The first vibe that Oliver Nickell, a member of the San Francisco undergorund collective tree!, puts across is that of youthful energy, which is probably to be expected from someone still in his teens. He isn’t happy for the chance to talk about his music- he’s really happy. He agonizes over the answer to every question, and then wonders aloud if his response could possibly be misinterpreted. Plans are discussed with a brave earnestness that signals a recent entry into the music business.
The vigor with which Nickell throws himself into his music isn’t uncommon- a geographic survey of freshman college dorm rooms will find countless other musicians who are just as passionate. A few important distinctions separate tree! from the pack: he’s already licensed music to MTV and appeared at shows with that Skrillex fellow; he’s assembled a collective behind him that includes other musicians, a 3-D animator, and various other multimedia artists; and, perhaps most importantly, a quick listen to any of his tracks show that Nickell is already figuring out how to harness his energy into flashes of recording brilliance.
Since this is kind of an introduction, who is tree!?
This is kind of an in-depth answer, but tree! is a project that started nine months ago when I turned eighteen. It was originally just me making music, but I moved to San Francisco and within two months it had grown to a multimedia collective with me as the music guy. Now we’re looking at everything from albums to films to a clothing line. It’s about kids creating and tapping into a more spiritual side of themselves than is often found in popular culture.
How long have you been making music?
I’ve been making music since my childhood, really ever since I was able to walk over to the piano and begin hitting the keys. As I got older I took lessons on it and then started to play guitar. I’ve played somewhere between fifteen and twenty different instruments; I like to have a diversity of instrumentation to draw on for my music.
How would you describe your music to someone who hasn’t heard it before?
That’s one thing that always bugs me in a way, because it’s so impossible to describe any kind of art. I get asked this question all the time, and I just want to give someone an ear bud and let them listen to something on my phone. Words can’t really describe what you’d hear. Now if you asked me to use three words to describe my music, which is something that I hate to do, I would choose experimental, indie, and hip-hop. I guess it’s a mix of all that, but I couldn’t really say; I’m sorry.
As someone starting out, who are the artists that have inspired you and helped to shape your sound?
Definitely TV on the Radio, Flying Lotus- those are just a couple of artists who have changed the way that I listen to music. And Los Angeles has a really wild music scene coming out of it. I find that I’m constantly inspired by so many different types of music and sounds, that it’s hard to focus in on just a small group of them.
What’s your process for recording? How does the music get made?
It’s always very different, and it depends on whether I’m writing a song, sampling something, or remixing what I’ve already written. I’ll usually jam on live instruments with a friend, and that will capture the in the moment aspect of the music that is so critical. We’ll play the piece through three or four times, and then I’ll listen to all the recordings and pick out all the best stuff. Then I go into the studio and mix everything together. I try to do each layer slowly, and then sit on it for a couple weeks when I’m finished. I’ll come back to it then, and see if there’s anything that needs to be added or taken away. It’s kind of like doing a sculpture- you have make small moves, but they can have a big effect.
What kind of equipment are you using?
Right now I’m mostly working with this software called Ableton Live, and I am obsessed with it. It has everything that I could ever want. I also try to use as many live instruments as possible. It’s kind of like the best of both worlds. I know the technology is super crazy, but I want to capture some of the sounds that have been there historically in music. People just aren’t doing that any more. It’s cool that you can do all that with a computer, but I almost feel like we’re going backwards- we’re losing more than we’re gaining. I’ll always try to bring the actual instruments into my music, and then put the electronic stuff on when it’s needed.
Would you say that you’re trying to refine your sound at this point, or you’re pretty much where you’re at with the music you want to make?
I feel like if there’s a moment that I’m really satisfied with what I’m making and I don’t really want to be out there trying new things and expanding my horizons as a musician, that’s the time that I should leave the music industry. I don’t want to find a little nook or cranny and then get stuck there.
Tell me a little bit about your beginnings as an artist. What did your first band sound like?
I was in a band in middle school, and we played ska and some rock. That was really the first time that I ever wrote music, but I grew out of that pretty quickly. I don’t actually like that music any more, and I feel like I’m always changing at a pretty rapid pace. There’s always something different that I’m into or want to experiment with. It seems like every two years I’ve had a complete overhaul of the music that I’m into; if I had thrown myself completely into one genre and stuck with it, I probably would have gone insane and been like, “Wow, I don’t like this kind of music at all anymore.”
How do you chart your evolution as an artist? Is there a way that you can keep track of your progress?
That’s a really hard question, because I just started this over the last two years. There’s no real way to chart your progress, unless it’s something stupid like Facebook likes or some bullshit like that. As long as I’m still having a blast and the music feels new to me, I know that I’m progressing. I guess it’s also when people start hitting you up. When MTV hit me up, that was hard to wrap my head around. When a record label calls you and says it wants to put out your vinyl, you know that you’re making some progress.
At your current stage as an artist, which one of your songs would you point to as a time when everything went exactly right?
That’s a hard question too, because I’ve really had trouble with the idea of having to show people one song. I understand that’s what you get a lot of the time, so I’d probably show them the one that the most people liked. I have a problem with that, though. As a musician, I don’t want to always go that way and show people what I think they’ll like.
But if I put you on the spot and asked for a song, not necessarily the most popular, but one that really made you proud- which one would it be?
You mean if I had to pick right now?
You’re killing me man! That’s a hard one. Oh, man. Dude, I couldn’t even do that. Is that bad?
No. It isn’t bad at all.
Wait. Can I give you an answer now?
I feel like it all depends on the mood and the situation. I try to keep most of the music that I make pretty different. It’s about what you’re going through and experiencing more than anything else. It would probably depend on the mood that I was in that day. It’s like choosing between your children. It’s kind of a hard choice. Nobody can do that, right?