Interview: Dennis McCarthy

Dennis McCarthy Interview

conducted & transcribed by Earl Green on July 30, 1993 / very special thanks to Shane Vaughn and Larry Ruth at KLSZ Radio, Ray Costa and Doug Deutsch at Costa Communications, GNP Crescendo Records and of course, Dennis McCarthy himself!

Hear the first interview segment for yourself:

EG: How are you doing today?

DM: Oh, fine – you know, I’m kind of a night person, so if I sound a little dumb…[laughs]

EG: Well, no problem, I’ll probably manage to do the same myself!

DM: Well, it’s one of my best things. How are you doing, Earl?

EG: Just fine – actually pretty excited to be talking to you today. I’ve got several questions; I’ll try not to take too much time. I had to pair this down from a list of about 400…well, I tried not to be that bad.

DM: Well, what the heck, as long as my voice lasts, why not?

EG: Yeah, I’m worried about my own! First off, I want to congratulate you on your recent Emmy nomination for the best theme music, on Deep Space Nine.

DM: Well, thank you!

EG: This is the…third or fourth time that your Star Trek music has been up for an Emmy?

DM: Yeah, I think it’s the fourth time, and last year I had a stroke of luck and actually walked home with one of those little statues, which made the living room look real good, let’s put it that way.

EG: That was for Unification part one?

DM: Right.

EG: Okay, I’ve got a question regarding the Emmys – I’ve got some real out-in-left-field questions for you, just so you have to think about it a couple of seconds. Who selects the scores to be submitted for consideration for an Emmy award, and what exactly do the powers that be in the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences hear? I mean, do you put together a suite which is the highlights of the score, or do they hear everything down to the 40 and 50 second cues?

DM: Well, what generally is done is that all the composers who are involved in presenting scores will send around tapes to all the other guys who are in the voting branch of the Emmys for music, and you take, say, your three or four best cues from a specific show you want to put up for nomination and send it it out, and everybody listens to it and decides, Well, I like this one, or I like that one, or a lot of people just know from what they’ve heard on television what they like and what they’re going to vote for. So it’s all the guys who are in the Emmys voting branch of music get to vote on all the scores and the themes and miniseries and everything else.

Now, in my own case, I’ve never sent out a tape; I’ve always been very fortunate, a lot of people watch Star Trek, so I’ve never had to, shall we say, do that investment of sending out 400 cassettes or 400 CDs, and so I’ve been really lucky. This year, I didn’t send out anything either, and I guess enough people have seen Deep Space Nine to remember the theme, and so they voted for it, and then what they do is they tabulate the votes and the five or six that come up with the most votes get nominated, and then – I guess it’s during August, a group of musicians – you know, guys who are in the Academy – will sit down, maybe ten guys, and they’ll watch all the shows with the background scores, or they’ll watch all the shows that have the themes (if it’s for themes), and then they vote on it, and that’s where the Emmy comes from.

Hear the second interview segment for yourself:

EG: So the Academy people will go out and nominate the musicians, in most – or in the best possible scenario, rather than the musicians deciding, “Well, I guess I’ll just try to send ’em a tape and get it this year!”

DM: [laughs] Yeah, exactly!

EG: I wish they’d do demo tapes that way…

DM: Wouldn’t that be nice!

EG: Yeah, it would be! You’ve got a pretty impressive resume going all the way back to work with Glen Campbell and all that; also we dug up – I did some real intensive prep work, and really went back far in the books, and I found you listed on a Tommy Flander record from 1969 –

DM: Oh my…

EG: – called The Moonstone. Was that you?

