Tommy Tallarico is the very definition of a rockstar in the video game industry. Composing over 300 video game scores, which is in the Guiness Book of World Records for the most compositions done by any composer in the industry, Tommy has changed the way we look at video game music. Even with all of the wonderful music he has contributed to gaming, in 2002 Tommy founded Video Games Live, which is an interactive video game symphony (and quite the spectacle I might add), which tours all around the world bringing fans of all ages together to celebrate their favorite video game music.
Tommy is currently on his way to funding his fifth album, LEVEL 5, through Kickstarter, and we had the wonderful opportunity of getting the chance to sit down with him and talk about his beginnings, his current album, Video Games Live, and more.
Editor’s note: at the time of publishing, LEVEL 5 has surpassed its funding goal and has raised $170,000.
Morgan: Tommy, first of all, on behalf of Gamer Professionals I’d like to thank you for taking the time out to come and speak with us today.
Tommy: No worries, thanks for having me.
Morgan: It’s a pleasure.
Morgan: To jump into things, for those of our readers may not be familiar with you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your work in the video game industry?
Tommy: Yeah. I’ve been a video game composer for over 25 years. I have worked on some of the biggest game franchises on the planet, like Metroid and Sonic and Earthworm Jim, Mortal Kombat, Tony Hawk Pro Skater, and worked on over 300 video games, which is in the Guiness Book of World Records as the person who has worked on the most video games in their lifetime; my mother’s very proud. And then in 1995 I started a video game television show with the creator of the show, Victor Lucas, and it was a show called The Electric Playground that we started back in 1994, but it started airing in ’95, and so I was the host of that show for over 12 years. Then in 2002 I started the Game Audio Network Guild, which is a nonprofit organization for people looking to get into video game music, audio, sound design and things like that. We have over 2,500 members around the world still going strong 14 years later. We have a big awards show at the Game Developer’s Conference and everything.
And then 14 years ago, in the same year I started G.A.N.G., I also started Video Games Live, which was the first, biggest, and longest-running video game touring show ever. And that’s kind of been the main thing I do now. We do about 40-50 shows a year all over the world.
Morgan: I read once that when you were 21 years old you moved from Massachussets to California and lived out of your car [laughs].
Tommy: Actually I was homeless — yeah I was homeless, living under a pier.
Morgan: What inspired that, and what was that experience like?
Tommy: Well, my whole life my two greatest loves growing up were always video games and music, and I grew up on the east coast in Massachusetts; spent a lot of summers in New York as well. But when I turned 21 I wanted to be in the entertainment business industry somehow, and going to California, that’s where the place was in order to do that successfully to be in the entertainment — television, movies, everything, music — everything was pretty much located out there. So I turned 21, I got in my car all by myself; no job, no money, no friends, no family, nothing. I just drove out to California all by myself and a little two-seater car. I was just so passionate about wanting to do this, and then the first day I got to California I picked up a newspaper and saw a job for selling keyboards at a guitar center and I got hired the first day. They said start tomorrow. And the first day I showed up I was wearing a TurboGrafx-16 t-shirt — and this was back in the late ’80s when no one had video game t-shirts back then. It’s not like now, they’re everywhere, right — they’re at Hot Topic, they’re at Target, everywhere you go they’re game t-shirts. Back then they were were very, very rare. But I had them. And it was a Japanese video game system that hadn’t even been released in the US yet. And so the very first person who walked in was a producer who worked for Richard Branson and the Virgin companies, and they were starting a video game company right down the street, Virgin Games. And he saw my t-shirt, and he said “oh my gosh, you know about video games?”, and I’m like, “I know everything about video games!” And so they said, well do you want a job? And I said of course, doing what? They’re like, just playing video games, tell us what’s wrong with them, tell us how you’d make them better, and so I was hired as a games tester.
