Emmy award-winner composer Mac Quayle, visited Spain this summer and performed his music for the hit TV series Mr. Robot in a live concert at MOSMA festival. Gorka Oteiza from SoundTrackFest interviewed him there and they talked about his career, his beginnings, his work with Ryan Murphy, getting the musical tone for “Feud” from masters such as Herrmann, Mancini or Barry, how is it to compose weekly for Mr. Robot, his impressions about live concerts, and how is good to have a backup plan in a live concert that’s completely based on computers… just in case!
Mr. Robot (USA Network) is now airing its third season, which will end next 13th of December, 2017 and will have a live concert in Los Angeles with Mac Quayle on Tuesday, December 5th (read news).
How were you beginnings in the world of music and how was the transition into the soundtrack world? Is there a moment when you suddenly realized and said, “Wow, I want to do this!” Or you just went step by step and one day you found yourself composing soundtracks?
I started with music very young, in a church choir when I was six, where I began singing. Then piano lessons came and then high school band orchestra, rock bands and suddenly I was in New York where I got into the music industry. I worked as a producer and as a dance remixer for many years in New York.
During that time, the idea of scoring was something that appealed to me but I never tried and I never sought it out, I was making records. The idea had been there for a long time. It looked appealing and I enjoyed soundtracks, and I thought that it was something that maybe one day and I could do.
In the early 2000s, the music industry started its decline in sales for the first time, and it started to affect my work, and so I thought “maybe now it’s time to do something else”. So in 2004, I moved to Los Angeles with just a vague idea still of getting into scoring.
So you weren’t totally focused on scoring, just wanted to try something new and see if it worked…
Yeah exactly, and so I got to Los Angeles and I started looking around, and I scored an indie film in 2005 that was my first thing, and honestly, I did a terrible job (*laughs*). It was called “God’s forgotten house” and luckily nobody saw it and it was put on the shelf! But I did a terrible job and at first, didn’t really admit it, but then I realized and I saw the director later and told him I’m sorry (*laughs*).
Well, beginnings are always complex and difficult…
Is there a project from those beginnings that brings you special feelings or memories?
Well, the next job was like a year later, getting to work on the television series “Cold case” as an additional composer for Michael Levine. That was a special moment; to actually get a real job where I get to work underneath someone that was very experienced, and where the full responsibility of the project wasn’t on my shoulders. It was on his shoulders and I was helping, so it was a great way to learn. It went on for four years and I did eighty-nine episodes, you know, contributed to eighty-nine episodes of that show. So I ended up with just a little idea of how to do it and I came out with the craft. That was a special memory for me; being able to do that. And then during that time, I met Cliff Martinez and that’s how I have had a long relationship working with him.
It’s interesting that you mention your first special memory with a TV show, because your career has been very close to TV, having scored many TV shows. Were you looking to follow that path towards composing for TV instead of movies, or did it just come that way?
I love TV shows and I love films, so it was never a choice if I want to do one or the other, I was just following the path. I worked on twelve films with Cliff as an additional composer, helping him, and also some movies on my own, as some indie films that you probably haven’t heard of. But then yet in the last few years television has embraced me, and so that has consumed pretty much all my working hours.
It’s true because working for TV means many hours of composing on a tight schedule week after week.
Exactly, being on TV is always a lot of work, but also a lot of fun!
Let’s talk now about Ryan Murphy. You have collaborated together on many projects like American Horror Story, Scream Queens or Feud. Do you find that once you team with a director or a showrunner, and just continue working together on several new projects, your understanding grows and it’s easier to find the tone you want to achieve for the soundtrack? Or every project is new and you reset to zero and try to start fresh again?
That’s a good question. I think that we have established a type of working relationship that’s gotten easier, like we know the process to get it done. But because Ryan is so prolific, he creates so many different shows, and of the shows that he creates, in many of them like in American Horror Story, each season it’s a whole new thing so we’re constantly starting over from scratch as far as the musical world that the show will inhabit.
Don’t you inherit something from one season to the next one?
