(Interview by G originally published 5/11/2014 on GamerXChange.net – No Longer Active)
If you don’t know the name Tommy Tallarico, here’s a quick line to sum him up: He’s a video games industry legend. Tommy Tallarico is a music composer with an impressive history. He has worked on over 300 games and won more than 50 awards. Working in the video games industry for two and a half decades, nobody has worked on more titles and projects than him and guess what? He’s in the Guinness Book of World Records (2008) for it. But it’s not just music that he makes; Mr. Tallarico is a jack of all trades, working as a TV personality, a business owner, producer, Fortune 500 consultant, and more! You have very likely heard or seen some of his many works from games, TV, film, or some other avenue.
For the last twelve years however, Tommy has been working on a special project that has been sweeping the world – Video Games Live. Video Games Live is just as it sounds – video games, live. It’s a musical concert featuring video games music. In production from 2002, it was [one of] the first video games concert[s] and it is still touring down to this day. The creation of Video Games Live has also prompted many other gaming companies to start their own musical tours since. While it may have taken some years, Video Games Live is finally coming to the home base of GamerXChange – Miami. That’s right, Miami! You’ll be able to rock out, cheer, and listen to your favorite video games music live, May 16th, 2014 at the beautiful Adrienne Arsht Center. It’s going to be a big show![youtube http://youtu.be/uzHLeDBKprA]
I was able to catch up with Mr. Tallarico, producer and creator of the show, to talk to him about the concert coming to Miami, plus some other things such as how he got his start in the industry and his message for skeptics. You can check out the interview below!
GamerXChange (GXC): In your own words, what is video games live? How would you describe it?
Tommy Tallarico (TT): Video Games Live is all of the greatest video game music of all time played by a full symphony and choir; but what makes it really special and unique is that everything is completely synchronized – the massive video screens, special effects, rock and roll lighting, stage show production, interactive elements with the crowd. So I like to describe it as having all of the power and emotion of a symphony orchestra but combined with the energy and excitement of a rock concert, mixed together with all of the cutting edge visuals and technology and interactivity and fun that video games provide.
GXC: That sounds pretty awesome! I have always wanted to go but never had the chance. Fortunately you guys are finally coming here to Miami and I’ll have that chance to go.
TT: Have you been to some of the other shows, the copycat shows, in Miami?
GXC: Yeah. I have actually been to a few –
TT: Zelda? Distant Worlds?
GXC: Right. Those two came the past couple of years and I went to those.
TT: Yup! They’re very different from our show. They’re more a traditional kind of symphony show. Of course we were the first and the biggest and the best. [laughs] So they kind of took more of a traditional approach, which I think is great, it’s fine. As a video game composer for 25 years I want there to be as many concerts out there like this as possible. But video games live is very unique in the sense that we don’t allow tuxedos on stage and it’s more, like I said, kind of rock concert type of atmosphere, and the music is much more powerful. So we’re not trying take music from Final Fantasy or Halo or Metal Gear Solid and trying to turn it into a traditional symphonic sound. We start with what’s in the game and then we pile on top of that. [laughs] So, you know, we want to make it as big as possible.
GXC: Awesome. And it’s not just the music. You usually have other activities surrounding the concert, right?
TT: Yeah, yeah, we do some really fun interactive bits in the show. So before the concert we have a costume contest so that anyone who’s dressed in a costume they get to come up on stage at the beginning of the show as well. We’ll [also] have a Guitar Hero competition, for example in Miami. All the people who play Guitar Hero during the pre-show, when they open the doors, whoever scores the highest points in Guitar Hero during the pre-show, we will invite them on stage during the show and they will play guitar hero on the big screen while I play live guitar along with them and the symphony plays along with them. They have to score a certain amount of points in order to win a big prize. It’s pretty crazy.
We don’t have a ton of stuff, I don’t want to oversell the pre-show. It’s not really a festival, but there are definitely some fun activities there.
GXC: So you actually get the crowd involved in the actual performance.
TT: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. That’s what video games are. Video games are interactive and our show is interactive.
GXC: […] You have been doing this for 12 years. What do you think has contributed to the longevity of the concert series?
