Interview: Tommy Tallarico

The music of our favorite video games is something that transcends the boundaries of gender, language, race, or creed. It touches the hearts of everyone — even non-gamers. Composer and video game enthusiast Tommy Tallarico understands this. He’s the brains behind Video Games Live, a colossal celebration of gaming and the tunes that make us the feel the things we do. I was lucky enough to chat with him regarding the concert series, his start in the industry, and several other topics. He’s a great guy with a rather inspiring (and lucky) background, and I hope you guys enjoy reading the interview as much as I enjoyed speaking to Tommy.

How did you get your start in the gaming industry?

Tommy: My two greatest loves growing up were video games and music, but I never really thought to ever put the two together until I moved out to California when I was 21 years old. I just got in my car and I drove out west, left my parents crying on the doorstep [laughs]. I didn’t have a job, money, I had no friends, no place to stay, nothing. I just drove to California and the first day I got there — the only thing I ever really knew was Disneyland, so I set out for Orange County. When I got there I saw a job opening for selling keyboards at Guitar Center. I went down there and they hired me, and the first person the next day, the first person who walked in, happened to be a producer at a video game company called Virgin. I was wearing a TurboGrafx 16 shirt — a video game T-shirt — which, back then, 20 years ago, no one had video game T-shirts. [laughs] He saw my shirt and he asked if I wanted a job testing games. I was like “Hell yeah!” I was hired right there. I was in California for three days and I was in the video game industry.

I was hired as a tester, and every day I would come to work and bug the president to let me do music and finally the first game we worked on was the original Prince of Persia game, and I did the music for it and won an award, so they made me the music guy. Now that was 20 years ago. [laughs]

That’s impressive. You went there without anything and you just made such a name for yourself.

Tommy: Yeah!

That’s something I’d like to do — just run over to California and see what’s available. I need to just go out there and do it, I guess!

Tommy: Totally.

Have you always been musically inclined? Did you always want to make music, or did you just want to get steveinto the industry however you could?

Tommy: I was always into music. I started playing the piano when I was three years old. I come from a musical family. My cousin is Steven Tyler from Aerosmith.

I remember you mentioning that!

Tommy: Yeah, his real name is Steven Tallarico. [laughs] I’ve just happened to play naturally. I never took lessons and I never went to school for music, but it was something I always wanted to do.

Impressive! I’m glad it worked out for you. When you compose music, what is your thought process like? Would you prefer to write it down or do you play the game you’re composing for in order for images to flow through your head?

Tommy: For me, it’s all about emotion. I really want to know the emotions of the character. What are they doing? Are they being chased or are they chasing someone? Are we happy, are we sad, are we scared? Are we searching for something? For me, it’s always about the emotion of the scene. Yeah — sometimes I actually play the game. Other times, I’ll only have a screen shot or art from the level because the game isn’t finished yet. It depends. Playing the game is obviously the coolest way to do it. Then I just sit there and wait for stuff to come to my head and figure it out on the piano. Then I’ll put it in the computer, depending on the style of music (like if it’s orchestral) and add the whole orchestra. Once I get it in there, I’ll record it with a live orchestra or live musicians.

Sounds fun. I know it has to be pretty hard to simply look at a picture and envision how you’d like for the game to sound.

Tommy: Eh, not really.

It seems like it would be difficult! But I’m not a musician.

Tommy: [laughing] There you go!

What do you ultimately hope to accomplish through Video Games Live? What would you like to do (other than make money, of course)?

Tommy: My goal was to prove to the world how socially significant video games have become. That’s why I created the show like I did. It’s not just a symphony on stage doing video game music, but what makes it really unique is that it has massive video screens, synchronized video and rock and roll lighting, special effects. I kind of like to describe Video Games Live as having all the power and emotion of a symphony combined with the energy and excitement of a rock concert mixed together with all the cutting-edge technology, visuals, and interactivity and fun that video games provide. We really want to reach a bigger audience, you know? Not just for gamers, but something for everyone so that even people who don’t play video games are able to follow along.

I’ve noticed that. I’ve been to three of your shows. I’ve worked at a couple of them and I’ve met a lot of people who have said “You know, I don’t really play video games,” — who came with their son or daughter — and they leave totally impressed. I always think to myself “Wow, that’s great!” because now they understand.

