Jimmy Tamborello isn’t as fond of collaborations as you may think
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If the six-year gap between Dntel’s debut and sophomore albums and the growing, now four-year wait since the laptronica act’s second album, Dumb Luck, wasn’t a big enough hint that Jimmy Tamborello does things on his own time, consider this: The producer’s set to make his first proper tour in support of his debut, Life Is Full Of Possibilities, a full decade after he released it. The tour, which began Aug. 2 in Costa Mesa, California, and wraps up later this week in Los Angeles after tonight's stop at Emo's Jr., supports a double-disc, 10th-anniversary package on tap for an October release from Sub Pop.
Despite his dearth of full-length releases, Tamborello hasn’t been entirely inactive through the years. After committing to Dumb Luck as a massive string of cameo appearances, with guest vocals provided by eight singers, including Conor Oberst and Jenny Lewis, he retreated into the studio and recorded a pair of instrumental EPs, After Parties 1 and 2, completely on his own. For a guy who built his career around borrowing others’ voices—half of Life Is Full Of Possibilities’ 10 songs tap guest vocalists, and he’s still best known as the producer behind the Ben Gibbard-voiced Postal Service debut eight years after its release—it was a marked change. Before Tamborello packed the laptop into the van, The A.V. Club caught up with him for a chat about collaborations and the lonesome world of an electronic artist.
The A.V. Club: What’s it like to be touring on an album that came out 10 years ago?
Jimmy Tamborello: I guess lonely. I feel like I have to play some of those songs, so I’ve had to revisit them. I didn’t have all the old computer sequences and the audio from the originals, so I had to rebuild a lot of the tracks.
AVC: Is that difficult to do?
JT: Yeah. It was kind of nice, because I didn’t feel like I had to build them back to exactly how they were. I kind of got to treat it more like remixing. That makes it a little easier to listen to the same songs I’ve heard for 10 years for another 30 days in a row. A lot of it’s just like, after a while, I change computers or a hard drive dies. It’s hard to keep track of everything. Life Of Possibilities was recorded on a really old computer, before I had a laptop. It’s all gone. It was on floppy discs.
AVC: Because you have access to more advanced technology, does redoing them improve the songs from their original versions?
JT: I don’t think so. Those original versions have been around so long, for me they’re really the real song. These reworks feel a little more disposable, more like a fun presentation of the songs to do a couple times. Nothing that I’ve been making has felt like, “Oh, I should put this out and have people think of this rather than the old version.”
AVC: How many songs from Life Of Possibilities are you doing on tour?
JT: I have four or five of them. They’re all vocal tracks. I’m going to sing a few of them. There’s a few where I’m using the original [guest] vocals, but am going to treat them as samples live. I’m going on tour with The One AM Radio, and the singer of that band [Hrishikesh Hirway] is going to sing a couple songs, and I’ll sing a few.
AVC: You said that Life Is Full Of Possibilities was created on a desktop. When you were making that album, did you have any plans to perform those live?
JT: I think as I was making it, I hadn’t really done any live performances, so I wasn’t thinking of that part of it while I was making it. As soon as I was finished with it and it had come out, I did figure out how to do a live show. I bought a laptop and I did play shows back then, but I never did a tour. I guess I did a little bit in Europe, but I never did a U.S. tour.
AVC: Between the reissue of Life Is Full of Possibilities and that collection of early material, Early Works For Me If It Works For You II, people seem to be slowly catching on to what you did a decade ago. Why do you think there’s interest in your old material now?
JT: I think maybe I bring it upon myself. Every once in a while, I’ll go back to old stuff I did and I’ll get really into it. There’s something about hearing something really old that you kind of disconnect from it and you can listen to it as someone else’s music, and you can hear it in a new way and get excited about it again. That’s usually when these reissues happen. I’m putting them out there for people to hear, I guess.
AVC: It would seem that, due to the much higher profile you have this time around than you did when you first released those songs, people would give those songs a little more chance now.
JT: Yeah. I always think that nobody likes what I do. It’s just hard to judge what people are thinking. I usually hear nice things, but I feel like I can never trust it. I do like putting some distance, like waiting a few years then listening to something. I feel like that gives me a better perspective on it.
AVC: Is that why it’s always several years between Dntel albums?
JT: I think that’s more just being indecisive and lazy sometimes—and distracted, working on a lot of different projects. I really like the idea, I really like artists who put out a record every year and they can have really well-received albums and albums that everybody hates. I like being prolific like that, but I’ve never been able to get into that routine.
AVC: You wrote and recorded all the songs on your last album, Dumb Luck, over a span of four or five years. Is that how you’re working on a new album, or do you plan to attack it all in one chunk?
JT: I feel the last thing I did—I put out the After Parties EPs—were maybe a little bit of a reaction to Dumb Luck and how I did it. I didn’t keep going back to the songs over and over again. It was finished a lot quicker. With Dumb Luck, it took me so long to have enough songs to make an album; every couple months I’d go back to the songs I already had and rework them and add to them and take stuff away. By the end, they had been worked over so much. It was nice with After Parties. I could let things be their initial idea.
AVC: You did the After Parties EPs without any collaboration. Was that another reaction against the Dumb Luck artistic process?
JT: It’s kind of frustrating doing the collaborative stuff. I’m not very good at keeping on people. That was another reason why those songs took so long. I was waiting for people to give me stuff to work with. It’s nice just to be totally on your own.
