Unlike love, loss and sex, the whale isn’t a frequent subject in music, let alone the inspiration for a double album. Don’t tell singer/keyboardist Greta Gertler and drummer Adam D. Gold, who make up the Sunset Park band The Universal Thump, though. It was a whale-watching trip the two took in Canada a few years ago that inspired their new self-titled album. And the whale resonance doesn't end there--the band’s name is taken from a passage in Melville’s Moby Dick: “and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other's shoulder-blades, and be content.”
“I thought it was an empathetic sensibility,” says Gertler, a long-time New Yorker who is originally from Australia, “and it kind of captured a process that I wanted to go on with the record, where we’d all work on this big thing together.”
“Big thing” is understatement: The Universal Thump, which comes out today, involved more than 60 musicians and included string, woodwinds and choir sections. “I think we did at that point realize that we wanted to add strings and horns,” says Gertler, “and have the possibility of working with a lot of different musicians. But I guess it went probably a lot further as well than we thought it would in terms of the choirs. We had this sense of possibility that we should just explore whatever ideas we had. It was possible because Adam had the studio that we worked in, and we could kind of go in there anytime.”
This lush and dreamy record was funded three years ago through a Kickstarter campaign that netted more than $15,000. The Universal Thump features Gertler's infectious and whimsical melodic songwriting on tracks like “Flora” (inspired by a komodo dragon) and “Opening Night." “There are these instrumental moments in the songs that also weave the whole album together,” Gertler said. “There are these separate tracks plus in the middle of tracks like “Swimming”--there is an instrumental section in that song. I want people to be able to dive out of the songs into other worlds and then come back into the songs.”
The track “Linear Messages,” features a bird song that Gold recorded in Sunset Park. “It kind of sort of has this pastoral feeling,” Gertler says. “It’s basically about sex. In a way, it puts a little more romantic slant to it or something. At the end of that song, the bird kind of comes in…and I felt it kind of led into this jam session with the bass clarinetist John Ellis. He just improvised and we put that [the next track, which Ellis composed, called “Conversation, Not Far From the Gowanus”] at the end of 'Linear Messages.'"
For Gertler, the connection to the whale goes back to her childhood, when she wanted to become an oceanographer. “I remember hearing that Songs of the Humpback Whale record that was in National Geographic. It was actually the first recorded humpback whale song that was released on this little blue vinyl kind of insert. I was just amazed as a child--I thought it was incredible, the sound of the whale. I also think there something that really resonates with me about the survival of the whale."
Translating the album’s songs to the stage will pose a challenge. “We haven’t really been able to reproduce the sound on stage yet,” says Gertler. “What we found is that we’re just starting to explore a sampling of each element--like instead of a string quartet, we’ll have two strings; instead of a woodwind quartet, we have two woodwinds, so we can fit on stages where we’re performing in right now. But we’d love to do a big theatrical concert at some point similar to Sufjan Stevens or something. Hopefully the songs stand up with or without the full orchestral arrangement."
The Universal Thump recently kicked off a month-long residency at The Living Room on the Lower East Side. After the residency, the band will perform outside of the city, including some dates in the South, which is a first for Greta and Adam as the Thump. “I really want to see other parts of the country and also play music there,” says Gertler. “I don’t know how the audiences will think of whale pop, but I hope they won’t think it’s too weird.”
The Universal Thump will perform at The Living Room, 154 Ludlow St., New York, NY. on Oct. 8, 18, 22 and 29—check venue for times. Their self-titled new album comes out today. For information, visit the band’s website.