The Postal Service - Biography
The sunny electro-pop super duo Postal Service is a testament to the regularity of mail delivery along the American West Coast. Mail carriers should be proud, for if history hadn’t played itself out the way it did, the collaboration between Death Cab for Cutie’s leader Ben Gibbard and Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello might have been called Federal Express.
In 2001, Tamborello--he glitch and electronica cult hero also known variously as Dntel, James Figurine, and as the former bassist of indie group Strictly Ballroom--approached Gibbard about recording a vocal tract for the Dntel debut full-length album. Although he had never met Gibbard, Tamborello was a fan of Death Cab for Cutie’s emotionally charged indie rock. Within the week, Gibbard traveled from Seattle to Los Angeles and recorded vocals against the lush and swirling soundscape of "(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan" in less than in hour. The song appeared on Dntel’s Life Is Full of Possibilities (2001 Plug Research), and inspired an EP of remixes by Barbara Morgenstern, Erlend Øye, Lali Puna, and Superpitcher, which was released the following year as This is the Dream of Evan and Chan (2002 Plug Research).
Realizing that their collaborative efforts were full of possibilities, Tamborello and Gibbard discussed the idea of recording an EP of further mind melds. Tony Kiewel, an A&R representative from the Seattle-based independent label Sub Pop, caught wind of the news and proposed that they record a full-length album. Over the next ten months, Tamborello and Gibbard worked on the album in piecemeal using the United States Postal Service as their main conduit of collaboration. Tamborello sent CDs and DATs full of unconventional synth-pop instrumentals from Los Angeles to Seattle, where Gibbard added guitars and vocal tracts of his original lyrics. In homage to their method of communication and creation, they chose to name the project Postal Service.
The duo teamed up in a Los Angeles studio for a few finishing touches and to record vocal tracts with Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley) and Jen Wood (Tattle Tale, Jen Wood Trio). Chris Walla, the guitarist for Death Cab for Cutie, produced the album and also contributed by playing guitar and piano for several songs.
Although it was seemingly just the beginning for the Postal Service, their debut hit the world with the loaded title Give Up (2003 Sub Pop Records). The ten song album quickly became Sub Pop’s second biggest release (after Nirvana’s Bleach), placing first on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers and Top Electronic Albums charts, and third on the Top Independent Albums chart. Give up’s synth-dominated nouveau-New Wave sound caught on quickly with critics and fans alike. Gibbard’s earnest vocals and lyrics add a sensitive touch to Tamborello’s glitchy panoply of sounds and beats, resulting in infectious and touching pop music. The uncanny results bridged fans of Death Cab’s introverted Emo rock with fans of edgy electronica.
Several singles generated from the album, including "We Will Become Silhouettes,” which charted at 88 on Billboard’s Top 100. The catchy “Such Great Heights” became widely known from its appearance in Kaiser Permanente and (gasp!) UPS commercials. Give up eventually sold over 650,000 copies.
The overwhelming popularity of Postal Service was not without its drawbacks. In 2003, the fate of the duo’s clever name fell into jeopardy when the United States Postal Service asserted its claim on the trademark of the phrase in a cease and desist letter. In a 2004 interview with the The New York Times, Sub Pop’s Tony Kiewel described the letter from USPS as “…really polite. It said that the Postal Service is a registered trademark of the United States Postal Service, and that though they were very, very flattered that we were using the name, they need to enforce their copyright.”
An agreement was reached by November of the following year that proved to be positive for both parties. The USPS allowed the band to continue using the name Postal Service in return for promotional considerations such as placing a message about the trade mark on future albums, selling Give Up on the USPS website (with split profits, of course), and the use of their songs in USPS commercials. Postal Service even played at the Postmaster General’s annual National Executive Conference in 2004. The media attention this unconventional agreement attracted, plus the exposure to a wider audience, won Postal Service many new fans and boosted album sales. Perhaps the partnership even boosted the coolness factor of mail carries. One can only speculate.
Two years later, controversy and media attention struck again due to Josh Melnick and Xander Charity, the directors of Postal Service’s video “Such Great Hights.” In 2006, Melnick and Charity made a commercial for Apple, Inc. and Intel featuring footage that was extremely similar to the footage used in their video for Postal Service. Although Gibbard and Tamborello did not take legal action against the filmmakers, Apple, or Intel, a statement was issued on the Postal Service website denying their consent to the project and expressing their disappointment.
Although Give Up is their only full-length album to date, Postal Service regularly lends their talent to other projects by contributing remixes and cover songs. In 2004, they recorded an invigorating cover of Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds” for the film Wicker Park. In 2007, the cover was named one of the best covers of all time by the New York Post. Also in 2007, their version of “Grow Old With Me” appeared on Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur (2007 Warner), a compilation of John Lennon covers benefiting Amnesty International’s aid to Dafur.
Postal Service’s remixes have appeared on albums by The Flaming Lips, Azure Ray, Feist, The Rolling Stones, The Cribs, and on the compilation of Verve classics Verve Remixed, Vol. 3 (2005 Verve), for which they remixed Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue.” The juxtaposition of Simone’s rich and smoky voice with Postal Service’s upbeat synths and pinging beats makes the track one of the most memorable of the collection.
Tamborello and Gibbard continue to record and tour with their respective projects, but fans, critics, and the USPS wait with baited breath for Postal Service to make another full-length delivery.