Tommy: Yay!

Do you have a favorite video game composer? Mine has to be Nobuo Uematsu.

Tommy: Yeah, I’d say it’s probably him or Koji Kondo, who did Mario and Zelda.


Tommy: I’d say Uematsu’s probably the greatest composer in our industry for sure. I think my favorite work from him as a body of work is probably Final Fantasy VIII. I like that whole score.

Oh, me too. Especially the Balamb Garden theme.

Tommy: Lots of great stuff on there. I like “Eyes on Me,” “Liberi Fatali”…lots of awesome work.

Liberi Fatali is a classic. Always will be. Now, do you have a favorite game that you’ve worked on? I’m a big fan of your work in Advent Rising.

Tommy: Advent Rising was very special to me. It didn’t sell very well and it wasn’t popular, [laughs] but yeah, I loved creating the music for it because I wrote it as an Italian opera and that was something I always wanted to do, so that was kind of fun. Earthworm Jim was another game back in the early 90s that I really enjoyed working on. It was just so much fun. I’d say Earthworm Jim and Advent Rising are two different reasons.

Earthworm Jim was awesome. I actually had forgotten that you worked on it, silly me! Speaking of awesome music, what selections (if any) would you like to add to the roster for Video Games Live in the coming shows? If you could add anything but there’s something holding you back…anything.

Tommy: There’s nothing really holding us back, but we always have stuff on the list that we always want to add to the show. For example, recently we have added things like Shadow of the Colossus, Silent Hill, Mega Man, Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger…next on the list we’re adding Super Smash Bros. We’re actually working on an Earthworm Jim segment right now. You know, probably add Street Fighter. We get a lot of requests for Pokemon. That’s the great thing about the industry. There’s so much in content and material. It’s easy to draw from these great libraries.

And there’s always going to be more. There are constantly new games.

Tommy: Exactly! We’re playing music now from games that haven’t even come out yet like StarCraft II and Diablo III music already.

I think the last time I went you guys did some StarCraft music.

Tommy: Oh, great!

Is there a composer that you’d like to work with on a game sometime?

Tommy: Yeah! I’d probably say Nobuo Uematsu or Koji Kondo. I was asked the end of last year by Sega of Japan to compose some music for the latest Sonic the Hedgehog game back then. I created three songs for Sonic and the Black Knight. I worked together with the composer, so that was pretty awesome. It was a great honor for me.

I can imagine a lot of people share that ambition. I’m no musician, but it’d be an honor for me as well to work among such talented artists.

Tommy: [laughs] Oh yeah.

So what was the very first song in a video game that jumped out at you and caught your attention?

Tommy: Probably Donkey Kong back in the 80s, as simple as it was, but it had the first catchy beat in my realm of video game music.

I’d probably go with Pac Man.

Tommy: Yeah! Pac Man was a year later, so yeah. [laughs] That was around that time, for sure. Pac Man would be my number 2, for sure.

I can’t get it out of my head when I’m listening to it.

Tommy: Actually, that’s another one that we’re working on — Pac Man. We don’t it have in the show yet.

Would love to hear that, especially with your usage of The Go! Team’s Pac Man video at the beginning of each show.

Tommy: Yeah, with Ms. Pac Man going through the streets of New York?

Loved it. Had to look it up on YouTube and favorite it as soon as I got in that night.

Tommy: [laughs]

Do you think you’ve achieved what you have set out to do with Video Games Live as a whole so far?

Tommy: Yeah, so far we’re really happy with the level of interest and success. We play about 60 shows a year and always playing new countries, so we’re really spreading video game music around the world. It’s been great, but we still have more to go. We have countries we haven’t played yet. And the great thing about our show is that we’ve created over 60 segments for Video Games Live, but we can only play about 20 of them a night. So, every year, we come back and we want to present new material and a new show. The next show you’ll see will have a bunch of new material you haven’t seen before. We always try to keep it interesting.

I hope I’ll see it. Are you guys going to come back to Louisville? You weren’t here this year!

Tommy: We want to play there every year. It’s all up to the symphonies to make some time for us. So do us a favor and write the symphonies and tell them “We want Video Games Live back!”

