Jason Michael Paul has been involved with more game music concerts than you would think. Here is a list:
- Dear Friends (2004)
- More Friends (2005)
- PLAY! A Video Game Symphony (2006–2010)
- The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony (2011)
- The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses (2012–)
- rePLAY: Symphony of Heroes (2014–)
When I asked for an interview with Jason at a Zelda Symphony concert, they said time will be limited and asked me to send in questions beforehand. I declined, since I can get better answers and go deeper, if I don’t have a predetermined set of questions to follow.
So I wasn’t sure if the interview was even going to happen!
But Jason found me at the dress rehearsals and we talked backstage. And it didn’t seem like time was limited at all, since we ended up talking for an hour.
I was surprised at how openly he talked about some things, like future concerts that may or may not happen and what he thinks of his competition.
I learned lots and so will you. Like Jason said:
This is probably the first time I’ve had an interview like this to be honest with you. I don’t usually do this. […] Most people ask the same questions. It’s kind of like “did you check the FAQ?” [laughs]
Before you dive in, look at the table of contents below. If you don’t read the whole interview in one sitting, you can always come back here to find out where you left off. Enjoy!
- Zelda Symphony
- rePLAY, PLAY!, and an all-Nintendo concert?
- Jason’s background before game music concerts
- Jason’s biggest and proudest moments
- The current state of VGM concerts
- A concert for Spirited Away?
- Back to living in Japan
- How does he deal with rivals?
- Advice to an aspiring VGM concert producer
(I interviewed Jason Michael Paul at Zelda Symphony in Stockholm, Sweden on Apr 16, 2015. I met by chance an old friend, Filip Fjellström, who joined and asked a few questions as well.)
Nikolas: So the Zelda concerts started out in 2011 with the 25th anniversary concerts. Was that originally Nintendo’s idea or your idea?
Jason: It was more or less me working with Nintendo on other projects, like PLAY!. So we had a relationship and when the 25th anniversary rolled around they wanted to do some musical things and hired my company to kind of put it together. We put together three shows for the 25th anniversary in London, Tokyo and LA. And it was such a huge success that I wanted to do the Symphony of the Goddesses.
Nikolas: So that tour was your idea?
Jason: Oh yeah, for sure. I also did Dear Friends: Music from Final Fantasy, which was the first ever video game music concert in 2004 which took video and music. Previously in Japan it was just music. Koichi Sugiyama with Dragon Quest. Obviously Final Fantasy concerts. But they were always missing the video element. For me, you know, for America, people want to see it. So that was when I kind of came up with the idea of doing both video and music.
Nikolas: Have you been to Japan with this Zelda Symphony?
Jason: We did a show to celebrate Majora’s Mask launch in February.
Nikolas: Did you have video there too?
Jason: Oh yeah.
Nikolas: Was it well received? Because they don’t usually have video screens.
Jason: Yeah, it was amazing. Aonuma-san and Kondo-san, they loved it. That’s all that matters.
Nikolas: Did you feel there was any difference in the audience, like how they reacted to the music?
Jason: Doing it again next time, we would definitely change a lot of the dialogue on the screen. It was in English, which was a little bit of a disconnect, I think. And some of the Japanese versions are a little bit different. It still worked out well, but I will definitely make it so that it’s more localized in Japan the next time.
Nikolas: Thinking of all these years and numbers, the first Zelda 25h anniversary concert was in 2011. Just the year before, Thomas Böcker had the Nintendo concert, Symphonic Legends. And they had this big Zelda piece, like 40 minutes long or something. Had you heard the piece at all?
Jason: Yeah, I heard it. I just think it’s different. Thomas’ arrangements are a little more European in style. Ours are more Hollywood, you know. That’s the difference. But he does a good job. He’s a friend of mine. He used to work for me. When we were doing PLAY!, I hired him as a consultant.
Nikolas: I was thinking if you got any inspiration from that arrangement.
Jason: No, none [laughs]. I’ve never even listened to it. My inspiration came from working with Koji Kondo and having more of a Hollywood style, a lot more brass, a lot bigger Hollywood sound. Thomas also doesn’t use visuals. So I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but all of my musicians are on click. Not all of them, but a lot of the principals. And some of the first chairs are on click.
