The great indie-rock records of the 2000s were built on lore. Justin Vernon famously absconded to a cabin in wintry Wisconsin with nothing but an acoustic guitar and an SM57 and came back with a lovelorn masterpiece. Broken Social Scene was a collective of undiscovered Toronto polymaths before Pitchfork plucked its album from a box of old promos and catapulted it into the upper echelons of (indie) stardom. Sufjan Stevens launched the ingenious marketing ploy of his 50-states project. (Even if Stevens never did get out of the Upper Midwest.)
But there’s one early-aughts indie origin story that’s so familiar it’s practically become cliché: the creation of the Postal Service’s 2003 album, Give Up, which found Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello sending each other music back and forth via snail mail—not actually using the U.S. Postal Service, mind you—and then crafting a record that landed in countless TV and movie soundtracks while helping push indie rock toward its more electronic future. Poppier than any Dntel record and glitchier than any Death Cab for Cutie one, Give Up seamlessly melds the two musicians’ styles without sacrificing the core components of either. It struck a canny balance between indie kitsch and electro eccentricity, but no one who worked on the project quite realized how deeply this record would resonate with people. “Our initial thoughts of what the record would accomplish were pretty modest,” Gibbard says. “Sub Pop had calculations that maybe we could sell 15,000 or 20,000 copies of it.” It would go on to sell more than 1 million units, earning a platinum certification in the process.
Tamborello had similarly low expectations, but “within a year, we knew that it was a bigger deal than we expected,” he says. “I felt like it probably had a chance to be more popular than stuff I’d worked on before because Death Cab already had a following, and we were working with Sub Pop,” yet its widespread adoration “seems so accidental.” Tony Kiewel—president at Sub Pop, the label that released Give Up—describes the Postal Service as “a side project that wasn’t even a serious pursuit”: “I don’t mean to make it sound like they weren’t trying because they didn’t work really hard at it. But it was 100 percent a passion project. It was a thing that they made just for the joy of making it.”
Perhaps that’s another crucial part of its lore. Even though making the album was such a low-key affair, it had a sizable impact: It’s the second-best-selling album in the history of Sub Pop, behind only Nirvana’s 1989 debut, Bleach. Its lead single has landed in everything from Veronica Mars to commercials for Target, M&M’s, and, strangely enough, UPS—places where indie rock typically hadn’t gone before. It even got the attention of the U.S. Postal Service, which sent the group a cease-and-desist letter over its name. (Now, Sub Pop has to re-up a contract with the USPS every five years to keep the right to use the name.)
Most important for fans, it has spawned anniversary tours, including the joint one with Gibbard’s Death Cab for Cutie, which kicks off Tuesday and includes multiple nights at venues like Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl. Why did such a laid-back, artistic atmosphere yield [ahem] such great heights?
Well, the music helps. But Give Up also lives on for another good reason: It makes for a damn good story.
In the early aughts, indie music seemed full of possibilities. It was undergoing multiple regional renaissances: NYC’s post-punk revival, the PNW’s rainy sensitivity, Canadian “collectives” that were approaching double-digit member counts. Meanwhile, something else in indie music was brewing that would flout geography entirely.
Tamborello was working on his third album, 2001’s Life Is Full of Possibilities, as Dntel, the alias he used to make electronic music. He was a fan of Gibbard’s work with Death Cab for Cutie, so he asked a roommate of his, Pedro Benito of the Jealous Sound, to put him in touch with the singer to see whether he’d want to collaborate. Gibbard was interested: He flew from his home in Seattle to Los Angeles to record some vocals, got along remarkably well with Tamborello, and hung out with him for a couple of days. And the Gibbard song that would make it onto Life Is Full of Possibilities, “(This Is) the Dream of Evan and Chan,” is the first Postal Service tune in everything but name. It’s got all the vital signifiers: jittery drum-machine beats; airy synthesizers; wistful, emotive vocals and lyrics. At some point, over the course of those few days in Los Angeles, Gibbard asked Tamborello a nonchalant yet imperative question:
“I turned to Jimmy and said, ‘Would you want to do an EP of this? It’s kind of fun,’” Gibbard says. “With Jimmy and his very understated way, he was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds good. I can do that.’” They were planning on just a couple of songs, but when Kiewel caught wind of the project, he wanted Gibbard and Tamborello to take it a step further.
