The Light and Dark Music in ' Mr. Robot': A Conversation with Mac Quayle
Emmy-winning Composer Mac Quayle is one of the best in the TV soundtrack business. His mastery of synthesized instrumentation is perfectly suited to Mr. Robot's theme.
However the rest of the series plays out, Mr. Robot will be remembered for the innovative ways creator Sam Esmail has found to portray the mental life of the show's central character, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek). Now midway through its third season, the show is still surprising viewers with its plot while maintaining a consistently thrilling and paranoid mood.
The show's score is central to that mood. After season one, composer Mac Quayle won an Emmy for the music of Mr. Robot. Though the series eschews a consistent opening credits sequence (one more way Esmail keeps viewers off balance), the show's music is nevertheless memorable. Quayle's mastery of synthesized instrumentation is perfectly suited to Mr. Robot's theme, while his success creating the music for Ryan Murphy's various shows (including American Horror Story, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, and Feud: Bette and Joan) confirms that he can heighten both the drama and mood for a wide variety of visual tales.
Like any great soundtrack, Quayle's Mr. Robot music is evocative enough to live on its own. Indeed, Quayle will be performing selections from the show live at the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood on 5 December. For those who can't make it to Los Angeles, you can buy any of the four volumes of Mr. Robot's soundtrack or listen to Quayle's compositions on various streaming services.
Quayle is still huddling with Esmail to finish the music for this current season, but he took a break to talk with me over Skype.
Mac Quayle (Photo: Cat Deakins courtesy of Impact24)
You're going to be performing music from Mr. Robot soon at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles. What are the challenges of performing a soundtrack from a scripted TV show at a concert?
The first challenge is to adapt music which was written as a score to function as something that might be entertaining to perform and for people to hear. The version that appears in the show hopefully works well in the show, but that particular version might not by the most exciting thing to perform. I go through the music, I make some new arrangements, sometimes I do some medleys. Then I start playing the material with the musicians in my band and then we figure out what's going to be the most fun to do.
And you've done this at other music festivals, played some Mr. Robot music?
Yeah there was a full set of Mr. Robot music at the MOSMA festival in Spain back in July and I did a couple of smaller things here [in L.A.], little warm-up shows. So yeah, it's pretty new. It's really been three performances so far, and only one full performance, so it's really the beginning of the journey, I think.
I don't know if you can give away any surprises, but are there any sort of visuals that the concert audience can look forward to at this show?
In the show in Spain we used a computer program that creates images—computer graphics that are in time with the music. It responds to the music in real time, and that was projected on the screen behind the stage. That worked out pretty well, so we'll definitely be doing more of that. We may have some visuals from the show, but it's not based around a lot of visuals from Mr. Robot.
Let's talk about Mr. Robot and your work in TV in general. I'm a huge Mr. Robot fan. I love American Crime Story as well. You work with two of the best auteurs on TV right now: Sam Esmail and Ryan Murphy, two creators with very different styles. How do their processes differ in terms of how you collaborate with them as a composer?
Ryan, he's very much what I'd call a big picture thinker with the music. When the project is beginning and is in the conceptual phase, he talks about ideas for what it might sound like, genres or particular instruments that he thinks might work. Once we set up some parameters based around the initial conversations and ideas, I start writing music, and he tends to be pretty happy. Occasionally I get some again big picture notes from him, like, "Oh, this cue needs to be more sad" or, "I want a bigger ending here". He seems to trust me now, and I do what I think works and what I think he'll like and it tends to be a pretty good flow for us.
Sam is a little different in that he tends to be a big picture thinker but he's also very hands-on. He likes to be very involved in almost every cue as far as getting the exact sort of sound and feeling that he wants from each section. He turned out to be a really good collaborator, giving me ideas on how to make the music better to serve the story.
What are the difficulties of working [in Los Angeles] with Sam Esmail on a show that's shot in New York City? How does that collaboration unfold?
In the first two seasons, the schedule was such that there was quite a bit of time where Sam was still shooting in New York while we were working here in Los Angeles on the music. That was more challenging to collaborate long distance like that, sending files back and forth—not ideal for me as a process. It's much better to be in the same room, especially when you're working with someone who wants to be very involved in the music and how it's going to take shape. In this season three, they adjusted their schedule so that Sam would be finished shooting earlier during the post-production process. So he's been in Los Angeles now for quite a while and we've actually been sitting in a room together every week going through the music. I find that it's a much more direct collaboration. I've been enjoying it this season.
Going back to that first season of Mr. Robot, that show, from the audience's perspective, came out of nowhere as the surprise hit of that summer. As someone working behind the scenes, what was that summer like for you as the show seemed to catch on with a certain fan base?
I think it caught most of us by surprise! We knew that we were working on something special, but I didn't realize the kind of nerve it was going to strike with the public. It was really nice to see that as each episode aired more and more people started talking about it, that the buzz was growing. And even more surprising was that there was a lot of talk about the music! So it was really kind of nice to get swept up in that.
The music of course stands out to me as part of a show that is singular in so many different ways. Of course, much credit to Sam Esmail for the visuals and the story, but the music is a huge part of the show's mood as well. I love the "main theme," or would you call it "Elliot's theme," the music that first appears in that opening coffee shop scene in episode one?
Yes! Listen here:
That song makes me either want to go do wind sprints in a black hoodie or maybe smash my iPhone with a hammer. Can you remember how you created it?