TT: I think the fact that we make the show for everyone. It’s not just for hardcore gamers. Again, for something like [the Zelda or Distant Worlds concerts] you pretty much have to be a hardcore Final Fantasy or Zelda fan. But we make it for everybody and we change the show every year; we change the lineup. So, in a two and a half hour performance, we have about 18 to 20 segments that we can play. I have created over 125 different segments over the years. So we have five or six different Zelda [pieces], Warcraft pieces, or Mario, even Tetris. So it’s ever-changing and there are always new games that we’re adding. Just over the past year or so we’ve added games like Skyrim, Journey, and Assassin’s Creed IV. We’re even playing [music from] Destiny now, which is a game that’s not even coming out until the end of the year. […] Dota 2 is another one we recently added. So there’s always new stuff but I want to make sure that we get a really good cross-section – not only of old versus new games, but also platforms as well. I don’t want anyone who’s a hardcore PC gamer to come to the show and feel bummed out because they didn’t get to hear PC stuff.
The other thing is, it’s dynamic. We don’t want it to be just 2 and a half hours of just straight traditional orchestra music with a choir. We might have a big bombastic God of War piece , or Skyrim, and the next thing we play might be a really fun, lighthearted thing like Sonic or Mario. Then maybe we’ll do a rock and roll thing with Street Fighter, Megaman, or Castlevania. Then we’ll do a really beautiful Terra’s theme from Final Fantasy, something totally traditional and beautiful. And then we’ll come back with an interactive segment where we’ll bring people up on stage and we’ll play a video game and we’ll play the music to the game while they’re playing it in real-time and we’re changing the music on the fly depending on what they’re doing. And then we’ll come back with a bombastic piece again or maybe we’ll do an acoustic guitar thing. So it’s really dynamic, really fun, and always changing.
When you talk about longevity, why we have been around the longest, doing 40-50 shows a year all over the world, it’s because every year we change the show and change from city to city. The show that we’re doing in Miami is going to be different from the show that we’re doing two days later in Orlando. A lot of times, the way I choose the set list, [in addition to] all the ways I just mentioned, a big influence on what I choose – because there’s so much to choose from – is that we create a Facebook events page for every city and country that we go to and we ask the people there, ‘what do you want to hear?’ The show is for the audience. It’s not for me. It’s not for the musicians. It’s for the audience! So the people in Miami had different things [from] the people in Orlando and I incorporated a few of those changes. I also like to throw some curve balls every once in a while too. I don’t want to just – every night we’re playing Halo, Zelda, Mario, Final Fantasy, Warcraft, we always change it up, throw in some curve balls. So I’ll give you a couple of surprises. In Miami, for example, don’t be surprised if you hear something from Shadow of the Colossus, or Monkey Island, or maybe I’ll throw a little Uncharted in there – among Warcraft, Metal Gear Solid, Kingdom Hearts, Megaman, Skyrim, and everything else. Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy they’ll all be there as well too! [laughs] So we are looking forward to a big show.
GXC: I know you guys were in Florida before, I think it was Sunrise, fairly close to Miami – so let’s say someone already went to that concert, if they come to the one in Miami, it’s like a completely different show.
TT: Oh, totally different. Yeah, it’ll be 90% different.
GXC: Good to know! When you just started out Video Games Live, did you ever expect it to be as successful as it is?
TT: Yes, but I was naive. [laughs]
GXC: [laughing] Well you were right!
TT: Yeah! I ended up being right, but I was totally naive. Yeah. I mean, when I was 10 years old, and this is in the late 70’s – I’m 46 now – I used to take my dad’s big a** cassette recorder and go down to the local arcades and record all of my favorite video games music from the arcade machines. Then I’d come home and record my Atari 2800, my Intellivision, my Commodore 64, my Apple II – all my favorite games and I’d make a cassette tape out of it. Then I would invite my neighborhood friends over, I’d charge them a nickel, and I would play back the cassette tape, I’d jump up in front of my television set, with my favorite video game playing behind it, grab a guitar, and play along with the music and the TV! [laughs] So I guess those were the first video games concerts back then.
GXC: So you’ve been doing Video Games Live for over 30 years then! [laughs]
TT: Yeah! My two greatest loves growing up were always video games and music, you know? But I never really thought to put the two together as a career because there was no such thing as a video game composer in the 70’s. But when I moved out to California 25 years ago, the first day I was out here, I got a job at a Guitar Center selling keyboards. I came out all by myself, I was actually homeless, sleeping under a pier.