And so I was in California three days and I was in the video game industry — but for the first three weeks I was in California though, you’re right, I was homeless, I slept under a pier at the beach because I didn’t have any money to get my own apartment. And then about six months later I bugged the vice president of the company, “Please let me do music! I’ll do it for free, you don’t even have to pay me — if you don’t like it you don’t have to pay me, you won’t lose anything, but at least give me the opportunity and the chance.” And they did, and that first game was the original Prince of Persia with Jordan Mechner, so it ended up winning best music of the year awards. So they said, “okay, well, we’ll make you the music guy.” And so I stayed at Virgin for about four years, worked on some amazing games like Cool Spot and Terminator and 7th Guest and Disney’s Aladdin. Then in ’94 I left the company, 1994 — I started my own company, and at the same time the team that had just finished Disney’s Aladdin, Dave Perry and all his guys started Shiny Entertainment, and so the first game I did when I left Virgin was Earthworm Jim. Then I had the Madden franchise, and Mortal Kombat, and Twisted Metal, and the James Bond stuff, and the Pac-Man stuff, and so I kind of exploded from there.
Morgan: There are so many different avenues you can take with regards to a professional music career, and nowadays gaming music is so much different than it was back then in the late ’80s, early ’90s. What inspired you to want to write video game music as opposed to, say, film music or TV music, or something along those lines?
Tommy: It’s what I love. Video games are my passion. I’ve been asked to do movies, and, I mean, I like movies, but I’m not really interested. I love video games more.
Morgan: So it’s kind of a combination of your two greatest loves, music and video games?
Tommy: Yeah, exactly.
Morgan: Now, moving on to your current project Tommy, you’re currently on your way to funding your fifth album, which has almost reached it’s goal on Kickstarter in a mere number of days. I think right now it’s sitting at $127,000 raised. Why do you think your campaign has been so successful?
Tommy: Well, there’s a couple reasons. So, this is our third Kickstarter, and we came through. The other two previous Kickstarters, we came out on time and on budget — that’s saying a lot for a Kickstarter. There’s a couple of video game soundtrack albums that were started four years ago that still haven’t come out, and we’ve come out with three [laughs].
Morgan: It’s an amazing track record.
Tommy: So people understanding the reliability and they trust me. They trust that if they put money in this thing, they know they’re going to get it, but not only are they going to get it on time and on budget, but, it’s going to be super-duper high quality. So that’s one reason. The other reason though is that the amount of value that we give is second-to-none. The people at Kickstarter even — because I know a lot of the folks over at Kickstarter — and they’re like, “I can’t believe you’re giving away so much stuff in these tier levels.” It’s literally four-to-eight times the amount that you pledge you’re getting. I mean we’ve got — if you look at our $100 tier, there’s like 27 hours of music. There’s 20 video game albums or something — I don’t know what it is off the top of my head, but it’s literally $150 tier, it’s $1,000 worth of stuff; it’s crazy.
Morgan: For those who aren’t familiar with the LEVEL 5 project, can you just give us a brief overview of what pieces are going to be featured on the album?
Tommy: Yeah, absolutely. So we’ve done this epic Super Mario World arrangement which is just — if you go on the Kickstarter, on our Kickstarter page for Video Games Live LEVEL 5, I actually have versions of all of these songs that we’re going to do, because a lot of the times we’ll do mock-up versions with the computer in order to understand what they sound like. So our Super Mario World, I mean, it’s one of my favorite arrangements that we’ve ever done. And we’ve never recorded it live or played it live or anything like that, so that one I think’s really special. Ico, I love the games Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and this is the last final song in the game Ico, called “You Were There”, beautiful, beautiful piece, but we’re going to get Laura Intravia, also known as “Flute Link”. She’s been performing with us for about eight years now. She’s going to be singing that with another opera singer — male opera singer — who she’s known and has performed with us before and they’re friends from college. Again, just chills, spine-chilling amazing stuff. Again, if you go to our projects page you can hear it. And then Phoenix Wright — this is a segment that we just started putting in the show a couple months ago, but have never recorded. And oh man — I love our Phoenix Wright melody, it’s really cool.
