From ‘AHS’ to ‘Mr. Robot’: Mac Quayle Has Probably Scored Your Favorite TV Shows and Films

If you’ve ever watched Drive, Only God Forgives, Mr. Robot, Pose, or American Horror Story; listened to New Order’s 2005 album Waiting for the Sirens Call or Sting’s “Send Your Love”; or if you listened to remixes of the work of top artists in the 1990s and early 2000s; then you’ve heard Mac Quayle’s brilliant musical contributions in some capacity.

Whether he’s at the helm of a score, such as with Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot or the Ryan Murphy/Brad Falchuk family of shows (American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Scream Queens, 9-1-1, Pose and so forth), or whether he was a keyboardist and remixer for popular acts or an additional composer on Cliff Martinez’s team, Quayle has had a huge impact on the musical landscape. He’s worked on several projects that define this publication and the lives of its readers.

If one were to write a musical theme for Quayle, it would have a memorable melody and be thoroughly layered with a rich tapestry of synthetic and organic accompaniment, but it wouldn’t be predictable and it wouldn’t follow an obvious, meticulously planned structure. That’s not how his life has played out over the years. Instead, it’s been an almost serendipitous series of fulfilling opportunities that have resulted in an enviable resume and list of compelling life experiences.

“Not too much of [my life] has been super planned out,” Quayle said in a Skype interview with Vehlinggo last week. “It’s all been about necessity and jumping at opportunities and things like that. It’s been a wonderful gift to be able to do this.”

One notable opportunity is that posed by the excellent new season of AHS, entitled Apocalypsein which Quayle has had before him a particularly challenging and interesting AHS season.

“There are characters from previous seasons and storylines intersecting, which we’ve got a little taste of so far in what’s aired,” he says. “There’s more of that coming — there will be some influences there from previous seasons.”

In addition to AHS, there’s the final season of Mr. Robot on the horizon in 2019, among other projects. Quayle is as busy as ever. In his interview with Vehlinggo, we touch on his most recent projects, but we also spend some time in the past. We talk about his early days, his work with Martinez, including and especially Driveand how his dance background influences his film and TV compositions. Get ready.

A Fork in the Road

This all started because of something that happened to Quayle when he was a 15-year-old boy in Virginia in the late 1970s. Quayle had been playing piano since he was 10 — and was an Episcopal choir boy since before then — and was looking to join a band. A guy who played synthesizers invited him over to show him what it was all about. Needless to say, something clicked in a deep and profound way.

“He played these synthesizers for me and it just blew my little mind,” Quayle said. “It was something I’d never heard before and thought it was pretty incredible. That was it — I’ve been chasing it ever since.”

Years later Quayle realized what the synths that guy owned actually were: a Yamaha CS-80 and a Korg MS-20. If you don’t recognize the names, consider that the former is the Vangelis Blade Runner synth and the latter has been the province of acts like OMD, Vince Clarke, and Legowelt. “[They] are just classic, vintage synths,” he says.

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Yamaha CS-80. Photo by Dean Sparrow, via Synthmuseum.com.

The music bug bit so hard that he put off college initially to play in a rock band, which needless to say gave his parents pause. His father was a lawyer and his mother a schoolteacher, and although they were the ones who got him hooked on music in his childhood they weren’t exactly keen on having young Mac try to become a rock star.

After three years the band broke up and Quayle was left wondering what to do. He wanted to leave Virginia for New York, and the best way to do that was to go to college. So he enrolled in NYU. In his second year in school he took an internship at a recording studio, which fairly quickly led to a job as a keyboard player and programmer.

He thought “this seems to be better than what I was doing at NYU. Let’s stop and follow this new path,” he said. 

That eventually led to Quayle working as a remixer and producer and over the years he’d end up working on more than 300 releases, including 40 No. 1 Billboard Dance hits. He’d earn a Grammy nomination for his production work on Donna Summer’s “I Will Go with You.” The list of people for which he’d end up either remixing or producing and playing keys includes some of the biggest acts in the business: New Order, Madonna, Depeche Mode, Britney Spears, Elvis Presley, Annie Lennox, Whitney Houston, and Beyonce.

All of this remix work that we had been doing had just disappeared.”

At some point in the early 2000s the music industry changed. People weren’t buying physical releases as much anymore — if they were paying for music at all. That left record labels with less money to spend on things like remixes.

“All of this remix work that we had been doing had just disappeared,” Quayle said. “I decided it was time to do something else. I came to LA with the vague idea of getting into scoring.”

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Brilliant film and TV composer Mac Quayle. Photo by Cat Deakins.

‘Waiting for the Sirens’ Call’

Not long after Quayle moved to LA, a grand opportunity struck like a bolt from the blue. The highly influential band New Order was working on a followup to 2001’s Get Ready — a fairly extraordinary thing for post-Republic New Order to be so quick with a follow-up album — and Quayle got the opportunity to fly to England to work with them on it. He told Vehlinggo the experience was “fantastic.” He stayed at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios and got to play ping-pong with him.

