How did two musicians — one in L.A., one in Seattle — turn a long-distance collaboration into one of the unlikeliest platinum albums ever? Read on for the oral history of the Postal Service's 2003 cult classic, ''Give Up'' — and find out what's next.
2002 After meeting through friends, DJ/producer Jimmy Tamborello, a.k.a. Dntel, begins collaborating with Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard — whose band hasn’t yet released its MTV-approved, O.C.-soundtracking 2003 breakthrough, Transatlanticism. Tamborello mails the basis of the tracks to Gibbard, who sends them back with vocals, guitars, and keyboards (plus additional vocals from Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis and Jen Wood of Carissa’s Wierd). Neither Gibbard nor Tamborello has any idea that their lone album, 2003’s Give Up, will become a cultural touchstone of the ’00s co-opted by everything from McDonald’s to the movie Garden State — and, a decade later, still be selling thousands of copies a week.
TONY KIEWEL Sub Pop A&R Jimmy and I went to college together, and I had just started doing A&R at [renowned Seattle indie label and original home to Nirvana] Sub Pop. He told me that he and Ben were thinking about doing an EP. I was like, ”Do a full album. People will actually review it, and you can sell it for three times as much!”
BEN GIBBARD: We didn’t have a master plan as far as what kind of record we wanted to make or what kind of songs we needed, so I was just reacting to whatever Jimmy sent me.
KIEWEL: Jimmy would send the tracks to Sub Pop, and Ben would come by and pick up the CD-Rs. Ironically, they didn’t even use the U.S. Postal Service; they used UPS for everything. Or maybe FedEx.
JIMMY TAMBORELLO: It took about a year. We did it really casually and slowly. Ben came down to [L.A.] to record vocals, but we actually ended up using a lot of the demo recordings — we just liked them better.
KIEWEL: Sometimes Ben would go over to [Death Cab guitarist and producer Chris] Walla’s Seattle studio, the Hall of Justice, to record. Back when it was called Reciprocal, Nirvana did some recordings there, and Soundgarden. It’s nice now, but it was awful and tiny — there were rats running around and all these buses going by. But I love that there’s a weird tiny bit of room tone that is shared between Give Up and [Nirvana’s] Bleach.
TAMBORELLO: Ben and I were sending everything through the mail, but once it got to the mixing stage it was kind of too slow, so he came down twice to L.A.
JENNY LEWIS: I hadn’t met either Ben or Jimmy before we started recording in Jimmy’s bedroom in Los Angeles. Ben was holding up a sign that said ”Ben Gibbard” at the airport when I picked him up in Rilo Kiley’s 15-passenger van. We met Jimmy at a Mexican restaurant in Echo Park. He was getting over a really bad cold.
KIEWEL: It’s one of the cheapest records Sub Pop ever made. We had the tiniest budget. It’s probably not cool to say the exact number, but between the releases [we put out] that year — Hot Hot Heat, the Shins, Iron & Wine, David Cross, the Postal Service, all of which have sold hundreds of thousands of copies — I think it was less than $50,000 for all five of them.
FEBRUARY 2003 Give Up is released, and plans are made for a tour.
GIBBARD: It didn’t hit me until we got in the van to drive to San Diego for the first show. I remember looking in the rearview mirror and seeing all these strangers. Like, ”What have I gotten myself into? Who are these people?”
TAMBORELLO: There were six of us — it was a pretty full van.
LEWIS: The entire band, and our tour manager, [Death Cab bassist] Nick Harmer, stayed in one motel room. Jimmy and I shared a bed.
GIBBARD: We had a lot of trouble trying to get shows. Death Cab was fairly popular at that point, but people were like, ”So it’s this guy, and a guy from Death Cab and the girl from Rilo Kiley? And you’re doing what?”
TAMBORELLO: You could really see physical proof of the album getting popular as we went across the country. By the end a lot of the shows were being moved to bigger venues.
GIBBARD: [We were] in a honeymoon phase for 98 percent of the tour. We had a lot of fun, we drank a lot, and then we all went back to our day jobs. Things kind of got crazy after that.
Promotions for the album cease, but the momentum soon takes on a life of its own.
JEN WOOD: I was on [another] tour, and I realized that literally every venue we were playing, at some point in the night the Postal Service came on.
KIEWEL: We were told by radio people that ”Such Great Heights” had a high ”burn factor,” that people were going to get tired of it. For alternative, it was really light relative to Creed and stuff back then. Years later, I don’t understand why it’s still getting [radio] spins — hundreds a week.
TAMBORELLO: The turning point was when KROQ in L.A. started playing it.
KIEWEL: That was huge. And then Garden State was big. They weren’t in the movie, but they were in the trailer, and then the Iron & Wine cover was on the soundtrack. That version was also in the M&M’s commercial, which had an even higher profile. A lot of people still think the Postal Service covered an Iron & Wine song.
GIBBARD: Jimmy continued to send me music through the years. It became apparent to both of us that we had captured lightning in a bottle with that first record. I say this without any ego, but making Give Up was incredibly effortless; it was just this very unique moment. When we started trying to make a second one, there was a sense that we were making it out of obligation rather than out of the joy of doing it.
2013 Only months after Give Up finally reaches platinum status in 2012, the duo announce a re-formation and reissue the album with two brand-new songs.
KIEWEL: Give Up was weirdly prescient. Now you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an electro-pop band.
GIBBARD: One of the main reasons I wanted to reissue this record and play shows again was to take back a little bit of ownership of it…. Some Death Cab songs are 15 years old at this point, so they’ve been living alongside us. With this record, I basically made it and then put it away, so it’s strange — suddenly you blink and it’s 10 years later. But I guess that’s just life.