An orchestral pop past, a whale-watching expedition in Canada and Herman Melville‘s classic Moby-Dick all played a role in what became the new self-titled double album from The Universal Thump.
It was supposed to be a simple project. But over time, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based singer/songwriter/pianist Greta Gertler and her Thump partner, drummer Adam D. Gold, chose to expand the album’s concept and sound, and with that came a lot of guest musicians — in the end, more than 60.
Gertler recently discussed the progression of the project and its Kickstarter fundraising campaign, plus what to expect during The Universal Thump’s October residency in Manhattan.
Medleyville.us: So, exactly how did a planned sparse, piano-and-drums-based album turn into an orchestral epic inspired by Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick?
Greta Gertler: “A combination of factors. Thanks to Adam Gold, my partner/drummer/co-producer, we had time and space to explore. He suggested that we record an album in his rehearsal/recording studio, Oh Real Yum, which is a basement space near the Gowanus Canal [in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood]. We also had no deadline, or pressure from any kind of label, and I’ve had a tendency toward ’70s-style orchestral pop arrangements in the past, such as my solo album The Baby That Brought Bad Weather [released in 2003].
“We started with sparse arrangements, but the songs seemed to suggest more expansive production. Also, we wanted to work with various musicians/collaborators we’d always loved and to include others in the process. The space in the songs seemed to grow exponentially as we added each layer of sound. It felt appropriate to the songs, and we wanted the process itself to be as inclusive, expansive, fun and ambitious as possible.
“We began recording shortly after we’d been on our first whale-watching expedition, to Canada. I’d been intrigued by whales and whale song since my early childhood when I first heard Songs of the Humpback — a thin, blue, vinyl insert in National Geographic, possibly one of the first albums I heard! Somehow, although we didn’t spot any real whales, images of whales kept popping up everywhere around us in New York City. We took that as a sign that we had to continue the quest to catch sight of — or sound of — some kind of similarly wondrous, huge, creature whose survival depended on song. The whale became a kind of ‘guiding spirit creature’ for us. So the quest for a ‘whale’ —and reading Moby-Dick simultaneously — led us on this sonic expedition.
“We didn’t expect that it would take quite as long to finish, though! But we are extremely excited about the end results.”
You raised more than $15,000 for the Universal Thump album through a Kickstarter campaign in 2009. That’s an impressive amount, but for such an elaborate project, $15K doesn’t seem like it would cover much. What frugal steps did you and Adam take to stretch your studio budget?
Gertler: “The album took longer than we expected, [and] this was partly because we did run out of money, even with that incredible boost of raising $15K to start production. This covered the payment of musicians and some of the audio engineering. But we had to come up with funding for the rest of the production. We built it very, very slowly, only completing certain parts of the album once we had saved up money to do so. Also, we released the album in four ‘chapters’ — both an artistic and a business decision — which meant that we could sell certain parts of the album before the whole thing was finished, which helped.”
What’s the story behind the song “Flora”?
Gertler: “That song is inspired by a story I read a newspaper article in 2006 about Flora, a komodo dragon who asexually reproduced in a zoo in England. This was a scientific ‘miracle’ and also strangely occurred around Christmastime! I found her story to be a great metaphor for women finding the strength and independence to ‘do it’ themselves — whether it be have a baby, make an album, be creative on their own or any other kind of ambition that a woman might have. It’s basically a ‘girl power’ song.”
Talk about how you and Adam plan to present the album’s songs in concert. Will any prerecorded parts be used? And how many other musicians will be on the road with you this fall?
Gertler: “In New York, we’ll be performing each week with our ‘double-THUMP’ ensemble featuring Adam on drums and myself piano and vocals, plus drummer Robert Di Pietro — who can resist double drum kits? — Barney McAll on keys and Jonathan Maron on bass. We debuted this five-piece ensemble in May at Joe’s Pub [in Manhattan]. These are brilliant musicians and core ‘Thumpers,’ whom we’ve worked with a lot — not only on The Universal Thump but for many years previously.
“At some point, we plan to stage a theatrical concert of the album, with an 18-piece band, set design and costumes. … [Later this] fall, we’ll be touring to Texas and back as a duo — Adam and myself — on drums, piano and vocals. We will strip the Thump songs back to their sparse beginnings, and also we are working up new material on the road. [It’s possible we will] be joined by special guest musicians in various cities.”
What can people expect to see and hear every Monday night in October during the band’s residency at The Living Room?
Gertler: “We’ll be playing in the ‘double-THUMP’ five-piece rock band incarnation, expanding for half of each set into our mini-orchestral ‘whale-of-sound.’ We are delighted to be joined by these folks throughout the month: Rick Moody, Clare Muldaur Manchon, Alice Bierhorst, Carol Lipnik, Serena Jost, Deidre Rodman, Lee Feldman, Pete Galub [and] Noam Weinstein [among others].
“We will be dressed as the ocean, and we will be conjuring whales. There may also be the occasional clown in our midst.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
The Universal Thump on tour (schedule subject to change):
* Mondays in October: The Living Room — Manhattan
* Oct. 31: The Purple Fiddle — Thomas, W.Va.
* Nov. 2: Morelock Music — Knoxville, Tenn.
* Nov. 5: Neutral Ground Coffee House — New Orleans
* Nov. 7: New World Deli — Austin, Texas
* Nov. 12: Flicker — Athens, Ga.
* Nov. 13: The Cave — Chapel Hill, N.C.
* Nov. 18: Café Clave — Philadelphia
* Nov. 30: Binghamton University — Binghamton, N.Y.
Photo by Vincent Douglas