As a composer, producer, remixer, and keyboardist, Mac Quayle has captivated audiences worldwide with his unique musical stylings and innovative arrangements. Best known for his work on recent Ryan Murphy productions, such as Feud: Bette and Joan, American Horror Story, and Scream Queens, as well as the USA Network series Mr. Robot, Quayle has worked tirelessly to establish himself as one of the prominent composers in the modern television landscape. It is this dedication and passion that has led to his Emmy win and Grammy nomination.
Blast Magazine recently had the opportunity to speak with Quayle about his experiences working on some of the most exhilarating shows on television.
Blast Magazine: You’re currently scoring the third season of the beloved USA Network series, Mr. Robot. The show has so many twists and turns that keep the audience continuously guessing and wondering. How do you feel that the music for the show has changed from the first season to today?
Mac Quayle: Season 1 started with an almost completely electronic sound. For that season, the only thing close to a real instrument was the sound of the piano. With seasons 2 and 3, more organic sounds have been added, including strings, woodwinds, and a more natural piano sound. The core of the sound is still electronic but it has been expanded upon with more organic sounds.
Blast Magazine: Because Mr. Robot has so many dramatic reveals and secrets, is it a challenge to ensure that the music doesn’t give away anything in the story?
Quayle: It is. It’s a fine line because sometimes the idea is for the music to actually hint at what might be coming. Not in a way that gives the story away, but that in hindsight, you realize that the music was going to tell you it was coming and you didn’t notice it. There have been songs in the show where the lyrics tell what is going to be happening several episodes later. It’s a fine line to not give it away but to give hints in hindsight.
Blast Magazine: Another of your recent television projects, Feud: Bette and Joan, focused on the story of two influential women, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. What was the process like to create the themes for each of these strong female characters?
Quayle: It was a very different type of score. The period orchestral score was meant to evoke old Hollywood in the 60’s. There was a lot of writing about the relationship between the women which was filled with mostly two emotions, tension and sadness. Various themes were written to describe the emotions between them. I think it was quite a sad story, both their relationship with each other and how they were treated by Hollywood.
Blast Magazine: American Horror Story is a unique series in that each season has a distinctive plot and brand-new characters. Do you enjoy the challenge of creating a new musical universe for each season or do you prefer composing for shows that have a continuously running storyline?
Quayle: Both have their pros and cons. It is pretty exciting to start over fresh each season with American Horror Story. It is almost like starting a completely new show. However, it’s also quite challenging to go back to the drawing board each time. With Mr. Robot, we have a music universe that continues and expands a bit each season. There is something kind of familiar and comfortable about going into a new season with a starting point and evolving more from that. I truly enjoy working on both types of projects.
Blast Magazine: You seem to be attracted to stories that are based in reality, having now composed for The People v. O.J. Simpson, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Feud: Bette and Joan, and The Normal Heart. What is it about these stories that draws you in and makes you want to create music for them?
Quayle: My involvement with those stories is really through my involvement with Ryan Murphy. Ever since I started working with him on American Horror Story: Freak Show, I’ve followed him and written music for all of the projects he has created. He’s interested in true stories and there is something special in all of his projects. With the true stories, Ryan tells the story you think you know on the surface but pulls out all these other socially relevant issues. I find that quite interesting. It’s been very fulfilling to work with him on these projects and watch him tell these stories in a deeper way.
Blast Magazine: You’ve had the opportunity to work alongside a variety of showrunners in the past. Do you prefer the ones who are more involved and hands-on or those who let you have free reign?
Quayle: No one has given me completely free reign and I don’t want to have that. I compose music to try to express myself and be as artistic as I can but at the end of the day, I’m helping showrunners tell their stories. They know how to tell their stories better than anyone. I have a good idea of how to help them but I don’t know exactly how they want to tell their story so I need their input. I need them to help me craft the music to be just what they want for their story. Sometimes, that means I almost have free reign and I’m doing a lot. Other times, they give me a lot of notes to shape it to what they want. Either way, I’m a collaborator, so collaborating with showrunners is what I enjoy.
Blast Magazine: You’ve had an interesting career journey, having worked as a composer, keyboardist, re-mixer, and producer. Do you approach records and songs the same way you do television shows and films? If not, how does your process differ?
Quayle: There are similarities and differences. When I was producing music, I did a lot of remixing and worked mostly with dance music. I remixed existing songs and produced new songs. In those cases, music was there to support and tell the story of whatever the song was trying to say. The singer sings a melody and lyrics with the music providing a foundation for them. When writing for film and television, music is there to help tell the story of the show. There is no singer but the action on screen coupled with the actor and their dialogue serve in a similar role as the lead vocalist on a song. In that way, both tasks are similar. A song has a pretty definitive beginning and end. They tend to be certain lengths and follow specific formulas. A score is quite different in that it can be anything – all types of lengths, shapes, and forms. I’ve been using technology throughout my career so the tools I’m using now are quite similar. To me, it was a pretty natural evolution to move to film and television.
Blast Magazine: What is the one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring composer?
Quayle: One of the most important things to remember as a composer for media is that we help to tell stories. We serve the people that are telling these stories. It’s wonderful to write music and express yourself, but at the end of the day, we have to give our showrunners what they want. It’s important to keep that front and center. We always have to remember that while we may think we have created masterpieces, our showrunners may ask us to change it into something new and that’s what we do.