photo from McCarthy Trenching's album cover art by Bill Hoover for Plays the Piano
by Michael Todd
For most musicians, the song is written before any consideration of the banter. Dan McCarthy, though, is not like most musicians.
His song, "The Ballad of Dorothy Lynch" — off his soon-to-be-released record, Plays the Piano — began as a joke. It starts by saying, "Dorothy seems sweet, but there's nothing natural about her / She's pretty and pink, but her color comes from a can." As most Nebraskans know, the exquisite taste of our locally famous salad dressing is no laughing matter. McCarthy thinks otherwise, as he continues the song with a tale of Dorothy's less-than-natural life and its crossing with a man named John, whose friends at the bar call him Hungry Jack.
To show such devotion to a Nebraska icon, McCarthy must consume gallons of the sweet treat. Or so you'd think. Although he bought a small sampling to help him finish the song, McCarthy says with a laugh, "I never opened the bottle because I think it’s disgusting." On the rest of Plays the Piano, McCarthy — under the pseudonym McCarthy Trenching — shows his love for ragtime with a few Scott Joplin songs and a few more tunes of his own that cover cribbage, evil and free will, and the very minute he started writing this record.
See McCarthy in concert tonight at O'Leaver's alongside his bandmate James Maakestad on upright bass. They'll headline a night starting at 9:30 p.m. and opened by Capgun Coup's Sam Martin and Anna McClellan of Howard. Tuesday, McCarthy Trenching plays the Saddle Creek Shop at 6:30 p.m., and Wednesday, the duo takes the stage at The Zoo Bar for Lincoln Calling at 8 p.m.
Hear Nebraska: First off, thank you for leaving those messages on Holla HN earlier.
Dan McCarthy: Yeah, that Lincoln Calling show should be a cool one. I’ve been trying to play real pianos around the release of this record. Eric Nyffeler and I were talking, and he told me The Zoo Bar has a piano. So I asked Jeremy Buckley about that, and he’s making it work. It’s not an all-piano show, but it’s centered around the piano at The Zoo Bar.
HN: Sure. Do you know the logistics of that? The piano’s not on the stage normally, so will it be moved onstage, or maybe you’ll play in the crowd?
DM: I don’t know the logistics. But it’s just James Maakestad (on upright bass) and I playing in McCarthy Trenching, so we can kind of set up anywhere. We just got back from this trip with a few different shows, and every piano’s a little different, but that’s part of the fun and the challenge, adapting to where it’s at in the room, how big it is, if it’s in tune or not (laughs).
HN: Is the piano you recorded this record with the one we asked you to do a photo essay for The Muse with? The one named Alice? (McCarthy declined the offer saying, "I promised Alice, the piano, when I started working with her, that she'd never have to do a photo shoot. She's still pretty pissed off about Brendan's gear review.")
DM: It is (laughs). We recorded the record at my house in the living room, so yeah, it’s my piano, which I sometimes call Alice. She’s a model A, so I figured her name should start with ‘A.’ I’m not very good at naming my things.
We just renamed the car. The car now is called Lydia. My all-the-time car is the van we take on tour, and I always thought it should be some tough name like Ace. But we decided that she’s a fat girl called Lydia.
DM: Oh, shit (laughs). The only reason we picked on Lydia is because of that John Prine song, where there’s a fat girl called Lydia. “Donald and Lydia” is the title. Anyway (laughs).
HN: Anyway. I wanted to ask you about the vinyl itself. I just got my copy in the mail yesterday, and when I dropped the needle on, the tones were extremely low as if were playing slowly, and it was. Was the record built to play at 45 rpm for a reason?
DM: Yeah, it’s a function of the length of the record really. Did it play OK for you once you adjusted your record player?
HN: Yeah, sounds good.
DM: Good. So the more information you can transmit to your phonograph needle per second the better. It’s the same concept as higher-quality digital file. The more information, the more true-to-life the sound will be. If you make a 23- or 24-minute record, you can fit it on a 12-inch LP at 45 rpm, so it’s a quality choice. If you’ve got much longer than 25 minutes, you wouldn’t fit it on there.
HN: OK, that makes sense. I just started listening to records, so I had never heard of that.
DM: Yeah, 12-inch 45s are pretty rare because you can also choose to put that music on a 10-inch or the standard is to put more music on it (laughs).
HN: Sure. Now, talking about the first song, do you remember where were you at 2:47 on July 18, 2011? (The time is the title of Plays the Piano's first track.)
DM: Well, you know, there’s always a little creative license, some lyrical interpretation (laughs). But that song is written from the point-of-view of someone waiting for his bandmate to show up for practice. And I think that’s fairly true.
HN: So is it autobiographical?
DM: I think it is fairly true to life. Not that I was doing that exactly at that minute, but it seemed like a good enough time. I wish that that whole song came to me within the space of 60 seconds. It took me awhile to finish it, but that was about when I started it that afternoon, because we were just wrapping up the Fresh Blood record at that point. I think we’d just picked up the master at that point. So it’s sort of the beginning of writing this record in the summer of 2011.
HN: OK, cool. Tell me about the Joplin pieces you picked to record, and why you chose each of them.
DM: Basically chose them because they were the easiest ones. Not really. But those were the ones I felt I could memorize and execute on record. “Solace” I’ve known for a long time. That’s only half of the piece on the record because I learned it from the sheet music to “The Sting,” so that’s why it’s a halfie. For the other two, I like the songs, and I felt like I could play them without too many mistakes. Recording something brings a whole other pressure to the performance and a scrutiny as far as wrong notes, tempo variations and mistakes basically.
HN: Sure. Talking about another song, you compare evil to free will. Could you elaborate on that?
DM: That one, what was I thinking about? Just one of the early-morning musings asking, “Is the reason that evil exists in the world because humans have free will to choose to do evil things? Is free will an illusion?” But I’m not a philosopher. It’s just me sitting down to pound out a few chords with a lot of...
HN: Sorry, it cut off a bit there at the end. What were you saying?
DM: Oh, that the pauses make it catchy, give it a little pop, you know.
HN: Sure. Maybe the pauses in the phone call are an argument against free will (laughs).
DM: I’m usually tempted to chalk most of that stuff up to coincidence (laughs), but you know maybe not.
HN: It’s a little strange, isn't it. Anyway, I’d like to talk about Dorothy Lynch. What about the dressing made you want to write a song about it?
DM: Well, it’s sort of locally famous but unknown anywhere outside Nebraska. We just took that song out of town for the first time, and it takes a lot of explaining to impress upon people what you mean by Dorothy Lynch. I tried to write it as a song that just makes sense as a boy and a girl that happens to have the names of products that aren’t very natural: Hungry Jack and Dorothy Lynch. The song title has been a joke that I would tell as a long time before I wrote a song. But I did go down to No Frills and bought a small bottle, and that helped me finish it.
HN: Did you finish the bottle?
DM: No, I don’t like Dorothy Lynch the salad dressing (laughs). But maybe I should give it away at the record release show. I never opened the bottle because I think it’s disgusting (laughs). (There’s a slight pause.) I just looked at the expiration date and it says, “Best before 10/8/2012.” If the “best before” date is Monday, I should give this shit away quick (laughs).
Michael Todd is Hear Nebraska's managing editor. Dorothy Lynch is his all-time favorite salad dressing. Reach Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.