The rarest flames never burn out. Instead, they flicker through life’s ups and downs, leaving sparks as souvenirs of their journey. Oberhofer fashions songs from (the grit of) these firework fragments. Personal tragedy, professional uncertainty, and existential crises couldn’t douse the flame as the vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and producer cobbled together his third full-length offering, Smothered (Telefono Records). He imprinted the anxiety, depression, and darkness of a two-year whirlwind upon tense and taut dream pop underpinned by wistful crescendos, harmonies straight-out-of-the-fifties, and soundtrack-worthy synth transmissions.
“Smothered suggests one of two things,” he explains. “When you love something so much, you can smother it with love—or often somebody will smother something out of a loathing or desire to destroy it. For me, making music originally came from a place of pure emotion, unfiltered happiness, joy, openness, and optimism. As I went through the past few years, a lot of this optimism was nearly extinguished, and I was in a deep depression. When I gave up on appeasing everyone else, I rediscovered myself. That’s what this album is about.”
Oberhofer carved out his own milieu with Time Capsules II  and Chronovision . Turning heads, he garnered critical acclaim from Billboard, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Line of Best Fit, Consequence of Sound, Flood Magazine, Vice, and more in addition touring with Sleigh Bells, Beach House, and Matt & Kim and enchanting audiences at Coachella, Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, SXSW, and the David Letterman Show. Throughout 2020, he dropped tracks such as “Following the Clock to Sleep,” “Makeup,” and “Eye Lv U” and performed 115 consecutive nights of improvised piano on Instagram Live, with the sole objective of comforting lonely people during the pandemic. He also has established himself as an in-demand film and television composer.
At the same time, he endured the aftershocks of losing multiple friends, a breakup, and industry roadblocks.
“I was still dealing with the trauma of my roommate’s suicide a few years ago,” he admits. “In terms of work, all of my songs felt like they were being rejected by my label, and I sunk into a deep depression. After a year or so of feeling creatively stunted, I was staring at my ceiling for an hour one night, stood up and started playing some keyboards, and the first thing I played turned out to be the spark to light my way to a new record ~ it felt like my sense of self was returning to me.”
Inspired and galvanized, he brought Smothered to life, penning tunes everywhere from his apartment to a small hideaway in Tacoma, WA under the watchful eye of Mt. Rainier. Eventually, he hit the studio with producer Jonathan Rado (Weyes Blood, The Lemon Twigs, Crumb, The Killers) to bring this vision to life. They were joined by an all-star cast of guests, including King Princess, Jónsi, Teddy Geiger, Shamir, and Nick Valensi of The Strokes, to name a few.
“We experimented a lot,” he says. “I incorporated all of these people to create a uniquely strange community within this album. I don’t want to just be an insular artist who makes everything alone. I realized it’s cool to ask people you admire to play on stuff, and it’s okay to make my music vulnerable and human.
The first single “What Does It Mean To Me?” pairs shimmering piano with a falsetto-spiked refrain backed by warbling harmonies akin to a cyborg barbershop quartet awash in reverb.
“It’s the most overt departure,” he smiles. “It features a lot of piano and weird sounds. It’s a reminder that not much really matters. If something feels like it matters too much, you just have to ask yourself, ‘What does it really mean to me?’ That form of questioning enabled me to set my spirit free. It’s a fun introduction to this, because it embodies the sentiment in a lightheartedly existential and comical way.”
On the follow-up single “Let It Go,” his vocals circle around a glitchy beat and hazy synths. It culminates on the epiphany, “life feels really heavy if you give insignificant things too much credence. I don’t need a big budget. I don’t need popularity. I just need an outlet to share the beauty I see.”
Valensi and Shamir lend their touch to “Sunshiine,” while Oberhofer locks into a nostalgic duet with King Princess on “Dreaming Of U.” Their voices entwine on the promise, “I’ll be dreaming of you tonight.”
“It’s about a relationship materializing via mutual dreams, which is fascinating to me,” he states. “Mikaela and I have known each other for a long time, and I really wanted to have her sing on a song. She sounds amazing. We met in the studio while I was recording Time Capsules with Steve Lillywhite.”
Smothered concludes with the delicately plucked guitar and vocal elegy of “Friends In Heaven.” He recalls, “I wrote it at four in the morning one night when I was mourning the loss of family and friends. My way of saying goodbye to the people I’ve loved and lost (at least in the physical sense), and reassuring anyone listening that the spirits of our lost loved ones live on happily within us.
In the end, Oberhofer burns brighter than ever on Smothered.
“I hope this record feels like living recklessly in the spirit of experimentation,” he leaves off. “Hopefully it serves as a reminder not to be afraid to lean into your feelings freely. I tried to ensure every single word and note served an intentional function. I took as many risks as I wanted and in its creation realized that nothing will extinguish my desire to share the beauty I see.”