And then we’re going to do a new Warcraft arrangement. It’s “Warlord’s Adranerr”, “Draenor”, whatever the hell you call it. And it’s a piece that Eimear Noone, who was the conductor for the Zelda 25th anniversary tour, and she did the 25th anniversary album with Nintendo. You know her well, right? She’s unbelievable, and she’s also a Video Games Live conductor. She’s also conducted every Blizzard game over the last 10 years. So everything — Diablo, Warcraft, Starcraft, you name it; Hearthstone. So she wrote a song for Warcraft called “Malach, Angel Messenger” and it’s a really special song because she dedicated it to her son, who she unfortunately lost before he was born, or just as he was being born. So this song is dedicated to him. And what we’ve done is ask people from all over the world to — not only are we going to play it with an orchestra, but people from all around the world have sent in their videos and are sending in their music to perform. So we’re going to pick the best ones and they’re going to also be on the track. And we also have the amazing Melukah, if you’re familiar with her. She did that incredible “Dragonborn Comes” acoustic version that has over 50 million hits on YouTube, and Melukah’s singing on that as well, so that’s special. And speaking of Eimear and Zelda, we’re also doing an incredible Zelda arrangement that Eimear’s going to put together. And it’s going to be Zelda with an orchestra, but Eimear is 100% Irish, and so this is going to have — it’s going to feature a bunch of Celtic — old Celtic instruments as well in the recording and in the arrangement. So it’s something really amazing that no one’s kind of ever heard before. So we’re excited about that.
We’re doing Grim Fandango and with the original composers — original LucasArts composers — Clint Bajakian and Peter McConnell. They’re going to play on it with the orchestra as well, and that’s a really cool big-bang swing thing. And then Metroid, we’ve never recorded our Metroid piece, and of courses Metroid Prime was a game I worked on — had the honor of working with Shigeru Miyamoto who is the creator of Mario and Zelda. So we’ll be doing our Metroid arrangement for the first time, recording that. And then we’re going to do a song from Chrono Cross, “Radical Dreamers”, which if anyone who knows that song, it’s just unbelievable. And again, Laura’s going to sing that. She’s going to sing it in Japanese and we’re going to put an orchestra to it; that’s never been done before — really amazing song by Yasunori Mitsuda.
We’re doing Command & Conquer, a Red Alert thing, which is really famous around the world, moreso I think in places like South America and over in Europe, and even in China and places like that. They love Command & Conquer music, and Frank Klepacki, the composer is going to be playing guitar on that as well with us. And gosh, what the heck else? Oh, yes, and for our friends in Chile and Brazil and South America, one of the biggest games down there was a game called Top Gear, and it never really did well here in the US or other places, but down there it’s like the greatest game ever. So we’re actually doing an arrangement with the composer, Barry Leitch, and we’re going to do a big orchestral version of that too. So those are the first 10 songs but we really want to hit the stretch goals too, and for that, some of the things we want to do for the stretch goals . . .
Morgan: That actually leads into my next question. For your stretch goals, you’re offering the opportunity to add music from Earthbound, the Xeno games, Katamari Damacy, and Okami, depending on funding. What inspired these specific games out of all the choices that you had?
Tommy: It’s a great question. What inspired it was straightforwardly the fans, the audience, and the backers. They are the ones that want these the most, and these are four games that you mentioned that we’ve never done arrangements for. And what I’m going to do is as we make the different tiers, all of the people who’ve backed the project so far are basically going to get their . . . we’re going to do a poll and see which one gets it at the first level, and then if we hit the next tier we’ll do a poll again with the remaining three and see which one gets the highest votes, and this and that. But it’s the people, it’s the backers, just like video games are interactive, so is Video Games Live, and I create this stuff for the fans, not for myself. It’s for everybody; the audience just as much as it is for me, if not more for the audience. So yeah, I love their help in creating something. And then if we hit all those, we have another one which is basically where the backers decide on what it’s going to be, so another one that we’ve been getting a lot of requests for is music for Undertale, a game I haven’t even played yet, but everybody is ranting over it.
Morgan: What is it about LEVEL 5 that you feel sets it apart from the other albums you’ve done?
Tommy: I think there’s more stuff in it. As much stuff as we’ve had in the other reward tiers, as we keep growing, we keep getting more things [laughs] you know? We keep getting more things to offer, and of course a lot of video game cover bands are excited about this, and so they’re giving me a bunch of stuff as well. They’re happy to help out the cause, and we give these cover bands a lot of opportunities around the world whenever we play. You know a lot of these folks, they play with us during the show when we perform, so we’re happy to give back as well too. Like I said, as we keep playing, we keep getting more cool stuff and more arrangements and everything.
Morgan: Moving on just a little bit to some of your professional work, is there any score that you’ve worked on that jumps out at you that was just a total blast to compose, that you just had so much fun with?
Tommy: Yeah, that would be Earthworm Jim. That was such a fun game, and I think the score shows it as well, the music; we were just a bunch of us in a room trying to have fun [laughs].
