‘Mr. Robot’ composer on creating the show’s dark, Emmy-winning sound

Mr Robot
Rami Malek in “Mr.


The Emmy-winning composer Mac Quayle has had a storied career in
music and television.

Quayle won an Emmy in 2015 for his work on the pilot episode
of the acclaimed USA series “Mr. Robot.” He has scored each
season of Ryan Murphy’s FX show “American Horror Story” since
2014’s “Freakshow.” He also worked with Murphy on “American Crime
Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson,” which won 10 Emmys in 2016.

Quayle returns to “Mr. Robot” for its third season, which
premiered Wednesday at 10 p.m. EST on USA.

Business Insider talked to Quayle about his experience working on
each show, his decision to score an “American Horror Story: Cult”
scene about Trump’s election as if it were a “dark
action” movie, and the musicians he’s most proud to have worked

John Lynch: What does your process look like generally?
How do you go about building a TV score?

Mac Quayle

Courtesy of Jana

Mac Quayle: Well, it always starts with a
conversation with the creators of the show about what they’re
looking to do, what kind of score they think they might want.
Then from there, they start sending me completed scenes, or acts,
or whole episodes, and we go through it together and talk about
where the music should be. And then I start writing music based
on all of our conversations. At that point, it’s a collaboration.
We kind of go back and forth until the music gets to be just the
right thing they’re looking for to help to tell their story.

Lynch: With “American Horror Story” and its variation in
themes between seasons, what sort of challenge does that present
for you, the constant shifting?

Quayle: Every season it’s like we’re
starting over from scratch. Completely different story, possibly
a different time period, different characters. So the music
starts over from scratch each season. It’s a challenge, and it’s
also pretty exciting: that first period of creating the music
that’s going to essentially be the blueprint for what the season
will sound like. It’s pretty intense for the first couple months,
and then we find the recipe that will guide us through the rest
of the season.


Sarah Paulson’s Ally reacts to Trump’s win on the season premiere of “American Horror Story: Cult.”

Lynch: In this season, “Cult,” Sarah Paulson’s
intensify after Trump is elected. How did you react
to the election, and how did your reaction inform your
work and the show?

Quayle: Well, the scene that’s right at the
beginning of the first episode of “Cult” — when they’re watching
the election on television, watching the returns come in, the
moment when it’s clear that Trump wins — I had a very similar
reaction to Sarah Paulson’s character. It was very much hard to
believe. Didn’t seem real. The first piece of music in this
episode was this montage of actual footage from the campaign, and
we scored it like it was a dark action scene, like something
really bad is happening, and we should be scared. It definitely
resonated with me that that was the appropriate way to underscore
Trump giving speeches on the campaign trail. 

You’ve been nominated for
four Emmys, and you won once for the pilot of “Mr. Robot.” What
do you think it was it about your score on that
particular episode that stood out?

Quayle: It was the first batch of music
that was written for that show, and there was quite a lot of it.
It was the beginning of defining the sound that would be “Mr.
Robot,” so for me it was a pretty special episode. It just seemed
like the right one to submit for the Emmys that year.
Fortunately, the music in the show had already gotten a lot of
attention before the Emmys even came around, so it kind of got
swept up in this groundswell of buzz about the show.

How does working with Ryan
Murphy on “American Horror Story” differ from working with
Sam Esmail on “Mr. Robot?”

Quayle: Ryan tends to be more of a big
picture guy. He’ll get me started with these conversations about
what the music needs to do for a particular show or season. And
then as I start delivering things, it’s mostly that he either
likes it or he doesn’t. He’s not usually getting in there with me
and giving me lots of notes. He may give me a few big notes, like
this cue needs to be more sad, or needs to end in a much scarier
place, things like that. Sam is a little more hands-on, and
there’s really a lot of back-and-forth with him about particular
sounds and different things in the music. They definitely have a
different style of working with their composers, both, I
think, yielding a good result. 

Lynch: What, if anything, can you tell me about this
third season of “Mr. Robot?” How did you approach it?

Quayle: I can’t say too much. It hasn’t
started airing yet, and they’re keeping most of it under wraps.
All I can say is that the foundation of it is the core “Mr.
Robot” sound. It’s very electronic, quite dark.
It’s essentially scoring what’s going on in Elliot’s
head, and we’re pushing the score out a little bit more than we
did in season two. That’s what we did then. Season one had its
sound, and season two started with that sound and expanded a
little bit from there. And now we’re expanding it a little bit
more this time. I’ve only completed a couple of episodes so far,
so it’s still evolving, and we’ll see what it ultimately turns

Shifting gears a bit, in
scoring “The People vs. OJ Simpson,” how did the real-life
subject matter of that show affect your approach to writing
the music for it?

Quayle: I don’t know that it really had an
effect. I take that back. There were two things that had an
effect on the score: One was the quality of the performances, and
the script. It was phenomenal writing, phenomenal actors. And
then that it was a true story. Those two things really dictated
that the music take more of a back seat. It didn’t have such a
big role, as it does on “American Horror Story” or “Mr. Robot.”
It just kind of sits back and lets the amazing performances shine
and do their thing. Occasionally it comes up front a little and
pushes things one way or the other, but it was much more of
a subtle approach on that show. 

Is that less fulfilling, in
a way, to have your involvement be more subtle?

Quayle: I suppose had the show itself not
been as strong as it was, then it could have maybe been less
fulfilling. But since it was such a strong show with this great
cast, it was pretty exciting just to be a part of it, even if the
music was a more subtle character than in the other shows.

Lynch: You’ve had a storied career as a producer in the
music industry as well. Is there one artist who you’re most proud
to have worked with?

Quayle: That’s a good question. I’m not
sure that there’s one. There’s some favorites that stick out to
me. I’ve worked with New Order, which is a favorite band of mine.
That was a highlight. I got to record Whitney Houston, via
digital link. We were actually in different countries, but I got
to do a vocal session with her, which was pretty fantastic. And
wow, there’s been so many others. Really fortunate to work with
such talented people. 

Lynch: These are two huge shows you have going right now
in “AHS” and “Mr. Robot.” Do you hope for an awards season push
in the next round of Emmys for either one?

Quayle: You know, it’s hard to say. I’d love to
see “Mr. Robot” get attention again. Anything that would get
attention, of course, I’m very grateful for. So, we’ll have to
see what things look like next spring.  



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