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Thursday 19 July 2018

Still first class: Ben & Jimmy's special delivery

The Postal Service's Jimmy Tamborello converses in the low, halting tones of someone forever wondering if he's just said too much. His patter isn't so much littered with pauses as canyon-wide lulls. You ask a question and an eternity ebbs by. He seems a decent chap but 20 minutes in his company is a mighty weird experience.

There is one subject upon which his silence in unyielding. Ten years ago, he and singer Ben Gibbard released their debut (in fact their only) album as The Postal Service. It was called Give Up and, for a quiet record, made a lot of noise.

Selling one million copies – unthinkable for what literally began as a bedroom-bound indie project – the LP was hugely influential. Occasionally, though, it has appeared that other musicians' passion for the project has strayed beyond the bounds of mere professional admiration.

In particular, there's a consensus that 2010 international chart-topper Owl City – aka Christian pop star Adam Young – took his Postal Service worship a little too far on break-out hit Fireflies. Not that he was plagiarising The Postal Service – far from it. Still, he clearly had paid close attention to Gibbard's hushed vocal technique, to say nothing of Tamborello's plinky beats and fuzzy synthesizers.

Given that neither Gibbard nor Tamborello have talked at any length about The Postal Service since Give Up and that Tamborello is only speaking to Weekend Review to publicise a 10th anniversary reissue of the LP, it feels fair to canvass his opinion on the Owl City controversy.

He wouldn't be the first in the camp to weigh in – last year Give Up producer Chris Walla snarkily tweeted that Young should "buy Ben [Gibbard] a pony". When Tamborello heard Fireflies had shot to number one in a dozen countries – that someone else was bringing The Postal Service's sensibility to the mass market – was he flattered or peeved?

"Um," he begins, with characteristic loquaciousness. "I don't know if I have much to say about that. Like, I don't think I have anything to add. I mean, I'd rather not be quoted. . ."

You fear a drill bit will be required to extract further answers. Mercifully he loosens up as chat turns, less contentiously, to The Postal Service's curious trajectory. He and Gibbard were strangers, more or less, as they started working together in late 2002.

De facto leaders of their respective bands, Dntel and Death Cab for Cutie, they'd collaborated on remixes and clinked beers backstage. However, to an overwhelming degree each was an unknown quantity to the other.

"It was strange, our first feelings of success," says Tamborello. "Fortunately we went on tour together to coincide with the record coming out and that gave us an opportunity to bond. The audiences were getting bigger and bigger. By the end, we felt we knew each other pretty well."

By the standards of alternative pop, Give Up was a commercial juggernaut. Released by Seattle's Sub-Pop, the label that gave the world Nirvana, it shifted an astonishing 100,000 units in 12 months and, by end of last year, had passed the million mark. The anthesis of grunge's cathartic rage, it is nonetheless the second biggest selling album in the history of Sub-Pop, after Nirvana's debut Bleach.

"For me, it was mind blowing that it got to 10,000 copies," says Tamborello. "Once that happened, I realised it was going to be pretty big."

A mere decade old, in some ways Give Up feels like a document from another era. It is sad and sloe-eyed, full of sleepy dips and slow reveals. Shaping the ambiance was Gibbard and Tamborello's method of working. Living hundreds of miles apart, they would send each other snatches of songs by post: hence the name of the band. Today, they would be in all likelihood swap music in real time by email, resulting in a very different project.

"Even 10 years ago, uploading stuff to the internet was time consuming," says Tamborello. "So we would make DAT tapes. It took time, which eased the pressure. There was a space between receiving a tape and mailing it back. With email, you send something and, if you haven't heard back within the hour, you think maybe the other person doesn't like it. The way we functioned, you could walk around, think."

Gibbard continues to front Death Cab For Cutie. Tamborello, meanwhile, maintains a lower profile with the still obscure Dntel. Considering the impact of Give Up, it is astonishing they never got around to a sequel.

"We tried, around 2006, 2007," says Tamborello. "There have been false starts. For whatever reason, it didn't click. We had conceived of The Postal Service as a one-off. We never thought further down the line."

The special 10th anniversary edition of Give Up is out now.

Irish Independent

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