Mac Quayle, Composer for TV’s Feud and Mr. Robot, Discusses His Technique

BY GREGORY WEINKAUF

There’s much to explore with an Emmy-winning, increasingly prominent composer like Mac Quayle — not that there is anyone quite like Mac Quayle. From alterna-hip-hop combo Rise Robots Rise, he has worked his way into top-tier television scoring, including Feud: Bette and Joan, and Mr. Robot. Mr. Quayle and I talk shop about his art (he wants to do more sci-fi), craft (he enthusiastically praises his mentor, Cliff Martinez), and use of innovative, game-changing virtual instruments.

It’s early in the workday when we talk (even earlier in musician hours), but first, I just gotta know: in Mac’s bio it states that he once played ping pong with Peter Gabriel...

Gregory: So is Peter Gabriel any good? Does he have a kind of strange, unorthodox style that we would expect from him?

Mac: You know, to be honest, I was so sort of starstruck that I was playing ping pong with him, I wasn’t paying too much attention to his style. (laughs) And the other thing about it was that we were playing doubles, which I’d never played.

Gregory: Whoah!

Mac: I’d always just done singles ping pong — and I was partners with Peter! — so it was just a little overwhelming. (laughs)

Gregory: I feel like Flood and Daniel Lanois would have been on the other side of the table.

Mac: It wasn’t Flood or Daniel — it was David Rhodes, his long-time guitar player/collaborator — and then I think the other guy was an engineer.

Gregory: Fair enough. With regard to Feud, did you come on board because of Ryan Murphy — was that the connection?

Mac: Yes, I’ve been working on all of Ryan’s shows for almost three years now. American Horror Story — and then Scream Queens, and then The People vs. O.J. SimpsonFeud was the next creation of his, so I was pretty excited to do something quite different.

Gregory: What are the characteristics that set Feud apart for you, as a composer — but also as a dramatist: someone who has to find the tone for the scenes?

Mac: We wanted it to be orchestral, and to try to really evoke the feeling of early 1960s Hollywood. That’s not a style that I had written in before, so definitely it was a very new experience. The concept was to help tell the story of the relationship of these two women — to highlight the tension between them. Also a very big theme throughout the season is the sadness: it’s a very sad story about their relationship, but also how they were treated by the Hollywood system, and certainly how their later lives unfolded for them.

Gregory: There must have been some challenges in creating cues for the distinct characters of Bette and Joan.

Mac: There were some discussions about the differences between the two women, and I certainly had that floating around in my head as I was writing. But it was not quite so cut and dried, like: “Oh, here’s a theme for Joan, here’s a theme for Bette, this is how we’re gonna do it for the season” — it’s really about what’s working in each particular scene, helping to tell the story.

Gregory: What tools did you have to develop as a musician, to come to this party?

Mac: I really had to write for an entire orchestra, which I’d only done just a little bit, before this. I put together this collection of sounds, from the EastWest libraries, using the diamond editions of EW Hollywood Strings, Brass, Harp, and the Hollywood Orchestral Percussion and Woodwinds. With that there at my fingertips, I was able to come up with melodies, chord progressions, and various things that I thought might work.

Gregory: You’ve worked in dance music, and know your way around a MIDI box. What does this represent to you, as a creator, that these virtual instruments are now available?

Mac: It really just gives you so many possibilities, to actually make something that sounds quite good, just in your studio — without having to go to the huge expense and time of working with a large group of musicians. Of course, recording an orchestra is a wonderful thing, but these tools allow us to approximate that, right in the computer.

Gregory: How easy is it to modify the material, especially if you’re working with virtual instruments?

Mac: That is one of the real conveniences — it’s quite easy to change things. If you’ve recorded an ensemble, there’s maybe a little bit that you could do, to change it: you could do some editing, and whatnot — but to really make big changes to it, you would need to go and record again. Whereas, with the virtual instruments, you’re able to go back in, open session, save a new version, and start changing things. You can change the entire key of the piece! Or you could speed it up, or slow it down, or do a different ending, or whatever is needed to make it work.

Gregory: What was your introduction to EastWest?

Mac: I think I bought my first EastWest instrument — I would venture, like a decade ago. It might’ve been “StormDrum” — and then I bought one of their early orchestral libraries. They’ve been around for a while, and have always come up with really great products.

Gregory: And with Feud, and going forward, these are bold new strides for you.

Mac: I felt like, before, I was not so confident in what I might be able to do with an orchestra, and now I’m chomping at the bit for more!

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