Kiewel, who was then an A&R rep for Sub Pop, was also a roommate of Tamborello’s alongside Benito, so he was both personally and professionally involved. He brought “(This Is) the Dream of Evan and Chan” into a meeting and asked a question that would alter the landscape of indie music: If Gibbard and Tamborello were to make an entire album like this, would Sub Pop have any interest in putting it out? “Going into it, I could not have been more invested,” Kiewel says. “We felt confident and excited about it because we’re coming out of nowhere with this project.”
Although Sub Pop was interested in a nonexistent record from these two musicians, they themselves thought little of it. That’s not to say they regarded it as a trivial time waster; it was more that the album’s low stakes contributed to an enjoyable, creative environment. Sub Pop didn’t give them a deadline to submit it, so Gibbard and Tamborello were able to make music at their own pace, blissfully ignorant of the impact it would later have. Pressure was completely absent, as Gibbard and Tamborello repeatedly say.
“There wasn’t a lot of thought that went into it or worry when we were making stuff, even though I didn’t know [Gibbard] that well at the time,” Tamborello recalls. “It was pretty easy just to send him instrumentals and see what he’d come up with. We established a working routine really quickly. Everything was really easygoing, and there were almost no rejected songs.”
Because Gibbard and Tamborello were living hundreds of miles apart, they had to experiment with unconventional songwriting techniques: Gibbard would receive a CD from Tamborello through UPS, and he’d walk around Seattle listening to what he’d just received, “dreaming up ideas for the song,” he says. Once he’d gotten an idea of what he wanted to write, he’d head back to his attic studio and churn something out.
“It was a rare, creative collaboration where everything worked,” Gibbard remembers. “I have never collaborated like that where someone else was providing me the music. In my own songwriting, for all intents and purposes, I’m writing all the music and then also writing the narrative, writing the lyrics, writing the melody. Half the work was being done by Jimmy, so I was able to daydream and let his musical bed dictate what the lyrics would be about.”
The physical distance between the pair and the songwriting process are two reasons why Give Up continues to captivate fans. But no matter how quaint or rote the idea of mailing unfinished tracks back and forth reads in 2023, it was a novelty two decades ago, when the standard was for a bunch of musicians to hang out in a studio together. Although they have plenty of remote-working descendants, like the Foreign Exchange, Superorganism, and 100 gecs, the Postal Service were among the first of their kind. Every time Gibbard got a CD in the mail from Tamborello, it would say “PS” on the cover alongside a one-word adjective, like “wobbly,” so Gibbard knew what to expect before diving in. It wasn’t until it came time for mixing that in-person collaboration became a necessity.
“Near the end, when we were making final mixes, it was hard to do that long-distance because we weren’t even sending audio over email or anything; it was all through the mail,” Tamborello says. “It took a long time to get approval for mixes, and I could only mix one song at a time. I had to leave the board all set up for the specific song. I couldn’t work on anything else until we said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a certain mix. I’d have to mail Ben a version. Then he’d say, ‘Turn the snare up,’ and then I’d turn it up and mail another version.” To smooth things out, Gibbard flew back to Los Angeles, but, this time, another now-high-profile indie rocker was also on board.
Jenny Lewis was the frontwoman for Rilo Kiley at the time. She says she had been a big Death Cab for Cutie fan and, in a way, tried to follow in their footsteps. After Rilo Kiley finished recording its full-length debut, Take Offs and Landings, Lewis was trying to find labels that would put out the record. “At the time, I was obsessed with Modest Mouse, Death Cab, and all Pacific Northwestern indie rock, and I was a subscriber to the Sub Pop 7-inch singles club,” Lewis says. In 2001, after looking at the back of a Death Cab CD and seeing the address for Death Cab’s original label, Barsuk Records, Lewis immediately knew where to send Rilo Kiley’s first album. The label flew some of its reps down to Los Angeles for a Rilo Kiley show, and two days later, she received a call from Josh Rosenfeld, who ran Barsuk. At that point, Rosenfeld delivered three pieces of big news:
1. He wanted to put out Take Offs and Landings.
2. He and Lewis were cousins.
3. Gibbard wanted her to sing for this new project he had.
Lewis, stunned by all the information that her cousin (!) had just delivered, immediately agreed to work with Gibbard. Rosenfeld told her that she’d get a call from Gibbard soon. It wasn’t until the band was in Nebraska working on its second record, The Execution of All Things, in March 2002 that she got the fateful phone call. Once they wrapped up the Execution recording sessions, it was time for Lewis to make the trek out west. “I had picked Ben up at the Burbank Airport in the Rilo Kiley van, this giant, 15-passenger red van,” Lewis says. “He had asked me to pick him up from the airport, but I didn’t know what he looked like.” To work around this issue, Lewis requested that he hold up a sign with his own name on it. Ever since that moment, they’ve been great friends.
