An interview with
Greta Gertler
(The Universal Thump)

By Beppe Colli
Apr. 1, 2013

As I argued at length in my review, the album of same name released under the moniker The Universal Thump is one of the most interesting, not to mention fresh-sounding, releases I've listened to in recent times. "Orchestral Pop" with (lotsa) substance.

Reading the album's extensive liner notes immediately shows Greta Gertler and Adam D Gold to be the album's main characters - the latter in the guise of drummer, multi-instrumentalist, and arranger; the former as the writer of the majority of music and lyrics, also as piano player, and the album's main vocalist - so it was only natural for me to ask them for an interview, hoping to know more about the album, and the group.

Gold being away on a trip, Gertler kindly accepted to answer my questions, which were sent via e-mail, last week.

As a first topic, I'd like to "follow the money": I've read that you financed the new album thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. Which in a way surprised me, since I thought that "grassroots operations" were the sole province of such established artists as Radiohead, Trent Reznor, and Ben Folds Five... I was obviously very wrong. Talk about this.

Yes, we did a Kickstarter campaign in late-2009. A couple of our friends in NYC had done it before us and been successful, but it was still very new at the time. Before The Universal Thump, I had made a few albums under my own name. It took me a long time to pluck up the courage, because putting that need for money to make records out there publicly in that manner was not something I was used to doing. I'm addicted to orchestral pop, so some of my previous albums have been quite elaborate and expensive, particularly The Baby That Brought Bad Weather. In order to keep making albums, and not go completely bankrupt, I knew that I would have to find a way to fund The Universal Thump. Luckily Kickstarter came along, and the cultural shift to crowd funding creative endeavors. Ultimately, it was extremely nerve-wracking but the outpouring of support from our fans and friends around the world was incredibly heartening and encouraging. We raised over $15,000 from 200 backers, which was way more than any budget I'd ever had for previous, solo albums. It wasn't enough to cover the whole double-album making process, but it did go a long way to paying all of the musicians who performed on the album, and for some of the additional audio engineering and mixing. As we were making the album, and also now that it's out, we kept in touch with those 200 people, and they were part of the process. It feels fantastic to have that core of support and also to be accountable to them, bounce ideas around with them, communicate with them about what's happening with the band and the album. We can grow from this place.

I guess that inside The Universal Thump there's a concept, somewhere - could you help me? On the cover/booklet I see a whale, an ocean - and a building that to me looks like The Sydney Opera House.

Ok, at the risk of revealing what a hippy I truly am, here is the story. Approximately 4 years ago, Adam asked me to go on a whale-watching expedition. He'd always wanted to see a whale in the wild. I had never seen a whale before but I distinctly remember from my childhood in Australia, eagerly tearing out the blue vinyl record in the National Geographic's Songs of the Humpback edition and playing it for hours... At that age, I lived right near the Pacific Ocean and wanted to be an oceanographer. I also played the role of Jonah in a musical called Jonah Man Jazz. Jumping forward a few years... We - two jaded, cynical musicians - set off from Brooklyn, NY to the incredibly beautiful Island of Grand Manan, Canada. We went out on stormy seas, walked up and down the shores of the island, saw seals, lobsters, pine trees, rocks... but no whales. We returned to NYC. Strangely enough, as soon as we got back, we started noticing whales everywhere - on posters, kiddy rides, mosaic sculptures on the pavement, graffiti, cereal boxes etc... The Whale became our guiding, mentor creature as we began to make music together. We construed this whale-less whale-watching expedition as a sign that we needed to keep searching for something; for a whale or perhaps some other kind of large, wonderous beast we may never fully understand. We also began reading Moby Dick, where the title of the album came from. The Whale has been a motivating, unifying and inspiring creature for this album. As with the whale-watching expedition, making this album has taken us on a huge journey, internally and externally.

Your new album was recorded all over the map. Here I'm really curious about the way the music traveled - and what about the arrangements (which obviously sound quite complex and detailed)?