What’s your favorite game? I know it’s hard to pick. I can’t do it myself. Don’t be afraid to say more than just one!

Tommy: Probably Super Mario World. It’s one of my favorites. I enjoyed its layout and design and everything about it.

Most people want to pop off with Halo or BioShock or something silly like that, when they’re overlooking the classics. That’s got to be one of the best games ever. All of the Mario titles, especially Super Mario Bros. 3.

Tommy: That was another great one.

How did you get your start on TV with Judgment Day and Electric Playground?

Tommy: Victor Lucas, the guy who helped create the show, wanted to do an interview with me at E3. This was back in 1994 or something. He interviewed me and the interview went so well he asked me to be the co-host of the show. He hadn’t started the show yet, but he was shooting the pilot for it. We had a really good screen presence together. He asked if I wanted to host the show together, and I said “Sure, why not?”

That’s fun. I used to watch it on G4 before, well, I don’t want to say when it got bad, but…

Tommy: No, no, say it. Don’t pull any punches. G4 sucks. [laughs]

I’d never expect you to agree!

Tommy: Yeah, G4 back when it was not shitty.

Yeah, G4 was great back then. I used to watch Judgment Day every day, what with your “Trooooooooooon!” outbursts. That’s how I first heard of you. I had no idea that you actually composed music back then.

Tommy: A lot of people just know me as “that review guy who always gives games crappy scores.”

Right! The short angry guy. People would refer to you as that and I would say “He’s not angry, he’s just honest!” [laughs]

Tommy: I had to be the bad cop to Vic’s overly good cop. [giggles]

It was a great show. Miss it. So which composers have inspired you?

Tommy: My favorite composer of all time is Beethoven. The music of John Williams was also another big influence, but I’d probably have to say Beethoven, and of course Steven Tyler — seeing him up on stage and thinking “If he can do it, I can do it!” Kind of a wacky combination: Steven Tyler, John Williams, and Beethoven.

Since Steven’s got his own music game have you ever been interested in putting your hand in creating a music/rhythm game?

Tommy: Yeah! In fact, I was the one who hooked Steven up with Activision to do that game. We were actually kicking the idea of doing a Video Games Live game or something for the iPhone. The problem is getting all of the different rights to the music, because none of the companies want to be on the same game together. We’re trying to figure out a way around that, but it’d be cool to do something like that.

Definitely. Do you have any favorite music games or would you rather not play them since you’re so immersed in the musical world already?

Tommy: Oh, no, no, I love music games. They’re great. Yeah, you know, I play Rock Band, The Beatles: Rock Band, really looking forward to Guitar Hero: Van Halen. But I have to say Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, or else Steven would get mad at me, so I have to say that one. [laughs]

Right. Wouldn’t want to anger family! Well, I know you’re busy, but are there any current games that you’re playing?

Tommy: I’ve been playing a lot of portable games, because I’m always on the road, so a lot of DS and PSP. I’ve been playing Indiana Jones: The Staff of Kings on the PSP, so basically the PSP and DS are all I play. Also, on my PC I installed Beyond Good and Evil. I never finished that game and it’s one of my favorites, so I installed it on my PC.

It’s a great game. Can’t wait for the sequel…whenever it comes out.

Tommy: I know! I heard that they put it on hold, though. That sucks. They’d better come out with that.

I think we’re just about finished here, but I have one last question for you. What are your plans for the future of Video Games Live?

Tommy: Keep taking it around the world. I’d like to keep seeing new cities and different countries. We’ve been to a lot of places, but there are still some places that we haven’t been yet. We get a lot of requests from Russia, the Netherlands, Italy, and Greece. This year alone we’ve been to countries we’ve never been to before, like Japan, Poland, and Ireland. That’s the cool thing. Wherever we go around the world, there’s always demand for video game music. I think that says a lot. It’s pretty rare that music crosses all international boundaries, like a band that may be big in the USA may not be big in Japan or a band that’s a hit in Brazil might not be big in Germany. To have this universally-loved music around the world says a lot about the game industry.

It’s certainly a transcendental medium. Well, thank you for answering all of these questions. I’m sure you’re a busy man and we really appreciate it.

Tommy: Cool, thanks.

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