DM: [laughing] That was me! Definitely, that was me. That was back when I was getting into studio musician work, and that was a very, very strange album to do, I really enjoyed it. What they did, the producers of the album – I remember that one exactly because that was when the Yamaha E-3 organ first came out, which was a precursor to today’s synthesizers; it had some very, very unusual effects on it, stuff that no one had heard before, and the producers would say, Okay now, the song you’re about to hear – it sounds like Mission: Impossible – is going to be a ballad, very heartfelt and so forth, it’s going to start in the key of E minor, we’re gonna roll tape, and we want you to play. No music, no nothing! And so they would just give me the set of earphones, I’d be sitting at the organ, set up some sounds, they’d roll the tape, and I would play – and that would be what they would go with! I’d never had any idea what the tune was, and I’d just try to follow as fast as I could and play whatever I could, and they would always take that first take and say, “That’s the one we want. We want it to sound like somebody’s trying to figure out the tune.” I said, “Well, you got that!” [laughs] What was the year, did you mention a year…?

EG: 1969.

DM: I thought you said that. Okay, well, actually, by that time, I was already with Glen Campbell, I’d already been out as a road musician. I had been out since about 1964 playing with various rock ‘n’ roll bands, the Hondells and stuff like that, and a few Beach Boys sessions here and there back in the hot-rod-‘n’-surf days of music before the English invasion, as they called it back then, before the Beatles and anybody came over from there. And those were very fun days, I really enjoyed those. Not as much fun as I’m having now, you know, [laughs] considering my age and the callowness of youth, it was really a great time.

EG: It’s a start – well, I’m glad I didn’t dig that one up for nothing, I was afraid, you know, what’s if that’s gonna be a Dennis McCarthy that no one’s ever even heard of?

DM: [laughs] Yeah, right! Boy, I haven’t – I wonder if I even have a copy of that album anymore? I remember finding one in an old used record store once…I’d laugh my brains out. But, you know, since the advent of CDs…I don’t even know where my LPs are anymore! Somewhere, hiding in the garage, behind either a carburetor or a blower or manifolds or something…

Hear the third interview segment for yourself:

EG: Well, on the subject of past work and everything, do you have any specific musical influences that you can cite in your work…specific composers or artists, or even piece of music?

DM: Well, I think the biggest influence that any composition ever had on me was “Appalachian Spring” by Copland. I never had formal training in music – I went to engineering school when I went to college – and six months before graduation, Glen Campbell called up and said [funny voice here:] “Dennis!” You know, he knew me from the hot rod days, and said he had a record called “Gentle On My Mind”, and it looked like it might go somewhere, might become a small hit, and said he was gonna follow it up with some tune about a town called Phoenix…anyway, you know the rest of the story, it went ballistic! And we were on the road at the time, and like I said, I’d heard classical music, but never studied anything, because it simply wasn’t, you know – it just wasn’t what I did, I was a rocker. And one day, I was talking to a friend of mine, and he said, “Have you ever bought any little scores, the miniature scores?” So I got a score to Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”, and put on the record, and was just blown away by the fact that I was actually looking at what I was hearing. I mean, that’s how much I knew about music back then, about classical – I was like, Gaw-leeee! But I’ll tell ya, it just kicked me right into that gear, and I got so interested in classics then, and I started buying every miniature score and every – by that time, cassette tapes were getting pretty popular – every tape I could get my hands on of everything classical, and I was trying to analyze what they were doing, so that was pretty much my education…so I have to blame it on Copland!

Hear the fourth interview segment for yourself:

EG: How does one get one’s foot in the door scoring films and TV in Hollywood? Of course, you know with rock ‘n’ roll and other popular genres, someone’s always built something in their basement studio, some monster there, and waited around for six or seven years until they got noticed…but is it very different or any more or less difficult to get into the scoring stages of Hollywood?

