The synth score is unabashedly 1980s and so are the pop songs. The visuals come off like a well-worn VHS tape. There’s the ridiculously ostentatious hair and outfits. And don’t forget the menacing summer camp populated with oversexed camp counselors and haunted by a masked serial killer. That and the twists we’ve come to expect and enjoy are all there to envelope horror fans.
American Horror Story: 1984 is one of the most compelling seasons of the show in years, following up last year’s supergroup powerhouse of story-line convergence with an homage to ‘80s slasher flicks. Not everyone can pull off ‘80s nostalgia well, but showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, and their cast and crew certainly can — and a key component of their success is score composer Mac Quayle (Mr. Robot, Pose) and music editor David Klotz (Game of Thrones, Stranger Things).
Meeting the show’s ’80s maximalism is the score work of longtime Murphy-Falchuk collaborator Quayle — diving deep into retro-cheesy synthy bliss and period-specific drum machine sounds that scream like hallmarks of the decade. Also rising to the occasion are licensed pop songs from the era, such as Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” and The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump,” that music supervisor Amanda Thomas ostensibly chose.
The doubling-down on ‘80s retro horror not only provides for fun entertainment, but it also gives Quayle a lot of freedom to just go all out in his cues in a way that even the wildest previous seasons have not allowed.
“With Horror Story it’s… ‘Oh, this isn’t the most cutting edge electronic piece ever, but it sounds like it came from the ’80s and it sounds appropriate for the show’,” he told Vehlinggo recently.
Even with his work on Mr. Robot, which is currently in its final season and features a rather synth-heavy electronic score, Quayle says he’s still trying to “push the boundaries and come up with something new and just really do some cutting-edge electronic music, if possible.”
But with a show like AHS: 1984, the more ’80s the better. Genre fans, especially, are poised to reward creators for going full-blast into the cheese, kitsch, and time period of the story.
“I want them to feel like they are watching a film from the ‘80s,” Quayle said.
“This is the most fun I’ve had on American Horror Story, I think — working with this music,” Klotz said. “I love the stuff Mac’s been doing. It’s cool. It works perfectly for the show.”
After the first episode aired, Vehlinggo was fortunate enough to catch up with Quayle and Klotz in a three-person conversation about the music of the show and the everlasting ‘80s nostalgia that surrounds it.
Both would know about retro-minded fare: Quayle has remixed some of the biggest artists of the ‘80s, including New Order and Madonna, and worked alongside Cliff Martinez on highly influential synth scores for Drive and Only God Forgives; while Klotz is also a music editor on Stranger Things and even performed the theme to The Neverending Story at a key part of Season 3. (Klotz also is one-half of the excellent synth-pop outfit Dream System 8.)
Vehlinggo: Thanks again for agreeing to do this — it’s nice to catch up with you two. I think a good start would be to figure out your roles in the grand scheme of the show. I think a lot of people don’t understand what a composer does and doesn’t do. They likewise probably have even less of an understanding of what a music editor does. Are you, Mac, scoring to picture and then David edits that?
Mac Quayle: Yeah, so I’m scoring to picture, and in the Ryan Murphy world we’re often working very early, so the picture is not anywhere near finished. The music is being written to a picture that’s going to be changing, which means the music is going to get chopped up — probably a lot — and sometimes Dave is doing the chopping but it’s also the picture editors.
There’s a lot of chaos as everything rolls towards the finish line. We end up with all this music in the episode that’s just has been chopped to bits. Now we’re all counting on Dave to come in and save it and make it sound good.
David Klotz: I try. A lot of my job comes at the end, when we’re going to the mix stage and I’ll get a turnover a day or two before — sometimes even the night before — and I’ll see what state the score is in and sometimes it’s a pretty massive cleanup job. I mean this season particularly: It has been tricky, because the ’80s synth stuff I’m finding difficult to edit, especially those arpeggios where the filters open up and stuff. There’s no easy way to just hack into it and glue them together. You’ve really got to finesse it to keep it sounding good.
DK: I think it helps that I appreciate the world that we’re working in now this season. It’s fun, but you know I’m not pigeonholed into one specific style that I’m good with. I like to adapt.
Mac, on your side of things: You’ve always used electronics in some way. I’d say probably on Mr. Robot it has generally been more overtly synthesizer-focused, which we’ve talked about previously. It seems that this time around for AHS an onslaught of synths is a must. That’s pretty fun if you ask me.
MQ: Well, I mean in general it’s been a lot of fun for sure. I’ve had the opportunity to do something influenced by ’80’s synthesizer music several times. I don’t know if I’m getting pigeonholed into this — I’m the ‘80s synth guy or something. I mean, as far as with Ryan Murphy, we did a little bit on Scream Queen and then Pose was an ’80s synth score.
But, this was different. This was definitely different. On Scream Queens we were influenced by the ’80s. This time I’ve been trying to actually make it sound like it’s from the ’80s — really trying to be as authentic as possible. Occasionally some modern sounds will creep in, but if it’s too modern we’ve got to pull that [part] out and replace it with something more ’80s.
