It's another typical L.A. day: 90 degrees, scorching, dry heat, a cover of smog laying low over the city like a giant blanket of lint that someone has forgotten to clean out of the dryer. Jimmy Tamborello is sitting inside, like he does most days, having just been interrupted from a not-so-great game of Xbox Tetris by my mid-afternoon phonecall.
Though he's sweet and polite on the phone, he is also slightly nerve-wracked. He's trying to start the next Postal Service record, working in the gaps of vocalist Ben Gibbard's grueling schedule with Death Cab for Cutie. He's only half finished with the next Dntel album, which he initially started in 2002; it's full of collaborations (including lyrical turns from Conor Oberst and Fog's Andrew Broder), and he's been waiting patiently for many of the contributors to send their vocals through. And he's stressing about two DJ dates he's playing to support his new record as James Figurine, Mistake Mistake Mistake Mistake (Plug Research). "I'm still not good at beat-matching or getting the audience to dance," he reveals mournfully. "And I'm worried there's nothing I have that's going to impress a DJ snob."
All this worrying is, of course, unfounded. In New York, Tamborello–a veteran radio DJ who has played often on L.A.'s KXLU 88.9 FM and Dublab–mixes Brazilian dance-punksters CSS and emo techno from Nathan Fake and obscure '80s stuff together without a hitch and everyone loves it because Tamborello, it must be said, is infinitely lovable. But he wouldn't be himself if he didn't worry–anxiety, it turns out, is Tamborello's strong suit.
"I worry about everything," he admits freely. "When I was little, a lot times at night in bed, I would devise escape routes out of my room in case someone broke down the door with an ax." His friend and former roommate, Tony Kiewel (now the head of A&R at Sub Pop), concurs. "Jimmy considers all of the possible bad outcomes of a situation. [His 2001 Dntel record] was called Life Is Full of Possibilities and it had an ambulance on the front–that speaks volumes. And the next record is called Dumb Luck, like good things can happen to you but you don't necessarily deserve them. I guess that suggests a slight upgrade in outlook..."
Truly the scenarios have gotten slightly less menacing over the years, but Tamborello's list of agonies has not diminished–in the course of our interview, he expresses concern about having to fly, his singing ability, his lyric writing, and whether critics will like his next few albums. Even Mistake suggests a nagging self-doubt. Tamborello says he chanted the titular word over and over in time to the record's techno metronome, and originally planned to make all the tracks (which have names like "Apologies" and "One More Regret") revolve around different types of mistakes.
As it is, the record is permeated with Tamborello's trademarks: beautiful, subtle sampler tricks; endearing vocals and wistful lyrics; and machine sounds personified until they feel positively human. Though Mistake was originally to be a Kompakt-inspired minimal techno record, the tendencies that permeated Figurine (the James Figurine-predating trio) ultimately got the better of James. Though techno producer and longtime friend John Tejada adds extra boom and snap to dance tracks like "Ruining the Sundays" and "White Ducks," Mistake is ultimately full of tiny, exactingly crafted electro-pop gems–like all of Tamborello's work, these songs would make the perfect soundtrack to John Hughes' films (Pretty In Pink, The Breakfast Club) if they were set far in the future. "Ruining the Sundays" is about a high-school relationship with a girl who always listened to The Sundays' album Reading, Writing and Arithmetic; when it went awry, Tamborello couldn't listen to the record anymore. On "55566688833," he spins a tale of love gone wrong in the age of text messaging, one that ends "I turned off my phone/You did the same/We fought face to face like it was the '90s again."
"Technology versus love has been the main theme," Tamborello explains. "And I feel like I can sing a lot more embarrassing lines under the Figurine name, because the concept is that the music is made by these weird, naïve people from the future, like a future that would have been thought of in the '80s."