DM: It’s not the easiest thing in the world. I came through the back door, because of my relationship with Glen Campbell; in the late 60’s, early 70’s, Glen had a show called The Good Time Hour, and that ran for four years, and through that show, I met a whole raft of people involved in television production, and I took one look and I said Boy, I don’t know what this is exactly, but I sure like it! So I grabbed everything I could find, I wrote everything I could as far as music; on the show, I used to do a lot of the arranging for the show. Marty Paich was the music director, and a guest would come in – say, Ray Charles or someone of that nature – and he’d say, “Okay, Dennis, now you go ahead and write the charts,” so I’d write the arrangement and Marty would look at it – it was like going to school for four years, and I had the world’s greatest teachers – and from the work I did and what I learned and the people I met, it just developed into a lot of variety television work, and when variety television started to die off, it turned into episodic television. I had a great stroke of luck and started doing some work over at Warner Brothers, and it just kind of went from there.

As far as coming in from the outside, it’s a question of just, you know, finding some project you can get on, say, if you’re a young composer, to find a project that a friend is doing – say, a small film; if you’re in school, a student film – or, if not, just go around to the commercial houses taking samples of your work if you have synthesizers to build it on…and just do a lot of salesmanship and self-promotion, it’s really the best way to go.

EG: And of course, now you’ve probably got more work along those lines than you ever would’ve imagined – how do you keep all that stuff in one schedule?

DM: Well, sometimes it gets a little weird-out. There are those 24-hour days that stretch into 72 hours, and what I try to do is – back ten years ago, I didn’t mind, I’d be running two, three shows a week sometimes, so I would have maybe six hours of sleep at night during the week; on the weekends, I’d try to take it a little easy, but still, I’d end up writing quite a bit. What I’m doing now is I’m doing every other Star Trek, every other Deep Space Nine, which means about one show a week, so that’s not too bad. Other shows come along, you know, maybe rock ‘n’ roll shows, which are fun because it gives me a chance to play again, get back on the old keyboards. But I try to keep it down to a low roar, try to take a day off, a weekend here and there, you know, that kind of stuff.

EG: Now, according to the liner notes in the soundtrack of the Deep Space Nine pilot, you had one week to compose the theme song and just two weeks for the rest of the entire two-hour episode, which is, I think, what you normally have for a single hour story.

DM: Right, exactly. There was, I believe, over an hour’s worth of music in that pilot.

EG: How did that schedule get cut that close?

DM: It just…boy, it just worked out that way! It was one of those situations where the filming took a little longer than they’d anticipated and the editing took a little bit longer. I mean, not much, we pretty much knew it was going to be a grind, but I also had nothing else going during those two or three weeks, because what I did was I made sure there was no other work involved, I didn’t plan any trips to the mountains to go trout fishing, or any street racing, and just sat down at the old piano, sharpened that pencil, and got a whole bunch of sheet music in front of me, and went to work.

Hear the fifth interview segment for yourself:

EG: So it wasn’t panic time or anything.

DM: Oh no, I’d actually have time to get up and take nourishment, and get a few hours of sleep, so it wasn’t really too bad at all. Because the show was so good – when a show like the pilot for Deep Space Nine comes along, it’s very easy to do musically, because it’s…you’re looking at it, you say, “Boy! This is such-and-so,” and your imagination starts to already run with the music before you’ve even sat down at the piano.

Some shows are not that easy. I’ve done other series – Star Trek’s always been great, there’s never been a problem with that – but I’ve done shows in the past that have been…you sit there, you look at the hour show, and you go, “Oops. What’m I supposed to do with this?!” And those are the ones that take forever, because you’re trying to… well, you know the various analogies…[laughs] I won’t go into that!

EG: Well, that was one of the questions, to jump way down here on the list, I was going to ask if there were any episodes of Star Trek – or, since you said you’ve never had much of a problem with that – is there anything you’ve ever had to work on that just didn’t seem like it was going to find its musical voice by five minutes after the deadline?

