David Terry's first two albums as Aqueduct, 2003's Power Ballads and 2005's I Sold Gold, were bedroom recordings that earned the Oklahoman a ticket to Seattle and a ton of acclaim.
For his third album, Or Give Me Death, Terry moved into an actual studio while retaining the bedroom patina that made his previous releases so engaging and intimate. The difference is that this time, it sounds like Burt Bacharach's bedroom.
"I was demo-ing these songs and orchestrating them on the keyboard, and kind of by chance, I got hooked up with a bandleader here in Seattle — a mutual friend of the guy who was mixing the album — and he talked me into letting him work out parts for people to play," says Terry. "That's how the album became so intensely orchestrated and beautiful. I had an idea of where it was going, and it just blossomed as I went."
Another critical component of Or Give Me Death was Terry's decision to work once again with producer/Centro-Matic drummer Matt Pence, whose handiwork was an integral part of I Sold Gold.
"I started with boiled-down piano demos and started thinking about production there," says Terry. "The next step was I went down to Denton, Tex., and worked with Matt Pence again, who played on about half of the songs on I Sold Gold, and we went through the production and arrangement process there over about a week. I waved my arms a lot and he played all the drums and we left his studio with all the groundwork for the drums totally done.
He left me with some different choices to edit together as arrangements went along, if I needed to change stuff up.
"Throughout the process, I didn't feel like I needed to have half the record be full of drum machine. On the flip side, now that I'm putting the band together and we're getting ready to go on tour, it's made for a cool kind of change in the live set-up. The drummer I'm playing with is really awesome; he heard the drumming on the record and was really excited. A couple people I auditioned were like, 'Whew, I don't know ... that sounds tough.' With the mood of the songs, I didn't feel like there was room for some of the cheekier sounds on I Sold Gold."
Although Terry's songs for Or Give Me Death run a timeline from I Sold Gold-era musings to just-prior-to-recording compositions, most shared a common element — a melancholy darkness that shimmers through even the brightest arrangements. With 18 finished tracks in hand, Terry found that the dozen that made the cut for Or Give Me Death hung together in an undefinable but undeniable structure.
"Once the tracking was all done, it was like, 'This record's not supposed to be a concept album, but I made one," says Terry with a laugh. "Out of the 18 tracks, here's 12 that go together in kind of a cool way."
With Or Give Me Death, Terry supplanted I Sold Gold's synth-drenched, drumtastic atmosphere for a fuller, more diverse sonic approach without sacrificing the Dave Bazan-fronts-the-Flaming Lips ethic that drove it. The result is a fuller, less gangly Aqueduct album that grows out rather than merely up, which might well reflect the broader inspirations Terry drew upon for his song cycle.
"There's definitely some autobiographical things in there and some elements of human nature," says Terry. "When I go through the songwriting process, it's a little more subconscious but I notice on the backend when I hear feedback from people like, 'Right on ... me, too. Been there.' It's just drawing on personal things and overgeneralizing them. Of course, when you're writing songs you can't say exactly what you want every time. You bend it and mold it to end up shaping it into clever lyrics. But that was the inspiration ... the human condition."
Hints of the album's darker overtones were evident to Terry from the beginning, long before there were even enough complete songs to provide a framework for the material as a whole.
"The songs I already had in mind for the record were slower, more medium paced, beautifully dark, moody songs," says Terry. "That was the vibe going into it."
Terry's self-released debut Power Ballads certainly got him noticed in a big way back in 2003. His "discovery" by Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard led to his West Coast relocation, and 12 hours after he arrived in Seattle, he opened for Modest Mouse. It was heady stuff for the Oklahoma native, but it was an experience that was more than matched by the near universal acclaim that greeted the release of I Sold Gold two years later. It was the kind of praise that could have been distracting when it came time to re-enter the studio, but Terry didn't think of his previous critical success in terms of what he was setting out to accomplish with Or Give Me Death. And, like I Sold Gold, Terry had the intuitive and informed assistance of his label, Barsuk Records, behind him at the album's crucial juncture.
"It was probably more of a realistic thought rather than an affecting or shaping kind of drive," says Terry. "Whenever we got into the discussions of 'You have X amount of songs, now let's make this album out of it,' there was some kind of back and forth between me and the label. I think that was the best way to do it. We did that on I Sold Gold; we did an EP (Pistols at Dawn) and then we sat down and it was like, 'Let's sit down and think about this album commercially for a second.'
"It's a pretty cool way to go about it; (Barsuk is) a totally artist-driven label, they let the artist do whatever he wants and then in the last few steps, they're like, 'As a label, here's our input. What do you think?' And we've built up a lot of trust and loyalty between each other, so it was a good process."
AQUEDUCT performs Friday at the Southgate House with Youth Group and view-finder.