Though Tamborello says he "didn't grow up with [Hughes] movies like most people" (his favorite movie as a child was the Indiana Jones flick Raiders of the Lost Ark), movies are an apt reference point. Tamborello is obsessed with the celluloid world. Kiewel says he has more Netflix reviews than anyone and he reveals that he is always at a matinee, and will see any flick that vaguely interests him. When we speak, it's not even Thursday, and already he's seen Brick, The Omen, and the Vince Vaughn/Jennifer Aniston vehicle The Break-up, which he pronounces "really kind of dark and depressing."
"I like fictional romance a lot, when it's kind of clean and pure and powerful," confesses Tamborello, who, by his own admission, "got into girls really late." (On-screen crushes include Justine Bateman, Scooby-Doo's Daphne, and Dawson's Creek-era Katie Holmes.) Tamborello's penchant for love that's cute and sweet, rather than steamy and scary, comes out most clearly via his own lyrics and those of the vocalists he's chosen for Dntel and Postal Service records. And though the music itself possesses a small–rather than cinematic–scope, it has a way of making the mundane seem totally magical, in the way that movies do. "One of the things that I've always loved about him as a person is what I love about his music: it's charming and there's something really understated about it," concurs Kiewel. "He makes these really true and epic-feeling things out of what seem like relatively simple parts."
It's impossible not to mention the similarities between the nostalgic feeling of Tamborello's music and that of '80s synth greats like Pet Shop Boys and New Order (whose music, coincidentally, often plays in the background of Pretty in Pink). This is no accident. When Tamborello started his first band at age 13, their first song was made from rearranging the notes to New Order's "True Faith," and the lyrical turns of Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant were a big inspiration, particularly on songs like "Home and Dry" and "Suburbia."
Tamborello had an early music-making advantage. Growing up in the sleepy coastal town of Santa Barbara, he had ample free time and his father, an oral surgeon and jazz aficionado, gave young Jimmy free reign over his eight-track tape machine, sequencer, and keyboard. He was in a series of small indie and punk bands and even an act called Antihouse, but it was industrial band Skinny Puppy's layers of effects and processing that first got him interested in production techniques.
A few years later, he would again be profoundly affected–this time by Aphex Twin, who inspired the creation of Dntel, both in name ("It sounded like it could be the title of an Aphex Twin song") and in sound (Tamborello's early productions echo the clicks, drones, and beat trickery of early Aphex albums like Selected Ambient Works I and II. "On a lot of those [old Aphex] songs you can hear the tape noise and stuff, it feels like a person doing it live," says Tamborello. "It was really inspiring to hear something electronic that wasn't so perfect sounding. Rave music always seemed so polished and professional; it felt like I was miles away from doing that myself and I remember thinking it would take years to learn how to do it. I liked [IDM] more than the really polished stuff, and it was exciting to realize that I could do that."
Dntel's early productions (from about 1994 to 1997) can be found on Early Works for Me If It Works For You, a second volume of which is due out on Phthalo this fall. Though numbers like "Danny Loves Experimental Electronics" and "Loneliness is Having No One To Miss" are full of skittering, leftfield drum & bass antics and swirling atmospherics, they hint at the lush melodies and clever sampler tics that have since become his trademark.
Tamborello does sometimes listen to his old stuff, but with more of a critical eye than out of sheer pleasure. "I like to hear what things work and what things don't work, and [think about] how I could change things," he says. "For my own listening, I really mostly like darker stuff and sadder music. I feel like maybe my stuff might be too quirky for me to listen to. The mood is too... I want to say cute, but that makes me sad."
Dntel on his monkey collection.
"I've always liked monkeys; my mom liked monkeys, too. I have a decent amount of monkey stuff, like pictures and stuffed monkeys, but it's not one of those out-of-control things where you want people to stop giving you stuff. For the new Dntel album, I had some chimps do these paintings; it happened through a friend who volunteered at a wildlife waystation somewhere near L.A. I got to pick out two colors per painting but I couldn't even be there when they did it. I kind of want to use them for the cover but I have to figure out the specifics, like how to give them credit. I also really like babies and monkeys together. I have this idea for a TV show where it would be a little miniature landscape with miniature cities. They put babies and monkeys together in the landscape and film the highlights. Now that would be a good show."