Interview: Composer Mac Quayle Talks About the Mr. Robot Soundtrack
It's been months since creator Sam Esmail teased the release of the official Mr. Robot soundtrack, but today, Mac Quayle's original score will be available for digital download, with a two-volume CD set dropping on June 24.
The soundtrack contains 52 tracks -- nearly two-and-a-half hours -- from the first 10 episodes of Mr. Robot, which Quayle and Esmail hand-picked from the many music cues Quayle wrote for season one.
USA Network chatted with Quayle about his background in electronic music and the process of scoring for the award-winning series. Here's what we learned.
USA Network: So, were you a band geek in high school? Did you have a band when you were growing up?
Mac Quayle: I was in the high school band as a percussionist. I played both in concert band and orchestra, but then also I was in the marching band. I was out doing halftime shows and stuff like that. I think I played snare in the marching band. Then, my specialty in the concert band was playing what we referred to as 'mallet,' so all the mallet instruments like xylophone, marimba, vibraphone -- they're essentially a piano keyboard but you hit with a mallet, and I was already playing piano so it seems like a natural thing.
USA: Then were you taking music classes in college? Did you major in music in composition?
MQ: After some stints in some rock bands, I went to college at NYU. I was in the music program there, and during my first two years, I started an internship at a recording studio, and that went so well, and I had become dissatisfied with the music program that I left. I didn't finish college.
USA: You were already doing the work, so you probably didn't need it.
MQ: It looked like things were going to go well, and all of a sudden I was working on records and doing recording sessions.
USA: is that as crazy as people say it is?
MQ: There were some crazy moments without a doubt. Obviously, it was New York and there were a lot of late nights in the studio with all kinds of people. It was great, andback then I was very into technology, synthesizers, electronics. So I found myself working in dance music.
USA: What year are we talking about here?
MQ: That internship at the recording studio was 1987. MIDI had been out a few years, and so I had an assortment of MIDI keyboards and a sequencer. It wasn't a computer. It was like this ... this box that I used. It looks like a fancy calculator or something. I would use that to sequence. People were using computers then but they weren't like they are now where you can do everything in the computer. We would do all this work, writing stuff using the synths and the sequencer, and then it would all get recorded onto analog two-inch tape, and it would now be on tape and the project would get finished that way without the sequencer.
USA: Are you ever get surprised that young musicians are going back to the old gear? Computers do everything so much better. Or do you see why there would be an allure to the old gear? And by 'old,' we're talking about the eighties!
MQ: Yeah, but I think that is the right term because in gear time, it is pretty old now. And I guess it doesn't surprise me because it happens with everything. People love old cars and people love antique furniture, and so...
USA: Right, and then you drive an old car and you're like, "Wow, this sucks; it doesn't even have power steering."
MQ: Right. Exactly. Exactly. And you'll get that with the old gear, where you're like, "Wow, this tape machine sounds really great but it also has all this hiss, and I have to calibrate it every time before I record, and it's taking up a huge amount of space in my studio." I'm doing it all on the computer now. I'm using Logic. It still kind of blows me away. I've been in the computer pretty fully now for a long time, and it still just amazes me, the power of it. It's infinite, and the convenience -- the fact that you can work on something with such detail and have such infinite variety of sounds at your fingertips and then save it -- and then open up something else that you've been working on with the same amount of detail and instantly have back what you were doing before. I can't imagine not working that way now.
USA: So did Sam Esmail know you had these chops in electronic music? Is that how you were brought onto the project, or was it something else?
MQ: I'm not sure how much he knew about my past. He knew two things for sure. One is that I had worked on American Horror Story and had worked with Adam Penn, who now is a co-producer on Mr. Robot. Adam was a editor for Ryan Murphy, and so ho recommended me to Sam. Then the other big thing was that Sam is a fan of Cliff Martinez, who is someone I met about ten years ago. I worked under him as an additional composer. That was one of my big paths up through the industry -- working with Cliff. I worked on maybe twelve films with him, including Drive and Contagion, and I think that Sam was really loving Cliff's work, especially The Knick.
