Q&A With Dntel

Jimmy Tamborello, known as Dntel to most, has been making music for more than a decade. In 2001, he had the indie world buzzing when he released Life Is Full Of Possibilities, making him one of the most notable figures in the turn-of-the-century glitch scene. Commercial success hit Tamborello as one half of the Postal Service, the other half being Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie. The sole Postal Service album, Give Up, is Sub Pop’s second best-selling record to date, and the “Such Great Heights” single was used on TV shows and covered by Iron & Wine, whose version in turn made it onto the Garden State soundtrack. Tamborello has worked with artists from Conor Oberst to Grizzly Bear, and he still engineers electronic music and hosts an internet radio show. On Dntel’s latest album, Aimlessness (Pampa), Tamborello dialed back the guest vocals, focused on instrumentals and made an ethereal, spaced-out electro album. MAGNET recently spoke to him about music trends like dubstep, his latest album, touring and what inspires him to keep at it. Tamborello will also be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.

“Bright Night” (download):

You collaborated with newer artists like Baths and Nite Jewel on Aimlessness. How did that come about?

I was on tour with Will from Baths last fall and was playing an instrumental version of the song “Still.” Halfway through the tour he asked if he could start singing on it at the shows, and I said yes. The whole album was originally going to be instrumental, but when it started coming together it felt like it could use a little vocal touch, so I had Will record his vocals for “Still.” Nite Jewel is an old friend of my girlfriend, and I really like her voice, so I just sent her most of the tracks from the album and asked if she’d want to sing on any of them.

How was the creative process for this album different from one’s in the past?
Usually when I’m writing songs, I’m thinking in terms of an album, but these tracks were mostly just stuff I was making to try and figure out what direction to go in next. It’s actually pretty similar to how Early Works For Me If It Works For You came together, just a bunch of instrumentals with no plan of ever being released that end up finding a home together.

When did you write Aimlessness? What where the circumstances of the recording?
Most of it was written in 2011, recorded at home. I had just started getting interested in performing out more often, so a lot of these songs were used to fill up live sets. DJ Koze and I had been trading music so I sent him a big batch of new unfinished stuff, more just to get some feedback or advice, and he ended up wanting to release it. So, he helped me pick out the songs to use and figure out track order and stuff. He also helped me figure out how to finish some of the songs I couldn’t figure out.

Your last proper LP, Dumb Luck, and the most recent reissues of your early material including Life Is Full Of Possibilities, have come out on Sub Pop. Why is this album on DJ Koze’s Pampa Records?
I haven’t left Sub Pop, and releasing this on Pampa was not a strategic move. There was just a personal connection between me and these songs and DJ Koze. I was really excited to have an electronic musician that I respect take control of this release and help me with some direction.

Speaking of Dumb Luck, this album doesn’t have any of the prominent guest vocals that songs like “Breakfast In Bed” have. Is there any reason you shifted to more instrumental music?
My listening habits have a lot to do with the music I make, and for the last few years I’ve just been listening to a lot less vocal music. I’ve been more focused on electronic music and less interested in indie rock. Also it stresses me out having to depend on others. It’s such an imposition asking vocalists to sing on your tracks, to use their creative energy on a project that’s not their own. At this point if I do vocal music, I’d rather work with one vocalist for a whole project.

Last year you toured for Life Is Full Of Possibilities. How did it feel to be reliving music you’d recorded a decade ago?
It was fun. I didn’t try to recreate the album or how I was playing those songs live 10 years ago. I reworked them to fit in better with my current stuff and mixed it in with music from the After Parties EPs and the songs that would end up on Aimlessness, even a little Dumb Luck, but that stuff is a little harder to integrate. In order to rework those Life Is songs I had to take out my old sampler and disks. It was kind of inspiring to remember how I used to work. It made me feel like as my studio’s grown, I’ve lost some of the energy and inventiveness I had back then. Also I hadn’t done a substantial tour for like 10 years, so a lot of my nostalgic feelings came from the tour experience, not just from hearing those songs again.

In an era when virtually every track is remixed, how do you feel about the remix as an art form?
I don’t get out much, so remixes help me connect with people making music I admire. And when I remix someone, it’s usually a good way to work out new production ideas since you’re handed all these building blocks to start with. For Aimlessness there’s a whole EP of Robag Wruhme remixes and a second set of remixes on the way, and it’s all stuff I’m excited about, but in general I’m a little wary about commissioning or doing remixes these days. So many of them seem like pointless, mediocre online promotional tools. I have definitely been responsible for some half-assed remixes over the years.

It seems like you have a lot of pride in your hometown of L.A. How has that affected your music?
It’s more about the people you surround yourself with. Especially when I was starting out, L.A. was not a great place for electronic music, but I always lucked out with the people I’d meet, starting at KXLU, where I met a lot of the people I’d end up collaborating with, then with Plug Research and Phthalo Records, then into the Dublab.com world for the last 10 plus years. I’ve always managed to have people around to work with and get inspired by.

Since even Dumb Luck came out in 2007, electronic music has become fashionable again and gone through different waves and trends such as chillwave and the recent dubstep explosion. Did any trends affect your creative process?
I get excited by new fads in music, and anything that I’m listening to works its way into what I’m making. Hopefully that doesn’t come off as trying to ride trends to success because it’s never about that; it’s just about wanting to be a part of whatever’s exciting me at the moment, and I usually just work in details of the different scenes. I don’t even think I have the skill to do an exact replica of a dubstep song! I could probably replicate some chillwave, I guess.

Although, dubstep is much heavier, not to mention all-around different from your music, the influence of glitch is clear (Skrillex himself cites Aphex Twins as an influence). What do you make of the music’s popularity?
When I first heard the really heavy dubstep stuff I really liked it, it was so physical and gigantic sounding. I burnt out on it quickly, though, and now a lot of it feels like nü-metal to me. I like the different worlds of bass music that have come after it, and it doesn’t make me angry or sad that it’s popular. I wish I could make music that big.

What sparked you to remix Enya songs?
We were listening to a lot of her music at home one summer. I felt like I could have it on an endless loop and not get tired of it. Then I realized there were certain parts that I literally wanted to loop, so I started finding my favorite sections and then got obsessed with it for a couple weeks and made a bunch of remixes.

Who are some of your main influences?
Some of the influences I’ve had the longest are Aphex Twin, My Bloody Valentine, the Magnetic Fields, Depeche Mode, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Skinny Puppy, the Orb, but everything I’ve heard and enjoyed has sneaked into my music at some point.

What drives you to create music?
There’s a lot of different things that get me excited about making music. Sometimes, it’s big goals like discovering a new kind of music or making something that a lot of people will like. Sometimes, it’s just because I’m bored and it’s what I’ve done for fun since I was a teenager. Sometimes it’s going to a record store or shopping online and looking at other people’s album art. A lot of the time it’s because I hear something by someone else that I really love. I’m not above being driven by money, but it’s pretty rare these days that I get an offer to do something for any sizable amount. Sometimes nothing drives me, and I don’t make music for long stretches, but those are usually pretty depressing times.

Anything else you’d like to add?
Listen to Dublab.com! I have a weekly show Thursdays 12-2 p.m. PST.

—Jonas Weir