs I left the dubstep world and started experimenting with all kinds of different genres trying to see what kinda music I really wanted to make, I plan to continue experimenting and pushing my boundaries until I die. But Tree came about when I left the dubstep world and wanted a fresh start. I was having a problem finding a name and then I realized that I should just use my middle name because it was rather unique. my mom was kind of a hippy and gave me Tree as my middle name. I felt like nobody could tell me that it was the wrong name for my project because I was just going by my middle name.
PK: wow that’s all awesome, do you think going through the piano, guitar and dubstep phases have influenced your songwriting process?
Oliver: Oh most definitely. I learned so much from each one of those things. I’ve probably tried playing at least 15 instruments throughout my life, from guitar to piano/keyboards, baritone in the school band to accordion, and drum lessons to djing. every single thing has undoubtedly shaped the way I create and the way I think about songwriting and composing.
PK: and now you also play the gameboy musically, the solo on ‘Warrior’ is amazing
Oliver: haha thanks a lot man! I love to play the gameboy and just about any other thing that makes sound. There’s so much beauty in everything if you capture it in the right light. For instance think about feedback, when you hear it at a show or at someone’s house, you have to cover your ears and it literally hurts your eardrums. But I realized that everything has mad potential and I’ve been using feedback in a lot of my work because when captured right, almost any sound can be turned into something beautiful beyond words description.
PK: of definitely, I think a lot of the best musicians are the ones that can find beauty in unexpected sounds and balance novelty or experimentation with beauty which I find in your music
Oliver: Well thank you, but I sure wouldn’t consider myself in the running for any type of ranking close to a mile radius from a “best musician category” but I agree that an open minded musician or individual is always a positive attribute!
PK: who are some of your favorite musicians ever?
Oliver: well My favorite musicians of all time and biggest influence is a very hard question to break down but if I had to choose 3 artists that have sculpted my style as an artist, I would say: Flying lotus, Gorillaz, and TV on the Radio in no specific order. All those people have changed the way I listen to not just music but everything that touches my ears.
PK: for sure those are all amazing projects to say the least
Oliver: haha seriously!
PK: do you think that living in California has helped you develop your sound or find a community of artists?
Oliver: Well I grew up my whole life in Santa Cruz before I moved to San Francisco this year and almost every person in Santa Cruz seems to be either an artist or a musician so I was blessed to be raised in such a creative community.
PK: who exactly are the “Tree artists” is Tree more than just a solo effort?
Oliver: this year, one of my best friends from high school moved up to San Francisco as well. He’s attending the art institute (SFAI) and he helped me get together a collective of some of the most talented young artists that I’ve ever met. In the past 7 months, Tree has become interlocked with a new project known as “tree collaborations”. Tree has become the music behind a much bigger movement of creation with a team consisting of a director, 3D animator, and two phenomenal street artists out of SF. We work with other people and groups on projects as well but those are the 5 main members. We are currently in the process of printing clothing, finishing our first music video with cartoon and 3d animations, finishing our website, starting a visual show for live sets among a massive list of other projects. It’s like a family of young kids who are all about collaborating together in a multimedia sort of format like a band of artists. I’m very excited to start showing the world what we’ve been cooking up.
PK: yeah wow that’s all incredibly exciting, I’m really digging the stuff Zane Prater is putting out
Oliver: yeah him and Drew Grasso have been collaberating on all my cover art and everytime they amaze me with something beautiful!
PK: I’ll definitely keep an eye out for anything that those guys put out and the music video as well. Have you already released the song that’s going to be in the video?
Oliver: yeah, its an older track called ‘Tully’. It never got any hype because it was when I was first starting out experimenting with new music but its a very special little song:
PK: word, so I know you’re releasing a split with Beat Culture on Apollo soon but you also have an album on the way right?
Oliver: Yeah I was just welcomed onto Apollo yesterday and will be signing with them this week. We’re releasing an EP on Vinyl with beat culture in late august or early September which I’m very excited to announce. As far as the album, its unfortunately being pushed back a ways so it can properly be planned out and not just disappear into the masses of music right after I release it.
PK: yeah well whenever it comes out I’ll be listening, I don’t have much more to ask but Sunik mentioned that you had an experience at Burning Man a few years back. I was hoping you might want to share some details…
Oliver: Well this is a story that takes me over an hour to tell but I’ll give you an extremely shortened version! So basically I went on a family vacation to Burning Man two and a half years ago when I had just turned 16. I ended up eating a very massive dose of LSD that literally changed the direction of my life in one night. Before that trip to Burning Man I had a pretty bad problem with addiction and drug use that lead me to be kicked out of my house for a while that summer when I was just 15 and turning 16. When I took that massive dose at Burning Man I watched myself die. I saw my body in the newspaper with the quotes “boy overdoses and dies at burning man”. It was a full on movie playing through my head, my own funeral and my whole family crying and saying how I had wasted my life. I literally got trapped in between the earth and the afterlife and ended up running naked through the dessert trying to escape hell for some 7 hours. At one point I literally was on the desert floor smashing my head on the ground trying to rip my head open to pull my brain out so I could leave and get another body and move to the next life. I recall even saying goodbye to my family even though they were 5 miles away from me. I couldn’t even see a damn thing, I was so far gone that while running naked, I was close lined by the outside fence of Burning Man causing me to flip over it and cover my body in blood and cuts. As I ran out into the dessert I watched my entire life play out from my childhood till me turning into an old skeleton man that was all alone after a life of being a drug addict and there was not a soul left that cared about me. I had burned all my bridges and was left alone to die. I somehow made it back after hours of running through the desert and realizing that nothing was out there. Fortunately some lady found me and took me back to her group of friends, I recall her giving me a massive cape and food and drink, nurturing me back to health. Then when I came down enough to remember where I was staying they walked me back home. When I got back to my tent I collapsed and literally hit the lowest low of my entire life thinking about everything that had just happened. The next day I woke up and realize that I had a second chance to live and a second chance to take full advantage of this life and do exactly what I want to do and be who I want to be. That night I died and had been rebirthed again naked back into the world for a second time. Let’s just say that is the extremely shortened version, I could write an entire trilogy on the things that happened to me that night. This second life is not going to be wasted like my last life, I can promise you that much.
PK: wow I don’t know what to say besides that that’s an incredible story and I would definitely read a trilogy about it if you published one
Oliver: I’d like to make a movie at some point haha
PK: I’ll watch it haha. damn, well I don’t think I have any other questions that could top that
Oliver: well to be honest I don’t think I have any answers to top that either
PK: How about… if you had a unicorn what would you name it? Also would you like to give any shout outs to anything or anyone people should know about?
Oliver: If I had a unicorn I would probably name it Chi Chi Mangumi and as far as shout outs to young up and coming artists and projects that people should scope out would be Beat Culture, Shelf Nunny, xxyyxx, Steffaloo, and of course Renaat and everyone at Apollo/R&S records. plus I would like to thank PK and the Up-Turn for featuring me on the interview and all the times they supported & reviewed my new projects and creations. Also thanks to everyone for the overwhelming amount of support I’ve been getting, I can’t wait to show you guys what me and tree collaborations have been cooking up. Cheers!