DM: Boy…on Star Trek, it’s been pretty much a straight-ahead show. The only thing that was tough was during the first year, where the whole show was trying to find its point of focus, and the music had to find its place too, and of course the natural tendency was to write stuff musically that was big and bombastic, and huge melodies roaring in and out of things…and the producers just never liked that, so I had to find other ways of dealing with scenes than the usual. You know, like in Star Wars, where you had fighters flying and boy, the music just roars, and something romantic, I mean, the French horns and the violins are weeping and sobbing to the sky, and when I tried that on Star Trek… let’s just say I didn’t get very far. It was like, “Whoops! Don’t want that!” So, they, the producers, really opted for more subtlety in the music, and so, for that first year, it was a little rough trying to find our ground.

EG: And I imagine you had to try to fit the Alexander Courage and Jerry Goldsmith themes in between the cracks wherever you could…?

DM: Well, actually, I tried that for a while, and they said “We don’t want to have that,” and I said, “Oooo-kay!” [laughs]

EG: So the producers eventually cut down on that?

DM: They just didn’t want to hear…the Goldsmith theme, they felt, was too big and too almost-martial and military, too bombastic for the shows, so pretty much, I used it once, and I was talking to Rick [Berman], the main producer; he said, “You know, I like that theme, but let’s leave it as a theme, let’s just not incorporate it into the show, it just sounds wrong to me for what the body of the show needs.” So the only thing I do is, every now and then, like every third show, maybe I’ll find a scene where the Enterprise warps off and they’ve just accomplished some wonderful thing, I’ll hit the Alexander Courage theme for about 10 or 20 seconds, but that’s about it. The rest of the time, the music becomes a flavoring device, something just to give a sense of what the mood is.

EG: So the producers will actually tell you if they want you to use the theme here or there when you’re spotting [selecting scenes for music] the shows?

DM: Not really – I pretty much know where I want to use it, and then on the recording sessions, if they don’t like it, they’ll say, “Hey, let’s pull that out.” So, it’s very subtle, the way it’s used. And as far as big, sweeping, melodic things go, we tend to avoid those. You know, there’s some flak from the fans, they say they’d rather hear some big melodic stuff and so forth and so on, but if the producers don’t want it, you don’t do it. You know, it’s a simple rule of keeping the job! [laughs] What the boss wants is what you do!

Hear the sixth interview segment for yourself:

EG: I can sympathize with that very well!

DM: It’s actually fun; it makes it a lot more challenging, you know, it’s actually pretty easy to go blast off with the music when you see a specific scene, but to try to do it in a subtle way is pretty challenging. It keeps me awake, I’ll tell ya that.

EG: Did they give you any specific guidelines or suggestions when dealing with the music for Deep Space Nine?

DM: Yes, on Deep Space Nine, they did want it to be a little bit more active, and kind of split the difference between what I was trying to do the first year and what Star Trek has been. So, on Deep Space Nine, I can do things that are more thematic, and get a little bit more involved with melodies and so forth on the show, which makes it nice; that way, there’s a constrast between the subtlety of Star Trek and the little-bit-more-bombastic flavors that I can use in Deep Space Nine.

EG: Do you think we’re likely to ever see any individual themes for certain characters there, or would you not take it that far?

DM: I don’t think so; I originally wrote a theme for Captain Picard in the first year we were doing Star Trek, and I used it about four times, and the fifth time I used it the producers said “I don’t think so.” So I said “Oooo-kay!”

EG: Well now, I could’ve sworn – I’m doing this interview because I’m the station’s resident Trek fan, and I also pay pretty close attention to the music –

DM: Ah, bless your heart! [laughs] I sneak things in, don’t tell anybody.

EG: – earlier in the sixth season, I think the show was called Rascals

DM: Oh, the little kids?

EG: Where the away team turns into children.

DM: Right.

EG: I could swear that you threw the Picard theme in there ever so slightly at the end of a scene…

DM: Ah, you caught me!

EG: I was about to ask if that was a coincidence!

DM: [laughs] You’re one of the very few people who discovered that…so, I did sneak it in there, you know, I like to have fun!

EG: The Picard theme, sort of the alternate main title on the Farpoint soundtrack, which unfortunately no one has probably ever heard unless they have that soundtrack – was that an afterthought, or was that actually something that you put up for consideration for the Next Generation theme?

