JOB HACKS | Scoring 'American Horror Story' and 'Mr. Robot'

The Emmy nominated composer of 'Mr. Robot' and 'American Horror Story' talks his influences and career. 

Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.

This week, we spoke with Mac Quayle, the Emmy-nominated composer for Mr. Robot and American Horror Story: Freak Show. He also scores Scream Queens, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and the most recent American Horror Story seasons, including Hotel and the impending sixth season.

Is there a show that’s shaped your career the most?

My involvement in television has been quite busy since the end of 2014, and that was due to getting hired for American Horror Story: Freak Show. That led to the other three shows I’ve worked on. The second was Mr. Robot, which has gotten a lot of attention, so that’s also had quite an effect on my career.

Has any show been easiest to find the music for? Or is the process different for each?

Each one has had its own challenges. When I worked on The People v. O.J. Simpson, that was a little unusual for the Ryan Murphy shows. We started way in advance of when it was going to air. The first direction we took with the music we ultimately decided wasn’t right. It really needed to be more subtle and understated.

Ryan’s style is bold. When you were first beginning to work with him, was that where you started, musically?

For American Horror Story: Freak Show, the music was bold. The first piece I wrote for him — which eventually got him to hire me — was quite bold, and a lot of what was in that series was bold. Scream Queens was bold as well, which is kind of why when we started O.J., we were going bold. It was what we were programmed to do on the other shows, and then realized it wasn’t the right approach. The story and the actors and everything was just so different. The music didn’t need to be so bold.

What’s he like to work with?

He’s very much a visionary. Certainly, when it comes to music, it’s quite simple with him. He either loves it or he doesn’t. There’s not really any grey area. I don’t get a whole lot of notes from him. It’s usually a thumbs up or thumbs down, so that’s an interesting way to work.

Is your process different for Mr. Robot?

Sam Esmail [the creator] is very hands-on with the music. We’ll begin by talking about what music is needed. I’ll write it, he’ll listen, and then give me thoughts on how we can change it to make it just right and fulfill his vision for the scene or the episode.

What are some of your musical inspirations for Mr. Robot?

I’ve loved electronic music forever. The first electronic music record that I ever heard was “Switched-On Bach” by Walter Carlos. Then the next thing I remember was Tomita, the Japanese electronic music artist. I listened to his record “The Bermuda Triangle.” As a teenager I played in bands and I was very into electronic music. I bought my first synthesizer when I was 15. So it’s a world that I’ve lived in for a long time. It felt very natural when I met with Sam and we discussed that the sound of the first season should be almost completely electronic. We were pulling influences from some classic stuff, Tangerine Dream, Cabaret Voltaire, even like more obscure like Depeche Mode or Aphex Twin. And then more modern stuff like Cliff Martinez and Trent Reznor.

Has there been any show in particular that has most pleasantly surprised you in the experience of working on it?

They’ve all had their surprises. Right at the start of when I was working on American Horror Story: Freak Show, I was really surprised at the musical universe I got to live in during that season, which felt like I’d been preparing my whole life to work on that show. I got to make this one sound which was kind of ‘50s sci-fi music, and then I got to do a sort of early 20th century classical music, and then a twisted, carnival circus music. It was just such a thrill to be doing that day in and day out.

Are there any hints you can give about American Horror Story Season 6?

I’m pretty much sworn to secrecy about everything. All I can say is it will be scary.

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