The Postal Service's 'Give Up': An oral history of the indie side project that became an aughties touchstone -- and a platinum seller
Last week, the Postal Service released Give Up: Deluxe 10th Anniversary Edition, a two-disc version of their platinum-selling (it only took nine years!) sole album, and they celebrated by kicking off a new tour that includes a prominent slot at Coachella.
EW caught up with all the principals involved in the creation of Give Up for an oral history that appeared in issue 1255/56, but we couldn’t get it all in in print, so enjoy this expanded version here.
2001 Jimmy Tamborello releases his first full-length album as Dntel, Life Is Full of Possibilities. The acclaimed indie electronic collection features a song called “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan” with vocals by Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard.
JIMMY TAMBORELLO One of my roommates was in a band that went on tour with Death Cab for Cutie, so Ben and my roommate had become friends. Ben was going to come stay at our house for a couple of days for fun, and it was right when I was working on this album with different guest vocalists. So I asked him if he’d be up for it, and I sent him the instrumental and when he came to visit he recorded it. We hung out and had fun, and that’s where it started.
BEN GIBBARD It wasn’t as if we really connected personally all that strongly when we first met. It was just an interesting arrangement that he would send me this music and he would let me put whatever I wanted to put on it. “Evan and Chan” came together really quickly, and the only thing I had on it was vocals.
TAMBORELLO Ben brought up the idea of doing more together—like an EP or something.
GIBBARD Initially the idea I pitched to him was an EP, and it was only when Sub Pop started sniffing around that it turned into an album.
TONY KIEWEL, Sub Pop A&R Jimmy and I went to college together. He told me they were thinking about doing an EP based on the experience of “Evan and Chan.” I had just started doing A&R, and I had recently learned how the world treats an EP as opposed to an LP. Why would you waste time making an EP? If you’re going to do it, do a full album. People will review it, and you can sell it for three times as much. I told them for sure Sub Pop would want to do it if that was something they wanted to do.
GIBBARD The music has always been the more difficult thing for me to write, so the idea of somebody basically turning in what were mostly finished beds of music and then I could sprinkle other things on top of it and write melodies and lyrics was really appealing to me. He was nice and easy-going and a kind of shy quiet guy, and I’m a little more gregarious, so I think that worked too.
2002 Operating out of Los Angeles, Tamborello begins the process of sending Seattle-dwelling Gibbard music, which Gibbard would then send back with his additions—which included guitars, keyboards, and additional vocals by friends Jen Wood and Jenny Lewis.
GIBBARD We really didn’t know where we were going with it. 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 to 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. I still have all these old versions of the old beats.
TAMBORELLO They were pretty complete. They definitely weren’t just a drum beat. Most of the music was there—you would definitely recognize those songs from those original instrumentals.
GIBBARD The first couple things he sent me that ended up starting Give Up were I believe “Brand New Colony” and “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.” Those came together really quickly, like over the course of a week.
KIEWEL Ben would mix in his stuff and mail it back to Jimmy, and he would take another pass at it and mail it back to Ben. Jimmy’s natural inclination is more of a post-rock structure. Things build slowly to a big climax. Whereas Ben is more steeped in traditional verse-chorus-verse structures. Not all of them got cut up that way, but probably a fair number of them. He did most of them in his room, or sometimes he’d go over to Chris Walla’s 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.
JEN WOOD, Vocals on “Nothing Better” I used to play shows with Death Cab, and Ben and I have been friends for a long time. One day out of the blue sent me an e-mail asking me if I wanted to sing on this project that he was working on with his buddy Jimmy. I went down to Walla’s studio, the Hall of Justice, and Ben was so clear on his vision and what he wanted. I was there for maybe two hours. I didn’t sing for that long, a lot of it was just hanging out laughing. It was all very light-hearted and fun. There was no pressure on it to be something massive, to be this thing.
GIBBARD I was also writing the songs that would become Transatlanticism, which ended up being the big breakthrough for Death Cab for Cutie.
KIEWEL They would go two or three songs at a time over the course of probably six months, and they did one mixing pass together in Jimmy’s bedroom.
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.
TAMBORELLO It took about a year. We did it really casually and slowly. He came down to record vocals and to oversee recording the back-up vocals by Jenny. We ended up not using a lot of the vocals we recorded here of him. A lot of the demo recordings—we just liked them better. So we used a lot of those. The second time he came down was during mixing. We were sending everything through the mail, and it was fine when we were bouncing the tracks back and forth, but once it got to the mixing stage, it was kind of too slow to send him a mix and then have him say “Try turning this up?
KIEWEL It’s one of the cheapest records Sub Pop has ever made. We had the tiniest budget. It’s probably not cool to say the exact number, but between the releases that year—Hot Hot Heat, the Shins, Iron & Wine, David Cross, and the Postal Service—all of which have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, I think it was less than 50 grand for all five of them.
February 2003 Give Up gets released, and the Postal Service—Gibbard, Tamborello, Lewis, along with Death Cab for Cutie bassist Nick Harmer handling visuals and management—plot a brief tour.
GIBBARD When we were trying to book that tour, we had a lot of trouble trying to get shows. Death Cab was fairly popular at that point, but trying to explain what the project was, a lot of people weren’t biting on it. 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 There were six of us—we also had a merch guy and the opening act, this guy Cex. It was a pretty full van, and we were all still pretty new to each other, but it was really fun.
LEWIS The entire band, and our tour manager, Nick Harmer, stayed in one motel room. Jimmy and I shared a bed.