Nikolas: And they synced to the visuals?
Jason: Exactly, yeah.
Nikolas: We’re here at a stadium and not a classical concert hall. Do you try to specifically pick stadiums or classical concert halls? Or is just what you can get?
Jason: Well, it just depends, you know. With certain shows I either work with the orchestras that have a concert hall. And if I’m not working with a particular orchestra, we typically have to hire an orchestra. And in that case we would typically use a venue like this. An arena, or a scaled-down arena, to create almost like a theater. Concert halls are not as easy to book, because symphonies typically have programming done from years and years in advance. And typically the dates that are available for those types of venues are very far and few between, because there’s a lot of concerts going on. So it’s usually like a Monday or a Tuesday, not a very prime night.
Personally I would do a classical music hall. Because you don’t have to mike, you can use a lot of natural acoustics. Very minimal miking.
Nikolas: That would be ideal, yeah.
Jason: That would be my preference. And a lot of our shows are symphony halls. But then again, the capacities are a lot smaller. So you can only get 2000 people, whereas here you can get 3000-4000 people, so it makes more sense.
Nikolas: Who were the arrangers for these pieces?
Jason: Chad Seiter did a lot of them. Also Chris Tilton. He did a lot of arranging for video games and also Fringe, the television series. He worked with Michael Giacchino. So did Chad Seiter. They were his assistants, basically. Michael Giacchino, pretty big name.
I have some new arrangements that were done by a younger up-and-coming arranger, composer and orchestrator. His name is Bill Panks. I’m really pleased with him, he did the new Majora’s Mask, that we’ll be performing tonight. It’s about six minutes. You’ll probably see it in the second half of the rehearsal. It’s part of the Finale.
Nikolas: Is that a new arrangement of Majora’s Mask? There was a previous one as well.
Jason: Yeah, a brand new one.
Nikolas: Was there a reason for doing a new one?
Jason: Yeah. The launch, the new remake for the 3DS. We wanted to add more material. Plus the visuals are stunning. They are all 3D now, so we wanted to rework those. A Link Between Worlds is another new release, so we have a new arrangement of that. It’s really nice, It’s Lowrule / Hyrule. The idea was to take those two themes and create this [medley].
Filip: Could you tell us something about the conductor? She’s travelling with the tour?
Jason: Yeah. She’s from the States, from Michigan. But she is an international conductor, has conducted many operas and orchestras all throughout Europe. Her late husband was Yakov Kreizberg, a very famous conductor. She’s a phenomenal conductor. Very impressive, works very well. She’s also an educator, so she really works well with orchestras and choirs. She’s conducting the majority of the shows for Master Quest.
Nikolas: Do you personally go to every single concert yourself?
Jason: I do, because, you know, for me it’s a lot of responsibility that I don’t really trust with anyone else. Nintendo has entrusted me with this concert and this brand, so I think the only way that I can ensure the quality, and the standards that we’ve had over the years, is to be here. It’s how I feel comfortable [laugh]. And I think I’m going to be travelling with the show [for a long while], but it’s not a bad gig.
Nikolas: It’s your company, Jason Michael Paul Productions, but do you have any kind of work title?
Jason: It’s funny, because I don’t believe in titles. When I hire people, they always want titles. My title is executive producer, but I do everything. I produce, I direct.
Nikolas: What is your typical work day here at the concert? What do you do?
Jason: A typical day really depends on my comfort level, how I feel. You know, every city is different, everyone works differently. For this particular show, having done many shows in Stockholm before, I have a pretty high level of confidence in my staff. My day was not typical. It just depends. I’m usually here early, checking on things. It also depends on how many people I have coming from Nintendo or press. I’m very hands-on too, so you know, it’s not abnormal for me to pull cable. I’m not a typical boss. I’m a very hands-on boss. And you know, it’s my show [laughs], so my name’s on it. So I have to make sure [everything goes well]. Short answer is: every day is different. I could be the first one here or the last one here. I could be the first one to leave or the last one to leave. It just depends on what’s required of me. But yeah, I like to be here.