AVC: So much of your career’s been collaborative efforts, it’s strange to hear you’re a little frustrated with the process.
JT: It’s because I don’t feel that comfortable with my own vocals. If I feel like if I really liked my voice and had a range and was into writing lyrics, I would try to do it more by myself. I think I have a really limited vocal and lyric style. When I want to get out of that, I have to work with other people. It’s kind of healthy for me.
AVC: How do you find the balance, working with a singer here and there, against turning into an artist who uses a different vocalist for every track they write? That can become a gimmick very quickly.
JT: I’ve kind of gotten over that, too. When I’ve been thinking about doing another Dntel album, I like the idea of collaborating with one or two vocalists, but having it be more consistent. That kind of made it go out of control a little bit; having a different person on every song was a little bit much. I like the idea of it sounding like a band, even if you’re not really a real band.
AVC: It would seem like with a project like Dumb Luck, you’d have to be a personnel manager more than an artist at times.
JT: [Laughs.] Luckily, it ended up being mostly people I’m mostly kind of friends with on that album, which made it more comfortable, a little bit. At first when I started it, I was talking to a lot more people that I didn’t know at all. A lot of that didn’t work out at all. I ended up working with friends. It wasn’t too unnatural-feeling.
AVC: Were most of your collaborations with indie rock singers done because they were easy to get in touch with?
JT: I’ve gone through phases where I was working on those records where I was probably listening to a lot of indie rock. Right now, I’ve gone back to listening to more electronic music and instrumental music. At the time, those were the kind of vocalists that I identified with. When I did Life Is Full Of Possibilities, it felt like an exciting idea to mix this lo-fi indie-rock world with electronic music.
AVC: It sounds like you’re working more like a hip-hop producer than a rock musician when you juggle different singers.
JT: Yeah, like giving people beats. I think maybe people might not think of it this way, but a lot of the big pop music is done that way. More and more, everything is hip-hop based. I feel like people don’t count hip-hop as electronic music, even though it is the same method of production using the same equipment. Bands are expected to have their own vision. I feel like that even casual, more mainstream hip-hop listeners know who produces a hip-hop track, or gets excited about a track because of the producer. With rock music, no one really knows who produced it.
AVC: Are you planning to just have a few people sing on Dumb Luck’s follow-up?
JT: Yeah. It’s been hard. Everybody that I know that’s a singer that I like has their own project that they’re focused on. It’s hard to ask people to move their attention to something else. I understand that you wouldn’t want to give away all your best stuff to someone else.
AVC: If you could get anyone to put down a guest vocal on your next album, who would it be?
JT: I really like Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys. I really like his voice. It’s not much more complicated than that. There’s moments in Pet Shop Boys songs that get super pretty and kind of ethereal with his voice, but there’s not a lot of those moments. There’s a few moments per album, maybe, where they add some delay to it and it’s a pretty breakdown. I would like to make a whole song like that.
AVC: Are you a big fan of older synth-pop bands like Pet Shop Boys?
JT: That’s what I was listening to in junior high and high school. A lot of that, I still listen to as much. It’s hard for me to escape from that. I think I just automatically go into verse-chorus-verse-chorus mode.
AVC: When you work on a new track, do you have a song in mind, then find the sounds to fit it or vice versa?
JT: There’s different ways songs start. Usually, I don’t start with an idea or a melody in my head. It’s usually just sitting down and doodling around trying to find a song. Sometimes it will be a beat that starts a song, or a certain synth sound or a sample. Usually, it starts from one idea and goes from there. It’s rare that I’ve started with a vocal melody in my head and worked around that.
AVC: How do the collaborations in Dntel compare to the way you work in Figurine? Are those songs more collaborative when you work with David Rudolph?
JT: It’s usually David and I make songs on our own, just the music part, then put them into a pot and work with Meredith [Landman]. It kind of changes with every song. Some songs are more collaborative. For the most part, we’ve almost always lived in different cities since we started. Now, we all live in Los Angeles, so the songwriting process might change.
AVC: The clichéd notion of an electronic producer is one working in solitude in a basement. How has it been to buck that trend and work with a lot of other people?
JT: I still feel like I’m in the basement. The room I work in is really dark, and I do sometimes feel really isolated. Usually, if I’m working on a collaboration, I usually don’t have the person with me; I have audio files with me. That’s the closest I get.
AVC: Earlier, you said that touring was kind of lonely, too. Is Dntel by nature just isolating for you?
JT: I forgot that I said lonely. I think that the tour should be fun, just because it will be with other people in the van. You spend a lot of hours working on songs where it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have someone working with you. You have to be comfortable being alone. No one wants to sit there and listen to you program drums for an hour.
AVC: Dntel’s finally starting to emerge from the shadow of The Postal Service to be known in its own right. How does it feel to no longer be “the other guy from The Postal Service”?
JT: The Postal Service stuff was really fun and an exciting time. I never felt like I had to escape from its shadow, despite the fact that every time I do an interview and mention something about The Postal Service, that becomes the headline. It’s frustrating, but from different reasons. I want them to focus on Dntel. It’s kind of embarrassing. I don’t want to be riding that for the rest of my life, milking that success. I don’t mind if people pay more attention to that than what I’m doing now, as long as some people are paying attention. It gave me a lot of opportunities to keep doing this.
AVC: Over the past five or six years, there have been a lot of rumors that you and Ben Gibbard have been piecing together a new Postal Service album. Do you have any plans for that?
JT: No. There’s no news either way.