“If it’s too modern, we’ve got to pull that [part] out and replace it with something more ’80s.”
MQ: It’s been fun and, also, there’s a purist thing about it. It’s like, oh well these are the rules. It has to fit within these rules or else it’s not going to sound like we’re in 1984.
I love it. Are there any sort of sources, specifically, that you were drawing from? Particular horror scores or composers, perhaps?
MQ: John Carpenter is such an influential creator of synth horror scores from that period. Yeah, he’s definitely probably one of the bigger influences.
What was the first horror film you saw in the ‘80s?
MQ: Halloween. [It’s actually from] 1978, but still feels ‘80s to me.
DK: I saw The Shining on network television when I was probably 9 or 10 years old and I had no business watching it at that age. I had nightmares for weeks after seeing the twin girls at the end of the hotel corridor.
David, how about you — in terms of influences? I suppose for both of you Friday the 13th would factor in! I can’t believe I didn’t mention it earlier. Haha.
Oh yeah, totally. Again, like what Mac said, John Carpenter is the number one. I was just listening to Big Trouble in Little China not too long ago. That’s a pretty awesome score. It’s not a horror movie, but it sort of is.
There are some spooky parts.
I was just listening to the Day of the Dead score [by John Harrison] not too long ago, because we used portions of it in Stranger Things. I’d only known that one theme from it. It was fun to go back and listen to that whole soundtrack. I love all the synth sounds and that score.
If somebody wants to go and be as accurate as possible with ’80s music, what are two or three things they need to keep in mind when approaching it — production wise or compositionally?
MQ: That’s a good question. Obviously, a lot of these scores, they use synthesizers and they had sort of an unashamedly synth sound to them.
I mean I would even call some of it — and I say this in an endearing way — but there’s a cheesiness to it that was cool.
MQ: I just start playing around with sound. First, obviously, the most important thing is to write music for the scene. But then does it evoke this feeling like it’s retro? Does it have something about it? It’s just the qualities of the types of sounds and the types of parts.
Do you recall any “ah-ha” moments or those when you felt like you really nailed a cue?
MQ: There is a fight scene in the middle of the season that I wrote an ‘80s electro track for. It’s almost dance music, but with an aggressive edge. It was super fun.
Dave, we talked a little bit earlier about what you do with respect to editing Mac’s work for AHS: 1984. Can you elaborate? For example, does it entail any music selection?
DK: It varies from project to project, but generally as a music editor I’m cutting the music and working in that capacity. Moments come along where we’ll need something for a scene and, at the last minute, the music supervisor will send me a bunch of things and I let her know which one works best.
How do you edit the music into the show? Are you watching for beats from the visual edit, or is there another indicator?
DK: A lot of it’s done in a picture editorial early on. I mean, they’re sending scenes to Mac right when they are pretty much assembled and then Mac is scoring to picture and then the music’s going to picture editorial. Then they’re calling me and sending me scenes. But we can take the cues he’s already written for these number of scenes and then rework them to fit in in another scene. We’re all working simultaneously. I’m cutting, he’s writing picture editorials, mixing them all up. Then they’re getting all chopped up and then it’s coming back to me.
A lot of the songs Amanda also sends to editorial as well and they’re putting them into the show. It’s different from each show. Other shows I work on, like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things, it’s a whole different workflow. American Horror Story has a little bit more of an accelerated schedule.
Interesting. Can you elaborate on how ST differs from AHS when it comes to your music editing?
DK: Hmm. They’re different shows from beginning to end — from the writing down through the way it’s filmed. We have a longer post-production schedule, which I think is maybe a way Netflix works as opposed to the Ryan Murphy TV world works. Which might be changing because now Ryan’s at Netflix, so we’ll see.
The composers on Stranger Things [Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein] — they do a lot of writing, just freeform writing ahead of time. They’ll bring a library of cues that they haven’t worked on with picture or anything. It’s just they have all these ideas: synth jams, little loops, and then also fully realized tracks. A lot of times the [showrunners, the Duffer Brothers] will take those and play around with them and cut them to picture long before I’m even on the show.
By the time I’m involved, they have all these ideas that they want to turn into cues and then we’ll do a combination of both. We’ll use some of what they’ve already done and then they’ll add elements to it. For season one of Stranger Things, they didn’t compose to picture as much as they do now.
I think Mac is more experienced. I mean he’s done a lot of working with picture. But you, Mac, you start with a series of suites on Horror Story as well, if I’m not mistaken.
MQ: This season in particular.
MQ: We turned in a bunch of tracks before anything started going and it was a really nice starting point to have to do just that process you were describing where one of the — I’m pretty sure it was an editor — started cutting the music in and seeing what worked. Some of it worked just as it was and other times we had to go back and rework it a little bit.
DK: We got a lot of mileage out of that stuff so far. But that stuff’s been working great. That’s been some of the keepers. I wondered if it also helps because you read the scripts as well. Is that how you get ideas for writing suites or writing at a time or no?