She recorded her vocals in Tamborello’s bedroom, and Gibbard had already written the parts she would sing. She contributed to six of the 10 songs, including “Clark Gable,” “Brand New Colony,” and “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” adding breezy vocals that gracefully fused with Tamborello’s spacious compositions. Over a few days, the three musicians recorded, bonded, and grew closer; it’s a time of Lewis’s life that she looks back on fondly. “Forget about just my musical life, which has all these other things happening simultaneously, but it’s such a wonderful reminder of the simplicity of that moment and the chemistry between Ben and Jimmy and the ease [with] which that music made it out into the world,” she explains. “It’s like it existed before it existed.”
The bulk of the work was now finished. Aside from adding Lewis’s vocal takes, only minor adjustments needed to be made: turning the snare up on certain tracks, for instance. Little did they know, they had a batch of classic songs on their hands that would eventually get inducted into the indie-rock canon. Give Up abounds with memorable moments: the harmonizing guitars during the bridge of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight”; the ping-ponging synth hook that opens “Brand New Colony”; the syncopated, acoustic drumbeat that kicks off the second half of “This Place Is a Prison.” Gibbard and Tamborello were proud of what they made, but the album’s passionate reception surprised them.
“I feel like it’s a really homemade, lo-fi-sounding record,” Tamborello says. “I didn’t ever expect it to translate to a bigger audience or be able to get played on the radio.” But it did.
Although the Postal Service’s overarching plotline is well documented, the band’s influence on the musical landscape writ large is more subtle. But first, let’s get the obvious parallels out of the way, and I have a feeling you know where I’m going with this. It rhymes with fowl pity.
There aren’t many records out there that sound like Give Up, even though most of its track list adheres to a traditional verse-chorus format and is stuffed to the brim with poppy hooks, such as the sweet melodicism on “Sleeping In” and the ba-ba-baaa refrain on “We Will Become Silhouettes,” and danceable beats, like the hyperactive, four-on-the-floor drums on “Such Great Heights” and the breakdown in the middle of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.”
Whenever an album blatantly tries to emulate it, however, it fails miserably. Adam Young, who performs under the name Owl City, made a Great Value version of Give Up with his second studio album, Ocean Eyes, in 2009. Young made saccharine pastiches of Tamborello’s instrumentals, and his vocal intonations sounded eerily like Gibbard’s. Ocean Eyes’ most famous song, “Fireflies,” was a commercial success. It reached the no. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. It was certified diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America earlier this year. Aside from Young’s Carly Rae Jepsen collaboration, “Good Time,” though, “Fireflies” remains Owl City’s only identifiable hit. Compared to the Postal Service’s slow, bright burn, Owl City was a flash in the pan.
Stephen M. Deusner, who reviewed the 2013 reissue of Give Up for Pitchfork, considers Owl City the most direct descendant of the Postal Service, for better or worse. “Everything that made [the Postal Service] special makes [Owl City] horrible,” Deusner says, before adding another thought moments later: “Horrendous.” Aside from the overt sonic similarities, Deusner sees a direct through line from the Postal Service to Owl City in terms of how listeners stumbled upon new music: “I think about the fact that, for a lot of people, it was a word-of-mouth thing,” he says. “It was something that was, in retrospect, very reliant on the internet and hearing snatches of songs as opposed to the whole album.”
Kiewel says just as much about the popularity of “Such Great Heights” on sites like Myspace. Because users kept embedding the song onto their home pages, exposing all their friends and aimless web surfers to the track, word of mouth began to spread. At Sub Pop, Kiewel remembers how “the record was still selling thousands of copies a week years later. It was insane how that record just kept going.”
Although Owl City is the most obvious point of comparison, there’s another one: Bright Eyes’ 2005 electronic record, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Released on the same day as I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, Digital Ash played like the icier counterpart to the folk-inflected warmth of Wide Awake. Whereas “Fireflies” achieved immense commercial success, Digital Ash was overshadowed by its infinitely better sister record, which also spawned many of Bright Eyes’ most famous tunes.