Filip: It’s very good for your brand as well.
Jason: Well it’s great for my brand, you know. It’s just a lot of responsibility. I take it very seriously. There’s a saying in our business, “You’re only as good as your last show.” And I don’t want this to be my last show.
Nikolas: You had the first tour, then you had Second Quest and now Master Quest. Who picks the tracks for the setlist? How does that work?
Jason: We’ve had a lot of input from Nintendo. Obviously new releases and new re-releases really drive the creative [process]. Nintendo weighs in pretty heavily. Now that we’ve created this four-movement symphony, which is usually the core of our concert, the things that kind of fit in around it are remakes or new games, more or less. And of course with the new game coming out in 2016, we’ll definitely incorporate that into the overture.
Nikolas: Do you have more upcoming shows?
Jason: Of course, yeah. Worldwide. We’ve already scheduled dates for 2016. But we have a lot of big announcements. I have a lot of projects that are coming out. I have a DVD that we’re gonna be releasing from a live show that we’re recording.
Nikolas: From a Zelda show?
Jason: Yeah. So there’s a lot of stuff that’s going on. We also just launched a new web shop at zelda-symphony.com. One of the things we’re also doing is releasing a song book for piano. It’s the Zelda Symphony song book. It takes the four movements and we’ve created a solo piano song book.
Nikolas: Do you think you’ll be doing any small kind of solo piano concerts with that music?
Jason: Not me. I would rather do this type of concert [laughs]. But definitely, you’ll see on the Majora’s Mask piece, there’s a focus on the piano in the beginning.
Nikolas: Are there any Zelda games you haven’t performed music from?
Jason: Yeah, there’re some titles, like Hyrule Warriors, which is not Nintendo first-party. It was a joint venture with Koei. So those aren’t titles that we feature. Any of the joint venture projects with other developers aren’t a part of this. So it’s only first-party Zelda games. But every game is represented.
Nikolas: What about Minish Cap?
Jason: I don’t think it is. Because Minish Cap, I believe, is a third-party game. So there’s the issue of licensing that and Nintendo hasn’t included it. I like Minish Cap, though. It’s kind of similar to Hyrule Warriors in the sense that it was a joint venture. Those, I believe, are the only two games that they actually brought on to a third-party developer. [Oracle of Ages/Seasons was also third-party.]
I think we’ve been able to create a great representation of the Zelda franchise. I think these concerts really do a good job of serving as good education. People who aren’t knowledgeable of the games, can actually walk away, kind of knowing a little bit more about The Legend of Zelda and what this means. The older generations that come to our concerts actually leave here kind of like “I want to play Zelda!”
rePLAY, PLAY!, and an all-Nintendo concert?
Nikolas: You were mentioning your different concerts. What about rePLAY?
Jason: That’s my show.
Nikolas: Isn’t that very similar to PLAY?
Jason: It’s similar, but it’s different. I hired the voice talent Nigel Carrington from Dear Esther. He takes you on this hero’s journey. It’s based on Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. I have chapters and it’s all live music. Even when the narrations are occurring, I have this background music playing with a live orchestra. And then it goes into the chapter. Each game represents this journey of a hero. So for example, call to arms, call to battle, return from battle, you know. So each game that I choose, fits into that chapter. It represents that chapter.
Nikolas: When did rePLAY start?
Jason: Our first shows were in 2014 and we’ve done about ten shows.
Nikolas: Does that mean that the original PLAY! concerts are over?
Jason: Yeah, unfortunately this has replaced PLAY!. It was a great show too. I like it. The Stockholm version of PLAY! was one of the better versions, because we had a rock band [Machinae Supremacy].
Filip: Along with Dancing Mad from Final Fantasy VI.
Jason: Yeah, exactly. Those were the early days when we had a lot more flexibility.
Nikolas: After Zelda and besides rePLAY, if you would have to do another big concert idea, what would you focus on?
Jason: Well, I wanna do a concert that’s all Nintendo.
Nikolas: All Nintendo?
