Back when he was studying at California Institute of the Arts, Oliver Tree wrote a senior thesis titled “How to Turn Yourself into a Meme.” Through an extensive portfolio of creative outlets, method-acted characters with deep lore, and becoming a master of shock value in his marketing and attention-grabbing techniques, the self-appointed Internet troll has certainly followed his own advice to become one of the most mysterious and polarizing acts on the planet.
As many of his fans will attest, half of the appeal of following Tree’s work is wondering which of his antics are genuine, and which are all part of a months-long, masterfully-executed bit. Tree first rose to prominence on Vine with his character Turbo, a garish caricature of the modern-day social media influencer who rocks a bowl cut and comically oversized JNCO jeans. Tree called him “just the right amount of annoying.”
Tree took a deep dive into the character, partially out of frustration that Turbo drew much more attention than his heartfelt and honest musical output. The virality that followed kicked off a journey that led him to fake Internet beefs, real broken bones to pull off stunt work, a fake kidnapping saga, a real Guinness World Record shattered when he built the world’s largest scooter – Turbo’s vehicle of choice, naturally – and absurdist music videos that often feature gruesome deaths, mass destruction and attaching a prosthetic ball sack to his chin.
It’s always ill-advised to take anything Tree says at face value, but surrounding the release of Cowboy Tears, a country-themed album – announced as his last, a tactic that Tree has used many times before – that seems to reference emotions and locations stemming from a real-life breakup with fellow musical oddball Melanie Martinez, it feels like he is more ready than ever to showcase the man behind the curtain.
“I just woke up, you got the real guy today, brother,” Tree says, connecting to a Zoom call from Salt Lake City in the midst of his ongoing concert tour. As he says this, Tree still appears in a wig, a flowing blonde mullet that has become a staple of his latest cowboy character. For all of the bombast associated with Tree’s past work, he’ll tell you that a successful meme can’t survive on spectacle alone. The primary rule – other than “don’t do it” – is basing it off of something you’re closely acquainted with, the authenticity of the personal details adding a kind of X-factor. Turbo’s look was based on Tree’s misguided style aspirations as a young child. The latest concept is a lot deeper.
“I pulled together all these things from my life and packaged it in a certain way which allowed it to be authentic,” he says. “It’s important that it’s true to you, and not just a fabrication of a fantasy. This whole cowboy thing, that’s from my past. My grandfather was a cowboy, his grandfather was a cowboy, and I grew up going to a ranch every summer for a month.”
To process his heartbreak, Tree ended up relocating to that ranch for 6 months with an acoustic guitar. Retired from music in the public eye, the story goes that Tree felt compelled to drop one final release after a country album unexpectedly materialized. Truthfully, the album stays truer to Tree’s nostalgic blend of 90s pop, rock and hip-hop than anything truly twangy, but the underlying concept is much more poignant than you’d expect from the online firestarter – utilizing the rippling muscles and gruff demeanour typically associated with the wild west to open up conversations about toxic masculinity and processing pent-up emotions in a healthy way. Of course, perfectly for Tree, there’s something inherently funny about the image of the cowboy as well.
“There’s a lot more personal information on there than I’ve shared in the past. I was crying cowboy tears for real, and people need to cry more,” he says. “A lot of people put up tough exterior shells, especially guys. I wanted to make an album that lifted that machismo thing, and what’s more machismo than a cowboy?”
Looking back at the rest of Tree’s music and the often-morbid videos that accompany them, it’s always been his mission statement to juxtapose serious topics and an air of ridiculousness, with the goal of making them easier to digest and talk about. Inspired by Buddhists who spend their whole lives training for death in contrast to Western cultures’ complete avoidance of it, allowing audiences to chuckle at something like Tree’s gleefully decapitated head while he rhymes about death’s inevitability makes the whole thing seem a lot less scary. With his latest pursuit, he hopes to make it cool to cry before the pent-up emotions end in violence.
“One of my friends is a tough guy. He was in the car, and we listened to Cowboy Tears right as I was getting it mastered,” Tree says. “After the third or fourth song he just started bawling his eyes out. I’d never seen this guy cry, and it was a very powerful experience. His father had passed away recently, and he was carrying a lot of emotional weight and baggage. That person needed to cry at that moment. And it makes me cry. So as ridiculous and weird and eccentric as I might be, I’m not that unique. I’m a human. I shit, I eat, I have sex. I’m just a normal guy who happens to dedicate their life to making art. There’s probably a billion other people like me who feel the same shit.”
Tree dubs his combination of the worlds of highbrow and lowbrow content “unibrow,” and he explains that it’s the reason why he knows how to generate the clicks despite professing to stay completely off the Internet and make a conscious effort to avoid any new artists, trends or content for fear of it distilling his own creative process.
“I want to make something that could be in a museum, but could also be a meme.”
“I want to make something that could be in a museum, but could also be a meme,” he says. “I love the sweet spot, trying to find the two worlds and bring them together. How they see it depends on where someone’s mind is at.”
If Cowboy Tears truly is Tree getting on his horse and riding off into the sunset as a musician, it doesn’t mean that you’ll be seeing the end of him as a creative. While Tree’s biggest aspiration is to become a filmmaker – once again playing up juxtapositions by predicting that future movies will essentially run like a TikTok compilation, “so that every six seconds, something crazy would happen” – his mind is currently set on taking his many characters into the wrestling ring. After all, Tree is able to draw quite a few parallels between an Internet troll and a good wrestling heel – his entire career has been predicated on being the guy that people either love, or love to hate.
Speaking of art’s future direction, Tree couldn’t sign off without giving a shoutout to Little Ricky ZR3, a mysterious frequent collaborator of Tree’s who many fans believe is simply a pitched-down version of Tree himself. “This dude is going to change the entire landscape of music. There’s no one like him. He’s going to be the biggest artist in the fucking universe,” a frantic Tree states. It might be true. Or he might just be trolling again. Tree’s magic is waiting to find out.