We mainly recorded the album at Adam's studio, Oh Real Yum, in Brooklyn. But we did work on it in other studios and parts of the world (including our bathroom), using Adam's mobile recording gear. Mainly, though, it's a very New York-centric album, featuring many musicians that Adam and I have worked with or wanted to work with for many years, such as Barney McAll, Jonathan Maron, Pete Galub, Roy Nathanson, Rachelle Garniez and Oren Bloedow. The arrangements for the songs came about in various ways. Adam did a lot of string arrangements, as well as Noah Simon (who co-produced The Baby That Brought Bad Weather) and Jon Dryden. Sean Sonderegger, who was recommended to us by Roy, did a lot of horn arrangements. We met a lot of musicians on the album at our favorite music venue in Brooklyn, Barbés. I arranged vocals. Sometimes we layered arrangements together, chopped them up or reconfigured them in other ways. It took a long, long time for us... like throwing paint down at a canvas. Sometimes we scraped a lot off and started all over again until we were happy. We were often completely stunned by the performances of the musicians (in a good way!), and needed to reassess the overall musical directions of the songs, before adding to them. It's a musician-oriented album. Bryce Goggin and Noah Simon, who mixed the album, are incredible sonic architects, and created the space for all the sounds and arrangements to co-exist. I knew that they'd probably kill us because of the quantity of tracks we threw at them. But I also knew they could make them work beautifully. They are also incredible musicians themselves.

Since I assume that this music won't be performed live with such a giant line-up as the one that's on the album, I'd really like to know what kind of simplifying process will be at work when it comes to orchestration, etc.

We are hoping to stage a full, theatrical performance of the entire album in NYC in 2013. This will most likely feature a chamber orchestra of 15-20 musicians and guest vocalists, with whale-sized costumes and set design. We call this show our Whale of Sound. We hope to pitch this for festivals around the world. For more immediate and less-expensive touring purposes, we often strip down to a duo (we toured the North East and Southern USA as a duo in 2012) and invite guest musicians from different cities and towns to jump up and join us onstage. Many of the songs work surprisingly well with just piano, vocals and drums. We also have a 5 piece rock group which features core-Thumpers such as Barney McAll (keyboards), Jonathan Maron (bass), Adam and myself. A couple of years ago, we also did a performance of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass (for its 40th Anniversary) with the "whale of sound" band and guest vocalists such as Shara Worden (My Brighest Diamond), Missy Higgins, John Wesley Harding, Rick Moody and others. We are working towards performing that again.

Now's the time to talk about your background, as I really know very little about both of you.

Excerpted from

Adam D Gold is an instrumentalist, arranger, composer and co-producer (alongside songwriter/composer Greta Gertler) with The Universal Thump, whose eponymous debut album was released in October 2012. Adam plays drums in The English UK, house band for John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet Of Wonders, broadcast nationally each week on National Public Radio. Adam plays with the loud band Gutbucket, and a quiet band Build. Adam co-produced Build’s second and most recent album, Place, alongside composer Matt McBane. Adam has engineered and produced two albums for singer-songwriter Shannon McArdle, the second of which, Fear The Dream Of Axes, was released in July 2012. Adam also co-produced a 2013 jazz re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey, as written and performed by Russell Kaplan. Adam earned a degree in classical percussion from the Manhattan School of Music.

Greta Gertler is a Brooklyn-based pianist, singer & songwriter originally from Sydney, Australia. She and her new band, The Universal Thump, have recently been featured on WNYC, WFMU, WFUV, WXPN, NPR Song of the Day and released an orchestral pop double-album in four ‘Chapters’ in Fall 2012.

In addition to releasing three albums as a solo artist, Greta has performed and recorded throughout the USA, Australia and Europe, with a diverse range of artists such as Sufjan Stevens, OK Go, Sarah Blasko, Clare & The Reasons, John Wesley Harding, Martha Wainwright, Glenn Tilbrook (Squeeze), and Joan As Policewoman, and was recently cited as one of NYC’s Top 20 Orchestral Pop artists (Deli Magazine).

