Musician Dan Petrich’s sophomore release, Of Devils, Gods and Men, is a hyperlocal production. Recorded at Thunderbird House studios in Lawrenceville, the album’s producer and engineer was 2005 Lebo grad Alex Herd, who also played organ, synthesizers, and percussion. Two 2018 grads, Annie Hoffman and Rachel Wiles, sing background vocals on a few songs, and Petrich’s son, Sam, a Mt. Lebanon sophomore, plays trumpet on two tracks. The album cover was the senior AP art project of Caroline Bushman, another of Petrich’s former students at Mt. Lebanon High School, where he teaches ninth grade English and honors American literature. Former student Dan Getkin, also a musician, helped with some of the technical aspects of the production.
“It just developed naturally,” says Petrich, who grew up on Hazel Drive and now lives on Firwood. “Dan (Getkin) asked Alex if he was interested in working on the project, and we got Rachel and Annie and Sam. It meant a great deal to me to have all of these people coming together to collaborate,” he says.
Although Petrich, a 1989 Mt. Lebanon grad, didn’t start seriously playing until high school, his love of music dates back to early childhood, when his two uncles would come over to their house on Hazel Drive to play guitar and sing—pretty much everything from country and western standards to the Everly Brothers and the Beatles.
“At the time, I was mostly interested in sports,” says Petrich, “but the harmonies from their singing really stuck with me.”
He began playing bass in high school, and when he reached Grove City College in the early ’90s, he was part of a folk trio. He has been writing and performing original folk music for close to 20 years. He released his first album, Sycamore Tales, in 2009.
Petrich has been teaching at Mt. Lebanon High School for the past 24 years. In the title track of Of Devils, Gods and Men, Petrich includes a nod to To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch. “I never tire of teaching that book,” he says.
He balances music with work and family—wife Melinda and children Sam, 15, Gracie, 13 and Ben, 8—and uses it to ground himself.
“Music is cathartic
and therapeutic. I can’t imagine not being part of some creative process.”
Petrich listens primarily to folk music, and his lyrics reflect that listening preference. Just about every song has a reference to animals, or trees, or something in nature.
“I like the earthy natural imagery in folk music,” he says.
Sycamore Tales was mostly self-produced. Petrich took two or three years to finish the project, continually tweaking and revamping the songs until “My wife said, ‘you have to let it go.’”
Armed with a batch of 10 songs he was really proud of, Petrich was appreciative of the difference between recording at his house and at Thunderbird House.
“It was really nice to go into the studio
Petrich says he and Herd have similar music tastes, which was a big plus.
“He was able to produce a sound I liked.” The next step was to take the songs, along with some field recordings—the merry-go-round at Kennywood in Reach for the Ring, and cicadas in Do Not Linger, the closing track—and mix them together. After that, the music went to Garage Masters in Nashville, where it was “stretched and deepened,” says Petrich. “I got it back and said ‘this sounds like a real recording.’”
His songwriting process, most of the time, starts with the chord progressions: the musical framework the song hangs on. From there, Petrich says, the song melody emerges naturally and the lyrics follow.
“I like to come up with a very solid first verse, which I rarely revise. The rest of the song is a challenge.”
He will sometimes use “dummy lyrics” that occupy the song after the initial verse while he works out the rest, which could take some time.
“Every once in a while, I’ll do a quick, one- or two-day song, and when that happens it astounds me. I don’t know where it came from.”