How music that began as computerized blips, beeps, whirs and pops in a Los Angeles bedroom became the anthem for experimentalists and do-it-yourselfers is more than a story of serendipity.
Yes, the success of the Postal Service reflects the nature of the music, who made it and how it was disseminated. But the stealthy ascension of the album "Give Up" toward gold-record status, as mind-boggling as it remains, also attests to the power of word of mouth and perhaps informs us as to whom music ultimately belongs: the listener.
"This has been such a triumph of the mouse over the elephant," says Tony Kiewel, the Sub Pop Records A&R representative who watched the album, released two years ago, creep toward 500,000 in sales with a fraction of the promotion afforded major-label projects, with only brief touring and, indeed, with no actual "band" to support the product.
"I feel like I've witnessed multiple lightning strikes. The whole thing is absurd."
Part bedroom-pop jewel, part dance record, "Give Up" charms with soaring vocals and clean melodies.
The random intersection of two seemingly disparate careers -- those of charismatic Seattle singer-songwriter Benjamin Gibbard, 28, of the indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie, and introverted electronic music guru Jimmy Tamborello, 29, of Los Angeles -- the Postal Service has lived a story rich with lore.
The songs were written largely by correspondence, with the parties exchanging CD-Rs via U.S. mail. The album earned its ironic title because "it was such a fake band," Tamborello says. The single "Such Great Heights" found its way onto radio as support rooted in the indie community spread to a mainstream audience open to hearing a different brand of pop.
And the Postal Service got big enough that it heard from lawyers for the real U.S. Postal Service, objecting to the name despite its origins as an homage.
Some 486,000 copies later, the Postal Service album is still on the charts.
The lawyers have been satisfied, part of the agreement having been the band performing a two-song set (with de facto third member Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley lending her vocals) for 900 executives at November's USPS convention in Washington, D.C.
And both Gibbard, whose Death Cab for Cutie released a successful album and signed to a major label while the side project mushroomed, and Tamborello, slowly working on his next album under his nom de electronica Dntel, are tired of fielding questions about a Postal Service follow-up. (It's probably more than a year away.)
"The whole thing still doesn't make much sense," Tamborello says.
Now everybody can go back to pinching themselves.
One beer-drenched weekend four years ago, Gibbard visited Los Angeles to hang out with a guy he'd met while touring -- Pedro Bonito, guitarist for the band the Jealous Sound. Bonito introduced him to his then-roommate Tamborello, who was working on his collaborator-heavy Dntel album "Life Is Full of Possibilities."
By the end of Gibbard's visit, the pair had created the song "(This Is) the Dream of Evan and Chan."
Kiewel sold his superiors at the Seattle-based label on the project based solely on "Evan and Chan." Then the mailings began. Tamborello committed his complex beats to CD and sent the work to Gibbard, who was on hiatus from Death Cab for Cutie after releasing and touring behind that quartet's third collection, "The Photo Album."
"Jimmy would include self-effacing comments like, 'I don't think this is any good, but give it a shot,'" Gibbard says of the instrumental music he received. Samples, keyboard, computer noises, fuzz -- Tamborello wove them all so intricately that the line between melody and rhythm blurs.
Atop that base Gibbard added guitar and lyrics that at the time surprised even himself.
"Give Up" was completed about 10 months later.
Radio stations started adding "Such Great Heights." Mass retailers began stocking the album. And home computers hummed with downloads. The appeal seemed to be cross-generational.
"It's the hoody sweatshirt of music," Kiewel says. "Anybody can wear it -- a kid or a soccer mom."