“The first time I did Video Games Live, everyone thought I was completely insane,” begins Tommy Tallarico, founder and composer of the touring symphony that specialises in video game music.
“When we did our first show, I did it at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Philharmonic. Critics were saying: 'People who go to symphonies don’t play video games, and people who play video games don’t go to symphonies. You are screwed. Nobody is going to show up to your stupid thing.'
“Our first show was the first time anywhere in the world, including Japan, when you had the music from Sonic and Metal Gear Solid and Kingdom Hearts and Warcraft and Halo, performed live. I was being told only 500 people would show up, and then 11,000 people came. Suddenly I wasn’t so crazy.”
Tallarico loves to remind people of those early doubters, and for good reason. Video Games Live is now a huge touring symphony that headlines major venues in cities across the world. It is about to pick up a Guinness World Record for the most number of shows played by a symphony (340), it has produced four albums (the fifth is currently on $174,000 on Kickstarter, with 20 days to go) and has inspired a number of rivals. In fact, over the last 12 months in the UK we’ve seen a Zelda Symphony, Final Fantasy concert and, most recently, a Pokemon orchestra.
“Isn’t it cool that because of Video Games Live that all these other ones are around? We were kind of the first to do it and I hope their is a tonne more,” continues Tallarico.
"I was being told only 500 people would show up to our first concert,
and then 11,000 people came."
- Tommy Tallarico, Video Games Live
MCV is talking with Tallarico on the eve of the latest string of shows in the UK, which includes two performances in London and one in Manchester. The shows, he promises, will be unlike any of the recent concerts in the UK. He talks about lighting displays and celebrity guests - including composers from UK developer Rare, who will be on-stage to perform songs from the classic Donkey Kong Country.
In fact, Tallarico talks a lot. I only asked him four questions during what was a 50 minute interview. Normally I would look to cut answers short, or find a way to hurry him along, but Tallarico’s excitement was infectious. He talked about the history of Video Games Live, the global differences in video game music and, most of all, his obsession with improving the culture acceptance of video games via music.
“I created Video Games Live because I wanted to prove to the world how culturally significant and how artistic video games have become,” he tells us. “It is also a great way of ushering in a new generation of young people to appreciate the arts and orchestral music. We had a goal in mind of legitimising the whole video games industry - not just music. We wanted to create a show for everyone. Video Games Live is not a show where you listen to some music along with some video. There is a stage show production, there is interactive elements, there is comedy… it is rock and roll with a symphony. There is special effects and stage show lightning. We’re reaching out to non-gamers.
“I created this show just as much for them as we did for the hardcore gamer. You don’t have to know anything about video games to feel apart of it and understand. And these are the people that are most blown away by the show.”
"Game music is the most played and
most respected and most emotionally-connected
music on the planet.”
- Tommy Tallarico, Video Games Live
One of the biggest moments, he says, is when he got Video Games Live onto PBS.
“We did our National TV Special in 2010. PBS is a prestigious network, they’ve been doing concerts for 15 years, with the likes of Pavarotti and Elton John and Paul McCartney. And when we did it, Video Games Live appeared in 90m households, a third of the entire United States essentially, and we were the eighth highest ranked concert in the last 50 years. It played on Sky Arts in the UK. That was a big turning point because PBS is not a place where people between the ages of 18 and 35 watches. That audience is watching the comedy channels. PBS is for the over 50s. So to have that kind of success was pretty cool.”
He continues: “Video game music is now being taken seriously. For the people who grew up on video games, they get it. I meet young people all the time and they have just as much video game music in their phones as they do pop music or whatever.
“In the early 1990s, when I started doing game soundtracks, people were like: “You do what? Ha ha ha. Really? People do that? I just turn that garbage off.” But now, you have big-time film composers like Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer working on video games. They are crossing over because they are realising that game music is the most played and most respected and most emotionally connected music on the planet.”
That’s quite the statement, I said.
