For 17 years, Video Games Live has bought the music of Zelda, Pokemon and other well-known games to sold-out symphonic stages across the world. The production will be playing with the BPO Saturday night at Kleinhans Music Hall. The show’s creator, video game composer and guitarist Tommy Tallarico, has been writing music for games for over 30 years. He spoke with WBFO’s Nick Lippa about his storied career, his family in Niagara Falls and VGL’s success.
Tommy, in a brief description, what is Video Games Live?
TT: “Video Games Live is all 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 to massive video screens, stage show production, rock and roll lighting, interactive elements with the crowd. I kind of like to describe it as having all the power and emotion of a symphony orchestra, but combined with the energy and excitement of a rock concert, mixed together with all the cutting edge visuals and interactivity and fun that video games provide.”
You currently live in California, but you grew up on the East Coast with family in Niagara Falls, right?
TT: “All four of my grandparents came from Italy off the boat in the early 1900s. They landed in Batavia and Niagara Falls. On my mother’s side, they landed in Niagara Falls in St. Catherine’s on the Canadian side. Then my parents were raised in Niagara Falls, New York and my Mom in Canada. Having the experience of growing up Italian on the east coast and spending lots of time in Upstate New York definitively look and appreciation for life than most people out here in California now where I live. It’s a different vibe. I’ve been in California for 30 years. I spent the first 21 years on the east coast. Growing up in an Italian neighborhood—the food and the people and the neighborhood, environment and the vibe of the neighbors—it’s very different out here in California. Having that experience growing up really makes you appreciate friendships and family more so than other things.”
What were you listening to growing up that led you to composing game music and playing a guitar live on stage with an orchestra?
TT: “So my cousin is Steven Tyler from Aerosmith. His real name is Steven Tallarico. I was always growing up kind of watching Aerosmith, listening to Aerosmith, going to the shows. The family usually stands on the side of the stage. Being in music and doing all of that, it never occurred to me that it was an impossible dream or anything like that. It’s like, ‘Oh. Look at Cousin Steven performing in front of 50,000 people. That looks like fun. That’s what I want to do when I grow up.’ And that was like being seven to eight years old feeling that way."
“But my parents are products of the '50s. They were listening to Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. But because we are an Italian family as well, it was Caruso and Pavarotti and Frank Sinatra. So growing up musically it was like rock and roll with Aerosmith and I was a big Van Halen, Led Zeppelin fan as well, but then getting this orchestral, operatic stuff from the Pavarotti’s and the Caruso’s. Even Frank Sinatra. The big band swing, pop thing that he was doing. And that’s kind of what, as a musician and a composer being in the video game industry now for 30 years, that music influences the way that I always approached music. It was never just symphony music. And video games live was a culmination of that. When you go to the show, it’s not just rock and roll. It’s not just orchestral, but it’s a combination of all those things.”
How did you get from the East Coast to California and into the game industry?
TT: “When I turned 21, I left my parents crying on the doorstep. I’m the oldest in the family and the oldest son. In the Italian culture, it’s a big deal when the first anyone leaves the nest. I jumped in my car and drove to California. I left Niagara Falls and then went through Ohio, made my way down to Tennessee and Memphis because I wanted to see Elvis and Beale Street and Sun Recording Studios and then made my way across California. But when I went I had no money, no job, no place to stay. No friends. Nothing in California. So I just got in my car and drove. I was homeless for the first three weeks I was here in California. I was sleeping under the pier at Huntington Beach. But the very first day I got to California I picked up a newspaper and I saw a job selling keyboards at a guitar center. I went down there. I got the job that day and they said you start tomorrow. So the first day I was in California I got a job at a music store. The second day I was in California I start the job and I was wearing a video game t-shirt which back then, and this was the late '80s, no one had video game t-shirts back then. And I had three t-shirts with me the entire time. The first person who walked in worked for Richard Branson and they were starting a Virgin video game company right down the street. He saw my t-shirt and he’s like, ‘Oh my gosh. Where did you get that? Do you know about video games?’ I’m like, ‘I know everything about video games!’ So they gave me a job. As a games tester. I was playing games and testing them. I was in California three days, homeless, but I was in the video game industry.”
I got to ask, what kind of shirt was it?
TT: “It was a TurboGrafx-16 shirt, which was this Japanese video game console that wasn’t even out in America yet. The interesting thing about how I got that shirt was living and being in Upstate New York at that time… in Toronto they have their summer festival CNE (Canadian National Exhibition). It’s the big summer fair. That year, I had read in a video game magazine, because I would get all the video game magazines, I read that TurboGrafx was going to be at this big country fair in Toronto. So I made my Mom drive me up to Toronto. She wanted to go on rides with her kid and this and that. Here I am making her stand in line of this tent to see this new video game system that’s never come out yet. And they were basically doing focus testing. I got a chance to play the game. Then I wrote up what I thought of the game I played and what I thought of the system. And for my troubles, they gave me this TurboGrafx-16 shirt. So once again, if I grew up anywhere else, I wouldn’t be doing what I was today.”
What did people think when you first started Video Games Live back in 2002?
TT: “Everybody thought I was crazy. People were like, ‘Look, Tommy. People who go to a symphony, they don’t play video games and people who do play video games, they don’t go to a symphony. So you’re totally screwed. No one is going to show up to your dumb thing.’ But my grandfather, he told me give up. Never take no for an answer. America is the greatest country in the world. We left everything. Everything that we’d ever known. We left our families, we left everything because we wanted to have a better opportunity for you and your father. For our generations to come. He wasn’t saying it as a guilt trip thing. He was just saying it because he wanted us to understand that he sacrificed everything that he knew to make a better life for himself and his family and to always remember that and to never take no for an answer,” he said.
