Interview: Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello

Philip Sherburne

By Philip Sherburne

on 06.22.12 in Interviews

It’s hard to overstate how unlikely Jimmy Tamborello’s musical career has been. The Los Angeles musician’s first two albums of jittery IDM were released on Phthalo, a tiny CDR imprint; then, for 2001′s Life Is Full of Possibilities, on Plug Research, he teamed up with Death Cab for Cutie’s Benjamin Gibbard with the song “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan,” a winsome, wistful electro-pop number with an unusually universal appeal. The next is history: The two joined forces as the Postal Service and signed to Sub Pop, gave us 2003 album Give Up (with its now-classic single “Such Great Heights”) and changed the sound of indie.

Give Up, Sub Pop’s most popular album since Nirvana’s Bleach, sold more than a million copies — great heights that Tamborello has never seen since. The Postal Service has never reunited for a follow-up album, and Tamborello has clearly been content to return to his Dntel alias and continue his own meandering path through the outskirts of electro-pop, releasing a steady stream of records on Sub Pop and much smaller indie labels.

Aimlessness is the first Dntel album in five years, and it appears on DJ Koze’s Pampa imprint, a German label best known for left-field house and techno from the likes of Robag Wruhme and Ada. The record sounds less like Pampa than it does Dntel, who returns with all of his usual tics and tricks — jittery breakbeats, dewy keyboard melodies and a soft-focus fusion of electronic and acoustic sounds. In terms of its range, its song craft and the sensual heft of its production, it’s easily Tamborello’s most accomplished solo album — understated, engrossing and warmly nostalgic.

eMusic’s Philip Sherburne spoke with Tamborello about naïve melodies, Enya remixes and the dangers of cutesiness — as well as Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time” and the possibility of a Postal Service reunion.

How did your new album come together?

It was kind of one of those things where I wasn’t really working on an album; I was just trying to figure out where to go next, so I was just making a lot of songs. I was titling them all “Aimless” and then with numbers, mostly. I met Stefan [Kozalla, aka DJ Koze] from Pampa, like, maybe a year ago or so. I sent him a bunch of songs, just to get his advice on them, kind of thinking they were songs I would never put out, but maybe would help me figure out what to do next. He ended up liking a lot of the songs, so we decided to work on it together. I kind of made him be like an old-fashioned A&R guy and really tell me which songs he wanted on the album, what order, how to finish them. It was a fun collaboration.

Why Pampa? Had you detected a similarity between your music and theirs, or was it more that, since you didn’t think it was likely he’d want to release your music, he could be a more impartial listener?

I did this whole thing of [unofficial] Enya remixes a little while ago, and he really liked those. I played him those when I first met him in L.A. He had even talked about wanting to try and put those out, but it seemed like it was going to be too complicated to do it legit. So I knew that he was interested in that stuff, and I felt like this material had some similarity to that. I thought he might like it, but I definitely wasn’t sending it to him thinking that he would release it. I’m still working with Sub Pop. So I don’t know, it was just reaching out to a friend to get some advice, and it just led to this.

It’s a very diverse album, but it gels really nicely. Was it hard to achieve that kind of consistency when you’re flipping between, say, triple-time breakbeats and Popol Vuh samples?

That was one of those things where I gave him a lot more songs than that, and he was able to help me figure out which songs fit together. I feel like there’s some sort of theme throughout — everything feels gentle to me, even though some of them are aggressive genres and beats. But everything came out kind of gentle. That wasn’t something I was thinking about while I was making the songs; I really thought about it when we mastered the album. While I’m working on stuff, I’ll do fake masters by myself that are a little bit brutish, just to make them louder. But they have this guy Hans they use for all their mastering, and when he sent back the real masters, they were quieter than my fake masters — which is weird for me, because I’m used to mastering being about making things louder. He was more into the midrange and keeping things not as compressed. Just hearing it that way, I had this feeing that maybe these songs aren’t exactly what I thought about them in my head — like, not really club songs.

I hear a certain childlike sensibility to a lot of the music. What kind of music did you listen to as a kid — or, more precisely, do you remember what excited you about music as a child?

Man, as a kid — I don’t know. I was always drawn to melody, I think. I liked stuff like El DeBarge and that Eddie Murphy song “Party All the Time.” I got into break-dancing for a little bit, like in third grade, and I really liked the music that we used in that. And Michael Jackson. I don’t know, a mixture of dancey stuff and high, melodic voices.

I can’t avoid getting drawn to cute stuff. Which I don’t usually like in other music, but every time I make music, I can’t help but get into that melodic, “cute” area, even if I’m trying not to. With all this music, I started out getting excited to do some more moody, dark stuff, and it always ends up somehow a little bit lighter.

I don’t hear it as being that cute; the mood I get is a little darker and moodier and more ambivalent.

That’s good. Maybe I’m just too aware of it.

Is there something in particular that you like about working with breakbeats and sped-up, hyperkinetic rhythms? That seems to be a signature of yours, like on the track “Jitters.”

It’s been nice embracing beats. I feel like I spent a lot of time, early on — like with Life Is Full of Possibilities and some of the earlier stuff, I was really aware of how beats put the music into different genres, depending on which specific beat you use, and I thought I really wanted to avoid that and make something you couldn’t put into a genre. But now I have more fun going the opposite way, starting out with a genre, or starting out with a tempo that’s associated with a genre.

Quite a few of your peers who came up through non-genre-specific electronic music, like Four Tet and Caribou, are now moving back towards more delineated dance-music forms.

I think they’re a lot more successful at actually making club-ready stuff. I think a lot of it’s just the way I produce and engineer stuff. I just don’t know how to make it totally banging, or whatever. [Laughs.] If I could, I think it might sound like that.