DM: Yeah, it was something I put up for consideration – what is on the album. I knew they were gonna go with the Jerry Goldsmith theme, but I was just kind of inspired to write this piece, and what you heard was the rehearsal – the album cut from the Encounter at Farpoint album is just simply the rehearsal. The band had never seen it before, I threw it on the stand, said, “Guys, do me a favor and run through it – by the way, why don’t we turn on the tape machines,” you know, what the heck, give me an idea so I can make some fixes…and that was the last it was ever really performed, but it was close enough to being quality that we put it on the album. I mean, there’s things that, naturally, if I’d had a chance to do another recording of it, you know, even after the rehearsal, saying, “Guys, let’s do it again,” I would’ve changed the trombone lines, done this and that, changed a whole bunch of stuff. If I would’ve had ten more minutes with it, it would’ve been a lot better sounding piece, but it was still fun to have on the album.

EG: In terms of having an opportunity to go back and do something over again, is there anything that you can think of that you would go back and do differently if you were given the chance?

DM: Deep Space Nine, I’ve been very happy with. Some of the earlier Star Treks, I would love to go back and have another stab at them, just for silly little things like pitch, tuning, intonation, performance dynamics, emotional level, maybe carry melodies a little further than I did, but…that’s six years back, so I guess it’s too late.

Hear the seventh interview segment for yourself:

EG: Before we get too far away from the alternate versions of the main themes, the single version of Deep Space Nine, which is getting some pretty good airplay – was that ever actually considered the actual theme, or was that one an afterthought?

DM: No, the theme itself, the one that’s used on the show, was always going to be the theme. The guys at Crescendo Records, Neil Norman and Mark Banning and so forth, we just decided that we would have some fun, and do the theme but put a little bit of my rock ‘n’ roll buddies in it, and give it a little kick, and it turned out to be a lot of fun, so we put it out, and boom, there it is – it’s doing great! It wasn’t an afterthought so much as just, Well, let’s have some fun with this, and so we got into the studio and, I did Parker Lewis for the three years it was on the air, and so I got the Parker Lewis rock ‘n’ roll band, and then added the brass section from Star Trek, and there it was.

EG: Oh, so those were the same guys who were working with you on the music on Parker Lewis?

DM: Right, great players. And they actually all work on Star Trek too, but in different capacities. Our drummer [Ralph Humphrey] plays tympanies; our electric bass player [Kenneth A. Wild] plays upright bass; the guitar player [George Doering] uses his MIDI equipment to trigger synthesizers; and Jim Cox, who plays Hammond B-3 and screaming rock synths is playing space synths, for lack of a better term. And instead of me playing piano, I’m up there conducting, so it’s the Parker Lewis band in different suits…and add quite a few strings and French horns! [laughs]

EG: So they just throw the old business jacket on top of the T-shirt and the shades and slip in the back door!

DM: You got it – Gary Larson’s cartoon showing “screwing in a bigger brain!”

EG: Have you received any word on – well, you may or may not be able to answer this one, this may be way too early – have you heard anything about whether or not you’re going to be involved in the Next Generation feature films?

DM: Well, I’m keeping all fingers crossed. I would love to do it. I’m meeting with Rick Berman next week on it, so – boy, words cannot express…I’m really hoping that that comes to pass.

EG: And do you think that going from television to feature film might require any change in the way you’d handle the scoring?

DM: Uh, yes and no. Because it would be Rick and the same production team, we pretty much have decided on the style of the music. But I think that we would be going for – you know, the scenes will be longer, and you’ll have more places where you’re out in space, and you can really let the melodies roar, so I think I would have an opportunity to maybe even bring back the Picard theme, and do some really melodic stuff, and of course there’d be more time to write it from a purely physical standpoint, so I would have a better chance to fine-tune the orchestrations and really make sure that the melodies were out in full force, so it would be a great thing to get into.

