September 5, 2023


The Enduring, Long-Distance Legacy of the Postal Service's 'Give Up' (Grant Sharples  Sep 5, 2023, The Ringer)

In the early aughts, indie music seemed full of possibilities. It was undergoing multiple regional renaissances: NYC's post-punk revival, the PNW's rainy sensitivity, Canadian "collectives" that were approaching double-digit member counts. Meanwhile, something else in indie music was brewing that would flout geography entirely.

Tamborello was working on his third album, 2001's Life Is Full of Possibilities, as Dntel, the alias he used to make electronic music. He was a fan of Gibbard's work with Death Cab for Cutie, so he asked a roommate of his, Pedro Benito of the Jealous Sound, to put him in touch with the singer to see if he'd want to collaborate. Gibbard was interested: He flew from his home in Seattle to Los Angeles to record some vocals, got along remarkably well with Tamborello, and hung out with him for a couple of days. And the Gibbard song that would make it onto Life Is Full of Possibilities, "(This Is) the Dream of Evan and Chan," is the first Postal Service tune in everything but name. It's got all the vital signifiers: jittery drum-machine beats; airy synthesizers; wistful, emotive vocals and lyrics. At some point, over the course of those few days in Los Angeles, Gibbard asked Tamborello a nonchalant yet imperative question:

"I turned to Jimmy and said, 'Would you want to do an EP of this? It's kind of fun,'" Gibbard says. "With Jimmy and his very understated way, he was like, 'Yeah, that sounds good. I can do that.'" They were planning on just a couple of songs, but when Kiewel caught wind of the project, he wanted Gibbard and Tamborello to take it a step further.

Kiewel, who was then an A&R rep for Sub Pop, was also a roommate of Tamborello's alongside Benito, so he was both personally and professionally involved. He brought "(This Is) the Dream of Evan and Chan" into a meeting and asked a question that would alter the landscape of indie music: If Gibbard and Tamborello were to make an entire album like this, would Sub Pop have any interest in putting it out? "Going into it, I could not have been more invested," Kiewel says. "We felt confident and excited about it because we're coming out of nowhere with this project."

Although Sub Pop was interested in a nonexistent record from these two musicians, they themselves thought little of it. That's not to say they regarded it as a trivial time-waster; it's more so that the album's low stakes contributed to an enjoyable, creative environment. Sub Pop didn't give them a deadline to submit it, so Gibbard and Tamborello were able to make music at their own pace, blissfully ignorant of the impact it would later have. Pressure was completely absent, as Gibbard and Tamborello repeatedly say.

"There wasn't a lot of thought that went into it or worry when we were making stuff, even though I didn't know [Gibbard] that well at the time," Tamborello recalls. "It was pretty easy just to send him instrumentals and see what he'd come up with. We established a working routine really quickly. Everything was really easygoing, and there were almost no rejected songs."

Though because Gibbard and Tamborello were living hundreds of miles apart, they had to experiment with unconventional songwriting techniques: Gibbard would receive a CD from Tamborello through UPS, and he'd walk around Seattle listening to what he'd just received, "dreaming up ideas for the song," he says. Once he'd gotten an idea of what he wanted to write, he'd head back to his attic studio and churn something out.

"It was a rare, creative collaboration where everything worked," Gibbard remembers. "I have never collaborated like that where someone else was providing me the music. In my own songwriting, for all intents and purposes, I'm writing all the music and then also writing the narrative, writing the lyrics, writing the melody. Half the work was being done by Jimmy, so I was able to daydream and let his musical bed dictate what the lyrics would be about."

The physical distance between the pair and the songwriting process are two reasons why Give Up continues to captivate fans. But no matter how quaint or rote the idea of mailing unfinished tracks back and forth reads in 2023, it was a novelty two decades ago, when the standard was for a bunch of musicians to hang out in a studio together. Although they have plenty of remote-working descendants, like the Foreign Exchange, Superorganism, and 100 gecs, the Postal Service were among the first of their kind. Every time Gibbard got a CD in the mail from Tamborello, it would say "PS" on the cover alongside a one-word adjective, like "wobbly," so Gibbard knew what to expect before diving in. It wasn't until it came time for mixing that in-person collaboration became a necessity.

"Near the end, when we were making final mixes, it was hard to do that long-distance because we weren't even sending audio over email or anything; it was all through the mail," Tamborello says. "It took a long time to get approval for mixes, and I could only mix one song at a time. I had to leave the board all set up for the specific song. I couldn't work on anything else until we said 'yes' or 'no' to a certain mix. I'd have to mail Ben a version. Then he'd say, 'Turn the snare up,' and then I'd turn it up and mail another version." To smooth things out, Gibbard flew back to Los Angeles, but, this time, another now-high-profile indie rocker was also on board.

Jenny Lewis was the frontwoman for Rilo Kiley at the time. She says she had been a big Death Cab for Cutie fan and, in a way, tried to follow in their footsteps. After Rilo Kiley finished recording their full-length debut, Take Offs and Landings, Lewis was trying to find labels that would put out the record. "At the time, I was obsessed with Modest Mouse, Death Cab, and all Pacific Northwestern indie rock, and I was a subscriber to the Sub Pop 7-inch singles club," Lewis says. In 2001, after looking at the back of a Death Cab CD and seeing the address for Death Cab's original label, Barsuk Records, Lewis immediately knew where to send Rilo Kiley's first album. The label flew some of its reps down to Los Angeles for a Rilo Kiley show, and two days later, she received a call from Josh Rosenfeld, who ran Barsuk. At that point, Rosenfeld delivered three pieces of big news:

1. He wanted to put out Take Offs and Landings.

2. He and Lewis were cousins.

3. Gibbard wanted her to sing for this new project he had.

Lewis, stunned by all the information that her cousin (!) just delivered, immediately agreed to work with Gibbard. Rosenfeld told her that she'd get a call from Gibbard soon. It wasn't until the band was in Nebraska working on their second record, The Execution of All Things, in March 2002 that she got the fateful phone call. Once they wrapped up the Execution recording sessions, it was time for Lewis to make the trek out west. "I had picked Ben up at the Burbank Airport in the Rilo Kiley van, this giant, 15-passenger red van," Lewis says. "He had asked me to pick him up from the airport, but I didn't know what he looked like." To work around this issue, Lewis requested that he hold up a sign with his own name on it. Ever since that moment, they've been great friends.

She recorded her vocals in Jimmy's bedroom, and Gibbard had already written the parts she would sing. She contributed to six of the 10 songs, including "Clark Gable," "Brand New Colony," and "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight," adding breezy vocals that gracefully fused with Tamborello's spacious compositions. Over a few days, the three musicians recorded, bonded, and grew closer; it's a time of Lewis's life that she looks back on fondly. "Forget about just my musical life, which has all these other things happening simultaneously, but it's such a wonderful reminder of the simplicity of that moment and the chemistry between Ben and Jimmy and the ease [with] which that music made it out into the world," she explains. "It's like it existed before it existed."

Posted by at September 5, 2023 12:00 AM