“Yes. Yes it is. Video game music is different from film music. Think about the music from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that classic tune… that’s Indiana Jone’s theme. The Darth Vader theme [hums the tune] that’s Vader’s tune. When you are battling 100 people on horseback, trying to save your village, and that action music is going off… that’s your theme. You are saving your village. When you go on a massive quest and you open that chest, and you hear that triumph music, that is your triumph.”
“Out of all the companies in the world,
Blizzard has been the biggest
supporter of Video Games Live."
- Tommy Tallarico, Video Games Live
Video Games Live has been coming to the UK for the best part of a decade, but it’s not just Western markets that Tallarico has been visiting. He’s been doing shows in China and even the Middle East.
“We are playing the Middle East, China, Brazil, Chile and South America. We are playing in Korea,” he boasts.
“These are all incredible things. And what does it say about the video games industry and video games music, that no matter where we play around the world, we are selling out shows? It doesn’t matter what the culture is, people everywhere love and play video games. Now does the set-list change from country-to-country? Absolutely. A set list that we play in China is completely different to the one we play in Doha in Qatar. In China they love Dota 2 and League of Legends and Starcraft… they are more into PC MMORPGS. In Doha in Qatar in the Middle East, keeping in mind that these cities didn’t exist 15 or 20 years ago, they don’t know any of the old classics. They’re big on PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and Xbox - so they’re about Metal Gear Solid and Halo. I’ve created over 160 different segments for the show but we can only play about 18 of them a night. I let the audience decide the set over Facebook.”
Not the entire set, of course. The Video Games Live team likes to work with new brands and niche tunes that fans may otherwise not have hard of.
“I do that purposefully. You’ll see a couple of things in the show, two or three segments, which are total curveballs that people don’t expect. Yeah, we need Mario and Zelda and Final Fantasy and Skyrim, but I want to give a couple of unusual ones. So at this weekend’s shows, there will be Donkey Kong Country, and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate - again never been played before – but also the ending credits song of Ico. That’s a beautiful vocal song, so you’re going to find that it is really incredible, irrespective of whether you’ve played the game or not.
“But the music has got to be good. If we’re presenting a game that people may not have heard of, it has to have really great music and storyline. Part of this is not just playing the classics, but we also want to introduce people to new games. Gaming is very segmented, people who love Final Fantasy might hate Warcraft, and people who only play Nintendo, they might hate Halo. I want to make this all-inclusive, and to give people something that they haven’t played, but present it in a powerful or emotive way… that’s something special. Shadow of the Colossus is one of my favourite games, but the average person on the street… they might know Tetris or Zelda, but they won’t know that. So they hear it at the show and I get emails from people saying that they went out and bought it, and it’s now their favourite game. That’s what I want to do.”
That includes introducing games that are not even out yet. Another piece of music that we’ll discover at this weekend’s show is music from Blizzard’s upcoming Overwatch.
“The CEO of Blizzard, Mike Morhaime, has been a good friend of mine for 25 years. The audio director, Russell Brower, has been a dear, close friend for over 15 years. Blizzard was there the very first show we did at the Hollywood Bowl, not only were they there to contribute musically with Warcraft, but actually half the company bought tickets,” continues Tallarico. “Out of all the companies in the world, Blizzard has been the biggest supporter of Video Games Live. They really get it. They know what their fans want and like. We have played Blizzcon around the world. At Gamescom last year we played a 45 minute Blizzard-only show on their stage.
“So, Overwatch is a new game coming out, we did the world premiere of that music at Gamescom last year on the Blizzard stage, and that was the first and only time we played the music. We were saving it for this European show. We will be playing that throughout the whole tour.”
There are around 50 shows of Video Games Live performed around the world. New music is introduced all the time, and Tallarico even produces the official albums. It sounds exhausting and so I ask, wasting one of my four questions, if he actually gets any time off?
“My entire life is time off,” he insists. “I love what I do, so I don’t consider it work. It’s all fun to me. We do around 50 shows a year, and when I take time off it is to do something else related to the tour.
“For me, this is the greatest job in the world that I could have.”