Mac Quayle is a deeply imaginative musical luminary with a refined, impassioned approach to composition. He is also alarmingly humble for an artist of his stature. His immaculate score for Mr. Robot garnered a win at the 2016 EMMYs. As a longtime go-to composer for Ryan Murphy, Mac has contributed his talents to television triumphs, such as American Horror Story, FEUD: Bette & Joan, American Crime Story, and Scream Queens. He is a Grammy nominee and has numerous Gold and Platinum records to his credit from his work as a producer and dance re-mixer for the likes of Beyoncé, Sting, Madonna, Janet Jackson, and countless others. In anticipation of Mac's live concert performing the music of Mr. Robot at The Roxy, we retraced his steps from New York City musician to his artistic life here and now.
How did you initially break into the world of composing?
I had a different career in the music business. I was living in New York, working as a keyboard player, producer, and a dance remixer. I did that for a number of years until the early 2000s when the music business was really starting to shift. At that point, I decided to move to Los Angeles with this vague idea of getting into scoring. I got my first real job in 2006 as an additional composer on the show Cold Case, working with Michael Levine. Working for other composers became my path. First Michael, and then I met Cliff Martinez. I did 12 films with him.
Can you tell us more about the dynamics of your working relationship with Cliff Martinez, esteemed composer behind blockbusters like Drive, The Lincoln Lawyer, and Spring Breakers?
Well, it’s basically Cliff's project. He interfaces with the producers, directors, whoever is running the project. He comes up with all the basic ideas. One cue might be something like he would write a theme and do a little sketch of it. I would take that sketch and flesh out the arrangement, developing it further and then sending it back to him. He would give me notes and I would change it until we got it to a place where he was happy. From there, it gets sent to the director. Cliff is just a wonderful artist. I was a huge fan of his before I ever met him. It was very exciting to get to work with him. I felt our musical sensibilities have a lot in common.
Looking back on all of your accomplishments, can you identify a distinct turning point, where everything shifted in your career?
Throughout these two careers that I've had, there has been a number of turning points, but as far as with the scoring, I would say that there were two turning points. The first one was in 2013 when I got accepted into the Sundance Composers Lab. That was just an incredible educational experience and I met some great people. Something after that just shifted for me, and a lot started to happen. Right after that, I started to do all these indie films. There was a lot of activity. Then, of course, the big shift after that was in the fall of 2014, when I got the call about American Horror Story. That has brought me up till now, which has been quite a ride.
Your work on American Horror Story is haunting and frankly, stunning. How did you originally land the gig?
It was through a film that I worked on with Cliff. It was a film that Ryan Murphy directed called The Normal Heart. Six months later, one of the producers thought of me, gave me a call, and said, "Hey, would you be willing to write a cue this afternoon? We're going in a different direction with American Horror Story." Fortunately, I wasn't busy that afternoon. I wrote the cue, and the next day they hired me.
American Horror Story Cult has a visible relationship to the Freak Show season and is strongly focused on political themes. What were the initial ideas for the musical direction and how did that evolve into what we hear today? What instrumentation, musical characteristics, or influences define the sound of this season?
Twisty the Clown made a few return appearances this season and we actually went back a them written for him in Freak Show. The rest of the score in Cult has been influenced by an organic sound. Brass, strings, and drums help evoke a political or government tone. And of course, there is a healthy dose of crazy horror sounds like deep drones and orchestral effects!
Let's talk about your Emmy nominated work on another Ryan Murphy series, FEUD: Bette and Joan. It takes place in old Hollywood and depicts the highs and lows of fame through the lens of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Are there specific themes or characters that resonate with you personally? What were the most memorable aspects of working on the show?
I am quite fond of music from the 1960’s so it was a real treat to immerse myself in that world for a season of Feud. The jazzy orchestral pieces were some of my favorites and I loved recording percussion, bass and horns to achieve the live feel the music needed. My wheelhouse had not previously included period orchestral music so this was a challenging score but certainly rewarding as well.
Season 3 of Mr. Robot has just premiered! You will be doing a concert called M@cQuayle_TheMus1c0fMrRob0t.mp3 on December 5th at The Roxy featuring your Emmy winning original score. Can you tell us about your process of shaping the music we hear on the show into something exciting for a live concert setting? Will you also be incorporating organic instruments into the presentation?
I am excited for the upcoming concert. We're busy making preparations for it. The current lineup of musicians is myself on keyboards, a second keyboard player, guitar player, and drummer. The drummer plays both electronic and acoustic drums. Most of the music we will be performing has been changed from the original versions that appeared in the show. I have chosen pieces of music that I think will work well in a live performance and then adapted them to create something that I feel will be fun to play and entertaining for an audience. Some of the changes I make include extending the arrangements to make them longer, adding additional instruments, adding additional musical sections and combining two or more pieces together in a medley. Due to the electronic nature of the Mr. Robot score, we will also use a few pre-recorded tracks to accompany us and there is some work needed to get those sounding right.
