Pop signed, sealed, delivered by The Postal Service

By Tom Zimpleman

I’ve always been a big fan of pop music in general,” Benjamin Gibbard told me in the middle of our interview. The singer-songwriter, whose main gig is with Death Cab for Cutie, probably the most prominent contemporary indie-pop band, was responding to a specific question about musical influences on the Postal Service—his collaboration with Jimmy Tamborello, of Dntel and Figurine fame. However, it is also a pretty good description of the music that Gibbard makes. It is even the sort of line one would expect to hear on the Postal Service’s new album, Give Up, which plays like a music aficionado’s unsettling dreams.

To put the quote into its fuller context: “I’ve always been a big fan of pop music in general, so I don’t think there was something I was specifically drawing off of–‘Oh, I would love to have this like this,’–so much as when Jimmy was sending me stuff it was kind of ’80s themed, full-on-the-floor dance music,” he says. “So, I think if there was an influence, it would probably be that era of music.” Indeed, writers have exhausted themselves finding ’80s dance-pop acts to reference when speaking about the Postal Service (I likened them to Alphaville). Most of this, as Gibbard suggested, is due to Tamborello’s dense production, which blends disco beats, video game music, and ambient droning into distinctly danceable combinations (although this might be a heresy among Tamborello’s IDM brethren, it makes heresy sound damn appealing). Some of this is also due to Gibbard’s sparkling vocals, which soar above the surrounding production; and some is due to the more traditional guitar and keyboard work that he added to Tamborello’s original tracks, in much the same way that ’80s acts blended drum machines, alto register vocals, and major-key guitar work.

Although it has a distinct predecessor in the not-too-distant past, some critics have hailed IDM-indie pop combinations as a way forward. “I don’t think I’ve thought about it too much,” Gibbard said when I asked about those writers–like some staffers at Pitchfork Media–who have branded the return of dance pop as the new thing. “This kind of working relationship and this kind of project was something that sort of fell into our laps, and we were just like, ‘Oh, this will be fun, let’s do it.’ I think by the very nature of the way that I tend to approach music–you know, being in a band–I think, ‘It would be good to add some drums here,’ or ‘Some guitary bits here and there.’ So I think maybe my bleeding over the top of Jimmy’s almost holistically electronic stuff kind of makes it that, but I haven’t given any thought to whether it’s something that people will be doing in the future.”

As you may have guessed, the idea of the Postal Service collaboration began rather simply, as just a fun thing to do. Gibbard first worked with Tamborello on “(This is) The Dream of Evan and Chan,” from Dntel’s first album, 2001’s Life is Full of Possibilities. “I met him through a mutual friend, and he wanted me to do a song for his Dntel record. So we just kind of met that way and we did that song and had a good time, and we decided to try to expand out and do a project.” Even that expanded project was originally seen as something less than a full album. “When I was down in LA hanging out with everybody we just said, ‘Hey, maybe we could do an EP,'” Gibbard said. “We kind of decided to do an EP or something like that just for fun, and when Sub Pop got wind of it and got interested, we decided to expand it out and do a full-length.”

Work on the album was carried out remotely–hence the band name, which refers to their habit of mailing songs back and forth–in Seattle (Gibbard’s home), and Los Angeles (Tamborello’s home). “He would just send me CD-Rs with a couple of songs, and I would put them in my computer and edit them down until I felt it was necessary for what I wanted to do to it, and then I would just kind of do a demo based on what he sent me that I would send him and then get his thoughts on it.”

Fans can probably notice the effects of this method of working in some of the lyrics, which wander in and out of ideas, playing off of Tamborello’s somnambulant tracks. “Sleeping In” literally describes a pair of dreams–one about the Kennedy assassination, the other about global warming–while the narrator of “We Will Become Silhouettes” sits inside a bomb shelter, simultaneously describing the effects of both a bad breakup and a more widespread ecological disaster: “The air outside will make our cells divide at an alarming rate until our shells simply cannot hold all our insides in, and that’s when we’ll explode (and it won’t be a pretty sight).” Are the fantastic qualities of the lyrics due to something he heard in the CD-Rs? “The whole project, I was just responding to whatever Jimmy would send me. I would kind of get the CDs in the mail and walk around and listen to them and let my mind wander. Being that that was the method through which I wrote a lot of the lyrics, it lent itself to kind of fantastic scenarios to write about.”

The duo is out on tour now, and the quality of the live show might be something of a question, especially for fans unfamiliar with IDM sets (I confess to having no clue as to how a Postal Service concert would work). “The setup that we have now is Jimmy behind laptop and keyboards, and Jenny in Rilo Kiley and I both have guitars and keyboards, and I brought a small drum set that I’ll go back and forth and play. I’ll play along and sing behind the drum set. Nick in Death Cab is on the tour and manning all of the visuals.” Due to the limited number of songs, the set, with accompanying visuals, will be the same on each night of the tour.

While nothing definite is planned, Gibbard and Tamborello have discussed the possibility of future Postal Service projects. “We’ve kind of taken it on a day-by-day basis. We’ve talked about ideas for the next record but there’s been nothing that’s the extent of the conversations about it. There’s definitely no take-over-the-world kind of manifesto. It’s just kind of like, ‘Ah, we made a record,’ you know, ‘and now we’re on tour.’ So maybe in the future when everything settles down we’ll think, ‘Yeah, let’s make another record.’ So it hasn’t been discussed at length quite yet.”

The next album from Gibbard’s full-time commitment, Death Cab for Cutie, can be expected sometime in the fall. “We’re looking at the first week of October. We’ve got almost all of it done. When Nick and I get back in early May, it’s kind of the crunch time to finish a couple of tunes.” Is there any cross-pollination from this foray into electronic music? “No, not at all. Death Cab for Cutie’s always been a strictly analog band, and…Chris [Walla, Death Cab for Cutie’s guitar player and producer] has always been a staunchly analog engineer. I think if there’s any crossover, it’s from watching Jimmy do a lot of the textual things he does, whether it’s with Dntel or Figurine, and thinking, ‘There’s a lot of great elements, how can we bring those elements in,’ not necessarily digitally, but it’s more, ‘That’s a really cool sound,’ or ‘That’s an idea or arrangement that it would be interesting to try with Death Cab.'”

I was curious to know which of the 10 songs, at the moment, was Gibbard’s personal favorite. “I think ‘This Place is a Prison’ is probably my favorite, just because that was the one, even though it was kind of pre-constructed when I went down to LA, we kind of sat together and worked out the arrangements, so I think that would probably be my favorite because of that reason.” In other words, it was just fun to make the song. At the end of the day, that describes what pop music is all about, anyway.

The Postal Service will perform at the Abbey Pub on