MQ: I’m not much of a get-ideas-from-the-script kind-of-a-composer. I hear people do that. I usually just read the script just so I have an idea of what’s ahead, as far as the story, so I know a little bit of what’s coming. With this particular season… we wanted to do an ’80s-synth horror score. I didn’t really need to read the script for that. I knew it needed to be something that would work for American Horror Story. And so that was pretty much the inspiration to write this pile of cues before the season got started.
Ryan [Murphy] was just like, “OK, we’re doing the ’80s” and then you just knew where you wanted to go?
MQ: That was it.
So it all seems like it’s kind of freeing — even if it’s within certain confines — to work on the music for AHS: 1984.
DK: I think it is challenging, though, because Mac still has to hit the same scares as he would in any other season of Horror Story; so that you’re almost handcuffed a little bit. Because you have to still work in this palette, but you still have to deliver the thrills and the turns and the horror. I don’t know. I think it could be challenging. It’s been working so far.
MQ: The funny thing about Horror Story is that every season everything changes, except what Dave just described, you know?
MQ: You’ve got to have the thrills and scares — all of that — that’s what’s continuous every season. And so the story, the characters, the music: all of that stuff has to still hit all those beats. But it’s just doing it in a totally new way.
Fascinating. I’m curious: Is there anything I’m missing here in our discussion about the music and the editing for AHS: 1984?
MQ: We’ve talked about the nuts and bolts of the cues and then Dave’s cleaning up and editing. But you know there are a lot of times where some magic will happen, such as when I give Dave a piece and say, “Hey, have fun with this… take it and mix it up in a different way; and edit it and create something new out of it specifically for the end credits music,” and other things like that. It’s just been kind of fun for me to sit back and see what you come up with. It’s been rewarding.
DK: I love working on the end credits. That’s like my favorite part of the job — you suggest some things or I’ll find something and we’ll build something, and it’s played so loud on the stage.
MQ: Of course it’s not aired — probably no one ever hears it.
Do you think this is going to be released on the soundtrack?
MQ: There’s never been a soundtrack for Horror Story’s nine seasons.
You’re right. That’s wild.
MQ: Maybe we’ll have to — there’s a lot of music to be released.
Sounds like just the kind of campaign I’d love to get behind!
(Editor’s Note: After our Skype call, I emailed over some questions I didn’t get to because we ran out of time. They are below.)
Horror films from the ‘80s, and newer fare inspired by them, are highly regarded now. What was it about ‘80s horror that makes the films so enduring today?
DK: I think it’s much more than our collective childhood nostalgia. For one thing, I think you could count on a hero to survive in ‘80s horror — ‘80s horror movies felt a little more upbeat compared to the ‘70s. Even though people were killed, someone survived. There was a little more hope to them — ‘70s horror and ‘70s movies in general were a little more fatalistic.
They also weren’t trying too hard with big messages. They were just what they were, and as a kid you could watch the over-the-top B-horror flicks and feel like you are having a horror movie experience without being too terrified. They were just silly enough and they had a lot of fun, wise-cracking villains that are still memorable: Freddy, Gremlins, Jack, Chucky.
MQ: So many modern horror conventions were created in the ‘80s and are still common today. Re-watching the old films feels so familiar because of this.
Where do you guys think we are in the ‘80s nostalgia cycle? I think it’s really awesome that American Horror Story is taking on ’80s slasher flicks, because it seems the most natural thing for the show to do. I’m really excited for that and I’m wondering, does this mean geeks like me who love this stuff, are we going to get more and more of this for the next several years? Or are you giving us our final chapter of this nostalgia?
MQ: Hard to know. I mean I think you can pretty much be assured that next season of Horror Story, which I believe is slated, right? Season 10 is … that’s the last one that he confirmed. That won’t be in the ’80s I’m guessing, but I don’t know.
DK: Is it oversaturated now in pop culture, do you think, Aaron, with this love of childhood?
I don’t think it is just yet. People are still just discovering some of these properties, even Stranger Things. Depending on when you were a kid, you’re viewing the ‘80s through a different lens. For me, I was born in 1982, so I have first-hand experience as a kid during that time, and those born later or earlier they have their own takeaways. It’s ripe for constant renewal.
DK: Yeah, I think it’s great. I’ve been having a blast working on this season [of AHS]. Same with Stranger Things: It’s fun to see those kinds of scores being used today in film and TV. I mean for me — after years and years of the shows I worked on from Buffy the Vampire Slayer through Prison Break, everything was very orchestral and current. Now, I’ll get a new cue from Mac and listen to it and I’ll just sit back and be like, “Oh my God, listen to that cool sequence.”
It’s evocative and it reminds me of another time. It’s fun to have that experience every day.
American Horror Story: 1984 is currently airing on FX and Mr. Robot is on USA — right now in its final season. You can, of course, find Stranger Things on Netflix. Be sure to read those previous interviews with Quayle and Klotz, too. It’ll give you a supremely comprehensive perspective after reading this piece.