At the beginning of our conversation, I tell Mac Quayle his work in and out of USA’s freshman hit Mr. Robot is “techno-thriller.” And that most of his work would fit in an adaptation of a William Gibson novel.
“I can agree with that,” he tells me over the phone. He pauses. “What did you call it?”
“Techno-thriller,” I repeat.
“Yeah, I definitely gravitate towards that.”
Mac Quayle is a rising star in the music world, building an impressive resume as a composer for genre TV and feature films. Begining with TV’s Cold Case, which Quayle credits as his proving ground, he went on to assistant-compose celebrated soundtracks like Drive, The Company You Keep, Contagion, and Spring Breakers.
In 2014, Quayle went solo in composing for the documentary Autism In Love, which earned celebration at the Tribeca Film Festival. The Hollywood Reporter praised the documentary “from the effortless editing … and tasteful graphics to Mac Quayle’s atmospheric but unobtrusive score. “
His ventures into television steer towards the darker edges, having worked on American Horror Story: Freakshow and the upcoming Scream Queens on Fox. But right now Quayle is finishing up the first season of USA’s Mr. Robot, which you probably know about, but he had some time for a little chat about providing music for Elliot’s complicated journey into cyber rebellion.
Inverse: Mr. Robot’s moody soundtrack is really unique. How did you come to find that sound?
Mac Quayle: It all began with conversations with [series creator] Sam Esmail. He said, “I really feel like this show needs to have a totally electronic score. It needs to be intense; it needs to be dark. And the music is very important.” That was the initial discussion. And so based out of that, we started scoring it, and we stayed relatively true to that. Keeping it all electronic.
I: The way I can describe the music is like an arcade owned by a serial killer. It’s really dark, unnerving, and suspenseful. Did you listen to anything specific to achieve that vibe?
MQ: I suppose there’s things that have influenced it. It’s hard to know exactly, maybe in my subconscious. Older things, Cabaret Voltaire, Tangerine Dream, the score to Blade Runner…
I: I definitely hear Blade Runner in the soundtrack.
MQ: Any classic electronic score that I’ve absorbed over the years.
I: What kind of creative freedom or input do you have on Mr. Robot? What of its soundtrack would you say, “That, one hundred percent, that was my design”?
MQ: There’s a few cues, but it’s very much a collaboration. Sam is very hands-on, the music’s very important to him, and so he gives me a direction that he wants, I write something, and then we shape it together. He’s very involved. There’s definitely been a handful of cues where I’ve just sort of done my thing and he loved it the way it is, but often he’s pushing me to make it better.
I: One of the most powerful aspects of Mr. Robot are the moments punctuated by silence, when there’s no music at all. For those scenes, who creatively decides that?
MQ: Typically, when they send me the cut, they’ve made some decisions as far as where they want music and where they don’t. And occasionally they’ll have music. They’ll say, “Music should be in this scene,” and I’ll say, “Hey, I think it might be better without.” And they’ll go, “Oh, you’re right. We won’t have it there.” But typically the spaces are [where] they’ve decided where they want music and where they don’t. And with this type of show, it makes the music more effective if it’s not in all the time.
I: I agree.
MQ: You know, some shows have wall-to-wall music just going all the time. [Like it’s] just wallpaper. This show is more sparing with it.
I: What have you found has been your biggest challenge in scoring the series so far? How did you overcome or adapt to those challenges?
MQ: I guess the biggest challenge really has been the pace. As you move through the season, the deadlines have gotten tighter and tighter. And so it’s been challenging.
I: How far into the season are you right now? Or are you completely finished?
MQ: I’m into the final episode right now. It airs next week. So you know it’s gotten tighter as we’ve gone along.
I: Yeah, that’s really tight.
MQ: At first it was like a couple of weeks per episode, and then it was ten days, and then like a week. But yeah, to get all the music done has been hard work.
I: Think it’ll get to a point where it gets like, an hour before premiere?
MQ: Let’s hope not. [laughs]
I: What have you been able to experiment with on Mr. Robot that you have not been able to do before in your career? Was there anything that you’re able to just play with?
MQ: I think that with a lot of projects that I’ve worked on, certainly electronic sounding music has played a role. But there’s often some other sounds mixed in. There’s some real instruments, there’s some… I don’t necessarily want it to sound so electronic. Whereas Mr. Robot, that’s the mission. And so it’s been fun to experiment with. Maybe in another score this might be played on guitar. Or this might be some strings. So how can I do that in a way that’s totally electronic and doesn’t sound like a guitar, doesn’t sound like strings, but it’s something else? And so that’s been a fun place to experiment.
I: Have there been “real” instruments in the series so far?
MQ: There’s just been the piano. That’s the only instrument. Just some piano. Now, there’s songs. There are songs in the show, that they’ve put in, that have real instruments in them. But the score itself has been all electronic except for a piano sound.
I: What has been the most memorable scene for you to score in Mr. Robot?
MQ: It’s hard to pick just one. There was this really long sequence in episode five, when they are going to infiltrate Steel Mountain. It’s really long, and it’s all this different music that follows Elliott going in to Steel Mountain, talking his way in, trying to get to the place where he can hack into the climate control system, and he runs into Tyrell. It’s this big, long sequence. I was really happy with how that turned out. It was challenging, but also really, really great to work on.
I: What kind of music can we look forward to in the season finale?
MQ: A little bit that you might expect, but then things actually take a turn. I probably shouldn’t say too much about it. But the music does go into a different place.