Exclusive Interview: Star Trek Composer Dennis McCarthy
Dennis McCarthy produced Brent Spiner’s semi-legendary album, Ol’ Yellow Eyes Is Back. And, oh yeah, he composed the main theme and music for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as well as music for The Next Generation, Voyager and Enterprise. McCarthy also wrote/conducted the music for Star Trek Generations, Borg Invasion 4D (the short film/attraction at Star Trek: The Experience), as well as for the computer game Star Trek: Borg. All told, McCarthy spent 18 years helping immerse Trek fans in the adventures of their favorite characters, along the way earning two Grammy Awards. His numerous other credits include Enos, V, The Twilight Zone, Dynasty, MacGyver, Deadly Games, Stargate SG-1, Breast Men, Project Greenlight and Prayer Hour.
McCarthy, as you might imagine, has long been on StarTrek.com’s interview wish list. He proved elusive for a few years, but with an upcoming appearance at Creation Entertainment’s Official Star Trek Convention next month in Las Vegas – where he’ll be appear on stage to take questions from the audience and also participate in a special concert event with the Nevada Pops – we finally can check him off our list. Below is part one of our exclusive two-part interview with Dennis McCarthy. Visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to read the second half of the conversation.
Let's start with the present. What's life like for you these days? And are you still working?
McCARTHY: I’m still working, still very busy. I’ve done several short films. I did some extra music for a friend of mine who’s working on a Star Trek fan film. He’s also working on a comedy that’s set in an alien bar, and it’s very funny. I’m writing with some folks. I worked on Ancient Aliens, and got the main title on that. There’s a whole bunch of music flying all over the place. I had to convert over to electronics because the days of orchestras, while they’re still with us, if you can’t work a keyboard and a big Mac computer you’re dead in the water nowadays. So I had to make the jump, and I did.
You will be at Creation's big event next month and part of the program with the Nevada Pops. First, have you done much in the way of convention appearances? Taking questions from fans?
McCARTHY: Not a lot, but I’ve done it. I remember a few years back that I did it, also in Vegas, with the Las Vegas Symphony. I conducted them and had some friends in the orchestra, so that was a lot of fun. I also fielded a bunch of questions from fans. I have a funny story for you. I was sitting at the bar with my wife and someone came running in and said, “William Shatner is not ready yet. Can you go ahead and kick off the orchestra and do the themes…?” I had my tux on and said, “Sure.” I got there and came up the back of the stage, through the risers and I said, “Oh, there’s a microphone up by the podium. Would you like me to introduce…” And they said, “No, we’d like you to do five or 10 minutes.” So I walked out and told every bad joke I could think of, and off we went. It was like riding the maelstrom, but it was a lot of fun.
And in terms of the performance by the Pops, how will you be involved?
McCARTHY: I’m not sure yet, actually. That’s a question that’s yet to be answered. If they have a conductor, I’m absolutely more than happy to watch and listen. Or maybe I’ll guest conduct for part of it and just do Deep Space Nine or Generations. Whatever they want me to do, I’m happy to do.
OK, let's go back in time. How did you land your gig working on The Next Generation?
McCARTHY: Rick Berman brought me on board. What happened was I started off with Glen Campbell. I spent nine years on the road with him. It was the college of the road, working with all the orchestras and bands, and asking guys, “How’s my arrangement?” They’d say, “Oh, it’s great.” And I’d say, “No, really?” They’d say, “Oh, it sucks.” Then they’d tell me why. That’s how I learned. It was trial by fire. Then, in 1981, I got a call from Dick Harris at Warner Brothers saying they had a spinoff of Dukes of Hazzard (called Enos). They wanted to have the country stuff, which, of course, I knew from Glen and all the guys I’d been working with, but also I knew orchestrals, being able to write for brass and so forth. So I could do a combination for Enos. I came back and did that. Then, a while later, I got a call about V: The Final Battle, one of the V miniseries. I had nine days to replace probably 60 percent of the score that was in there, because they wanted it to be more orchestral and bigger than what it was. I had over an hour’s worth of music for 60 musicians and I had nine days until air, to get this done. So it was quite a lot fun, but no sleep.
Then I did the new Twilight Zone. And what happened was that Rick Berman heard about the V thing and discovered that I could work at high speed, because that’s what Star Trek always was, and they called me into the office. They said, “OK, can you give us Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderful theme combined with Alexander Courage’s fanfare?” I went and did that, gluing everything together. That was kind of the beginning of synthesizers. So I did sort of a mock-up, got the show and just went for 18 straight years after that. I did, I don’t know, 360-something total shows. I did the TNG pilot and the Enterprise finale. So I rode that train for a long, long time.
You scored nearly 90 episodes of TNG, from "Encounter at Far Point" to "All Good Things…" How full a meal was that for you as a composer?
McCARTHY: Very full. I started off, in the beginning, with some stuff that was very bombastic, but it got kind of cut back during the recording or in dubbing. Rick said, “Look, I don’t want this to be huge and over the top. I want the music just to support what’s going on and not become the star.” I said, “OK.” I was having fun. I had an orchestra. A lot of my buddies were working with me. So I cut back. Percussion was pretty much verboten. If a snare drummer showed up, it was like, “Umm, let’s get rid of that.” But as the seven years progressed, it got more and more active. Ron Jones, Jay Chattaway, David Bell and I, we all started slipping things in. “OK, here’s some toms. Here’s some percussion. Here are some extra strings.” These were things we’d kind of been laying back from the first couple of years. By the time we got to the end, there was some fun stuff going on.
Ron Jones, as we all know, fell out of favor. Were you ever worried that could happen to you?
McCARTHY: Oh, yeah. You always worry about that. It’s that phone call you can get. Ron did some really great stuff, but… I’m just trying to think how to phrase this. He would kind of go against what Rick and Peter Lauritson wanted to have. They really wanted wallpaper for those first years. They did not want big, thematic pieces. Ron wrote some wonderful things, but they felt they were too big. I know that, one episode, Ron brought in a load of percussion and synthesizers, which went against the grain at that time. So that’s when they brought Jay in. When I hitched up, I knew that if I pushed the envelope too far I’d not have the chance to push the envelope again. It’s like being a carpenter. If the guy says, “I want my cabinets made out of maple,’ and you think they should be made out of oak, you make them out of maple. And then, maybe, two years later, you’re remaking them out of oak. That was kind of my attitude.
You scored several very beloved episodes, including, as I mentioned, the premiere and the finale, but also “The Measure of a Man,” “The Loss,” “Yesterday's Enterprise,” “Sarek,” “Unification I and II,” “Redemption I and II,” “Tapestry,” etc. Which stand out the most and why so?
McCARTHY: I love all the ones that you’ve just mentioned, but one that stands out, believe it or not, is “Haven.” That was like the second episode I scored. Troi’s mother showed up, and I did a lot of very whimsical solo violin and so forth and so on. One of the producers, after he saw the episode, he said, “Hey, that score…” I was ready for a compliment. And he said, “Don’t ever do that again.” So that one sticks in my mind. And, of course, my answer was “OK, I won’t do that.” I loved “Elementary Dear Data.” The “Unification” two-parter, those were outstanding episodes and I was very satisfied with the scores. I really liked “Measure of a Man” and “All Good Things…” I had a lot of fun with the finale.
Visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to read part two of our interview with Dennis McCarthy.