“That was an amazing experience being with them,” he said. “I hope to go back there one day.”

Quayle ended up working with the band on at least three tracks on Waiting for the Sirens’ Call: the exquisite dance cut “Guilt Is A Useless Emotion,” which was nominated for a Grammy, and two other great cuts from the LP, “Morning Night & Day” and “Turn.” He also contributed a “Mac Quayle Vocal Remix” for “Guilt” that I used to listen to a lot when the album came out in 2005.

The years in which he logged all of those production and remixing experiences taught Quayle a lot that he could bring to score work. For one thing, his work producing artists made him adept at choosing and creating sounds, and mixing and arranging music — you know, “producer” stuff. It’s perhaps less necessary to “produce” an orchestral score, but the ubiquitous electronic- and synth-based scores out there now require not just musical ability but also a keen sense of production.

“All these things make something sound good — to have a ‘sound’,” Quayle said. “It’s an important part of a certain type of composing for sure.”

The dance music he worked on also had an impact. Of course, electronic dance music is a lot about repetition, as is pop.

“Using synths and making repetitive dance music, I think you can probably hear that in some of Mr. Robot’s score,” Quayle says.

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Working with Cliff Martinez

After the New Order experience, score work started becoming a strong part of Quayle’s life. From 2006 to 2010 he was an additional composer on Michael A. Levine’s team for CBS’s “Cold Case,” meanwhile working on some film projects, before joining Cliff Martinez’s team as an additional composer, arranger, and programmer.

Alongside fellow additional composer Greg Tripi, Quayle would work with Martinez to contribute music for Drive, Only God Forgives, Lincoln Lawyer, Spring Breakers, the video game Far Cry 4, and other compelling Martinez scores. (Composers generally have a team helping them, because most projects are too big for one person.)

“I was a big fan of Cliff’s,” Quayle said. “… The Cliff Martinez musical world felt very comfortable for me. It was a comfortable place for me to be, which is why I worked with him for so long.” 

Naturally, I asked Quayle about working on Drive, on which he played guitar and did some programming.

“We were all excited about the film,” Quayle said. “We knew that it was something special, [but] we weren’t prepared for how much attention the music was going to get. It really was just pretty exciting.”

Overall, Quayle says, he enjoyed working with Martinez: “It was a great experience and I learned so much; and I think it was beneficial to both of us.”  

And now, as a primary composer himself, of the basket of experiences he brings to the table from that time (and from his time with Levine) is the idea of fairness.

“They gave credit and so they just taught me that that’s the way to do things,” he said. “… People that have worked for me have all gotten credit for their work. I’m not a fan of ghostwriting.”

MAc Quayle Under the Big Top

American Horror Story: Freak Show, which premiered in October 2014, was Quayle’s first gig as the primary composer on a major TV show or film. He got the gig after working with Martinez on Ryan Murphy’s 2014 HBO film The Normal Heart, which was based on Larry Kramer’s play about the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

The Freak Show storyline was set in and around a circus in Florida in the 1950s, so the score called for circusy bells and organs, in addition to pianos and some synths. Quayle and the production team clicked so thoroughly that every show they’ve done since, AHS or otherwise, has had a Quayle score.

“… every season we’re trying to reinvent the music…”

“It’s an interesting show for me, because every season we’re trying to reinvent the music and yet it’s still American Horror Story,” Quayle says. “There are some rules: Don’t use any sounds that we’ve used before and try to give each season its own identity; and yet still have some things we need for the show to be scary and creepy and weird.”

Along those lines, each season has called for a different array of instrumentation. Whereas Freak Show was a bit more organic, Hotel was fully electronic. Roanoke and Cult each had a bit more of a traditional orchestral sound.

But this season, for Apocalypse, which focuses on characters in a world following a full-scale nuclear attack, Quayle leans heavily on synths and an electronic approach.

“It felt like [an] electronic [style] would be the way to go,” he says. “And so certainly all the initial music that I wrote was using primarily electronic elements, and it was working pretty well, but we did feel we needed to add a few other things — strings, a piano motif. The bedrock of it is electronic, though.”

And throughout, as the show introduces more veteran characters, Quayle will be tapping into the past seasons, including the first four that he didn’t score, to achieve the optimal score.

“This season is oddly the first time it’s kind of felt a little more challenging to reinvent it, because we’ve done so many things with it — and yet it’s still AHS,” he says.

This season is oddly the first time it’s kind of felt a little more challenging to reinvent it…”

Although Quayle spent years making music for a living, AHS is the first show on which he was the primary composer — “… the first time that a big studio and producers were taking me on.” They entrusted him with the music to a massively popular and valuable show. That kind of dynamic hits home hard.