GIBBARD It didn’t hit me until we got in the van to drive to San Diego for the first show and I remember driving and looking in the rearview mirror and seeing all these strangers. Like, “What have I gotten myself into? Who are these people?”
KIEWEL They sold out probably half those shows, and there were second shows added in a couple of places. Venues got bumped up too.
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, which was exciting.
GIBBARD For the majority of that tour, we avoided most of the trappings of a band. When you’re traveling and living on top of people for a long time, people start to get on your nerves and their affectations and their habits start to become annoying. The vast majority of that tour, we all got along really well. We never didn’t get along, but it was that honeymoon phase for 98 percent of the tour. We had fun. We drank a lot.
TAMBORELLO I don’t think our live sound was that great. We didn’t have a touring sound guy with us. Maybe more people would have danced if we sounded a little bigger.
KIEWEL The tour was going crazy, and college radio was hyper-receptive. That all went really well, and it just kept going.
GIBBARD Five weeks in America and a couple in Europe, and that was that. It was a really fun tour, and then we all went back to our day jobs. Things kind of got crazy after that.
With the tour finished, the Postal Service cease promoting the album, but the momentum takes on a life of its own, getting co-opted by everything from McDonald’s to the movie Garden State.
TAMBORELLO The big turning point was when KROQ in Los Angeles started playing “Such Great Heights.”
KIEWEL KROQ adding the song was huge. I don’t think we’ve had as successful a radio campaign, at least at alternative, since “Such Great Heights.” 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&Ms commercial, which had an even higher profile. A lot of people still think Postal Service covered an Iron & Wine song.
WOOD I was on tour as a hired gun with a band called Aveo, supporting Keane on their first U.S. tour. I realized that literally every venue we were playing, at some point in the night the Postal Service came on. And it was just this snowball effect—it just got bigger and bigger and bigger.
KIEWEL We were told by radio people that “Such Great Heights” had a high “burn factor,” that it wasn’t going to age well and that people were going to get tired of it. For alternative, it was really light, relative to what was happening with Creed and stuff then. Years later, I don’t understand why it’s still getting spins—hundreds a week.
GIBBARD The licensing on Give Up was just so crazy. It didn’t come with a sense of, “Oh my gosh, we got this license with UPS and that’s a testament to how big the album is and what a success it’s been.” It’s like, “They’re gonna pay us some money to use this song? Sure, why not?”
TAMBORELLO We had a few times where we tried to start another record, and it would always die off for one reason or another.
GIBBARD Jimmy continued to send me a lot of his music throughout the years we were not making records. It just became apparent to both of us that we had really captured lightning in a bottle with that first record. I say this without any ego, but making Give Up was incredibly effortless. There was little struggle. Everything we tried worked. There wasn’t a lot of hand-wringing and hair pulling out. It was just this moment that was very inspired and unique. When we started trying to make a second one, there was a sense that we were making a second record out of obligation rather than out of the joy of doing it.
KIEWEL Every time Death Cab finished a cycle, there would be an attempt. But it became more contentious over time because people kept asking Ben about it in interviews.
GIBBARD Moving into 2005-2006, Death Cab had signed to Atlantic, I was in my own world trying to navigate this transition from being on an independent label to a major. It was the first time in my life that somebody was paying attention to what I was doing and anticipating what I was doing, and at the time I played it off, but it was a difficult time for me and for Death Cab. That ate up all my emotional space. I didn’t have the time, and frankly I didn’t feel like I could spare any creative energy.
KIEWEL By then Ben was getting annoyed with it, and he wanted to say there wasn’t going to be one so that people would stop asking.
TAMBORELLO In 2006 or 2007 we started “A Tattered Line of String” and “Turn Around.” I had a bigger batch of instrumentals then. That was the closest we got to getting something together, but we only finished those two songs. I think at that point we did it mostly over the Internet.
GIBBARD I still have a folder on my desktop of stuff that Jimmy sent me that I never finished and probably never will.
2013 Shortly after celebrating their only album’s platinum status, the Postal Service announce a reformation, with a 10th anniversary reissue of Give Up and a new tour.
KIEWEL We thought we were being overly ambitious when we were saying, “You know, I think this could do 15,000.” Meanwhile, ten years later, we’re still doing thousands of copies a week.
GIBBARD One of the main reasons I wanted to go out and celebrate this record and reissue it and play some shows again was to take back a little bit of ownership of the record. It’s something that is a large part of my personal catalog, but it’s something I have very little connection to because it hasn’t existed in my life the same way my band has.
TAMBORELLO It’s almost like I’ve never stopped talking about it. Any time I do an interview for anything, it’s definitely brought up. That’s the headline that comes out of it. But I don’t mind.
KIEWEL Both of them have mixed feelings about looking backwards, but at the same time, maybe also appreciating that this was a real pure thing and worth looking back on.
WOOD They were so progressive with what they were doing with that project that they didn’t even realize they were doing something revolutionary.
KIEWEL It was weirdly prescient. It certainly does seem like the influences they were mining are much cooler now than it was then. It’s not like now where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an electro-pop band.
GIBBARD It happened, and people went crazy for it, but I was never able to find a sense of ownership and accomplishment and pride in how people enjoyed the record because I wasn’t there to experience it with them. We are spending a fairly good amount of the money we’re making on presenting this show in a way that’ll make it worth the wait. I can only imagine it’ll be a very cathartic moment not only for us but for an audience that has been waiting to hear these songs for so long. 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.
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