The Postal Service’s special delivery for fans
The members of the electro-pop group the Postal Service have slightly different recollections about what exactly they were doing just before playing this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. But they each remember the night clearly.
Keyboardist and arranger Jimmy Tamborello was “lying down trying not to think about it. It was the most stressful show I’ve ever played, but it was almost a relief right before going onstage, because it was so close to being over.” Vocalist Jenny Lewis said she was “backstage looking at Ben [Gibbard] and looking at Jimmy and getting so emotional and telling myself, ‘No crying in electronic music!’”
Lead singer and songwriter Gibbard? “I was watching a boxing match on the bus. There’s just no way to prepare for a show like that.”
That’s the power of the Postal Service’s heartfelt laptop pop. These songs, whether you’re hearing them on an ancient mixtape or playing them live to 90,000 people, can bring back powerful memories.
For hipsters in high school or college at the time, the band’s 2003 album, “Give Up,” has a fond, amber glow. Driven by the sweet-hearted single “Such Great Heights,” the album became one of the decade’s biggest indie successes. It went platinum on Sub Pop (the label’s second-biggest seller behind Nirvana’s “Bleach”) despite the band playing only a small run of club shows at the time, and never touring again until this year.
Yet at Coachella, tens of thousands of fans coupled up on the lawn and sang along to every word — at the group’s fourth show in 10 years. The members all have their own popular day jobs (Gibbard in Death Cab for Cutie, Tamborello with Dntel and Lewis with her solo work and in Jenny and Johnny). But they’re finally revisiting the record for its 10th anniversary. They’ll be playing the Greek Theatre on Tuesday and Wednesday.
For a millennial generation already nostalgiac for the pop culture of its youth, the return of the Postal Service is like finding a dorm-room love letter — or, more likely today, a note from an old crush in your Gmail archive.
Since “Give Up” became a mid-'00s phenomenon, Gibbard and Tamborello had been unable to escape the question of when they’d follow it up. Over several interviews this month, the band was funny and self-aware about how long it took to return to action. “Every single interview I’ve done for 10 years has ended with the reporter saying, ‘OK, I just have one more question’,” Gibbard joked..
He never had a straight answer for that, because he never imagined the band getting big enough to need one.
At the time they made “Give Up,” Gibbard and Tamborello were resolutely working-class musicians, playing club shows in their own projects and earning touts from a then-nascent Pitchfork. Prompted by a praised early collaboration — Dntel’s 2001 song "(This Is) The Dream of Evan & Chan” — they wrote an album by mailing session files between Tamborello’s Silver Lake home studio and Gibbard in Seattle (Yes, kids, through the actual U.S. Postal Service).
The album paired Gibbard’s melancholy pop melodies and lyrics about thwarted young love with Tamborello’s jittery but inviting electronic arrangements. They formed an ad hoc live band with Lewis, who sang pristine harmonies on the record, and hit the road for a fun round of 200-seat venues. They went back to their main bands and thought that probably would be the end of it.
But then weird things happened. There was the well-placed cover of “Such Great Heights” in the hit movie “Garden State,” and an Apple ad homage to that song’s music video (one the band didn’t approve of). The band got a trademark-infringement cease-and-desist notice from the actual U.S. Postal Service, which they resolved by playing a conference for post office employees. Mainstream rock radio unexpectedly embraced the band, and with the ascent of indie music blogging and file-sharing on school campuses, kids found the record. Millions of them.
“I first heard The Postal Service around the end of eighth grade. They fit the entire checklist for the perfect band I begged the world to deliver,” said Will Wiesenfeld, the 24-year-old frontman of the L.A. electronic act Baths, who will open both Greek Theatre shows. “There are very few albums that I come to for reference as much as ‘Give Up’.”
The album helped turn Gibbard into an international rock star and comfortably set up the more-reserved Tamborello for a life making experimental electronica. It revitalized a then-struggling Sub Pop, and set a precedent for indie rock records competing with the majors on their own terms.
“Back then, selling 100,000 records was ‘indie gold,’ and we used to make ‘wood record’ plaques for bands, and we were super proud of that,” said Tony Kiewel, Sub Pop’s head of artists and repertoire. “But that record opened our eyes to what was possible — now, gold is ‘indie gold’.”
Kiewel said that even before the Postal Service’s reunion, “Give Up” was still selling around 400 copies a week. That figure has jumped to around 1,500 a week since the tour announcement, and the album was platinum-certified last year, an accolade no one saw coming at the time. “I remember pushing ‘Such Great Heights’ to commercial rock radio and being told it was too sugary and people would get sick of it so fast,” he Kiewel said. “One programmer took one listen and said, ‘This is too gay for our audience.’ I had no idea what to even say to say back to that.”
It took a decade for the duo to want to revisit what Gibbard called “this strange blip in all of our discographies.” They’d all moved on musically, and though they stayed friends, they gradually lost contact as their respective bands took off.
“I’m not good at keeping touch; we always see each other when we’re in town, but it’s like any friend that lives somewhere else,” Tamborello said. “I’m the kind of person that needs to be working a project to see other people.”
But they knew these 10 songs still had a lightning-in-a-bottle kind of charm, and the record’s 10th anniversary seemed as appropriate an occasion as any to revive it. The duo finally had to answer the question they’d been avoiding in interviews for 10 years.
Nobody in the band will guarantee that this is the last hurrah for the Postal Service. But they do imply that fans should probably treat these shows, which are listed to wrap up Aug. 4 in Chicago, as such.
“I don’t know that there’s going to be another Postal Service record,” Gibbard said. “But I did come to realize that we had made the record, and then we were gone, and I didn’t really know where we left it all. This tour is about giving people a chance to finally hear these songs live, and also to do this for ourselves.”
Everything has changed around the band in the meantime. Gibbard has gotten sober and married and divorced actor-singer Zooey Deschanel; Tamborello released a spate of progressive electronica albums under his many aliases; and as Lewis’ band Rilo Kiley dissolved, she found acclaim as a country-leaning solo artist.
This tour is taking the group to major amphitheaters (including the 6,000-seat Greek) with three buses, an additional touring member (vocalist Laura Burhenn) and a massive light rig devoted to this little bedroom record. “I’ve never done a big tour before; this isn’t real life for any of us,” Tamborello said. “But in a way, it takes all the stress out. We don’t have anything to ‘promote’; all we have to do is go out and have fun.”
The group has spent the last decade being confused, torn and ultimately grateful for this odd little album. It’s the project band members put the least amount of promotional effort into, yet which might be the most popular thing they’ll ever record.
“I’ve come to terms with that fact,” Gibbard said. “You don’t get to determine what you’re known for. I’ve been blessed to play with three of my best friends in Death Cab, but also to have made a record with people who became some of my best friends, and 10 years later, people still want to hear us play it.”
If the drum clatter of “This Place Is a Prison” and screwball-comedy duets of “Nothing Better” brings fans in 2013 back to a simpler, sweeter time in their lives, they should know it does the same thing for the band.
“I remember on that first Postal Service tour, I slept in hotel beds with Jimmy with a pillow barrier between us,” Lewis said. “I still love the record. Whenever that first organ sound comes in, it still gives me chills.”
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