When it comes to television, the scores are just as important as the storylines. The biggest scenes in history have relied on music to help drive messages of sadness, fear, romance or anger—which is where people like Mac Quayle come in. The Emmy-winning and GRAMMY-nominated composer is behind the melodies of some of your favorite TV shows, including Mr. Robot, American Horror Story, Feud: Bette & Joan, The People v. O.J. Simpson and Scream Queens.
We spoke to the Virginia-born musician about the creative process behind making scores, his favorite American Horror Story season and why he decided to switch from working in the club remix scene to dominating some of the biggest shows in Hollywood. Read our in-depth interview below.
FUSE: Do you remember the first time you fell in love with music? When your eyes widened with excitement?
Wow, you know I was probably 6 or 7 and my parents had a turntable with records. I discovered that I put the speakers on the floor, lay down and put my head in between them to listen to records. I just started listening to music really closely at that point. Some of the early things were like Jesus Christ Superstar, Neil Diamond...these kind of wacky choices. Like the early Chicago musical. I was loving it. I read that you were in a rock band, which is really cool.
Did that affect you when you decided to make the transition from performing to composing music?
It’s certainly has influenced who I am as a musician. I was in a couple of bands in Virginia before I went to New York, then I was in bands there. I’ve played with people since I’ve been in Los Angeles. I’ve been performing pretty much the whole time. When you ask any musician, it really has an affect on how you play and what you do when you’re out there performing regularly in front of people rather than just being in a studio writing music for something.
Can you walk me through the process of actually creating scores? Do you work on them with the show’s producers or do you create the music first and then they take notes on it?
It does vary from project to project. But the typical thing that I think applies to most projects is that everything starts with a conversation between the composer and the creators of the project, be it the producer or the director. Out of that conversation, you get some ideas as to what they’re looking for. What type of music, what they’re hoping the music will do for their film or TV show. That’s the very beginning. Most of the time when I work, I don’t actually start writing until they send me something that they’ve shot. It might not be finished, but there’s something to look at. And then that conversation continues. They send it to me, I watch it, we talk about it. They’ll say whether this scene needs to be sad, and then more aggressive in the last part of the scene. There might be a piece of temporary music they put in just to have something to illustrate the idea. From there I write something, and when it’s complete to my satisfaction I’ll send it to them. They’ll watch and come back to me with notes. It could be as simple as, “We love it. It’s done!” or “It’s great but can you just make a couple of changes?” Or “You know, it’s totally not working at all…try something else!” [laughs] Then I do what I can to try to address what they’ve asked for.
Most people know you from working on Mr. Robot. Was it intentional to go the more electronic route for the music since the show is about a computer programmer?
It was intentional to do something electronic and certainly took some influences from electronic music in the ‘80s. From the very first conversation that I had with Sam Esmail, the creator of Mr. Robot, the idea was to do a totally electronic score.
I was listening to the soundtrack and some parts reminded me of Nine Inch Nails…do people tell you that you look a lot like Trent Reznor?
Haha, that’s funny! I haven’t heard that but I’ve heard that the music is cousins to Nine Inch Nails and the work that Trent does. Without a doubt he’s been a big influence. I saw Nine Inch Nails perform like years ago in New York when they were just getting started and I’ve seen them a couple of times since. I think he’s super talented. But maybe the real thing is that we look similar and that’s what comes out in the music! [laughs]
You were also part of the club scene here in New York. I was listening to your dance remixes of Britney Spears’ “Stronger” and Madonna’s "Die Another Day." Did that genre have an effect on how you create scores now?
I think so. There were certain production techniques that I learned and practiced during my time in dance music that I still use now in some of the scores that I do—certainly Mr. Robot. They don’t sound like the Britney Spears remix, but there’s definitely some technological approaches that have carried over from one thing to the other.
You were in the music industry for a long time. Would you ever want to return to it?
I think the right opportunity for almost anything is exciting. And if something came along that seemed like a good thing to do—and with scheduling permitting—I’d be interested. The sort of mini cottage industry of remixing will probably never go back to what it was. I mean there’s people doing remixes but I don’t think anybody would tell you that they’re making a living doing it anymore. I happened to catch it in a period where the major labels had budgets and they were remixing everything. Once the sales started to decline in the industry starting in the early 00s, that pretty much disappeared. It’s interesting to see what’s happened with it now.
Other than the plots themselves for all the shows that you work on, where do you seek inspiration? Do you find it from other movies or just everyday life?
I guess all of the above. I take inspiration from everywhere. Certainly other composers are very influential, and several films and shows. I could be driving in my car and hear something on the radio that gives me an idea on a particular cue that I’m working on that I haven’t been able to quite unlock yet.
“There were certain production techniques that I learned and practiced during my time in dance music that I still use now in some of the scores that I do.”-Mac Quayle
I want to dive into American Horror Story now because that’s one of my favorite shows!
It’s funny because that show people either love it or they just can’t watch it [laughs]
Oh yeah, it’s very polarizing and I’m one of the rare ones who love it. I know you composed for Roanoke, Freak Show and Hotel. Since they all have a similar horror thread, was it hard to tackle them differently?
