Sound & Vision: The Unusual Story Behind The Postal Service

Sound and Vision
Emily Fox

KEXP's Sound & Vision airs every Saturday morning from 7-9 AM PT, featuring interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. You can also hear more stories in the new Sound & Vision Podcast. New episodes are out every Tuesday. Subscribe now.


Back in 2003, a little-known project by Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel) and Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley) released an album on Sub Pop. The album was Give Up and they called themselves The Postal Service.

“The reason the band is called the Postal Service is they were sending digital audio tapes. These old thing called DATs back and forth through the mail,” says Charles Cross, a music journalist and New York Times best-selling author. Eventually, the group decided to put an album together on a whim.

“The idea that it would become so commercial, I think, surprised everybody.”

KEXP DJ Marco Collins spoke with Cross about the group’s unusual fight with the US Postal Service and the album’s unexpected success. This is part of Sound & Vision’s occasion series called “Northwest Classics” – where we dive into the stories behind iconic albums from the region.

On the story behind the cease and desist letter the group The Postal Service received from the government agency, the US Postal Service:

They got a letter saying you can't have this record because the record was selling a lot. Then this part I think people forget, they settled the suit with the postal system by agreeing to play at a U.S. Postal Service convention as the entertainment. And not only that, for a brief time, the postal system was selling this record on their web site. You could buy a copy of the Sub Pop album Give Up by the Postal Service on the USPS web site.

On the success of the song “Such Great Heights”:

That song wasn't an immediate radio hit. It was more that song ended up, bizarrely, in the movie Garden State, not even this version – it's a cover by another band that was on Sub Pop at that time called Iron and Wine, cover that song. And that's partly what makes this record so huge, Garden State. That soundtrack was a monumental soundtrack that year that launched and sold a ton of records for a lot of bands. And it helped make this record such a huge record for Sub Pop.  

On the writing of Ben Gibbard:

People forget how literary Ben is. He's very well read. I've talked to him about Raymond Carver, the Northwest short story writer, who I think in my mind, is one of Ben's biggest influences. He kind of writes rock songs that are like Raymond Carver short stories, never too many metaphors. Kind of simplistic lyrics, but they tell a lot by what they don't say kind of like, Now I'm going all over the arty references, but they also remind me of an Edward Hopper painting. That's what Ben is sort of crafting in this sonic landscape. There's a bit of otherness to it. And that's why I think he's such a great songwriter. He's got so much depth and layers to all of these songs.

On the legacy of The Postal Service:

This ends up being in his obituary at the point Ben Gibbard passes away, hopefully in 50 or 60 years from now. He runs marathons, he's a hell of a lot healthier than you and I. But in his obituary, it’s going to say, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service. He can't escape the lasting legacy of this record and the popularity. This record keeps selling and it keeps finding new audiences. I think ultimately that speaks to the depth of the songwriting here. And these are some of Ben Gibbard’s best songs.

Related News & Reviews

Sound and Vision

Sound & Vision: Superunknown Took Soundgarden to the Masses

KEXP DJ Marco Collins spoke with music journalist Charles R. Cross about Soundgarden's Superunkown as a part of Sound & Vision’s occasional series “Northwest Classics."

Read More
Sound and Vision

Sound & Vision: Why Heart's Wilson Sisters are Seattle's First Rock Stars

KEXP DJ Marco Collins spoke with music journalist Charles R. Cross about Heart's Dreamboat Annie as a part of Sound & Vision’s occasional series “Northwest Classics."

Read More
Sound and Vision

Sound & Vision: Why Are You Experienced is the Best Album from the Northwest

KEXP's Marco Collins talks to music critic Charles Cross for a new series called "Northwest Classics."

Read More