Morgan: You’ve done so many video game arrangements with Video Games Live. What’s a piece that you personally would love to do as a fan that you haven’t been able to work on yet?
Tommy: Probably the Katamari Damacy one. I love the song “Katamari on the Swing”, and when we perform music, it’s not just the music when we perform a segment in a show, but it’s the video, it’s the lights, it’s the stage show production, it’s all of that, so I’ve had this whacky thing in my head for Katamari for years where [laughs] — because Katamari is so crazy, right? So it’s like I want to play this music, but I want just the visuals to be completely insane, crazy, awesome, and I want there to be tap dancers on stage, and just crazy piano stuff going on, and people singing, and yeah — it’s going to be insane nuts.
Morgan: You know, I grew up listening to video game soundtracks throughout my entire childhood up until adulthood — well yeah, I’m an adult now [laughs]. It’s kind of hard to grasp. Why do you think video game music, specifically video game music, resonates so much with people? Because the response that Video Games Live receives is astounding, and people just eat it up and they love it.
Tommy: That’s a great question. I think the reason is is that when you . . . well first of all, when you hear video game music it kind of takes you back to when you were a kid. It brings you back to a time when you were younger, it brings back all these positive, fun, cool memories, right? So that’s one reason. But I think the most important reason, which really differentiates video game music from any other music in the world, in the history of the universe, is that when you play a video game, you become that character, and when you’re that character, the soundtrack, the music that is being played in that game, it becomes the soundtrack of your life. So that’s very different than film and television. When you watch a film, you watch Raiders of the Lost Ark, and you hear that music, “dun da da daa, dun da dun”, that’s Indiana Jones’ music. But when you’re playing Zelda and you’re playing as Link, or you’re playing these games, Warcraft, whatever it is, Skyrim; that becomes your music. That’s your theme because you’re the character, so people get very emotionally attached to video game music moreso than any other music in the world.
Morgan: Yeah, there’s such an immersive factor in video games, especially as gaming has grown up until now; you have games like Mass Effect and all these other games where you’re actually making choices and defining your own character, as opposed to just a straight narrative, which is really interesting.
Tommy: That’s right.
Morgan: Is there an arrangement that you’ve done for Video Games Live that’s really personal to you as a fan of both music and gaming? And then, what’s one of the most challenging pieces that you’ve worked on? And that might go hand-in-hand, I don’t know.
Tommy: Yeah, well actually it kind of does. The Tetris Opera piece that we do is really intricate and really amazing, and we worked with the Gamer’s Symphony Orchestra, the GSO, which is a bunch of college students around the country that came up with the initial idea, and then we added our stuff in it as well, so we developed it with them. And that’s just a great arrangement, the whole thing’s sung in Russian, and it’s really, really incredible. So there’s that, and let me see — what else? A lot of the Warcraft stuff is just so beautiful. Well, the Earthworm Jim, one of the games that I worked on that’s in the show; that one’s kind of special because I play it . . . I mean, because I composed it. That’s another personal one for me I think.
Morgan: Ending on somewhat of a personal note, when Tommy Tallarico goes home at the end of the day and unwinds and just wants to relax, what game does he like to play? What do you enjoy playing to just relax and to just have fun?
Tommy: I love third-person action adventure games. So stuff like the new Tomb Raider; I still love Red Dead Redemption, I still love Shadow of the Colossus. I’ve been playing a lot of — I’m a big Formula One fan, so I’ve been playing on the PlayStation 4 the new Formula One 2015 version from last year. That was great. So that, and — what else have I been playing — the Uncharted series, God of War stuff. I literally still play Red Dead Redemption; I love it so much.
Morgan: Well Tommy, I just want to thank you as the Managing Editor of Gaming Professionals for taking the your valuable time out to speak with us about your upcoming album, LEVEL 5. We’re really excited about it. Congratulations on your success so far and we believe the sky is the limit.
Tommy: Absolutely, I appreciate it. As soon as this goes online let me know so I can blast it out to our backers and our Facebook page.
Again, our thanks goes out to Tommy Tallarico for talking with us about his upcoming album, LEVEL 5. If you haven’t already, you can help with the donation efforts on LEVEL 5’s Kickstarter page — there are tons of different tiers and rewards to be had and it’s well worth it. It’s a wonderful cause to support and if Tommy’s previous albums are any indication, LEVEL 5 will be top-notch quality!