TT: Yeah, I got a job at a Guitar Center and the first day I worked, I had a video game t-shirt on, and this was back in 1990. No one had video game t-shirts back then. Now you can go everywhere – Hot Topic, Walmart, Target – they all have them. Back then, they were rare. Especially this one, it was a Japanese console called a Turbografx-16 and I had a freakin’ t-shirt for it. The first customer who walked in happened to be a producer at Virgin. They were starting a video game company right down the street, he saw my shirt, and he asked me if I wanted a job. [laughs] So I was in California 3 days and I [got] in the video game industry. That was 25 years and 300 games ago. [laughs]
GXC: Amazing. So that led to you having a lot under belt. It’s not just music composition you have been doing, you have been involved in many other things. For example, you’re a TV personality too, I know you have done the [Electric] Playground –
TT: The Electric Playground and Judgement Day, Reviews on the Run, and yeah I did that for 12 years. It was fun. We did two half hour shows a week. So we were doing an hour a week of television. That was between 1995 and about 2007. Then I started Video Games Live in 2002. So by 2007, we were doing 55 plus shows a year and I just didn’t have time to do them both. Video Games Live was my main passion. So, yeah after 12 years after being on the show, I had to hang that up for a while. I make guest appearances every once in a while, the show is still running in Canada, actually.
GXC: Yeah, I have seen it on Hulu a couple of times recently.
TT: Yeah, yeah! You can still grab it on Hulu.
GXC: So where do you expect Video Games Live to go from here? Do you still see it touring a couple of years down the road?
TT: Absolutely! I mean, if people are willing to show up at the show, we’re still willing to put it on; That’s for sure. Again, it changes every year. There’s some stuff we’re working on now, for example, because there’s so much stuff – many things! We have 125 different segments, but there [are] still a ton on my wish list. You know, Katamari Damacy, Okami, Xenogears, Earth Bound (Mother), Shenmue. You know, so much stuff we haven’t even covered yet. Devil May Cry! These are all things on my ‘to do’ list. So I’m always going to be touring the thing; I always want to bring new content out to the folks. It’s a complete celebration of the video game industry and we really play on that.
We’re not some concert promoters trying to make a buck off of video games. We are the video game industry and all the composers who take part in this thing – if you take a look at some of our shows, we have a show in Los Angeles this year and I got Garry Schyman composer of Bioshock conducting his music, Austin Wintory – creator of [the music for] Journey – is conducting his piece, Russell Brower from Warcraft is conducting his piece. Inon Zur from Dragon Age and the new Fantasia Disney game (which we’re doing the world premier of). So all of these things, all of these people are a part of our show and it’s important that the industry takes ownership of this thing. I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s really important to us that the games are represented properly, the composers, the music, but more importantly the audience.
You know when you get 2,000 plus gamers in a room together, all kind of celebrating games and they feel like, you know what? This is helping to legitimize their love and their hobby and their passion. You know? Because video games still sometimes get a bad wrap from the mainstream media, ‘oh the violence, blah blah blah.’ ‘Oh, gamers are nerds, get out of the house go get a girlfriend, you loser.’ It’s all bull. So we play on that. We bring this out. I always say video games music is underground, but guess what? Everybody’s underground. [laughs] You know? That’s a pretty good way to describe it I think. So [those are] my thoughts about all that.
GXC: Yeah, that kind of goes into my next question too, because especially here in Miami, it’s kind of a hard city to please and obviously a lot of avid gamers are going to be interested in going to the concert, but when I talk to other associates [about the concert], who are not so much interested in video games, and they’re like ‘oh what are you going to do at that concert? Listen to video game music?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, yeah. That is what I’m going to do.’ But I think a lot of people still have a misconstrued notion about video game music.
TT: Yeah, that it’s a bunch of annoying bleeps and bloops.
TT: And that’s the thing. But would they say that about film music? Would they say that about John Williams’ score for Star Wars?
GXC: Absolutely not.
TT: So why would anyone have that attitude toward game music, when the reality is, video games soundtrack albums outsell film soundtracks three to one? [laughs] So I mean, it’s pretty amazing. The music to Final Fantasy, Halo, Warcraft, Zelda, it’s just as good as any film score ever. Just as good as raiders of the lost arc, Star Wars, and anything else. It’s a naive attitude to have about game music, but it’s just education. I think if you played anyone music from Final Fantasy, like Liberi Fatali, the opening for Final Fantasy VIII, or One Winged Angel from VII – if you played that and stack it up against the music from Avatar, or Spider-Man, tell me which one’s better? That’s not to say the music from those aren’t good too, but…
GXC: They’re much more memorable.
