Despite many industry insiders' prediction that Death Cab For Cutie's incendiary "Why You'd Want to Live Here" would create a Pacific Northwest vs. Southern California indie-rock rivalry reminiscent of hip-hop's East Coast/West Coast conflict, no blood was shed over such lines as "Is this the City of Angels or demons?" In fact, you might say most people in Los Angeles couldn't care less that Seattleite Ben Gibbard was giving their city a good old-fashioned tongue-lashing.
Silverlake denizen and Dntel mastermind Jimmy Tamborello certainly wasn't bothered - instead of hiring someone to lay Gibbard down for the dirt nap, he asked DCFC's leader to lay down vocals on a track for his upcoming album. A week later the electronipop masterpiece "(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan" (included on Dntel's 2001 full-length Life Is Full of Possibilities) was completed and the seeds for The Postal Service were planted.
"It seemed kind of effortless," says Tamborello, who had never met Gibbard before the recording of "Evan and Chan." "He came down and sang it once and we were just really happy with it."
"We did the song in an hour one afternoon," explains Gibbard, who was in L.A. visiting Tamborello's roommate, The Jealous Sound's Pedro Benito. "It was such an easy, fun way to work. The idea was spawned: Maybe we could do an EP of this kind of stuff. Then [Sub Pop A&R rep] Tony Kiewel brought '(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan' to the label and said, 'They're going to do a record of this kind of stuff - do you guys want to do it?' We just went from there."
In December 2001, Gibbard started receiving CD-Rs from Tamborello filled with beatsy electronic music, which he manipulated in his computer before writing melodies and lyrics and recording vocals. He also added some guitar, drums and keyboards - much of which was recorded by Death Cab guitarist Chris Walla at his Hall of Justice studio - and then sent the demo back to L.A. Gibbard had to run his changes past Tamborello, but he more or less had the freedom to alter the songs to his liking.
"It was really great to get a little package every month or two - 'Two new songs!'" says Gibbard. "Sometimes I'd say, 'I want to move that part and this part,' and it was really fun to have such autonomy in the writing; I could pretty much do whatever I wanted."
Though Tamborello (also known for his work in Strictly Ballroom and Figurine) is no stranger to collaboration - everyone from Beachwood Sparks' Chris Gunst to That Dog's Rachel Haden to Slint/The For Carnation's Brian McMahan appeared on Life Is Full of Possibilities - this was the first time he had attempted a project with a relative stranger.
"It was like having to work on the album and make friends at the same time," admits Tamborello. "In the beginning I was probably a little nervous about not wanting to say I didn't like something 'cause I didn't know him. But in the end it didn't end up ever being an issue. It seemed like I was always excited with what he did."
Ten months, two trips to L.A. (to record vocals and finish mixing) and one big postage invoice later, Give Up was completed. And just like that, Gibbard & Tamborello find themselves standing alongside such giants as Morrissey & Marr, Lennon & McCartney and Anderson & Butler.
All ten tracks are exercises in smooth beauty, with Gibbard's inviting voice perfectly complementing Tamborello's unique and charming programming and guest vocals from Jen Wood and Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis adding a gentle layer of sweetness to many of the songs. Though it's tempting to call it an "'80s-sounding" record because of its keyboard-driven pop sensibilities, there's nothing retro about Give Up, save for a few sounds here and there and "nothing better," a duet with Wood inspired by The Human League's "Don't You Want Me." On the other hand, fans of Death Cab will hear faint echoes of Gibbard's main band in The Postal Service, but overall it's a completely different experience.
"Some of the songs are very much of a Death Cab mode, but people have been commenting, 'Wow, the lyrics are really different,'" explains Gibbard. "When somebody is just handing you music and you're supposed to sing over the top of it, it feels different than when you're sitting at home with a guitar trying to write a song."
"'the district sleeps alone tonight,' 'brand new colony' and 'this place is a prison' are pretty much the only songs that border on autobiographical," he continues. "But everything else is just kind of daydreaming and coming up with ideas for songs that aren't necessarily based in reality, and I think that was a lot more fun for me to do because I'd never really done that before. It didn't feel right for all the songs to be break-up-type songs - they just felt more like the kind of songs that you would want to dance to and you wouldn't want to have a lyric that's super heavy, especially on 'such great heights.' I think 'such great heights' is the first time I've ever written a positive love song, where it's a song about being in love and how it's rad, rather than having your heart broken."
Though Gibbard is still committed to Death Cab and Tamborello is already hard at work on another Dntel album, the duo has penciled in a late-spring tour and plans to record again in the future.
"I told Jimmy, 'Whenever you start sending me stuff is when we'll start working on the next Postal Service record,'" says Gibbard. "I don't see any reason why it couldn't continue to be a project as long as Jimmy wants to do it."
"It seems so easy to do them and it doesn't take any time," says Tamborello. "And at this point I think we could do it where he just records everything up there and we could do even more through the mail."
By Marc Hawthorne, November 2002
--- from the official Postal Service website