In 2012, Greta and playwright Alexandra Collier were awarded artist residencies to work on their first musical Willow’s One Night Stand at SPACE at Ryder Farm and the Rhinebeck Writers Retreat. Greta was the recipient of an Australia Council for the Arts grant to tour in support of her most recent solo album, Edible Restaurant (2007). She is also a multi-platinum-selling hit songwriter, having co-penned the hit, Blow Up the Pokies (performed by The Whitlams).

Her song, Everyone Wants to Adore You won Grand Prize in the Indie Band Search competition and was featured on a major Bulgarian ad campaign for Globul. Greta recently directed music videos for The Universal Thump’s singles, Flora, Darkened Sky and Honey Beat. Greta loves to swim and eat.

Could you talk about the artists that you regard as being inspirational for you when it comes to composing, arranging, also the "soundstage" dimension of recorded music.

There are so many artists whose work has influenced us... We both come from classical musical backgrounds, but our paths took us out of that world, strictly, and into pop, rock, jazz, new music and singer-songwriting worlds. The song Grasshoppers (track 2) was very influenced, songwriting and production-wise, by Sandy Denny's album, Like an Old Fashioned Waltz and I have always been very much into early 1970s pop production and songwriting. I came from being a classical piano nerd who only loved Schubert, Bach and Beethoven, to - beginning at age 12 - thumping chords of Elton John and Beatles songs on my own, when my parents weren't listening. I was always terrified of performing classical music, because of the pressure I felt to strive for some kind of perfection in my playing. It was a lot to live up to and the stress eventually took me away from that world. I didn't know until much later in my life that I could write and perform my own songs, and it was much more relaxing and social (rather than cloistering around the piano for hours each day). It just suited my nature better at the time. At around the age of 21, I started going out to see local, Sydney bands and singer-songwriters such as Melanie Oxley and Chris Abrahams (The Necks), The Whitlams (who later covered a couple of my songs), Robyne Dunn, Died Pretty and The Clouds. They were all hugely influential for me and they were in my musical community, doing their own thing, but not constrained by the formality of the classical music world. I had the chance to meet and talk with them, and share my fledgeling songs. They were very supportive.

As for the "soundstage" dimension... on each song on The Universal Thump, the instruments and sounds are predominantly acoustic and recorded in the spirit of old, 70s analog recordings, but we wanted to bring at least one expansive, psychedelic twist to each song. Barney McAll's instrument "Chucky" (a suitcase filled with amplified music boxes run through a series of hardcore effects pedals) helped us achieve this in the middle section of Swimming - where I imagine a woman is diving down from the surface of a lake to try to find her lost wedding ring. Barney's musical influence on this album is generally huge - he comes from a jazz composition background, but has recently been working with very "pop" artists such as Sia Furler. He also has an Australian musical sensibility which I think compliments the songs. Some of them were written in Australia many years ago, and have a very 1980s "Aussie rock" vibe, such as Honey Beat, which is very much influenced by The Church, production-wise. The other artist who has had a major influence on us and this album is George Harrison, and his album which he made with Phil Spector, All Things Must Pass, which both Adam and I think is a masterpiece and very much the epitome of an "Album". We didn't mean for the album to get quite as huge and orchestral sounding as it did, but somehow the songs and our search for The Whale lent themselves to that. It also felt good to defy the current culture of attention deficit disorder and "singles", to create something larger that people could really dive into and experience. Luckily, we didn't kill each other or go crazy whilst making this album (and actually we recently got married), but it did take a long time and meant a long journey in exploring different sounds, arrangements, production aesthetics and whittling them down, to make the final decisions on what we kept.

Barriers are down, today anybody can record some music and upload it. How can one succeed being seen?

This is a question that is difficult for me to answer. I really have no idea. Since I decided to pursue a career in music, people have told me "it's a really bad time for the music industry". Somehow, I've stubbornly ignored them and kept going, even when it's not an economically rational thing to do. Although it's cheaper and easier to record albums these days, and it's also inspiring to get to absorb so much of that, it's also overwhelming and somewhat intimidating to observe the amount of music that's out there and being created, and to try to keep up with all of the online/social networking possibilities. I try to get on Facebook, Twitter and our website and update them. I also email our email list of 1,500 people or so about once a month. Aside from that, we currently don't have the budget to hire a publicist or invest in advertising to try to expand our audience and be seen more. And we prefer to spend time making music, although these days that's considered a luxury. As a result, not many people are finding our music, aside from via word of mouth and kind interviewers such as yourself! I think that we are going back to a village atmosphere. We have our beloved 200 Kickstarter backers and a couple of thousand other friends and fans out there, whom we treasure and stay in touch with. We depend on those friends to spread the word, gradually, to others they think might like our music. I highly recommend yodelling The Universal Thump from mountaintops.

