In the early aughts, the swelling electro-pop number “Such Great Heights” was seemingly everywhere: on TV shows like The O.C., Veronica Mars, Grey’s Anatomy, covered by Iron & Wine in the famed Garden State soundtrack, in countless commercials. The song crystallized the legacy of a supergroup that could have been lost in history but has instead grown exponentially in the last two decades.
It isn’t an exaggeration to say there are few indie side projects that have been as influential as the Postal Service, a band that took cues from the likes of Depeche Mode and Brian Eno and paired songs of loneliness, love, and existential crises with anxious drum machine beats, lush synths, melancholic vocal harmonies. The group entered the zeitgeist right after the indie-rock invasion of the likes of the Strokes and the White Stripes and became the bridge to the popularization of more electro-influenced indie-rock acts that followed like Passion Pit, MGMT, and Crystal Castles. In more recent years, it’s easy to cite the Postal Service as forebears of acts like CHVRCHES and Purity Ring. While the band’s presence may have been somewhat of a fever dream, their one and only album—Give Up—has lived on as an indietronica masterpiece that evolved into a word-of-mouth sensation.
It’s the origin story of the Postal Service—one with the spirit of creativity and collaboration—that has helped shape the band’s legacy. The band, composed of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, producer Jimmy Tamborello, and Jenny Lewis, began in 2001 when Tamborello was looking for collaborators for his electronic project Dntel. Thereafter, they began to take their collaboration further, with Tamborello sending Gibbard instrumentals by snail mail and Gibbard returning tracks with vocals and other instruments. “It was the easiest way to work since I lived in Los Angeles and Ben lived in Seattle,” Tamborello told Vanity Fair over the phone from Los Angeles. “So we would just send CDRs back and forth.”
In 2002, they recruited Lewis to add vocals, and she subsequently became a member of the band. The Rilo Kiley bandleader had never seen a photo of Gibbard before she went to pick him up at the Burbank airport and record her vocals. “I asked him to hold a sign that said ‘Gibbard,’ and I had the Rilo Kiley van, this giant 15-passenger van and there was Ben holding a sign that said ‘Ben Gibbard’ in a striped T-shirt. I was like, ‘oh yeah, that’s my friend.’ Hilarious,” Lewis said over the phone from Los Angeles. She spent two days recording vocals at Tamborello’s apartment in Silverlake. “He had a bunch of roommates, and I recorded the vocals in his bedroom with Ben giving me direction,” she recalled. “That was it.”
By 2003, the trio shared their album, Give Up, via Sub Pop Records, which touted singles like “Such Great Heights,” the postapocalyptic “We Will Become Silhouettes” and the maudlin, glitch-heavy “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.” Because Tamborello and Gibbard were collaborating by mail, Lewis considers Give Up a “very futuristic record.” “That is not something that people were really doing at that time,” she said. “It kind of predicted 20 years ahead of its time without knowing it.” The world caught up, and Give Up went platinum in 2012, becoming the second best-selling album in Sub Pop’s history (Nirvana’s 1989 studio debut, Bleach, took the top spot.) “It informed the landscape of popular music in a way, coming from this independent wing and then infiltrating commercials on television,” says Lewis.
Over the years, the Postal Service has acquired some surprising fans. Gibbard recalls receiving what he believes was an internal memo from Meta where Mark Zuckerberg paid tribute to the band. “It was like Mark Zuckerberg saying Give Up came out 20 years ago. You’ll love that record. Can’t believe it’s been 20 years.’ I was like, ‘I’m sorry. What?’…That was a trip,” Gibbard recalls over the phone from Seattle. When he played with John Cale in 2011, he told Gibbard how much he loved the band. “That made my fucking life,” he says. “I mean, that’s right up there with the most flattering compliments I’ve ever received.”