How music that began as computerized blips, beeps, whirs and pops in a Silver Lake bedroom became the anthem for experimentalists and do-it-yourselfers is more than a story of serendipity.
Yes, the success of the Postal Service reflects the nature of the music, who made it and how it was disseminated. But the stealthy ascension of the album “Give Up” toward gold-record status, as mind-boggling as it remains, also attests to the power of word of mouth and perhaps informs us as to whom music ultimately belongs: the listener.
“This has been such a triumph of the mouse over the elephant,” says Tony Kiewel, the Sub Pop Records A&R; representative who watched the album, released two years ago next month, creep toward 500,000 in sales with a fraction of the promotion afforded major-label projects, with only brief touring and, indeed, with no actual “band” to support the product.
“I feel like I’ve witnessed multiple lightning strikes. The whole thing is absurd.”
Part bedroom pop jewel, part dance record, “Give Up” charms with soaring vocals and clean melodies, its confessionals bereft of the bombast in the rock marketplace. Yet its agitated electronic underpinnings elevate the material beyond the realm of singer-songwriter -- the sound is stripped-down New Order for a new order of musicians.
And at a time the industry debates the how-tos of artist development, the Postal Service offers a study in what can be achieved organically, not to mention economically.
The random intersection of two seemingly disparate careers -- those of charismatic Seattle singer-songwriter Benjamin Gibbard, 28, of the indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie, and introverted electronic music guru Jimmy Tamborello, 29, of Los Angeles -- the Postal Service has lived a story rich with lore.
The songs were written largely by correspondence, with the parties exchanging CD-Rs via U.S. mail. The album earned its ironic title because “it was such a fake band,” Tamborello says. The single “Such Great Heights” found its way onto radio, including L.A.'s influential KROQ-FM, as support rooted in the indie community spread to a mainstream audience open to hearing a different brand of pop.
And the Postal Service got big enough that it heard from lawyers for the real U.S. Postal Service, objecting to the name despite its origins as a homage.
Some 486,000 copies later, the Postal Service album is still on the charts, with another single, “We Will Become Silhouettes,” set for release next week. The song will be supported by a retro-cool video conceived and produced by “Napoleon Dynamite” director Jared Hess.
The lawyers have been satisfied, part of the agreement being that the band perform a two-song set (with de facto third member Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley lending her vocals) for 900 executives at November’s USPS convention in Washington, D.C.
And both Gibbard, whose Death Cab for Cutie released a successful album and signed to a major label while the side project mushroomed, and Tamborello, slowly working on his next album under his nom de electronica Dntel, are tired of fielding questions about a Postal Service follow-up. (It’s probably more than a year away.)
“The whole thing still doesn’t make much sense,” Tamborello says.
Now everybody can go back to pinching themselves.
The party continues
One beer-drenched weekend four years ago, Gibbard visited L.A. to hang out with a guy he’d met while touring -- Pedro Bonito, guitarist for the band the Jealous Sound. Bonito introduced him to his then-roommate Tamborello, who was working on his collaborator-heavy Dntel album “Life Is Full of Possibilities.”
By the end of Gibbard’s visit, the pair had created the song "(This Is) the Dream of Evan and Chan.”
“You knew it was going to be something special,” Bonito says. “The way Jimmy can articulate a feeling through music and the way Ben can write lyrics, it’s amazing.”
Says Gibbard, “Once we navigated each other’s personalities, we realized we had a dynamic. We kinda didn’t want the party to stop.”
It didn’t, thanks to Sub Pop’s Kiewel, who knew Tamborello from their college days at Loyola Marymount’s radio station KXLU-FM and remembers him as “a prodigy who walked in at age 18 and blew people’s minds with his musical knowledge.”
Kiewel sold his superiors at the Seattle-based label on the project based solely on “Evan and Chan.” Then the mailings began. Tamborello committed his complex beats to CD and sent the work to Gibbard, who was on hiatus from Death Cab for Cutie after releasing and touring behind that quartet’s third collection, “The Photo Album.”
