The revolution won’t be televised. Instead, it’ll go down in the shadows of the dark web, from the belly of an arcade on the Coney Island boardwalk, according to gripping TV cyber-thriller Mr. Robot.
The US show, devised by Sam Esmail, was just about the most anarchic thing in story and aesthetic to hit small screens last year – a looping tale of paranoid computer hacker Elliott Alderson’s induction into a shady Anonymous-type group intent on bringing down the American financial system. Its frenzied narrative – a race between time to see what crumbles first, society or Elliott’s drug-addled psyche – is matched by chaotic direction, full of quick cuts and Aronofsky-ish flurries of dark fantasy. Arriving as the dust was still settling on the Ashley Madison hack, with post-NSA fears about online surveillance still rattling around the American consciousness, it tapped a nerve that saw Mr. Robot become a cult hit. Add to this a Muslim lead whose character isn’t judged for his drug dependency (an American network TV rarity), and you have a drama as radical as the story it’s telling.
So no wonder Geoff Barrow, the Portishead mastermind who’s always skewed a bit towards anarchy, came to appreciate the show and its throbbing soundtrack. “He was very complimentary about it,” says Mac Quayle, the man behind its terse electronic score, set for vinyl release on Barrow’s Invada Records and Lakeshore on July 29. Inspired by the modular mazes of Wendy Carlos’s Switched On Bach and Tomita’s The Bermuda Triangle, its creeping drones are likely to further establish Invada as the de facto home of the weirdest and most wonderful film scores: recent releases include the soundtracks to Ex Machina, Nightcrawler and Drive, by Quayle collaborator Cliff Martinez.
Ahead of the show’s second season, due in July, we caught up with the composer to hear how the score came together, and to get a few pointers on how to soundtrack a cyber-anarchic revolution like the one in Mr. Robot. Read and check out some exclusive clips from the score below.
It’s the golden age of TV experimentation, so don’t be afraid to get weird
“There’s some music for Mr. Robot that’s very intense – these distorted, crazy, sonic noise attacks. And yet no one seemed to bat an eye at the network. As far as I’m aware, we didn’t get any notes back that we’d pushed it too far with the abrasiveness here. People keep saying it’s the golden age of television and I think that people are being allowed a lot of creative freedom that way. To get noticed you’ve gotta do something that stands out.”
Unconventional stories call for unconventional scores
“I don’t think it’s a typical TV score. It’s not common to go so electronic and so dark. But then, Mr. Robot is a not a typical television show. It’s mind-bending and goes to places I don’t think a lot of other shows have dared go before. So the music needs to reflect that. Which is why I was able to call on a lot of retro inspirations from early electronic music, and maybe push things in a way I wouldn’t be able to if the whole aesthetic of the show wasn’t so boundary-pushing in aesthetic.”
Know the differences between writing for film and TV
“At the beginning of the process, there’s not a lot of difference. You have characters about to go on a certain journey, and the music has to help them on that arc from A to B. But it is different and there are different possibilities writing for TV. A film goes on a little bit longer initially than your first episode of TV, it’s a longer story. But then you’re done. With TV now you keep going to the next episode, the next episode. This world you created with the music gets to keep expanding and reinventing itself. The same sounds and the same themes can go a lot further.”
Learn from your peers
“I like a lot of early electronic music, and bands like New Order and Depeche Mode – there’s a lot of that stuff from my youth still churning around in my subconscious. But there were more modern soundtrack influences on the Mr. Robot score too. I’ve done a lot of work with Cliff Martinez and have worked on a lot of his synth-driven electronic scores, like Drive and Contagion. It’s also hard to get away from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who broke a lot of amazing ground with regards to the scoring world and electronic music.”
Try to stay sane
“I had quite a long time to put together the music for pilot episode. By the end though, you’re writing for an episode a week. I was feeling quite like Elliott by the end of it!”