Well, that theme, actually, there's little whiffs of it right in the beginning of that coffee shop scene, maybe a little more disguised. But right near the end, just before Elliot drops the bomb on Ron and gets up to leave right before the cops show up, that's the full statement of it. It was just this simple idea of a melody that would go back and forth between the major and minor key. I thought it could show these dual sides of Elliot, the light and the dark, that's going on with him. Quite a simple idea, and I played around with it and ended up with something that I thought was working and Sam liked it as well. And then it stuck as Elliot's theme.
Full confession, I'm more of a TV Guy than a TV Music Guy, so my ear may be a bit unsophisticated, but a lot of the sounds, particularly in that theme and other sounds that you've created for the show, sound retro to me. They almost sound sort of like the arcade, where so much of the first season is set. Are any of the sounds nostalgic to you or am I just reading that on my own?
I've been playing with synthesizers and enjoying electronic music since I was 15, so I think a lot of this stuff is just sort of in my DNA now, pulling from several decades of enjoying electronic music. Some of it's retro, some of it's more current. I think all of that just sort of comes out and turns into what you hear in the show.
Is there another theme, another favorite motif from the music of Mr. Robot?
Elliot's is certainly one of my favorites. There was a cue written in season one for a little bit of a heartfelt moment between Elliot and Shayla (Frankie Shaw). It's one of the few slightly sentimental, emotional cues in the whole show. Mostly the music is quite tense and dark and propulsive, but this one is a bit different. I've really liked that piece. It's gotten used several times throughout the three seasons. I even performed it in the concert in Spain just as a solo piece. It really was nice to play it. On the soundtrack it's called, "The Real Shayla." Listen here:
One thing that all of Ryan Murphy's shows and Mr. Robot have in common is that they feature unique characters, distinct characters. Are the sho runners pushing you to compose certain themes or sounds for specific characters or is that something that occurs to you on your own?
Both show runners are somewhat loose with the themes. They will ask sometimes. They'll say they need a specific theme for this character, but often it just kind of happens organically. I don't tend to take the approach, at least not at this point in my composing development of sitting down and right away writing a theme for each character and then mapping it out and using those themes rigidly throughout the episodes. It's more about writing music for scenes and finding the right thing that seems to help tell the story. And then out of that emerges a theme.
We sometimes in hindsight discover, "Oh, this has kind of become the theme for so-and-so character," and then we will come back to it for that character. But then if it feels really good somewhere else for another character or another scene, it's not against the rules to use it there as well.
I want to ask you about a completely different show which you also worked on with Ryan Murphy, Feud, which you, (congratulations), also received an Emmy nomination for. How did you go from Mr. Robot to creating the music for Feud?
It's through very sophisticated time travel technology where I was able to go from 2015 back to 1962! It was a challenge, I have to say. It was definitely a challenge. Writing period, '60s orchestral music to evoke old Hollywood was not something that I would have then said was in my wheelhouse. I do love a lot of the music out of that period so that helped. It was great to immerse myself in that, but certainly a long way away from arpeggiators and filters and synthesizer sounds, writing for this orchestral palette from the '60s.
How did you begin working with Sam Esmail and Mr. Robot and before him Ryan Murphy and his various series?
I got a phone call one day from one of the producers who works with Ryan, whom I had met. They called and said that they were looking to go in a different direction with American Horror Story and would I be interested in writing a piece of music for them? And I was. And I did! And it all happened very quickly. Basically, the next day I got a call and they said, "You're the new composer of American Horror Story!" And that began my relationship with Ryan, and the numerous shows I've worked on for him.
Right after that first season of American Horror Story that I worked on, which was season four of the show [Freak Show, 2014-15], someone that I had worked with on the show as an editor called me and told me that they were going to be working on this new show, Mr. Robot, as a writer. They had recommended me to Sam and he wanted to meet me. I went in, had a great meeting, and ended up with the gig.
You also worked alongside Cliff Martinez for a number of film soundtracks. He's somebody who, like you, has moved from popular music [as a drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Captain Beefheart] into composing soundtracks. Is he responsible for drawing you into composing or were you moving in that direction already?
My first real composing job was working for a composer named Michael Levine on the television show Cold Case. I worked as an additional composer for Michael. Around the time I met Michael, which was probably like 2003 or 2004, I had just discovered Cliff's work and became a huge fan of his work. Michael had met Cliff and I think worked with him and Michael introduced us. It wasn't too long after all that, after I had done some work on Cold Case, that Cliff called and said, "Hey, would you like to try doing something with me?" Both composers, they're both very talented, great guys. I ended up doing, I believe, 12 films with Cliff.
What did you learn from him?
I learned a lot. He's got such an original sound, and he always tries to do something different. I found that really admirable, to watch him never take the safe choice. He always wanted to do something different and interesting. I watch the projects that he has chosen. I feel like he's curated his career in a very interesting way. He takes interesting projects by very creative directors and he's able to do really cool music for those projects. Rather than taking anything that comes his way, he seems to pick these really edgy, really interesting films to work on.
Well, you are also giving us something very different with Mr. Robot. Your show at the Roxy is December 5th, the day before Mr. Robot's second-to-last episode of season three. And we're talking two days before episode five which looks like it's going to be incredible. Have you finished the season three soundtrack at this point?
We're still working on it. Each season we're pretty much right there in the trenches getting it done just in time for it to get on the air. This season is no exception. We're just finishing the music for episode six right now. That airs next week! We're kind of down to the wire!
Mr. Robot airs on USA Network Wednesdays at 10PM ET through 13 December 13.
Listen to the full interview recording in podcast form here.