Tamborello himself contributed to Digital Ash, but many other indie-pop groups tried to capture the spirit of the Postal Service on their own. The list of singer-producer bands that swelled over the next decade is long: Phantogram, Tennis, CHVRCHES, and Purity Ring, among many, many others. And while none achieved the commercial viability of Owl City, these acts occupied a steady middle ground that led to lasting careers.
But Give Up’s legacy isn’t in its most glaring one-and-done facsimiles like Owl City. Rather, it’s in the large-scale popularity surge that transpired with late-aughts and early-2010s indie pop. The Postal Service didn’t invent synth-rock, but their success did foretell the transition from the tail end of the first indie boom of the 2000s—a class that included the Strokes, the White Stripes, and the Hives—to a new, more electronic era. Toward the end of the decade, artists like Passion Pit, MGMT, and the xx dominated the scene with hits like “Sleepyhead,” “Kids,” and “Intro.” Even the French outfit Phoenix, who had been making LPs since 2000’s United, found immense success in 2009 with its fourth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and its slate of gargantuan singles, including the inescapable “1901” and “Lisztomania.” Whereas Phoenix had toyed with synths on its first two records to some extent, the band built whole songs around them this time around.
In this sense, the Postal Service was like a precursor to these acts, opening up your average indie fan to new genres and styles, namely ones that involve bleeps and bloops. Of course, it wasn’t the first band to seamlessly blend guitars and synths. There was a whole decade rife with synth-pop bands that also used guitars: Seminal English acts like Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, and New Order remain touchstones today. But the Postal Service built the perfect bridge from one era to the next. This also marked a new time for Sub Pop: “There were definitely electroclash sort of things [on the label], but this sort of Pet Shop Boys, Human League, nostalgic synth-pop wasn’t a thing,” Kiewel says.
Give Up arrived at an auspicious time, to say the least, as both the six string and the oscillator achieved a state of perfect equilibrium in indie music. Will Hermes, a music critic who reviewed the album for Entertainment Weekly at the time of its initial release, sees its legacy reflected in the modern age with its hypnotic blend of glitchy beats and winsome vocal melodies. He specifically mentions Durham duo Sylvan Esso and, broadly speaking, “electronic beats with emotive folk singer-songwriter vocals.”
“Ben just found ways to lay his melodies onto what Jimmy had done,” Hermes says. “That sounded totally natural, and I think people are just more used to that now. What’s common now in hip-hop and pop, 20 years ago would be pretty abstract, and Dntel’s beats were pretty abstract.” With that being said, Tamborello’s arrangements sound far less dated than the hard-side-chained bro EDM that arrived nearly a decade later.
Deusner sees a connection as well: “Even just suggesting that there are other ways to be an indie-rock band and having the drums-guitar-bass lineup, that you could bring in all these other things, even your computer, and make something that would be in this realm, that’s an interesting idea.”
Even Gibbard himself suggests as much when he reflects on the artistic angle the Postal Service took. “At the end of the ’90s into the early aughts, electronic music had become very niche and process oriented,” he says. “It was serious music; it was very underground. It wasn’t music that people listened to for fun. We were in the right place at the right time to resurrect the craftsmanship of that early ’80s electronic music via Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Depeche Mode, or the Human League. We were in the right place at the right time to meld these two styles of a confessional, emotional kind of indie rock and this vocabulary of electronic music that Jimmy is incredibly versed in.” Most artists are reluctant to brand themselves as emo, and that includes actual emo artists, but both the Postal Service and Death Cab have invariably been emo adjacent, right down to the 8.0 Deusner gave Give Up when he reviewed the 10th-anniversary reissue.
That association is largely due to Gibbard’s poignant lyricism. Deusner specifically points out the famed “freckles in our eyes” stanza from “Such Great Heights” as an example. Though he found many of the lyrics on Give Up cloying at first, he has now come to appreciate them for their unabashed earnestness. “There’s a sweetness to it that I think is powerful, especially in the 2000s,” he says. “It reminds me of being a teenager, that fanciful quality.”