You've filmed a video of a song from the album. Talk about this.

Our music video for Flora was extremely fun to make. The song was originally inspired by the story of a komodo dragon who asexually reproduced whilst in captivity (here's a link to the story: ). She gave birth to her baby dragons without ever meeting a male. This was considered a scientific wonder at the time, although since then I've heard of this happening more and more, and in other species. I found it a great metaphor for female empowerment. As Adam puts it, "this is a girl power song". I had this idea that we could interweave stories about a lonely piano teacher meeting her match; and a little girl growing up and having twins. Our friend, Rozz Nash-Coulon, was pregnant with twins at the time, and is a fantastic dancer and musician. We asked her to choreograph some dancers "stroll dancing" (with strollers) in Sunset Park, our local park in Brooklyn. The day we filmed was an absolutely beautiful, Fall day and the colors of the leaves and the sunshine were stunning. We invited lots of friends and their kids to come to the park and dance around for the final moments of the video - which was a ridiculously happy experience - not the typical, jaded NYC happening. Unfortunately, one of the dancers pulled out on the day, so I had to quickly learn the steps and join in with the stroll-dancing "mamas". That was difficult but fun! The brilliant cinematographer, Branden Poe, filmed it all beautifully, and coached me to direct it - my first music video. We are very very proud of the results. We've also made two other music videos for Darkened Sky and Honey Beat, which are way more lo-fi. We are working on another hi-fi video this year. I love making music videos.

Your album is available as a digital download, as a CD, and - provided I'm not mistaken - as a double LP. Do you regard those "different models of consumption" as having an effect on listeners' appreciation of music?

Yes, I think that there is definitely a difference in overall experience of the music and the band. The CD does have (if I may say so myself) quite beautiful packaging and design by Dutch artist and musician, Sonja Van Hamel. We went whole hog with the booklet, and all the lyrics, credits and thank you's are listed. Unfortunately, digital downloads make it difficult to translate all of that information and I fear that it might get lost in the e-cloud. Although the music still sounds good, and we mastered the album for all different listening devices, I think that having the physical product is the best way to experience the music and what we are trying to convey. We currently only pressed a limited quantity of CDs, but we are also planning to manufacture the album on double, blue vinyl later this year (inspired by the National Geographic humpback whale record that I remember from childhood). Ultimately, these days there are obviously more ways to hear the music, which is great. But allowing it a tiny space on a shelf, in a listener's own physical space, and knowing that they can read all of the credits, see the beautiful pages of artwork and feel the paper we chose, gives us a really good feeling. Once vinyl is pressed, it will be clear why the album is divided into four 'Chapters'. We recommend eating a slice of ice-cream cake between each 'Side' of the double record.

Any future plans?

We are on the edge of our seats because The Universal Thump was recently nominated for two Independent Music Awards - for Best Music Producers (for Adam and myself) and Best Concept Album. We are really honored - the judges include Tom Waits, Judy Collins, Bernie Worrell and others. Winners will be announced in May and the general public can also vote for us here: At the moment, I am in Sydney, Australia and Adam is near Baltimore, visiting his parents. We plan to reunite in a few days, and we have a big show coming up in NYC on April 19 at City Winery - we are going to be guests at John Wesley Harding's Cabinet of Wonders, along with Glen Hansard (The Frames, Once), Rhett Miller, Lucy Wainwright Roche, comedian Eugene Mirman and others. We are also planning a European tour in September. Skycap Records are releasing the album in Germany, Austria and Switzerland then. Hopefully we'll get to Italy for the first time!

© Beppe Colli 2013 | Apr. 1, 2013