Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello on Breakdancing in Third Grade, Creativity, and His Fascinating Career

Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello on Breakdancing in Third Grade, Creativity, and His Fascinating Career
Courtesy Morr Music

Jimmy Tamborello has had a fascinating and expansive career as Dntel, not to mention his involvement in The Postal Service. I had no interest in talking to him about The Postal Service, but I was very interested in talking to him about Dntel—specifically, his gorgeous new album for Morr Music, The Seas Trees See, as well as the legacy of his excellent Life Is Full of Possibilities, a record that felt truly futuristic and unique when it came out in 2001.

Buy The Seas Trees See on Bandcamp.

How has your year been?

Not too different from the few years before this. I’d already been a bit isolated, but it’s definitely been a bit crazy. A lot of ups and downs. I’m in a numb period now.

Is living in a sort of isolation just a part of your preference in living?

It’s just my personality. I moved to Altadena in 2014, which is closer to the mountains. I used to live in Silverlake, so I became more of a hermit when I moved out here.

What were some of your earliest experiences listening to music?

In elementary school, I got into breakdancing when I was in third grade. I really liked the music in the class I went to—electro-type stuff. In junior high, I met a friend and we encouraged each other to get into music more and go to concerts and stuff. We eventually realized it was possible for us to make our own music, or pretend to be a band. It was this big revelation—that I could be involved in something I enjoy so much.

What was the first band you were in?

It was called Nothing To Say. For our first song, we took the chords from a New Order song—I think it was “True Faith.” I had the sheet music, and we played the chords in reverse order.

What was the moment you got into electronic music in general?

My dad has always been into jazz—he plays sax and flute. In seventh grade, he put a home studio together, and he had a keyboard, a sequencer, and an 8-track. So I had those tools at my house, and I started using them because it was what was available.

Do you remember the first track you ever made?

I remember I had my own Casio keyboard that had a lot of demo tracks and automated beats you could play. Me and my friend would just yell and sing over those.

You played bass in the band Strictly Ballroom for a bit, too. You put out an album on Waxploitation.

I’d already started doing electronic music. Even DNTEL I started around ‘94. For the band, I was in college and I had a new group of friends that were all into music, and we were getting into that world. My younger brother was really into hardcore in high school in Santa Barbara, so he was turning me on to those bands too. But I was always doing the DNTEL stuff at the same time. The band was more just something to do with other people. My after-school activity was always pretending to be in a band. [Laughs] We used to send tapes to the local paper and radio station to try and get reviewed. It was always my hobby.

Tell me about putting together Life Is Full of Possibilities. It arrived at a point in which “indie” was becoming more open-minded about integrating electronic music into its framework.

I finally had a computer that could handle recording audio, so it was the first time I could record vocals instead of using samples on a sampler. I look back on that time fondly, because it was one of the only times since I started making music where I noticed something missing in music that I always wanted to hear but wasn’t there, or was really rare. To have that moment where you feel like you’ve made something that hasn’t been represented yet—indie sensibilities and vocals with electronic music that’s more experimental and glitchy…at that time, even when electronic artists that I liked would work with vocals, the electronic music would become more straightforward.

If I took someone who was 23 years old right now and told them that it used to be considered rare to make music that combined glitchy electronic stuff and pop sensibilities, they would be like, “What are you talking about? That’s all we do now.”

I used to be desperate for songs that fit that. Björk was the closest thing back then. Otherwise, it’d be one song on an album every now and then that would fit, and even then it’d be more minimal—just a repeated vocal, not really a full song.

What were formative experiences when it came to music discovery for you?

When Rolling Stone reviewed Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted when I was in high school. I hadn’t heard the album yet, but the review was talking about all their singles that they’d already put out. It was all this stuff that was so under-the-radar to me. How do you find out about music at that stage? I wanted to be more in touch, and that really became an obsession. It started with that review.

Is there anything you hear in current-day music that sounds like DNTEL to you?