Coincidentally, I had Give Up on repeat when I was a teenager. As a 16-year-old in 2013, the 10th-anniversary reissue hit me at the right time of my life, as I’m certain it did for many others. That sincere, emotive quality has lent a timelessness to it. Take “Nothing Better,” in which Gibbard compares himself to a “goalie tending the net in the third quarter of a tied-game rivalry” as he tries to keep his romantic relationship intact. There’s also “Sleeping In,” where he philosophizes on John F. Kennedy’s assassination and how the killer was “just a man with something to prove, slightly bored and severely confused.” Also, there’s the airplane ode “Recycled Air,” where he writes from the perspective of a passenger watching the “patchwork farms’ slow fade into the ocean’s arms.”
After all, the songs, first and foremost, have made this album endure in the way it has. Sam Beam, the indie-folk mastermind behind Iron & Wine, agrees. “Ben has a knack as a songwriter,” Beam explains. “A lot of the songs have a first-person perspective. He’s telling you how we feel or almost talking to the listener. They’re relatable things, and he’s got a knack for a hook, man.” Beam, who covered “Such Great Heights” for the single’s B side, took an extemporaneous approach to his cover, as the Postal Service did with the original. “I just did it at my house in about 10 minutes,” he says. The song connected with fans so much that even a cover of it took on a life of its own, becoming a staple in Iron & Wine set lists.
Despite its popularity, though, “Such Great Heights” was the final track Gibbard and Tamborello made for Give Up. In fact, it almost didn’t exist. For that reason, it’s Tamborello’s favorite song on the album. “We needed one more song and wanted to do an upbeat one and felt like we made our hit song,” he remembers. “We knew that was going to be the hit.” In January 2003 ahead of the full release that February, it became the prereleased CD single, a rare promotion strategy for indie bands at the time.
Stripped down to its essential components (“three chords and the truth,” Beam quips), Iron & Wine’s cover of “Such Great Heights” and the Shins’ rendition of “We Will Become Silhouettes” showcase how these songs function on a basic level. They’re both led by acoustic guitar, which Kiewel thought would be a nice contrast from the synth-pop milieu the Postal Service inhabited. There’s another poetic element at play: The Shins’ debut, 2001’s Oh, Inverted World, prompted a sea change for Sub Pop, similar to how Give Up did. The label was exiting its grunge era and entering its indie-rock one, trading in Mudhoney and Soundgarden for Hot Hot Heat and Wolf Parade. Zach Braff’s twee film Garden State, in a serendipitous moment of pure kismet, included the Shins’ “New Slang” and “Caring Is Creepy,” as well as Iron & Wine’s version of “Such Great Heights.” It all comes full circle.
Ben Gibbard knows the question is coming. Jimmy Tamborello knows the question is coming. But I must fulfill my duty and ask both the question anyway. Will there be another Postal Service album?
Tamborello says he’s “95 percent sure” that the Postal Service will remain a one-album band for eternity. “I can never say never, but I’d be really shocked if we ever got our act together to do that,” he explains. “I would be just as shocked if we did the anniversary tour again. I already feel old now. In 10 years, it’s gonna be too late for me.”
Gibbard’s response is nearly identical. “You learn in life [to] never say never, but there are not, nor have there been, any plans bubbling at any point since about 2007 to make a second record,” he says. “Give Up came together so effortlessly and was such an unconscious creative experience. It seemed to come out of nowhere for both Jimmy and me.” When they attempted to follow up on that spark, they realized they couldn’t quite recapture the magic. You can’t force artistic expression, so they were content to let the Postal Service maintain its legacy with just a single album in the catalog. Gibbard’s also wary of spreading himself too thin, as he wants to devote all his creative attention to one project at a time.
“For me at my age, the hardest thing about being a songwriter is that it becomes harder and harder to surprise yourself,” he adds. “My focus for over 15 years has been trying to do that with Death Cab, and if I were to try to do it with both, then both would suffer. I might have said this the last time we did shows 10 years ago, that this was the last time this would happen. I can’t say with any certainty, but we’re all in our late 40s. It seems less likely that we’ll be doing a 30-year tour than when we agreed to do a 20-year tour.”
The Postal Service will likely stay a one-album band. And perhaps that adds to the lore. It’s a project that was solely the outcome of the momentous circumstances surrounding it. When Gibbard and Tamborello met to work on that Dntel song together, all the pieces fell into place. Ardent fans may clamor for another Postal Service record, but, after giving us a bona fide masterpiece 20 years ago, what more is there to give us anyway? The mirror images were perfectly aligned, and that’s all we could ever ask for.
Grant Sharples is a writer in Kansas City. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Stereogum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Spin, and others.