USA: How does it go episode to episode? Can you walk us through the process from page to screen, and where you fit into that?
MQ: In season one, I wasn't really getting rough versions. I would get something that was very close to being the finished cut, and there would be temp score, and then there would be a conversation with Sam about what he was looking for. He's really passionate about the music. He has great ideas and that's where it would start. He's talks about a feeling and when things should happen. We developed a little bit of a language so that I can interpret what he's saying and try to give him what he's looking for.
We have that conversation. I write music for the episode, he listens to it and gives me notes, and then I tweak it to get it to be what's right. One of the things that's been really great about this process and on the other shows, is that I've been so fortunate to work with collaborators who give good notes and help make it better. I mean, I've been in situations before where that's not always the case, and someone keeps asking me to change it and it keeps getting worse and worse. Sam pushes me and I take it to another level, and it just ends up being so much better than what I had initially done, so I'm really happy to be in that collaboration with him.
USA: Are you guys watching it together and he's saying, "Here, I want this. Here, I want that," and then afterwards, are you looking at it together, or is it more talking on the phone through time code and emailing notes? Are you in the same room?
MQ: Sam is like the busiest guy I know. I don't know how he does it -- especially now season two, he's directing all the episodes. We didn't spend much time in a room together in season one. The first six episodes, he was in New York for the most of that time. I'm in Los Angeles and they were still shooting, and so it wasn't the best communication. I would send in the music, little video files with the music in it, and then he would send an email back and we would talk on the phone on some, and it was not the best way. It slowed things down a lot. We got it done and it turned out well, but when he returned to Los Angeles, I got him to come to my studio for episode seven.
It's in my house, and in two hours we'd have the whole score approved because he was able to sit there on the couch and I was able to play him something and he would go, "Yeah, there's something about it that's just not working." Had I gotten that note in the email that might've meant, "Oh, maybe I got to write something else?" In this case, I was like, "Well, let's see what's not working." I would go through the sounds that I had and he'd be like, "That sound." I would turn that sound off and then he's like, "Oh, I love it. Done." I mean, not every cue is that easy, but that stuff was happening.
Then he came for the next three episodes, so four episodes where we were in the same room, and I thought it was much more productive.
USA: Is anything about the production different for season two?
MQ: Well, I know they're doing things differently as far as how they're running the production. I'm really just getting started. We've tested a system where we can simulate being in the same room together. He would be in the room there in New York. I'm in my studio. I'm able to play the cues for him and in real time, he'll be watching and listening.
USA: Is that something you hacked together or is that an actual product that exist?
MQ: Yeah, it's a product. We did some testing of it and it seems to work well, and now we just need to finally implement it and I imagine that would be happening next week or so as the music writing ramps up. We could sit there, I can play it for him. We'll be also in FaceTime or something so we can see each other, and then he can tell me, "Hey, I hate it," "I love it," "That one sound is bad," or whatever. Then I can hopefully fix it right then, play it for him again, and we move on to the next.
USA: Are there certain scenes from the first season that fans can revisit to pay attention to the score?
MQ: I do have a fondness for the entire opening of episode one. I mean, it was the first thing that I wrote, although it was actually the second. The first thing I wrote, Sam said, "This is really good, but it's not working for the scene," and so I wrote something else, but ultimately, it was the first thing approved. The scene is so powerful where Elliot is in the coffee shop and we really get this great introduction into his character. That's when I first wrote what became his theme, and I like how the score sits underneath the dialogue and pushes it a little bit this way, and that way. I'm really partial to that opening scene. There are so many others.
USA: Elliot has a theme? Are there other motifs for the characters or certain themes that recur throughout season?
MQ: There really wasn't. I mean, Elliot was the strongest theme in season one. There was a theme that was written in general for Evil Corp, and that got used a bit sometimes for Tyrell Wellick, but more in general for Evil Corp. The other characters didn't get their own theme yet. I think in season two all the characters are developing, and so the music will as well.
Mac Quayle is a Grammy- and Emmy-nominated composer whose TV work also includes American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, Scream Queens, and American Horror Story: Freak Show. Follow him on Twitter at @macquayle.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.