I don’t know if I’ve had that experience. A lot of the PC Music stuff—I had a more techno-pop project called Figurine, and when I started hearing that stuff I was like, “This is what I wish we could’ve been.” It was what was in my head, but we didn’t have the technical ability to do so. Not to say they were inspired by Figurine, they’re more just a fantasy future that could’ve happened. [Laughs]

What was your awareness of the critical reception of Life Is Full of Possibilities?

I didn’t notice it at the time. I guess it was something that a lot of people heard at the right time. When I did it, it felt pretty derivative. I feel like you could trace all the things I was into and pulling from.

You didn’t see it as a game-changer.

And I still don’t. It was just a timing thing.

Tell me about your latest album.

I was doing a bunch of live shows in the last six months before the pandemic. They were mostly ambient shows. Leaving Records did this series of shows in the park that were ambient, and there were a few festivals where I could do live ambient stuff, so I was thinking more in that mindset. A few of the songs started from that. The first song has a Kate Wolf sample, and it became a midpoint in my live shows, but I never thought I’d be able to put it out because I couldn’t clear it. I wrote to her son and found out that it was possible, so it seemed like a good starting point to make an album around that feel.

It also lined up with me trying to use Ableton Live again. I’d never been that comfortable in Ableton, which made them all a little bit rough. Most of the songs came out of more jammy situations that I’d edit down. So I was in an ambient mindset and working in a setting I wasn’t totally comfortable with, and it really came together when the lockdown happened. In the beginning of the lockdown, I was super inspired and creative for some reason, so it came together kind of quick.

Quite a few musicians have said to me that isolation during the pandemic has helped them create. Seems like that was the case for you too.

Yeah, when it’s not a lockdown, I sometimes feel a lot of pressure to be out and more social instead of staying home and working on music. When that pressure got taken away, where now it’s what we’re supposed to do, it made it a little easier just to be comfortable making stuff. But that definitely faded away after the first few months. [Laughs]

I’ve heard from a lot of people that they turned to ambient music during the pandemic. What’s your relationship with ambient music?

I don’t know if I would call it totally “ambient” music, but some of my favorite artists—The Durutti Column, Cluster, Rodelius—that kind of stuff is default music to put on to add texture to the room. None of it is ambient, but there’s something about it where you can go in and out of focusing on it. I think I was trying to make something like that. I don’t think the album 100% works that way—maybe there are a few moments that draw too much attention, or the mood’s not consistent all the way through—but that was the goal.

What’s some music you’ve been listening in the last year?

I go through music pretty fast. I do a radio show every week, so I’m always listening to new music and moving on pretty quick. I don’t really stay on things. I think the whole scene around West Mineral Ltd., Motion Ward, Experiences Ltd.—that world has been inspiring to me. I always like seeing what they’re doing.

When you look back at your career as a musician, how do you think you’ve changed or stayed the same?

I think it’s always been whims—whatever I’m thinking about. I’ve always been making music. I still think back to Life Is Full of Possibilities a lot. I usually think about what I’m making in reference to that, for some reason. But it’s always random, and at some point I always think, “I wonder if I’ll put together another record, or maybe I’m done.” And then I get excited enough about something to put it together [Laughs], and then I go back into the funk.

Have there been any specific moments where you’ve thought about not making music anymore?

Yeah, I go through long periods of time where I don’t want to make anything. I did a record a few years ago called Hate in My Heart that was a reaction to a few years of being really blocked. I decided to move a bunch of my gear into my living room and out of the studio, because I had a fear of going into the studio room. I was able to slowly make some music if I didn’t have to go into the dreaded room. I’m always figuring out ways to get over it. Making music has been the main part of my identity my entire life, so I get worried about what happens if that’s gone. Some of it is inspiration issues, some of it is physical energy, some of it is just laziness and wanting to watch TV. And sometimes it’s about what’s the point of releasing music, anyways.

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Jamie Larson