There is a challenging period right at the beginning of the season as we’re trying to define what the musical universe will be for it. It’s that same process that I describe before, where I have conversations with Ryan Murphy and his team. We go back and forth until we end up with a handful of cues that we’re happy with. It’s challenging but at the same time it’s kind of exciting; i enjoy it. You start with nothing and all of a sudden now we have this sound that we can play around with for the rest of the season.
So if you could star in any AHS season, which would you chose?
Wow, that came out of left field [laughs] I think Hotel seemed like a lot of fun. That was a creepy world. I actually got to go to the set and it was amazing. It looked amazing on screen and in person. It would’ve been fun getting dressed up and playing around with that as a job.
Asylum is my favorite season so I’d definitely pick that one.
You know I had heard about American Horror Story, obviously, and good things about it. As we know there’s so much good television out and it was on my list to watch. I had not watched any of the first three seasons when I got the call.
What? Those are the best ones!
I know, that’s what I hear! So I got the call to work on Freak Show and then I was just sort of off and running. I haven’t gone back and watched the early seasons, so maybe that’s still on my list to do.
And I noticed that a lot of your scores tend to go more towards a darker route. Is that more of your comfort zone rather than doing more lighthearted, comedic scores?
I personally find it easier to write that kind of music. I think that opinion is not only my own. You’ll have other composers say writing comedy is more difficult in a way. But it wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice. I got a phone call one day asking if I would work on Freak Show and that they were going in a different direction. I said yes and they hired me the next day. So it kind of just happened that way. And that led to Mr. Robot, and that’s obviously pretty dark. It wasn’t like I was out there looking for the darkest shows I could fine. They found me. One exception to that is the show I did with Ryan [Murphy], which is Feud. It has some sadness in it, but there’s also quite a bit of lighthearted, old Hollywood feel as well.
How fun is it working on Feud? Because it does have that classic ‘60s Hollywood sound.
It was fun! I had not done something like that before. Certainly in the beginning it was a bit of a learning curve to explore that era of music and try to do something that worked for what they were looking for in the show. But I think we did end up locking in the right tone.
Would you like do more movie scores more often? You previously worked on Drive and The Normal Heart.
Oh definitely. There’s actually some stuff in the works that I can’t talk about just yet. But that is something that I’m interested in doing, both television and film.
Is there a difference composing scores for TV shows and movies? Do you have a different mindset going into them?
They’re quite similar to me as far as the creative approach. You’re creating a musical universe, you’re writing some scenes that you’re gonna be using for various characters in the film, and you’re helping the creators to tell their story. All those aspects are pretty much the same. The difference comes in that the television seasons these days—certainly with the cable shows—they’re like 10, 12, 13 episodes and you’re working on it for many months. You’re often under a big time crunch getting them done and the schedule can be pretty demanding. Whereas with a film, you may work on it for a couple of months and you have one deadline that you have to make and then you’re done. It doesn’t keep going.
Are there any shows you’re watching right now where you’ve enjoyed the scores?
I have not been watching as much recently. The most recent thing that I watched that I like was The Americans. It’s a great show and is on FX as well. Also Homeland, which I’ve been watching from the beginning. Those are the two most recent ones, but I also enjoyed the first season of Westworld. There’s so much good television and music out there that I’d like to watch more of it.
So what about artists? Is there anyone you’re into at the moment?
That’s a good question. I feel like recently I’ve been less of a consumer for song-based music since I’ve been so engrossed in the soundtrack world. I’ve been a huge fan of Radiohead forever and continue to feel that they stand alone in their place in music. But I haven’t been listening to commercial radio now for years...I couldn’t even tell you who are some of the current pop stars are.
Looking back on your journey which started almost a decade ago, is there anything he would’ve changed?
Not really. It’s all unfolded pretty much in a really great way. There was a period in the first five or six years when I was working as an additional composer for people like Cliff Martinez and Michael Levine, where I reached a point where I was really eager for my own composing career to take off. As wonderful as it was to work with them, I wanted to do my own projects. It was still a couple of years before that happened because I wasn’t ready. And it sort of happened at the right time. I don’t think I would change any of it.
Okay, I don’t know how open you’re gonna be about this but I actually have a guide to Season 7 of American Horror Story. Can you give ANY hints?
I am working on it. Even though I’m the composer on all these shows, I get the majority of my information from the same place you do.
Oh really? I thought you would have the inside scoop!
I don’t! Like right before, maybe six weeks before it comes out, then I know a little more when I start to work on it. Last year for Roanoke, they did it differently. They didn’t tell anyone what it was gonna be, and I didn’t know either! Everyone’s like, “What is it? What is it?” And I don’t know! So unfortunately I have nothing else to give you. And if you were to ask me six weeks before it’s gonna air I would probably have more but I wouldn’t be able to say. [laughs]
Ah, well I tried! I’m just so excited for this new season.
I am too. It’ll be interesting to see how they tackle this real life horror story that happened last year.
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