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Mac Quayle breaks down his Emmy-nominated score for 'American Horror Story'

Mac Quayle is the composer of
Mac Quayle is the composer of "American Horror Story: Freak Show" on FX, USA Network's "Mr. Robot" and "Scream Queens" on Fox.
Mac Quayle

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Mac Quayle may not be a household name, but you’ve probably heard his work. He helped compose music for the Ryan Gosling crime drama, "Drive," the critically-acclaimed HBO movie "The Normal Heart,"  with Cliff Martinez, and — most recently — “Mr. Robot” — the hit show on the USA network.

Mac Quayle -- Mr. Robot

And Quayle recently got his first Emmy nomination for writing the score on FX’s "American Horror Story: Freak Show.”

But before he scored for film and television, Mac Quayle was a music producer for the likes of Britney Spears, Madonna and Donna Summer.

Donna Summer - I Will Go With You

The Frame’s John Horn talks with composer Mac Quayle about his work for TV and film, and why he's fond of '80s electro music: 


How does your dance music background connect to your work on film and TV?

I think there's a connection with making dance music, which is what I did with Donna Summer, and now scoring for film and television. I'm applying a lot that I learned as a dance producer now in my composing technique. 

What are the similarities? 

Dance music has a lot of repetition in it. I can't do as much repetition in composing, but I still use that as a technique — having one thing just repeating over and over, slowly changing, and other things on top of it that are changing as well. 

Can you remember watching a TV show or a movie and noticing the music being effective? 

It's interesting because I didn't notice it that much as I was growing up. I would notice some music and thought it was interesting, things that would stand out like "Jaws." Maybe that's one of the first things I remember, that theme. But I wasn't actually thinking about how effective it was in the film. That came much later. So certain sounds that resonated with me would jump out and I would notice it. And then other scores, I wouldn't even notice that there was music there. 

Jaws Theme Song

The piano is prevalent in "American Horror Story: Freak Show." What inspired you to use this instrument? 

Piano in this show was something that really came out of some initial discussions about some of the musical sounds that were going to be used in this season. There were talks about early 20th Century classical music and how that might influence some themes, and piano seemed like a natural choice. 

Mac Quayle AHS Score

Let's talk about the themes in "American Horror Story." This season was "Freak Show," set in the 1950's, and features a killer clown and carnies. People would look at that premise and say, We're gonna have some scary clown music, music boxes, detuned pipe organs. That's the obvious choice. That's not what you wanted to do? 

Well, there was some of that. It makes sense. It works so well with the images. But what was more prevalent was one of the first pieces of music that I wrote for the show. It ended up being called "'50s Sci-Fi Strings." It was evoking sci-fi soundtracks from the 1950s. It was a very simple string motif that was doubled with a theremin.

Mac Quayle AHS Score 2

Explain what a theremin is. 

A theremin is an instrument that was invented by a guy named [Leon] Theremin ... back in the 1920s. It's an electronic instrument [that] looks like an old TV antenna — a couple pieces of metal sticking out of a wooden box. As you move your hand close to the metal, there's a magnetic field that produces a tone, and how you move your hand changes the pitch and volume of the tone. 

People who have listened to your music know that you are fond of music from the 1980s, which comes to the fore with some work you've done for a film called "L.A. Slasher." What were you after with this film? 

Well, it's a fun, wacky film. The Slasher, the main character, thinks reality TV is the worst thing ever and so he goes around Los Angeles... 

He's not alone... 

[Laughs] I did resonate with his basic premise. He goes around Los Angeles, kidnapping, torturing and killing reality TV stars and then promoting it on social media. The public supports him— surprisingly, or not— and it turns out that he likes '80s music. So my job was to create cues that made him happy as he went around wreaking havoc in the reality TV world. 

Your music is ethereal and electronic. How did that genre come about for you as your signature? 

It started with a love of "Star Trek" when I was a kid and I wanted to be in a room filled with all those things on the bridge — all of those flashing lights, computers. And then I got introduced to synthesizers. There was this guy in this local band where I grew up in Virginia, and he invited me over to his house to see these two synthesizers that he had and he played them for me. I was maybe 15 and it just blew my mind.

Ever since, I've been trying to replicate the way I felt that day. He helped me buy my first synthesizer and then I bought another one and I started getting a studio. I've always just really immersed myself in that. I love real instruments, but there's something about electronic instruments that just gets me. 

Mac Quayle Electro

Now that you've done the horror film, "L.A. Slasher" and the TV show "American Horror Story," is it okay if you're typecast as "the horror movie guy?" Or do you not want to be that guy? 

It wasn't something that I set out to be typecast as. I've never really worked in horror before. None of this has been straight-up horror so I don't know if I'm going to end up in that role. 

As a new dad, are you ambivalent about working on shows that are violent? Do you want to do a family comedy now? 

I did speak to a fellow composer recently who now has two kids and, in the past, was doing a lot of horror shows and now has somehow switched into kid films and shows. And he says, "Now my kids can come in the studio, cause otherwise they couldn't see the images on the screen." 


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