The main theme for Mr. Robot has tense, dark, and driving elements. Overall, it is industrial and has a very futuristic feel. Brilliant! It starts in C Major and then goes minor. Can you explain this artistic choice?
Well, it was a simple little idea. The melody goes back and forth between C major and C minor. The idea was just to be musically discussing the lightness and the darkness in the character of Elliot. There's something about that sound that I really like. It's kind of unexpected. Your brain is used to getting in tune with a minor chord or with a major chord, and then to have it be going back and forth like that, I find that to be kind of fun.
It’s unsettling and keeps the listener on their toes. I originally became familiar with your work through American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J, which is so subtle yet deep. The show as a whole was gripping and the end credits featured that bubbling synth music that emotionally matched the mood. I was happily surprised by how compelling that show was, given that we all know what happens.
Well, thank you. I had the same exact feeling. I didn't know what to expect from the show because everyone knows the story. I was just as surprised as everyone else by how gripping it was. The performances of those actors were just so good. The intent from the producers was for it to be as realistic as possible. That's why the choice was for the music to be subtle.
Each of the shows you work on take place in radically different musical worlds. Do you find it challenging to jump from one show to another? I imagine on any given day you might work on more than one show.
I do. You know, I find it refreshing. On this job, it’s a lot of long hours. Being able to change up it and write different types of music keeps it even more interesting. Especially on these shows Ryan Murphy creates, all but Scream Queens are anthology series, so every season is totally different, which is something I really enjoy. That's been challenging, but really rewarding. You live in it for a season and then it's gone. We don't return to it and we come up with something new for the next time.
In the composing world, writer’s block is a taboo. How do you combat it?
In most cases, composers aren't just working on one piece of music. They're working on a number of pieces for a particular project. I love to jump around. If I hit a block on one piece, I'll just put it aside, go to another one, and then come back. Fortunately for me, it is a technique that works pretty well most of the time.
Customarily, what are your mixing methods? Do you typically mix in the box?
Yes, it’s all in the box, right in Logic. There's not a lot of time to deliver the music, so it all happens as quickly as possible. I'm often mixing as I'm writing. Right before I'm going to print it, I'll tweak it a bit more. I would love if it were mixed separately by a mix engineer. At this point, I haven't found a way to incorporate that into the workflow. I work in Logic so I need to keep it in Logic. It's really time-consuming for them to take it and put it into Pro Tools from Logic and mix it.
When using Logic, you have to export every file as a WAV file to be able to move it into a different digital sequencer? Is that right?
It's true. I'm constantly going back to these cues. If I've written a cue for a particular scene in episode two, now I might want to base a cue in episode three off of it. I'm going to go back to that Logic session, opening it up, and saving it as a new file, then start to change it for the new cue. I would want to be starting from the mix and have the mix be right in Logic. I need to find somebody that can do that!
Who would you consider to be your most important influences, mentors, or teachers?
Way back when I was 15, I lived in Virginia. I was interested in getting into a band as a keyboard player. There was another local band that was pretty established and their keyboard player invited me to his apartment to check out his synthesizer rig. He played these two keyboards for me and it just blew my 15-year-old mind. Ever since then, I've been playing with synthesizers. He helped me buy my first used synthesizer, and it set me on this path, which I've been on ever since. I had no idea then, but obviously, that was a pivotal moment.
Can you recall the name of the synth he helped you acquire?
The first synth that I bought was called The Cat by Octave. Not a household name, but if you look it up, you'll find it out there. There's a lot on the internet about it. The two synths that this keyboard player had, I later learned, were just incredible classics. He had a Yamaha CS-80, which is very rare, and the Korg MS-20. It was quite a good introduction to synthesizers.
Musical or otherwise, what is one of the most important lessons you've learned along your journey?
Well, to trust that I can turn a blank page into something. I've heard many other composers talk about the feeling when you start a project and it's just a blank page. There’s a fear like, "what am I going to do? How is this going to happen? There's nothing here, I don't have any ideas." To trust that there will be a point where you'll look back and now, the page is filled with music you've created. That's been something important for me to learn.
In a way, it’s a long term spiritual lesson.
Yes, it’s also about having the experience of going through that process over and over. Getting to the blank page, having the fear, putting it aside, getting to work, and then ending up with a completed idea or project. Trusting that that'll happen again, even though it's still daunting. It's kind of funny because I've heard really big composers talk about this as well.
Outside of music, what are the inspirations that fuel your creativity?
I get inspired by all kinds of things but sometimes, just the simple act of walking the dog around the block can free my mind to let a great idea come through. Our home is up in the hills in Los Angeles and there’s nothing like walking down the street and looking across at a beautiful view to help get my imagination flowing.
Catch M@cQuayle_TheMus1c0fMrRob0t.mp3 at The Roxy in Los Angeles on December 5th. Get tickets here.