“Jimmy would include self-effacing comments like, ‘I don’t think this is any good, but give it a shot,’ ” Gibbard says of the instrumental music he received. Samples, keyboard, computer noises, fuzz -- Tamborello wove them all so intricately that the line between melody and rhythm blurs.
Atop that base Gibbard added guitar and lyrics that at the time surprised even himself.
“It was different, being in front of a computer instead of in a studio with a room full of guys to answer to,” he says. “You’re able to write about things and try things you’ve never tried before.”
“It felt like we were making the album in such an underground setting,” says Tamborello, acknowledging he was excited when he got the return packages from Seattle. “I liked how simple and how heart-on-the-sleeve his lyrics were.”
“Such Great Heights,” for instance, starts with a moment right out of a Valentine’s Day card:
I am thinking it’s a sign
that the freckles in our eyes
are mirror images and when we kiss
they’re perfectly aligned
Including touches by Death Cab multi-instrumentalist and producer Chris Walla, “Give Up” was completed about 10 months later with studio sessions to add vocals (with contributions from solo artist Jen Wood and Lewis) and to mix. “In the grand scheme of record deals, it was the cheapest record I’ve ever been involved in putting out,” Kiewel says. Sub Pop hoped to sell 40,000 copies of the album. Now, if only they could move a few units.
The collaborators knew something was up when they started their brief and only tour in spring 2003. The venues ahead of them kept getting bigger. And even after the tour, “Give Up” continued its grassroots growth, fueled by buzz on the Internet.
Radio stations started adding “Such Great Heights.” Mass retailers began stocking the album. And home computers hummed with downloads. The appeal seemed to be cross-generational.
“It’s the hoody sweatshirt of music,” Kiewel says. “Anybody can wear it -- a kid or a soccer mom.”
“It’s one of those songs that won’t die,” says Matt Smith, music director at KROQ, which first played the single in late 2003 after it was recommended to program director Kevin Weatherly; the station still gets steady requests for it. “Even with all of the music we’re playing right now, it still stands out.... Among other things that might sound abrasive, here’s this nice, soothing song in the mix.”
Says Tamborello, characteristically self-deprecating: “It seems so low-fi and homemade that it just doesn’t seem like something a big audience would be interested in. It doesn’t sound like real music to me. If you play it against other songs, it sounds less substantial. Even when I hear the song on KROQ, it sounds really wrong -- like it’s being played on a cassette.”
It was underdog pop that actually sounds underdog, music that made it hip to be twee. “The music is so intensely personal,” Kiewel says. “I think there’s something intimate about what Jimmy does. With the melody and what Ben adds in his vocals, it has an epic, sweeping qual- ity.”
And it kept winning fans, as Gibbard points out, “without a band out there furiously promoting themselves.”
The stamp of approval
Two years later, the principals have moved on while acknowledging they want to collaborate again.
After the success of Death Cab for Cutie’s fourth album, “Transatlanticism” (released by Barsuk Records, it has sold 268,000 copies) the band was signed to Atlantic.
Gibbard is working on DCfC’s major-label debut.
Tamborello contributed electronic backing to the songs “Accidntel Death” on last year’s Rilo Kiley album and “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” on this month’s Bright Eyes release “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.” Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst is among the guest vocalists on Tamborello’s next Dntel album, which he hopes to finish this year.
Besides the USPS convention, the only Postal Service sightings in 2004 included a set at the summer’s Sasquatch Festival near Seattle and the endearing performance of just one song, “Such Great Heights,” before Rilo Kiley’s concert in July at the Ford Amphitheatre.
And “Give Up” churns along as Sub Pop’s second-best seller of all time behind Nirvana’s debut, “Bleach.”
“Something special is happening, to this day,” Kiewel says. “We’re still getting 150,000 to 200,000 downloads a week from our website. We’ve had over 3 million people download that song. Yet it’s our No. 1 seller on iTunes -- and it’s available for free.
“People feel really personal about this band in a way I’ve never seen.”