“Those words always stood with me. When I was doing the first show, I did it at the Hollywood Bowl with the LA Philharmonic Orchestra. People were like, ‘You’re nuts. You’re risking your entire career. You’re lucky if you sell 500 tickets.’ Well that first show 11,000 people showed up. All of a sudden I wasn’t so crazy and we’ve been doing it now for 17 years. We hold to big Guinness World Records. One for the longest-running, most performances ever done by a touring symphony show. Buffalo will be number 495. So we are coming up on 500 shows. And the other Guinness World Record we own is the largest symphony show ever performed live. Seven-hundred fifty-two thousand people were watching us live in Beijing, China. We played the National Olympic Stadium. The Bird’s Nest as it’s called. The stadium only fits 120,000 people. But it was a free show. I had done a deal with the Chinese government to do a free show for everyone. So we had like over 600,000 people outside. They set up speakers and video screens. It was pretty amazing. So never give up on your dreams. Never take no for an answer.”
Something we are seeing is this show brings a lot of younger people to the symphony. What are the demographics for VGL?
TT: “About 75% of our audience are people who are either teens or 20's or early 30’s. That never happens. Even in like Star War shows or Harry Potter symphony tours or whatever, you get a big cross mix from all ages. But never before in the history of music, have millions of young people, teenagers and people in their 20’s, stood in line to see a symphony. That’s what VGL brings to the world. And the orchestras love it. They’re getting to an audience that they would typically never get to.”
Are you seeing older people come out as well?
TT: “Older people come as well. People my age from Gen X. Grandparents who are bringing their grandkids to the symphony for the first time. So we do see a lot of cross stuff. But, the biggest one is the millennials and younger kids coming out to the show. And that’s the great thing. I’ll tell you an interesting story. We were playing with the Pittsburgh Symphony, which is one of the greatest symphonies that the United States has. They’ve been around since the 1800s. Richard Strauss used to conduct them. This is one of the biggest and most prestigious. And I was right about to go on stage. We’ve played with them a bunch of times. The first time we played with them, a woman from the orchestra came up to me and she had tears in her eyes. She said, ‘Tommy I just want to let you know, thank you so much for putting this show on.’ And I said, ‘No thank you for playing and accepting the art.’ She goes, ‘But you don’t understand. I’ve been playing with this symphony for about 20 years. I have a 17-year-old son and he’s never seen me perform.’ She started crying. Literally tears streaming down her cheeks now. She said, ‘I’m a single Mom. I’ve raised him by myself and all I’ve ever wanted was for him to see me play and perform and he’s never wanted to do it until tonight. Tonight is the very first time he is coming to one of my shows. And not only that, he brought four friends with him and all he’s been doing is bragging for the last two weeks about how his Mom is going to be playing Halo on stage,’ he laughed. “It was like, whoa. It’s so emotionally and crazy. When you create something like this, you never think it’s going to have that kind of positive effect on the world. It’s crazy to think.”
What would you say to people who may look down at video game music as not being true classical music?
TT: “The thing they have to realize, video game music like film music, it’s all derived from symphonic and classical music. The melodies of Beethoven and Mozart and the structures and what they did. It’s all stuff that’s inspired by those folks. So when people go to the show, people who don’t know video games, they’re the ones most blown away, because they’re so surprised at the quality of the music. They’re like, ‘This is for video games?’ Well yes! Of course it is. And in regards to using the video screens and the rock and roll lighting and stuff like that, consider this. It was only a couple hundred years ago that a bunch of loud mouth Italians like me got around a table together and said, ‘How do we bring people in to the symphony? Oh I got an idea. Let’s tell a story through the lyrics. Let’s put singers on stage and tell stories. Oh yeah! And we can dress them up in costumes. And let’s build elaborate sets on stage.’ And that’s how opera was born right? So if you think about it, all I’m doing is I’m using all of the things that my generation and younger grew up on. Video games. Video screens. Rock and roll lighting. These are the things, we’re combining them. Like they did hundreds of years ago with opera, which is now part of the classical world, well some people consider us the opera of the 21st century. Using technology and these things to bring a younger generation in to see an orchestra. And by the way. One of my heroes, Walt Disney, he was doing similar stuff like this over 75 years ago. You look at the movie Fantasia, and it’s the same type of thing. He’s like, ok how can we introduce people to symphonic and orchestral music. Let’s talk Beethoven and all these things and let’s put them to cartoons. That’s what Fantasia was right? So here we are 75 years later, doing the same type of thing.”
You still plan to see Video Games Live going strong in to the future?
TT: “VGL has been going for 17 years now. Last year I became the president and CEO of Intellivision. For all the older folks out there who grew up in the '70s and the '80s, you may remember the Intellivision system. Well, I’m now the CEO of that company. It was still around it never went away. But, I announced last year we are doing a brand new video game console. It’s called the Intellivision Amico. Amico is the Italian word for friend. What the idea of this console is, is that it’s bringing families and friends back together. Bringing people together in the living room again. Because that really hasn’t happened over the last 13 years since the Wii. The Nintendo Wii did it great. Nursing homes were buying the system and my Mom bought one,” he said.
“The system comes out 10/10/2020 next year. So I’ve been cutting back on Video Games Live, but now that’s my weekend job. Instead of 50 shows a year, I’ve cut it down to about 30 shows a year and I only do it on the weekends now. Video Games Live will still be going strong, even though Intellivision has become such a big thing and will only continue to grow.”