When you’re producing, do your methods vary a lot from song to song? Despite the album’s cohesion, there are certain tracks that, if you took them out of context, could almost sound like the work of different producers.

There are a couple of different styles on this. Some were based in real improv-type stuff, where I do some improvising and then edit it together. Then there’s some that are real programmed; a few of them I started with more analog equipment, where there’s more randomness. There’s different ways to start. But I’m pretty stuck in my ways when it comes to finishing songs, so I think they end up fitting together because of that.

I was curious about the analog equipment. There are some organ-like sounds in some songs, and others are more synth-heavy, while others sound more like they’ve been arranged on a computer.

I did a lot more sampling on this than I usually do. I tried to get less scared about it. I still don’t use big chunks of samples.

Why were you scared of it?

I don’t know, I feel like I always thought, “Well, if I do this, then I’m going to have to get it cleared or worry about getting sued.” But I realized, if you just sample tiny bits of stuff, nothing’s going to happen. And it does add a lot of texture that you wouldn’t put in on purpose.

How do you typically sample? Are you making long strips and loops, or just one-shots?

A lot of times I’ll just put the needle down on the record and record it as audio in the computer, and then cut it up and rearrange it that way — make little chunks that are rearranged, and then sample those and trigger them that way. It’s a good way to get a melody to base a song around — just randomly shuffle around someone else’s music.

Have you done any film work? Your song “Puma” immediately made me think of Wes Anderson, but I don’t mean that in a bad way. Though he is kind of cutesy, come to think of it.

I really like movies, but I’ve always been intimidated — and I’ve never been presented with the opportunity to do something that made sense. And I’ve never gone after it. I get worried about the idea of having to be told what someone wants, and try to meet that expectation. It’s hard for me to really make something on purpose.

Then just technically, too. I always feel like music in movies sounds really good, and if my music were in it, it wouldn’t fit.

What was it like working with Baths and Nite Jewel on the record?

Both the songs existed as instrumentals first. At first I was thinking the whole album would be instrumental. But Stefan was saying it would be good if there were a little bit of human voice in it. With “Still,” the Baths one, I just toured with him, and I was playing that song as an instrumental. Halfway through the tour he came up with words, just on his own, and a melody for it, and would come up and sing on it for the live shows. That was the most organic way I’ve ever worked. It was almost like a band playing at sound check.

With Nite Jewel, I wanted to do something with her, so I just sent her almost the whole album’s worth of instrumentals and asked if anything would make sense for her to sing on. She picked that one. She came in and we recorded a bunch of stuff, moved it around, and then she went home with that mix and then re-recorded it and refined it.

Were you listening to anything in particular when you were making the album? I know some artists go out of their way to not listen to music when they’re recording, but you’ve got a radio show on Dublab, so I’d imagine that you can’t really disconnect from what’s going on around you.

I was definitely listening to a lot of stuff. This was mostly done before I started the weekly Dublab show. Now I’m listening to a lot every day. I mean, I’m always listening to a lot of different stuff. I feel like I needed it to get excited to make a song. Like, “Jitters” was kind of inspired by footwork stuff — just really lightly; it’s kind of like a wimpy version of footwork. Definitely a lot of 4AD. I was thinking about Warp records and old IDM and Aphex Twin and that kind of stuff.

My girlfriend immediately identified the Aphex Twin influence when she heard the record.

That’s always been there; that was one of the first things to influence me. It’s fun to bring that back into my head.

For last year’s reissue of Life Is Full of Possibilities, you had remixes from Silent Servant and Pearson Sound. I never thought I’d see those names on a Sub Pop release.

Yeah, that was exciting to get to do some remixes and work with both of those people. With Silent Servant, I’ve known John, or Juan [Mendez], for a long time, just in L.A. And Pearson Sound, he was someone that really inspired me when I started hearing his work as Ramadanman, so it was cool to get to work with him. I was kind of sad that he chose my song to not do beat-oriented stuff, because that’s what always excited me the most about him. But then it was nice — I really like how it came out.

Robag Wruhme also did three remixes, and that’ll be a 12-inch. I like how it came out. But even that stuff is not for the club, really.

You said you continue to work with Sub Pop; are you under contract to them?

No, I’ve always done it album by album. I still want to keep working with them. I think it’ll depend upon what direction I go in, and whether it makes sense. But I really like working with them. If the next album ends up being ambient instrumental noise, maybe I won’t do it with them. But I feel like they’ll kind of put out whatever. They’re really loyal and supportive. If I come to them with an album, unless it’s really bad, they would put it out. But I would like the next thing I do with them to be something with vocals. I don’t know, something that makes sense.

Since we’re talking about Sub Pop, I’ll ask you the obligatory Postal Service question.


Is it strange the way that that project, at least for a time, eclipsed your solo work? And do you feel enough time has past that you can finally just be Dntel?

I think it totally makes sense that it eclipsed everything else, and that it would be what I’m most known for now. I don’t think anything I’ve done with Dntel is going to get anywhere near that amount of attention. But I like that it happened. I don’t mind — that’s an easy sacrifice to make, for the positive stuff that I got out of it.

And do you foresee returning to it again?

I don’t know. Yeah, there’s… no answer to that. It’s not a definite “no,” but we haven’t talked about it in years.

You guys should team up with the Avalanches, and maybe Axl Rose, and make a super-group.

Aren’t the Avalanches gearing up for something?

I believe they are, you should get in on that. That’s all my questions — was there anything I missed?

No, I’m good. I’m actually a member of eMusic, and I feel like all I do is complain — when I put a review on a record, it’s usually to say that they listed it wrong or put the wrong song titles or something.

Would you like to use this platform to air a grievance?

No, in general I like it. I just feel like that’s the only time I speak up on there, when I’m complaining about something.