Not on most of his shows, it’s all starting over completely and so while the process I think has become more streamlined, there’s still that beginning period of the initial creativity. I mean, we’ve done it every time but there’s still that uncertainty till my mind has been securitized. It’s like, ok, we know are we going to do it, but not what we are going to do. So the first month or two it’s a little bit anxious and intense, but so far we get through it and we have it. We have the sound and now we just can continue to develop it throughout the season.
“Feud”, your latest TV Series also with Ryan Murphy, is about Bette Davis & Joan Crawford (in its first season); two women so iconic in the world of cinema. How did you approach the musical world of the series and how did you decide the style and direction the music should take?
The initial conversation with Ryan was just about that very thing, about what was going to be the right sound to tell the story. What was decided was that it would be a period piece that takes place in the early sixties, so the music would be something that sounded like early 1960s Hollywood, which you know can mean many things, but in this case it was something like Bernard Herrmann, Henry Mancini, John Barry…
You got the inspiration from the masters then!
Exactly! The film “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”, which is the centerpiece of the story, as it is the film that were making Betty and Joan, had Frank DeVol as a composer, and also offered some inspiration as well from the sounds of that film. So that’s what came out of the initial conversations and that’s the world where the music of “Feud” would be situated. And then, I started writing again with “butterflies in my stomach”, with the uncertainty of what was going to happen.
Is it easier to compose music when you have a reference like that? One that you can base on, like the music of the early 60s, compared to having a blank canvas like in Mr. Robot, a TV series that has nothing to do with what has been seen on TV in the last years?
Well, there are often references even if it’s not the Masters from the sixties. I mean, Mr. Robot had its references to the electronic world, particularly to electronic artists. I always find useful to have the inspiration from various previous works, but what was a little more challenging for me for “Feud” was that I had never written anything in that style before. I’ve done a lot of electronic music so Mr. Robot was a little more in my comfort zone, but writing a period orchestral score from the sixties was not something I had done, so it was more challenging, and also having to learn that vocabulary was a challenge.
Do you like challenges?
Yeah but just a little bit behind me (*laughs*). Not too challenging, just challenging enough so I can address them.
Wise decision! (*Laughs*). Let’s move on to Mr. Robot TV Series, where Sam Esmail, the creator, started his first big project, in a series that has been a total success not only in audiences but also in awards. How did you get to the project and what did he ask from you for the music?
After I had done my first season of American Horror Story for Ryan Murphy, one of the editors on that show called me and said: “I’m also a writer and I’m going to be working on this new show Mr. Robot, and I have recommended you to the creator and he’d like to meet you”. And that’s how I got the meeting with Sam and so we matched. He told me that he was interested in something completely electronic, which is very much in my comfort zone. I watched the pilot episode and I agreed that it was a great direction and we hit it off and I got the job!
Talking about Mr. Robot, you told me the other day that with the music you composed in the first season you went episode by episode, you didn’t want to know the whole story; you wanted to be surprised and you wanted to compose as you felt on every moment. Was that your decision or did Sam Esmail had something to do with that approach?
It was almost by accident. I didn’t get the scripts initially; maybe I read the first episode and that was it. And then they started sending me the episodes and I could have asked for the scripts at that point, but I was really enjoying, so I didn’t. You know, it’s like you’re waiting for next week and then you have to guess what’s going on, so I could think and get new ideas. Once we were a few episodes in, I realized that I was really enjoying that, so I decided I wouldn’t ask for the scripts. I went through the whole first season like that, and I think it was helpful creatively.
When it came time for the second season, I was so curious to know what was going to happen that I couldn’t wait, so I was like, “oh let me have all the scripts! I’ve been waiting many months for this to continue and want to know what happens!” So I binge read all the scripts and it was great. When I started receiving the video each episode, it wasn’t quite as much of a surprise. I mean it was still fine but I wasn’t as surprised, so I think now with season three I’m going to go back to what I did on season one and watch each one as they come.
Is it easier for you to compose for a TV series when you have the whole story and then you can start sketching/plotting ideas with the music, or is it easier for you to go episode by episode?
I guess it’s worked out fine to not know the whole story. I mean, ask me again in a couple of years and I’ll see… I’m trying both ways! (*laughs*).