EG: Do you have any favorite particular episodes as far as how the music turned out?

DM: Well, Yesterday’s Enterprise was always my favorite Star Trek. As far as Deep Space Nine goes, my favorite show is one we did recently, it was called Duet, and it was where Kira meets someone who she thinks is a prison camp guard –

EG: Ah, the war criminal.

DM: – the war criminal, the guy who changes his whole appearance to try to be the original evil, you know, angel-of-death type character, and I loved doing that show. I used 24 violins and cellos, a huge string group, especially for a television orchestra. I used over 50 guys, and it was a thrill – didn’t use any click, conducted the whole thing to picture, you know, all free-timing, and that was a great experience for everybody.

Hear the eighth interview segment for yourself:

EG: Do you think that going into the seventh and possibly final season for Next Generation, and the second year for Deep Space Nine, do you think that there is going to be any significant change in the musical style either on your part and that of the other composers, or perhaps mandated from those who are making the decisions?

DM: Yes, I think we’re going to make the music a little larger this next year. Like I said, I’m meeting with Rick Berman, and we’re going to sit down and have a little fun with it. I think we’re all ready to do something a little different, a little bigger, Jay Chattaway and myself basically. I’m looking forward to it.

EG: Last but not least, what was it like to work on Brent Spiner’s album, Ol’ Yellow Eyes Is Back?

DM: Ah, that was great! That was so much fun. You know, once again, the Parker Lewis-Star Trek rhythm section, and Brent, and then the strings, and – Brent’s such a great guy! – and Wendy Neuss, who, actually, she’s one of the producers on Star Trek, she was one of the producers on the album also, and the three of us just had absolute fun. It was just a joy to do it – Brent is more fun than you can imagine!

EG: So…the same players who worked with you on Parker Lewis and Star Trek…?!

DM: They own a closet with a lotta hats!

EG: I need to go back and read my album notes a little closer…just one last question before I go – it’s been tremendous fun talking to you –

DM: Well, you too, Earl, it’s been great.

EG: Do you have any idea what the next releases are going to be as far as the individual scores, if Crescendo has anything in mind?

DM: We were talking about that a couple of days ago, talking to Neil Norman and Mark Banning, and we have discussed possibly – you know, if the feature comes along and (knocking on wood) if I have an opportunity to do it, that would be great, that would be a release, of course. And, if not, then we might take some of Jay’s. Jay’s done some great scores – Tin Man is certainly an excellent, wonderful score, and Jay’s done some tremendous work, so I would think the next album would be Jay’s work.

EG: And he’s also done the soundtrack of a PBS series, Space Age

DM: Yeah, the Jacques Cousteau, the Space Age…he has a tremendous body of work out there, and he’s a wonderful man, he’s just a great guy. It’s really a pleasure to – you know, everybody on the show is so nice and wonderful to work with, it’s unbelievable. I’d hate to go back to the real world!

Hear the last interview segment for yourself:

EG: Do you ever foresee a time – I guess Deep Space Nine is probably going to be in the making, hopefully for the six or seven years that they’ve signed the contracts for most people…

DM: Let’s keep our fingers crossed – I’ll hang in there. As we say, I ain’t goin’ nowheres! So I’m definitely going to hang in there, as long as they do.

EG: That’s good! Well, thanks very much for taking time out of your schedule – do you happen to be working on a show today?

DM: No, I don’t start until the middle of August, and then it’s “Hold on to your hat, Bertha, the train’s comin’ in!” The first couple of months, I’ll be really up against it. But that’s what I like to do!

EG: Well, I’m glad I got the chance to talk to ya now before you started pulling your hair out!

DM: [laughs] Well, thank you, Earl.

EG: Thank you very much for your time, and keep up the great work.

DM: Thanks a lot!

©1993, 2007 Earl Green – reproduction of this article or accompanying audio without the express consent of the author is strictly forbidden. You can visit Dennis McCarthy’s web site at