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

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/Les Albums Claus, 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.

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.