Oliver Tree photographed on March 18, 2019 in Atlanta. Grooming by Meko Davis at Zenobia Agency.
Oliver Tree photographed on March 18, 2019 in Atlanta. Grooming by Meko Davis at Zenobia Agency.
Diwang Valdez

Chartbreaker: Inside Oliver Tree's Retro, Meme-Friendly World And How He Turned 'Hurt' Into a Hit

With a stark bowl cut, laughably wide-legged JNCO jeans, oversized vapes and imagery that boasts ‘90s ephemera like the “Solo Jazz Pattern” on water cups, Oliver Tree presents himself as alt-pop’s merry prankster. He rides Razor Scooters, shares memes of himself sitting in a bathtub full of Flaming Hot Cheetos with his near 600 thousand Instagram followers, and releases “behind the scenes” videos that feel like Spinal Tap for the post-Vine generation. But while it’s tough to decipher what’s real from a joke with the enigmatic artist, his music, he says, “is as serious as it could ever be.”

Born Oliver Tree Nickell in Santa Cruz, California to parents who met at a flute class, he grew up in a house filled with instruments. When he was in middle school, Tree, now 25, was already fronting a ska band called Irony, where he played guitar and had his first taste of performing. As he got older, his musical interests broadened to hip-hop and electronic music, having a rap project and a burgeoning DJ career: “By the time I was 18, I'd already gotten the chance to perform with people like Skrillex and Nero and a ton of other artists from the dubstep world.”

But eventually, Tree waned off dance music and started to explore pop to folk-rock, all of which ultimately inspired his 2013 genre-blurring debut that he released under his middle name. Signed to an English record label R&S, he made waves with a cover of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” -- that was he says Thom Yorke himself approved of -- and continued to make music while attending the California Institute of the Arts. It was there that Tree met rising Chicago producer Whethan after his manager, Dan Awad, had reached out on Facebook (Awad now manages Tree as well). Tree's first collaboration with Whethan, 2016’s “When I’m Down,” which was written in Tree’s apartment closet, went viral. It also marked the debut of Oliver Tree.

The self-released “When I’m Down” caught the attention of Atlantic Records, who signed Nickel, who has now garnered 101.1 million U.S. streams, according to Nielsen Music, in 2017. He says the move was a no-brainer: “To be able to do what I want to do, to create a visual, film-based world, that’s why I signed a major label deal -- to subsidize my dream as a filmmaker.” Tree’s debut EP Alien Boy featured such high-quality visuals, like the combined clip for its title track and single “All That” in which he performs scooter tricks that get him hit by a van, rides a monster truck, and eventually launches a rocket-propelled grenade on top of a horse. It’s all ridiculous, of course, but Tree sells his vision through the undeniably infectious music.

To create the striking video for his latest single “Hurt,” which has raked up 15.3 million U.S. streams, according to Nielsen Music, Tree upped the ante: Filmed in Ukraine, the clip featured bonkers images of Tree getting crucified on a gigantic scooter and his head being blown off by a tank. “It's my favorite piece I've ever been able to create in any capacity,” he says. It's the most grandiose vision I have had yet.”

Musically, the song packs dense a dense hook before exploding with a chorus where Tree scream-sings, “I gave all I could give, but it seems like it never really was enough.” And as “Hurt” continues to climb the Billboard Rock and Alternative Charts, Tree is looking ahead to his full-length debut Ugly is Beautiful, due later this year. He promises a wealth of influences ranging from alternative, to hip hop, indie-pop, and electronic (“We're trying to have every genre I can possibly fit in,” he says) and to become even more entrenched in his public persona as a sort of living meme. “It's just not enough to make the best song in the world and it's just not enough to make the best music video in the world,” he says. “You need more than that. I realized I need to just embrace the entertainment.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the March 30 issue of Billboard.