“[The show] does have a special place in my heart, which sounds a little funny given that it’s American Horror Story,” he said. “It’s been exciting each year to do this new reimagining of the music and reinventing it.”

Quayle has also scored another Murphy-Falchuk anthology, American Crime Story, which so far has expertly depicted the circumstances surrounding the O.J. Simpson trial and the death of Gianni Versace. Season three will depict Hurricane Katrina. He’s also scored their shows Feud, Scream Queens, 9-1-1, and Pose.

“There’s a feeling of being on a team,” Quayle says about working with the same producers for multiple shows. “There are editors that might work on AHS and Feud; [or] producers working on multiple projects. So it’s kind of like this big family and that feels pretty comfortable.”

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John Bergin’s handiwork on the first Mr. Robot soundtrack cover.

The ‘Sculptured Noise’ of Mr. Robot

There’s something particularly poignant about Mr. Robot, a show that is loosely about a group of hackers that take down the world as we know it, but which is in fact more deeply a story of loss, mental illness, the apathy of the working class and the nihilism of the ruling class. Over its three seasons to-date, as lead characters Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), his sister Darlene (Carly Chaikin), and best friend Angela Moss (Portia Doubleday) navigate increasingly intense and off-putting predicaments and unravel accordingly, Quayle’s score has deftly been there with them.

The score is a particular favorite of mine. It has a heavy emphasis on synthesis and a broad and deep sense of experimentation that matches both the tempered and unhinged moments in the story. From the sweet to the foreboding, from the suspicious to the histrionic, from heavily manipulated synths to more traditional instrumentation — Quayle covers it all.

“I deliver what [Esmail and the team] want for each scene to underscore whatever emotion they’re trying to tell us,” Quayle says. “But within that… there are definitely a lot of moments of you ‘know how let’s just try whatever and see what works.’ The music can be very strange and discordant and something that you wouldn’t normally consider to be music even — more like sculptured noise.”

And Quayle’s impact is strong. We’re talking about music that Lakeshore Records art director John Bergin expertly complements with poignant computer- and video game-themed art for Lakeshore/Invada vinyl releases that sell pretty darn well. (Bergin said in an in-depth interview in 2016 that working with Esmail and Quayle on the album art was a huge highlight of his career — “It was an absolute thrill to work with [them],” he said at the time. “I’m a huge fan.”)

Mr. Robot soundtrack art by John Bergin.

In a recent Vehlinggo podcast episodeSummer of 84 composers Le Matos cited Quayle’s Mr. Robot score as a heavy influence on their own film score. They were quite emphatic about it.

Quayle has scored the show for its entire three-year run and in that time he’s seemingly gotten to know the characters pretty well. Elliot is a particularly intimate familiarity.

“I do know him pretty well, but the circumstances and situations that he finds himself in do keep changing and evolving,” Quayle says. “Scoring for him does keep changing and evolving, as well. Sometimes I’m able to intuitively find the right thing pretty quickly and then Sam agrees. Other times I have to go a few rounds.”

There are cues that seemingly are right inside Elliot’s subconscious, but there are other times when the cue Quayle thought would be about Elliot turns out to be more about Elliot’s alter ego, Mr. Robot, and how he’s taking over from Elliot.

“Why does that happen? I dunno,” Quayle says. “Perhaps I’m just connecting with the story in certain ways subconsciously that I’m not even aware of at the time and it gets revealed to me later.”

While Quayle is influencing others with his retro-infused synth score for Mr. Robot, the man himself draws on some particular influences when crafting the music: Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, and Japanese synth pioneer Isao Tomita. Basically, all artists who were innovating with synths before and around the time Quayle first stumbled onto the instrument that fateful day when he was 15.

Perhaps the most innovative and pioneering figure who influenced Quayle is Wendy Carlos. Her 1968 debut studio album Switched-On Bach featured her and Benjamin Folkman performing Bach pieces on Moogs at a time when electronic instrumentation was largely used in the experimental realm. (That was a year before The Beatles busted out the Moog on Abbey Road.)

“I got to sort of explore that realm a little at the end of season 1 [of Mr. Robot],” Quayle said. “I did an electronic version of this [Dmitri] Shostakovich waltz.”

He married the spirit of Switched-on Bach with the spirit of the work Carlos did scoring Stanley Kubrick films. (“Of course, that waltz was used in Eyes Wide Shut in an orchestral version,” Quayle says.)

“All of these things were coming together.”


Quayle-scored shows currently airing are AHS on FX and 9-1-1 on Fox. The rest, including USA’s Mr. Robot, are available variously on demand and via services like Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon Prime. You can purchase up to five volumes of the Mr. Robot score digitally via Lakeshore Records and up to at least four volumes on vinyl via Invada Records.

 

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