Ok, I will do! (*Laughs*). Let’s talk about live events, film music events like concerts and festival, because they’re growing, especially in Europe, and are they’re becoming huge! What do you think of this tendency?
It does seem that people like them, but that’s my impression and I’m certainly very new to it, both as a performer and as an attendee at the events. I’ve been to some, but from what I see, people love them. They really enjoy the events and look to the composers as artists and they want to meet them, and talk to them, and get autographs…
For once the focus is on you, the composers, who spend so much time alone in a dark room in your studio!
Yes! So I guess my prediction would be that it will keep growing. I mean, it’s certainly been growing for a while here in Europe and maybe a bit slower in the States, but there are signs of that shifting.
The other night we had a concert with Mr. Robot’s music here in MOSMA festival, where you performed along Rendra Zawawi on keyboards, Dave Allen on drums, and Jacobo García playing guitar. How do you prepare a concert like that? Because there are so many different electronic sounds that go together, that when you’re in a studio you have time to adjust and do fine tuning, but here, all the electronics have to be live, precisely timed!
Well, the first step was to choose which pieces I thought would work. I made a list and then I would pick a piece and I would go to my original session in the computer, the one I had used to record it for the show, and I would take that and I would start to do some rearrangement for what I thought would make a better version for the performance, for the live experience.
So I would get that arrangement fairly close to what I thought, and then the other musicians would come and we would start playing: the drummer would play and I would play some keyboard parts and the other keyboard player would play, and slowly I would remove things from the session and decide whether or not we would be able to play everything live, or we would need to actually have some tracks running from the original session.
And then once that decision was made, I would do final programming and we would either perform it all live or there would actually then be a couple of tracks still playing from the session. Then all that would go into the laptop and would be ready for the concert.
Doesn’t it scare you to be in the hands of the technology for a live concert? I mean, in a classical orchestra musicians just depend on themselves, but you depend on computers, and we all know that computers crash sometimes… we have seen some pretty good examples in Mr. Robot!
Without a doubt! You know, there was a few times in rehearsals where the computer had some problems so we had a backup plan, which was kind of funny backup plan actually. We didn’t get to do it, but everything was prepared in case of a computer failure. Let me tell you… The drummer was using an electronic drum pad as well as an acoustic drum kit. So we recorded about two minutes of the audio from the first episode of Mr. Robot. There’s a scene where E-Corp has been hacked and they’re trying to figure out what’s happened, and they’re talking about the hack and how bad it is. We put that audio into the drum pad, so that the drummer could hit it if needed and then you would hear two minutes of music and dialogue. The idea was that if the computer crashed and all the sounds without it, then I would shout “We’ve been hacked. My server has been taken over!!”. And then Rendra would say something like “My system is down too” and then the drummer would hit his pad and the pre-recorded audio would come on and we would hear that while I’m fixing the computer!!
That’s fantastic! What a great backup plan!! (*laughs*)
Fortunately, we didn’t have to use that, but that was the idea.
Well, next time you play in concert, do it! I want you to be hacked! People are going to love that moment!
That’s what Rendra said: “we should just do it anyway, we should cut off the music”… (*laughs*)… Maybe next time!
Changing the subject, let’s talk about video games, because you also have some experience in that field…
Yes, I’ve worked on one video game with Cliff Martinez, Far Cry 4.
I remember, because I interviewed Cliff in Krakow FMF 2016 and we talked about it (NOTE: you can read the whole interview here: link), and he told me the process was long and hard…. Would you like to compose for video games?
Yes, indeed! I got a little taste of what’s that like, and it as difficult, more than TV. Anyway, I’m certainly open to it if the right project came along and my schedule was permitting. I would be interested!
And now to finish this interview, the last question: If you could choose one project, your dream project, which one would it be?
I’m a big science fiction fan, like what I like to call sort of “adult intelligent” science fiction. Sci-Fi that’s not just a bad action movie, something that’s got really interesting ideas and something that makes you think it could be real in the future… Something like Blade Runner 2049 for example. I’d love to be in that kind of project.
Well, I’m sure your music would be a perfect match for that kind of project! Thank you very much for your time and your answers!
Thanks to you. It’s been a pleasure!
Interview by Gorka Oteiza