Oliver Tree recently shocked fans when he broke the news his debut album, Ugly Is Beautiful, was “officially canceled due to COVID-19” a little more than 24 hours before its release. Earlier this year, the musician spoke with AltPress about the record for his cover story in issue #379. While you might not be able to hear the record for yourself, Tree went in-depth about everything that you could expect, which you can read below.
Love him, hate him, stick your tongue in his mouth or bash him in the head with the business end of a dockless scooter, Oliver Tree is not going to go away quietly. And thank your favorite deity for bringing him on the planet. Because whether your mom wouldn’t be caught dead in that ’70s purple jacket and your dad will deny owning a pair of JNCOs as much as he does his collection of Crazy Town tour tees, Tree is probably the most sensitive weirdo at this moment in alt-pop.
“I don’t listen to any music right now, so I’m out of the loop,” he offers when asked if there was a particular music scene he found completely insincere. “I don’t feel like I can give you an educated answer on that. But I think there’s so much going on. I think any of it can work, and it’s hard for me to really pick one out.” He pauses.
“Gosh, I’m so ignorant as far as what’s going on,” he continues. “And I think that’s something that helps me out as an artist, because ignorance is bliss. As far as listening to what’s happening, my music would probably just sound generic and the same as every single modern artist there is [with] Auto-Tune and whatever. But you know, from my point of view, I think ignorance is bliss in this situation.”
On his debut album, Ugly Is Beautiful, Tree delivers a stack of undeniable hooks, all couched in idioms that you may have heard before, just not the way he has. Pop, hip-hop and sing-songy bedroom indie rock all get worked over through his sensibilities. Helping him along are a series of big-production videos, equal parts hilarious and WTF-conjuring, that are racking up YouTube numbers in the millions and gaining significant attention on streaming services.
Given Tree’s creative arc of crazy videos, ridiculous decisions and weirder obsessions (seriously, fuk’n scooters?), it’s apparent that his insatiable taste for the absurd is constantly peaking in the red. When Tree says there’s “nobody doing what he’s doing,” he’s talking about people in this century.
He’s got an attitude that the late transgressive comedian Andy Kaufman would approve of with just enough knowledge of international avant-garde cinema to be dangerous and a vocal style that’s the shared space in a Venn diagram of a playground tantrum, a wounded seal and the kind of whine you make 20 seconds after your hand gets accidentally smashed in a refrigerator door.
And yes, this writer suggests you interpret the above paragraph as a complete endorsement.
The backstory goes something like this: Oliver Tree Nickell was born in Santa Cruz, California, approximately 26 years ago. He had always been immersed in music in some capacity, from his first high school band (a ska-punk bunch called Irony) and a rap collective with the highly commercial name of Mindfuck. When Tree left that group, he began working on his own music and DJing, where he found himself at various junctures facing turntables and opening for Odd Future hip-hop icons Tyler, The Creator and Frank Ocean, as well as American dubstep darling Skrillex.
In 2011, Tree caught the attention of Apollo, an imprint of respected British electronic label R&S, whose catalog features crucial releases from such electronic titans as Aphex Twin and Optimo. His only release for the label—a 2013 three-song 12-inch EP, Demons—came off sounding like Tyler Joseph polluted on cough syrup behind some ambient electronics.
The EP also contained an idiosyncratic cover of Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” which got Tree some props from that song’s writer, Thom Yorke. Purportedly, master tapes of a finished, unreleased Tree LP are languishing on a shelf at R&S. (When AltPress reached out via email to label manager Andy Whittaker to comment on Tree, his one-line response was “Thanks for getting in touch, but this isn’t something I’d be interested in.”) Through the benevolence of his manager, Tree was bought out of his R&S contract, making him a free agent.
Tree’s notoriety kicked into high gear in 2016 when “When I’m Down,” a collaboration with Chicago electronic artist Whethan, burned up streaming services (over 51 million as of the time you read this). After coupling his peculiar vocal style with a sartorial flair seemingly put together by a 4-year-old who wants to wear all the colors of the rainbow at the same time, all the time, Tree was flagged down by Atlantic Records and signed later that year. Since then, Tree has essentially created his own universe, one described by both stans and critics as “part musician, part meme.”
“It is so much about understanding that he uses meme culture as communication,” Jeff Levin, senior VP of A&R at Atlantic Records, says. “You know, credibility is so subjective. There was this great quote from J. Cole, who said, ‘You can either be a meme or an artist.’ And I remember somebody asked Oliver that question in an interview, and he said, ‘I’m not familiar with J. Cole.’
“He takes it so seriously,” Levin continues. “He’s never looked at meme culture as this thing that you digest within five seconds and move on to the next thing. He looks at meme culture as potentially the next credible and viable source of communication for the new generation. Meme culture is fine as long as what you’re doing makes sense.”
Tree’s major-label debut, Ugly Is Beautiful, might be the artistic pinnacle for a generation who knows what they want but can’t articulate it. For the young ones who change their depression-med cocktails more than bedsheets. The ones who thought they had a community at Warped Tour but got tired of receiving side-eye from Pierce The Veil fans as they wore their 1D shirts. The students who are always picked last for gym-class teams and prom dates. Not cool, not smart, not beautiful or all those other fleeting things that measure modern self-worth.
Tree pulls off some clever wordplay on tracks such as the sing-songy, living-the-dream joy of “Life Goes On” (“Work all day/And then I wake up”). But then he’ll deliver some serious despondency, as found on the hip-hop track “Joke’s On You” (“I’m close to the edge/People tell me I should jump”). Ugly even has moments of snotty indie rock (“Waste My Time,” “Again And Again”) that fall somewhere between Beck and some errant Front Bottoms demos.
Tree’s debut album might be the perfect embodiment of art for a generation raised on MP3 playing and streaming devices. Tree is the least likely rock star on the planet, which makes him qualified to be a figure to lead a new generation of listeners into new realms, whether it’s a Spotify playlist or into a NORAD missile silo.
“I appreciate that,” Tree says. “The crux of the Oliver Tree project is juxtaposition. It’s about mixing together things that maybe don’t fit but somehow led me to fusing genres on the album.
“To be blunt, I think it’s time for ‘alternative’ to have a bit of a face-lift,” he continues. “This is so boring and played out. I can’t imagine anyone finding it intriguing to see people doing the same thing that’s been done in the alternative space for the last 30 years or whatever. If you don’t change it up, at what point, at what hope did alternative even have to survive? I consider ‘alternative’ something a little more left of center. I guess I don’t define it by genre.”
If Tree’s post-everything sensibilities are defined by whatever he’s feeling at the time, the lyrical influences aren’t as cut and dry. He vacillates between self-deprecation to downright anguished about his perceived shortcomings. Yet, there’s also a lot of pride in what he’s doing, refusing to drink anybody else’s tea or catch their shade. Not surprisingly, he refuses to discuss any specific lyrics, whether they’re from his lighter fare to the more self-critical of exercises.
“I really don’t like to comment on my lyrics, because I don’t want what I had interpreted them [as] to take the message and [dictate] what the listener is going to make [of] it,” he says. “These songs are open-ended, which means that they can be applied in different ways to your own life. So the same song could have a different meaning to someone at various points in their life.”
After all the emotional excavation—or just what’s ricocheting through Tree’s noggin when the ‘record’ button is on—the takeaway his fans get is simple but no less diminished.
“I would say the real message behind this first album is pretty plain and simple: The title Ugly Is Beautiful,” he explains. “So the concept behind it is no matter how strange you look, no matter how ugly you feel, you are beautiful. That’s the core value.”