“I think there are an insane amount of ridiculous bands that all have super good ideas to the point where I find myself questioning whether or not it is possible to innovate,” bedroom pop prodigy Brad Oberhofer told Indie Rock Cafe in 2009, the peak year for bedroom pop prodigies and MP3 blogs with “indie rock” in the title. At the time, DIY garage rock was taking off on the West Coast, while every Brooklyn twentysomething was doing it themselves from their studio apartments. After all, if The Strokes and LCD Soundsystem were able to cross over to the mainstream, why couldn’t they? “They deserve to explode as they please,” he continued. “And by explode, I mean ‘blow up.’”
Those bands did just that. On one end of the spectrum, Washed Out’s clean, hypnagogic charm introed eight seasons of one of the decade’s most popular comedy series, while on the other, the lo-fi edge of Wavves earned Nathan Williams the shameful designations of “aging pop punk artist” and, worse, “landlord” across the internet. Oberhofer, however, kept a relatively low profile, receiving minimal praise on major music outlets and touring excessively as an opening act instead of in a headlining slot. It seemed Oberhofer’s approach to writing, recording, and distributing his music entirely by himself was a little too innovative to provide him with the legacy afforded by his peers in 2019—though he certainly doesn’t view his status as a cult figure of the era as a failure by any means.
“Maybe to some it seemed like a small reach, but to me it felt massive,” Oberhofer laughs, having since moved from New York City (“America’s Berlin,” he coins it) to the artistic haven of LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood. “Growing up in Tacoma, Washington, any press seemed like a lot of press, radio play seemed impossibly unattainable, and to tour with a bigger band felt like you’d really made it in the world. Mostly, just making music that came solely from my own mind and having more than just my immediate friends appreciate it felt incredible and fulfilling. Although, being young as I was at that point in time, there was still a degree of always wanting more than what I was getting.”
While he dipped his toes into both chillwave and lo-fi rock pools, Oberhofer’s background in classical music education led to seven of the most complex pop singles of the era, all loosely compiled on an EP memorably entitled oO0OoO0Oo after the vocal sounds he elicits throughout the record between actual lyrics. “It was just what came out of me when I first started writing music,” he recalls as I note the stylization of the EP’s characters’ uncanny resemblance to the way his “oohs” sound. “I would sing melodies and that vowel sound was what came out. There was never any thought involved, just feeling.”
Embellishing the moment’s popular genres with literal bells and whistles (and kazoos and glockenspiels and whatever that piercing screech is at the end of “Away Frm U”), the EP is as playful as it is wholesome, thematically dealing with the songwriter’s longing to talk on the landline with a crush, and even build a house with them—the cameos from obscure instruments are just as much fun as hearing Brad pronounce phrases like “my one” as “mahwun.”
“I would hand-fold cardstock CD packaging, fold in illustration as a booklet, put a weird red ink stamp on a white CD-R, and glue a tracklisting to the back. If anyone asked for music online, I would mail them a CD for free.”
The “loose” compilation I’m referring to, specifically, is the fact that oO0OoO0Oo doesn’t appear to have a specific release date, nor even a proper tracklist—half the sources you’re able to Google will have it listed as a 2009 release while the other half bill it as 2010, and hardly any of them contain consistency in terms of the tracks’ order or even which songs are included. I have no recollection of where the copy in my iTunes library even came from, as the release was never officially for sale on Oberhofer’s website (“Myspace.com/Oberhofermusic,” says the genre field in my MP3 file, though I swear it either came from Indie Rock Cafe or last.fm).
“I initially put a few songs on a MySpace page in 2009, and Ric Leichtung, who was in my Computer Music Synthesis class at school, heard it and booked me my first show in New York, at Death By Audio,” he recalls of how the unique campaign to get oO0OoO0Oo in our libraries began. “My friend Kengo made flyers, we put them all over the place. I would hand-fold cardstock CD packaging, fold in Kengo’s illustration as a booklet, put a weird red ink stamp on a white CD-R, and glue a tracklisting to the back. If anyone asked for music online, I would mail them a CD for free.”
Things picked up a bit in 2010 when the songwriter faced what he calls “a cocktail of depressing scenarios,” including heroin-junkie roommates, less-than-ideal living spaces, an unfaithful girlfriend, and a house fire that razed his instruments and childhood belongings. “[These things] drove me to want to make a better life for myself, so I finished my demos and would mail them to twenty blogs every night with a provocative subject line, something like ‘AHHH !¡!¡!¡!¡ObErHoFeR¡!¡!¡! EEK’ [he graciously spells this out for me over email]. Eventually, I’d written nearly two thousand emails, and about eight blogs wrote about the songs. ‘Away Frm U’ began getting written about on Pitchfork, Stereogum, and some other websites.” Soon after, an advertising agency offered him a five-figure deal to use the single in a commercial. “I was like, ‘Cool, I can escape all of this scum,’” he says, though he continued to hand-mail CDs.
What followed was nearly ten years with a major label—an association Oberhofer stepped away from this year, following consistent creative disagreements. While 2012 saw most of his debut EP repackaged as pristine recordings (including the title track, which was truncated to the much more marketable—though considerably witch-housier—“oOoO”) on the critically panned Time Capsules II, and 2015 followed suit with a much darker and less-acknowledged Chronovision, the unique personality found on oO0OoO0Oo shone through on Oberhofer’s social media channels (including Vine), which were also frequently a source for exclusive music unmediated by his meddling label, including an intimate EP written and recorded over a single night and a stunning Leona Lewis cover that rivals the original.
“The only thing that will ever matter to me is that I’ve made a difference in some people’s lives.”
There have been murmurs of a re-release for Oberhofer’s Sesame Street–like concept album about the letter “o,” but for now, without the backing of a major label to help him out, there’s no money for it. Similarly, plans for future music and its marketing are up in the air—although, he assures me, he’s got plenty in the pipeline that’ll reach his listeners one way or another.
“I don’t want to do it alone—I like working with other people and having something to celebrate together,” he says. “I want to find a label if I can find someone who can pick up what I’m putting down. But if not…who really cares? The only thing that will ever matter to me is that I’ve made a difference in some people’s lives. Sometimes people tell me stories about how my music has helped them through difficult times. I only want to contribute positively to as many people’s lives as possible—if I died tomorrow I would be happy knowing that I made music that mattered to someone.” FL