There are few things more heartbreaking than watching an artist you once cherished make a blatant bid to sell out. As he sits across a table from me, Ben Gibbard still looks like the young man I met five years ago. The same bespectacled, round-faced, convivial songwriter whose indie-rock quartet, Death Cab for Cutie, would sometimes crash at my Seattle house when they were too tired to drive back to Bellingham, Wash.
But in the pit of my stomach, I fear the next time I see Gibbard, it will be on the video monitors at some tacky gay bar. He will be clad in skintight Lurex trousers, and colored contacts will have replaced his glasses. He'll be doing bad hand ballet as lasers encircle his digitally enhanced image while he croons the irresistible "Some Great Heights," the first single from "Give Up" (on Sub Pop), the debut album by the Postal Service, a collaborative project between Gibbard and electronic producer Jimmy Tamborello.
Gibbard quickly dismisses this grim scenario. "We're not even going to be in the first video," he insists. "If you knew Jimmy, you'd realize he doesn't even like to have his photo taken. He would be very averse to putting on flashy clothes and prancing around in front of a camera."
It's funny that Gibbard feels comfortable discussing the particulars of his new partner's personality, when the two have been in the same room together just a few times. In fact, the first time they collaborated was the first time they had met face-to-face. Tamborello, who records under the moniker Dntel, was a roommate of a friend of Gibbard's. When he learned the DCFC front man was planning to spend a few days at their Silverlake pad in Los Angeles, he e-mailed Gibbard to ask if he'd like to sing on a forthcoming Dntel album. Ben, recognizing an opportunity to turn a pleasure trip into a tax write-off, agreed.
"We knocked out that song in an hour," admits Gibbard. Regardless, "(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan" was one of the highlights of Dntel's "Life Is Full of Possibilities." And so a vague plan to continue working together was hatched. In December 2001, they began sending CD-Rs of musical ideas back and forth; as their band name implies, all exchanges were conducted via the United States Postal Service. (Gibbard and Tamborello use different music software, which ruled out swapping files via e-mail.) "All of Jimmy's packages would come in two pieces of cardboard that had been taped together," confirms Ben.
Initially, Gibbard -- who wrote melodies and lyrics, then added vocals and additional instruments over the electro-leaning musical beds Tamborello createdÃ?was nervous about taking too many liberties. The first package he received included the rough tracks that would eventually become "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" and "Brand New Colony." When Gibbard mailed them back, he had made some substantial structural changes. "I was expecting Jimmy to say, 'How dare you butcher my work? You can go fuck yourself!' But in reality, he said, 'Hmm ... sounds good.'"
Starting from a different jumping-off point than in his work with DCFC (who are currently working on their fifth full-length, featuring new drummer Jason McGerr) allowed Gibbard to explore more optimistic songwriting territory. "When I'm sitting in my room, by myself, working on music, it's usually very melancholy, and I tend to dwell on the sadder side of life. But when somebody sends you something like 'Such Great Heights,' the brightest, shiniest pop gem, you can't turn that into a sad-bastard song." Tamborello kept suggestions to a minimum, although it was his idea to make one track a duet, resulting in the charming he said/she said exchange "Nothing Better," with guest vocalist Jen Wood.
While the next logical step would be to tap some big-name European trance DJ to remix "Such Great Heights" into an international club smash, the Postal Service chose a different tack, inviting Sub Pop labelmates the Shins and Iron and Wine to submit cover versions. Thus, the four-song "Such Great Heights" EP includes their respective renditions of "We Will Become Silhouettes" and the title tune. Without a hint of jealousy, Gibbard admits encountering a number of fans who've voiced their preference for the Iron and Wine rendition of "Heights" over the original.
Now, Gibbard and Tamborello are taking the Postal Service on the road (assisted by Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis, who sings backup throughout "Give Up"). There's talk of another album together, too. But Ben assures me that he isn't ready to squeeze into shiny disco togs and strut his stuff for the video cameras just yet. Turns out my paranoia is completely unfounded. Besides, I joke, Gibbard doesn't exactly have the requisite cleavage to be a dance-music diva.
"Well ... ," he admits, coyly, "I am thinking about having a procedure done in the next couple of months."
(This article originally appeared in Seattle Weekly.)