Don’t Ask Dntel: A Conversation with Jimmy Tamborello
Jimmy Tamborello’s 2001 landmark Life Is Full of Possibilities bridged the worlds of IDM and pop, setting lush melodies atop glitchy electro beats and launching one of the aughts’ most memorable singles in “This Is the Dream of Evan and Chan.” Now, a decade or so on, we asked Tamborello to reflect on the album’s impact – and the new expanded reissue from Sub Pop.
"I had been listening to a lot of indie rock and punk -- and also a lot of electronic music,” says Tamborello, thinking about to the early 2000s period when Dntel’s first album Life Is Full of Possibilities took shape. “I was always excited when I heard people mix the two together. I remember liking Piano Magic and some of the Morr music artists at lot. I liked the idea of bringing it together.”
Tamborello had arrived in LA to attend Loyola Marymount College, and through his work with the college radio station KXLU hooked up with an eclectic group of artists and DJs. Chris Gunst, later of the Beachwood Sparks, became a friend. “Anybody that was making music would come up to the station and play live on it, so that was where I met almost everybody,” Tamborello remembers.
Tamborello began working with computers to make music early on, but it was not until the early 00s that the software and equipment he needed to mix pop and electronics became readily available. “The main difference between this record and what I was doing before was that I finally had a computer that was strong enough to record audio,” he said. “That meant I could add vocals and live instruments. Before that, most of the music was made just with one sampler and a synthesizer. I was limited by the technology. So I had a lot of new options with this album.”
Tamborello lived close by the singer Mia Doi Todd, whose beautiful, fragile voice can be heard on the album’s first single “Anywhere Anyone.” “Mia had been a friend for a while at that point, just through friends and living in LA,” says Tamborello.
Todd says she first met Tamborello when she did a live appearance on KXLU, and that when he asked her to work on a track, the idea immediately appealed to her. “I was still quite new to writing music and was excited to collaborate with a friend, especially on a style of music that was different from the songs I was writing,” she remembers. “I was playing acoustic guitar and writing folk songs, so to make an electronic track was the start of something new for me.”
“[Tamborello] gave me the track almost fully developed and I found the melody and mood and words that would suit Jimmy's style,” she recalls of the collaborative process. “Jimmy's music is often melancholy and wistful. A friend of mine, Josh Melnick, had given me some words that he wanted to make a short film with. I incorporated those ideas into the track for Jimmy, though we never actually made the video project. Maybe we still can with this reissue!”
Remembering the recording sessions, Tamborello is struck by how much technology has changed since the early 00s. “Now everybody has bedroom recording set-ups, so usually people don’t even have to come over here and record,” he says. “I can send them a track and they can work on it on their own and send back the vocals. At that time, fewer people had that.”
“Anywhere Anyone” was the album’s first track. Tamborello then turned to his friend Chris Gunst with some additional ideas. Initially he wanted Gunst to sing on “Last Song,” and they recorded a version with vocals that is included on the expanded reissue. “I just thought that the vocals made it too busy and I liked that song more as an instrumental,” says Tamborello. He made the decision quickly enough that the two of them never re-recorded the vocals. The version on the reissue uses auto-tune to correct Gunst’s pitch, just as a place holder for another take. “I just kind of put that on to hear how it would sound when we re-recorded the vocals,” he says. “But then looking back now, I like hearing the weird auto-tune. But definitely I feel like that song works way better as an instrumental.”
Gunst was cut from the last track, but he made a lasting impact on the album’s first cut, the surreal and gorgeous “Umbrella.” The cut which opens with a stuttered, distorted line of poetry, “You can turn the city upside down, if you want to, but it won’t keep you dry.” That’s Tamborello’s line. In fact, he had recorded the lyric, with a different melody on an alternate version of the song (also available on the bonus disc). “It was a totally different song except for the lyrics, but then I decided not to use that,” he explains. “I had those lyrics lying around and I wanted Chris to sing it.”
But the best-remembered collaboration on this album came late in the process, when a friend of Tamborello’s roommate, Ben Gibbard, came down from Seattle for a visit. Gibbard, already well-known for his work with Death Cab for Cutie, agreed in advance to sing on one of Tamborello’s songs. Tamborello sent him an instrumental version of the song that would become “This is the Dream of Evan and Chan.” Gibbard added lyrics, based on a dream he’d had, and the two recorded the song over a weekend. It became the album’s biggest hit and launched a new project, The Postal Service.
“The Postal Service started that same weekend we recorded the song,” Tamborello remembers. “We hit it off and liked how that song came out and then somehow that weekend we decided to make some more music.” They brought the idea to Tamborello’s long-time friend Tony Kiewel, an A&R representative at Sub Pop, who encouraged them to make a whole album. Give Up ended up selling half a million copies, becoming Sub Pop’s first gold-selling album since Nirvana’s Bleach.
Even so, Tamborello points to Life Is Full of Possibilities as a career highlight. “It’s the one I’m most proud of. It’s hard to listen to it, because I’ve heard it so many times. It has probably the fewest regrets than any of those other albums. And it felt the most like a complete statement,” he says.
Eleven years after its Plug Research debut, the album is getting deluxe reissue treatment. The original album has been remastered and expanded with an additional disc of bonus material – remixes, alternate versions and unreleased tracks – included. Tamborello says that remastering was problematic, because the original DAT masters had been corrupted to the point where they couldn’t be used. “We had to do the remaster off of the original CD which usually isn’t something you want to do,” he explains. “Luckily when it was originally mastered, the guy who did it was really pretty gentle with it. He didn’t do a lot. If he had made it maximum volume, it would have been really hard to do much to change it now.”
“There wasn’t really a goal, like something that I thought was wrong with the original,” says Tamborello. “Still there’s always new mastering technology coming out and I figured that in the last ten years there’s probably a lot of stuff that could have been in this that would make it sound better.”
Many of the remixes on the album were released in singles and EPs early in the decade. Mia Doi Todd’s “Anywhere Anyone” was remixed by long-time collaborator Nobody for the album’s first single, for instance. The four remixes of “This Is the Dream of Evan and Chan” – by Barbara Morganstern, Superpitcher, LaliPuna and Safety Scissors Spilled My Drink, followed on an EP in 2002. “That EP was the most successful experience that I’ve had with remixes. I was really happy with them and they were all different but captured a lot of elements of the original. I just still really like all those remixes.”
There are also two new remixes on the bonus disc, both of “Anywhere Anyone” by current Tamborello favorites, the experimental electronic artists Silent Servant and Regis Sandwell and Pearson Sound. Tamborello, who hosts a radio show on the internet-based dublab.com, says that he is a fan of the “weirder kinds of dubstep.”
Tamborello is currently working on a couple of projects, a new instrumental album which he hopes to finish by early 2012, and an ambient collaboration with LA-based jazz producer Carlos Nino. Yet it’s difficult imagine either having the impact of Life Is Full of Possibilities which almost single-handedly pushed pop-flavored electronica into the mainstream.
“There were already a few people mixing pop and IDM when I put the record out, but within a year or two afterwards, it was everywhere,” says Tamborello. “Now, almost all mainstream music is electronic.”
Todd also points to Tamborello’s lasting influence, saying “Jimmy is definitely a trend setter. The work he was doing at that time was absolutely new and now is everywhere. The Dntel record, especially the track ‘Anywhere Anyone,’ launched a new phase in electronic music where melody and emotion and sincerity could find a place.”
She adds, “Electronic music was not just for the dance floor or chillout lounge any more. There was a beautiful moment in the LA music scene ten years ago when genre lines began to cross. I feel lucky to have been here and been a part of that creativity.”