TT: Yes! The difference between video game music and any other form of music out there is that when you play a video game, you become that character and the music becomes the soundtrack of your life. That’s why you’re so emotionally attached to it. So when you’re fending off 100 guys attacking your village, that music that’s playing becomes your theme! That’s like your battle call! When you open that chest and you finally get a golden sword and it plays that song, that song becomes like a part of your life now. [laughs] You’re like, ‘I WANT TO HEAR THAT SONG AGAIN!’ because you associate it with positive stuff. So video game music is so much more and people get so emotionally attached to video game music more than any other music out there.
Again, hum me the music to Avatar. Go ahead. I mean, it was one of the highest grossing films of all time, it had a great score, it had great characters, a great storyline, amazing visuals, so hum me the music. Cant do it! I bet you could hum me the [crap] out of Mario and Zelda and Tetris, Castlevania, Halo and every damn Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy though, right?
There’s more game music being played right now on repeat than any other music in the world. Think about that. [laughs] I mean, playing Warcraft for 30-40 hours a week or whatever….
GXC: You’re going to hear that music, over and over.
TT: Right, it would be like: play your favorite album and put it on repeat for 40 hours, listen to it, and tell me what you think of the music after. You know what I mean? So it’s so much more emotional and personal. That’s the reason why the people who play games are so attached to it.
GXC: Absolutely. So is that something you wound say to a skeptic about the show? What would you say to a skeptic if you were trying to get them interested in coming to the show?
TT: Yeah! I would say that you don’t have to be a gamer at all to come out to the show and really be blown away and experience something that you have never, ever experienced before. Bottom line. That’s not some marketing line or PR [nonsense]. That is absolutely [a] fact.
The most letters and emails that we get after a show are from non-gamers. Guys like [you and I], we know how cool the music of Final Fantasy is, right? But for somebody who’s not a gamer, for them to come out and see the show, I mean the letters we get are unbelievable. They’re like, ‘you know, I took my kid to the show. I didn’t really know what to expect, but oh my god! I never knew that the music was so emotional and powerful. I never knew the graphics were so incredible, or that the characters were so intriguing, and that the story lines were so interesting. I get it now. Now I know why so many people are into video games. Thank you so much for opening my eyes.’
So to those skeptics out there, I will say, “you will be the ones most blown away, because it will open your eyes to a whole new universe that you really didn’t even know existed.” Like I said, video game music is all underground, but everyone’s underground. [laughs]
GXC: That’s really true. Great! So do you have any favorite pieces from the show?
TT: Yeah. I perform on some of them, guitar, so stuff like Castlevania, Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, are some of my favorites to perform. Street Fighter II, is another one. But overall, I love one of our Warcraft segments because it’s so powerful and the cinematics are so amazing. Also, Final Fantasy VIII’s Liberi Fatali, like I spoke about. That’s one of my favorites of all time, one of my favorite video game songs ever written.
GXC: That’s actually one of my favorite video game soundtracks; Probably the first video games soundtrack that I actually purchased, the Final Fantasy VIII soundtrack. Will you guys be playing that in Miami?
TT: Oh, my favorite? and your favorite as well? Well, there you go. Just for that, I’ll make sure we’ll play Liberi Fatali. Yes. No, absolutely, it is being played in Miami.
GXC: To close it out, if there is anything you could say, a message you could send out to our readers or to the people of Miami, what would you say?
TT: Well, just that we have been trying to get down to Miami for over 10 years now. So many people from the area have emailed us over the years and we’re finally coming down there, so we’re really happy to finally be coming down there. Help us spread the word! We want this to be the first of many. So please help us spread the word on Facebook, Twitter, and to all of your friends so we can have it be a big success so we can get invited back every year. [laughs]
GXC: I hope so! I hope you guys do come back. I think you’ll like it here. Well, thank you very much for doing this interview with us. I have watched the videos online for the concert and the PBS special for it a while back, and I keep hearing great things about the concert, so I’m really looking forward to it.
I really enjoyed talking with Tommy and I’m really looking forward to seeing the show – which I have been following for the past nine years, by the way.
If you are going to be in Miami on May 16th 2014, tell your friends, tell your family, and make sure to get your tickets now for Video Games Live! If you aren’t going to be in Miami, don’t worry! There are tours all over the world happening this year still, check out the official website here to see if there will be one near you.