7urn.up.th3.t3n5i0n: An Interview with 'Mr. Robot' Composer Mac Quayle
"I think if you compare the volume of the music on Mr. Robot with some other shows it is just way louder, which is kind of a composers dream."
"Hello Friend", both the title of the opening episode of USA's Mr. Robot and one of the first lines uttered by the show's hero, introduces to the techno thriller that would become the breakout of last year's summer television landscape. In the first scene alone we see Elliot (Remi Malek), a bug-eyed, nervous young man whose mind is clearly bubbling with energy, as he accosts a man whom he has hacked in a coffee shop.
Elliot's nervous demeanor is made even more palpable when, as the scene progresses, it is accompanied by a slowly building score of pulsating synthesizers. As he reveals to the seemingly average man that he knows about his illegal trafficking of child porn, the intensity is matched by the speed of the score, rising in step with Elliot's escalating energy. This crescendo finally explodes just as Elliot exits the coffee shop, leaving the man to deal with the police, but not before he throws on the black hood that becomes his trademark. Mr. Robot is born.
But, like any work of art, this isn't really the beginning but a culmination of years and years of labor, and this is no truer than for the man who helped create the harried, panicky atmosphere of this, and countless other Mr. Robot moments, Mac Quayle. Quayle has been the principal composer for each and every episode of Mr. Robot, and was recently nominated for an Emmy for his work on the show, but like pretty much every other musician, his beginnings were modest.
"My first musical endeavor was at the age of six when my parents put me in the church choir," Quayle said during a recent phone interview with PopMatters. From there Quayle moved on to piano lessons, high school band and orchestra and eventually rock bands before setting his sights on the big city, where he saw opportunity everywhere.
"I ended up in New York City and found myself in the music industry working as a producer, dance remixer and musician," said Quayle of his early professional years. "Then in the early 2000s when the music industry was showing its first sign of decline, I decided it was time to leave NYC and I moved to Los Angeles with this sort of vague idea of getting into scoring."
Armed with his new goal in mind Quayle began work as an additional composer for CBS's Cold Case in 2006 where he worked on over 80 episodes. Through this, he eventually met composer Cliff Martinez who helped bring Mr. Quayle into the world of movie composition, working with him on films like The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), Drive (2011), Spring Breakers (2012) and The Normal Heart (2014). Soon the duo split, with Martinez heading to television to work with Steven Soderbergh on Cinemax's The Knick and Quayle taking a job on Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story, a move that eventually led to Mr. Robot, where he has found his most success to date.
Mr. Robot, like no other show on television in 2015, grabbed the headlines and attention of viewers for many reasons, but one above all was its distinctly cinematic take on television drama. No more is this on display than in season one's most iconic moment [SPOILER'S AHEAD] in which Elliot finally learns the truth about Mr. Robot, his father, and his own madness. It all begins as he and Darlene sit on a bench in Coney Island and celebrate their impending E Corp hack. All is well in their little world, that is, until the bottom drops out.
Just as Darlene begins to understand the truth about what is going on with her brother, Mr. Quayle sends us into equal dismay with a low humming synth and an eerie-but-gentle piano melody. The former playing like an alarm frantically firing off in Elliot's fractured mind with the latter betraying Darlene's sisterly blend of affection and pity for her lost brother. Cut from this to the moment Elliot realizes the identity of his father, in which Quayle uses a blend of lighter synths and deliberate, thrumming drums to create a mood that is less of paranoia but of discovery, blanketing this harried moment in something almost comforting. A sequence like this is one of the countless recent of examples of television becoming just as cinematic as its big-screen brethren, a trend that is nothing but embracing to a composer like Mac Quayle.
"The line between film and TV has become pretty blurred," Quayle said of television's changing culture and of the medium as a whole. "There was something attractive about working on instrumental music. Not having to be concerned about songs, lyrics, and vocalists and rather let what is happening on screen, the dialogue and the action, be the lead vocal. In a way that is the song and I am just providing the background to that. There is something kind of liberating about that for me."
Quayle also credited series creator and showrunner Sam Esmail as a big reason for both his success as composer and his enjoyment of the process. Typically Quayle gets the episode just as Esmail and the rest of the team are finished with editing, after which Quayle and Esmail discuss where exactly the music should go and what kind of music Esmail envisions for each sequence. From there the two trade ideas and samples back and forth before arriving at the final product sometimes mere days before the episode is set to air. What helps make this sometimes rushed process work best is the open dialogue between creator and composer, not something that is present in every TV show.
"We discussed the ideas he had for the sound of the music and we unanimously agreed that it would be pretty much totally electronic in sound," said Quayle of Esmail's hands-on approach. "The icing on the cake is that he loves the music to be really loud so on the final mix he always has them turn it up. I think if you compare the volume of the music on Mr. Robot with some other shows it is just way louder, which is kind of a composers dream."
One moment from early on this season sticks out specifically regarding the sometimes overwhelming sense of frenzy brought on by Quayle's score. In this sequence Elliot, who is relegated to his mother's house -- or as we now know a prison -- is visited by his former boss Gideon Goddard. Goddard, the ever-nervous and timid man, is doing his best to threaten Elliot, telling him to talk to the feds or risk being given up. Quayle matches Gideon's growing anger with a slowly building score, but the scene truly ramps up when Mr. Robot shows up, hovering threateningly behind Goddard.
Here the composition begins to match the heightened sense of fear and fierce tumult going on not only within the conversation between these former coworkers, but within Elliot as he wrestles to keep Mr. Robot at bay. But if we have learned anything in this series it's that Mr. Robot will not be kept on the sidelines and, in a way, either will Mac Quayle's spine-chilling score. Just as Mr. Robot moves to slice Gideon's neck to the looping, industrial composition engulfs the scene, bursting at the seams and leaving both Elliot and the audience in a sense of hysteria. It is one of the more tense sequences of the entire series, and it is largely due to just how much Esmail and team allow the composition to take over.
"Some people have even complained that they cannot hear the dialogue," said Quayle of this and similar scenes. "There is sort of a joke among composers where when we play our music we have written for a scene for someone we usually turn it up so that you can hear. It is what we call the composer's mix, and usually once the final mix happens the music is much lower, but with Mr. Robot the final mix approached what I would call a composer's mix which is pretty great."
With the success Quayle has found on Mr. Robot and how quickly his work is becoming both iconic and recognized with nominations and audience praise, perhaps it won't be long before this kind of powerful, electronic composition will be known as the Quayle mix.