Not long after Oliver Tree released the video for “All That x Alien Boy” — in which the bowl-cutted singer gets bowled over by a minivan, staggers to his feet bloody but unbowed, finds his way to a monster truck, and uses it to wreak vengeance on his attacker — Jeff Levin watched the clip nearly ruin a relationship.
“I was sitting with a couple, two of my closest friends in the world, and we were all watching the video,” says Levin, who has spent the last seven years in the A&R department at Atlantic Records. “The girlfriend hated it so much. And the boyfriend absolutely loved it to an obsessive level. I was sitting there watching them argue and I was dying: This is incredible.” Why the glee? “You can’t win unless you polarize people right now,” Levin says.
By that metric, Oliver Tree is indeed winning: He exists in a permanent state of Napoleon Dynamite-like eccentricity, method-acting as a hooligan named Turbo who’s fond of unruly video clips, weed jokes, and scooters fit for eight-year-olds. But Tree is also succeeding when judged by more conventional benchmarks. “We have four songs streaming a million times a week in the U.S. alone,” Levin says. “Hurt” breached the Top Five at Alternative radio this year. And Tree is headlining a tour that takes him to more than 28 cities this fall.
Despite this, the singer is still happier discussing his character than his singles. “I’ve been told only three percent of people can pull off the bowl cut, and somehow I’ve managed to fit into that percentile,” he says over email. (Despite the larger-than-life qualities of Turbo, the man doesn’t like phone interviews.) Tree’s more modest when discussing his musical career, saying “I’ve yet to see that moment [where I’m successful].”
But he claims to have been a precocious kid: piano lessons at three years old, songwriting the next year, an album written by age six. He fronted a ska band in middle school before graduating to the local dubstep DJ circuit.
When gas hits $5 dollars a gallon pic.twitter.com/mTPuYoKyzv
— Oliver Tree (@Olivertree) July 20, 2019
Around the time Tree released the Demons EP through R&S Records — known for its association with the likes of Aphex Twin and James Blake — in 2013, he was already inventing personas to accompany the tunes. “He had Turbo, but he also had like ten other characters too,” says the electronic producer Whethan, an early collaborator and the co-writer of “Hurt.” “When we were recording he would turn off all the lights, put on different outfits. He was definitely in character mode.”
Tree hit a roadblock when he was shelved by R&S. But the setback was only temporary: Daniel Awad, who manages Whethan, and his co-manager Danny Kang pooled their resources to buy the “Hurt” singer out of his previous deal for $30,000. During the contract negotiation process, Tree displayed Turbo-like tendencies, prank-calling his management team to say, “you should never have given me the money, I’m running off to Costa Rica!”
That type of absurdity is what caught the attention of Levin. “Another A&R had a clip [of Tree] on Vine acting as Turbo,” the A&R remembers. “It was a six-second video of him saying, ‘what’s up, my name is Turbo, I’m 32 years old … and I sell ecstasy to children at raves.’ It was so outrageous that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
Levin found the persona intriguing enough to listen to Tree’s music on SoundCloud. “He’s writing these really sharp pop songs under the veneer of this alt world,” says David Pramik, a Grammy-nominated writer who worked with Tree on “Miracle Man.” “That’s compelling.” Levin felt similarly, and Atlantic signed Tree in 2017. He’s been dribbling out tracks in ones and twos ever since, teetering between hummable guitar pop and rap-rock.
HOW TO GET THE PERFECT CUT pic.twitter.com/8oqUV5aAZA
— Oliver Tree (@Olivertree) March 24, 2019
This combination has proved more successful with each passing year. While Tree has amassed 203 million streams in his career to date, around 75 percent of them have come in the first eight months of 2019, according to the music analytics company Alpha Data. A good chunk of these can be attributed to Tree’s madcap visuals. Some weeks this year, video views accounted for more than 40 percent of his streaming total.
Tree’s clips often involve his own demise — he gets run over in “All That,” but that’s nothing compared to “Hurt,” where he is decapitated by a shot from an army tank and then crucified — or just wanton destruction: “Fuck” is like a demolition derby set in a beer-bottle-strewn apartment. “Today’s world is really into memes and getting away from boring reality,” Whethan says. “People can look at his stuff, escape, and just laugh at something super random, this funny guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
There is one drawback to playing an outlandish figure at all times: Some people might not believe the art is sincere, adopting a stance that Levin describes as “you see the branding, you think it’s ridiculous.”
But just as the A&R had a hypothesis about Tree’s polarizing potential two years ago, he’s got a theory about how the singer can win over detractors. “When you present somebody with something and they say no, and then you come back six months later with stickiness across the board [i.e. streaming hits] and [Tree has] not changed, something goes on in that person’s mind — ‘am I missing something?'” Levin says.
“And then,” he adds, relishing the victory, “they dive in further.”