Jason: Yeah. All Nintendo first-party. Kirby, Metroid, Kid Icarus, obviously Zelda, obviously Mario, Donkey Kong, some of the less popular but older games, like Excitebike.
Nikolas: Do you think Nintendo would go for it?
Jason: I hope so! I definitely presented it to them. As kind of like a Nintendo All-Stars.
Nikolas: That sounds like a good title for the concert also. “Nintendo All-Stars”.
Jason: Yeah, that’s kind of what I was thinking. We created the artwork for it and everything. It was presented as a proposal. But like any big company, with Nintendo things take a very long time. And obviously they know how busy I am with this tour. So they were thinking that I’m too busy. But I know I can handle it. It’s just a matter of their comfort level. Obviously this is their baby. And it’s my baby too, but I have a lot of experience doing it, so it’s not as difficult. And I have teams of arrangers, all the people that do this for a living.
Jason’s background before game music concerts
Filip: Before Dear Friends, what is your background in short terms?
Jason: My dad was an entertainer and a musician. And at a young age I’ve always been kind of around theatre and also around performance. As a student in college I started working in production, kind of as a very low-level production assistant. I was working in San Francisco and I started working with a company that was doing a lot of projects for PlayStation. So we were doing all their projects, a lot of the branding. Foster City is really close to San Francisco, which is the SCEA headquarters. Sony Computer Entertainment America. So we would do all the trade shows, like all the booths at trade shows. I even project managed the first totally interactive store, which was a store they opened in San Francisco. I pretty much produced that for them. So I was doing a lot of those projects.
And at that time I started working with Squaresoft, which at the time was first-party for PlayStation. So I kind of created that relationship. And when I left that company, I was probably 23, because out of colleges I was early. I had started in the beginning and by 23 I was already an associate producer working on million-dollar projects, you know. Pretty much producing, but I was an associate, because I was too young to be a producer. So I started doing those types of projects and I was doing a lot of the online and also offline pre-producing and putting all these projects together. PlayStation having deep pockets they would do big parties where they would hire headliner talent to come in and perform for their executives, for their sales people and other companies that they would invite. And they always did a big party at E3, which they are known for. They were always the biggest party in town during E3 every year. So I used to produce those parties. That was when I really started getting more into live entertainment. More concert production. And of course I was working with Square. And then when Squaresoft spun off and launched Squaaaaaarrreee….
Jason: No, it wasn’t Square Enix yet. I wanna say Squaresoft. I forget what it was. Because it was Square EA for a while. And then it was Squaresoft.
Jason: So anyways, long story short. When I went out on my own I took Square as my client. I took it with me and I started doing their trade show booth. I was a producer now in my own company. I was doing their launch events, for Kingdom Hearts for example.
I kind of started to pursue working with Nintendo at the time, but not really in the same capacity. I was just trying to let them know that I’m around, that I’d like to be involved. Then I was contacted by a gentleman named Tibor Rudas, who was the impresario and producer of The Three Tenors and Luciano Pavarotti. He asked me to start tour managing. So at that point I was 24 or 23, I was really young. I started tour managing for Luciano Pavarotti and at the same time I was handling these video game clients. So I was in Japan doing Pavarotti’s farewell tour in Japan, since he’s old. And I invited executives from Square. They loved what I was doing. I pitched them on the idea of doing Dear Friends. And I had a great relationship with North America and the president at the time of the North American Square offices. And he was a huge advocate for what I was doing, so he made it happen. That was the year that Square merged with Enix , creating this RPG powerhouse with Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy and those two forces aligned themselves. I did the press event, followed by the concert. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But I’m kind of a serial entrepreneur, though. I’m also in the coffee business and I have coffee shops in San Francisco. I have my hands in a lot of different things. I do a lot of volunteering in the arts. I try to do a lot of educational things.
So that’s kind of where I had this classical opera foundation and being a gamer myself growing up, a light went off in my head, like “I wanna take this to the masses”. I wanted take video games to the masses. No one was doing it. It could be my ticket, the big idea, which it was. So here I am ten years later. Been doing it ever since. Now I’ve done probably over 150 video game music concerts all over the world.
Nikolas: That’s heavy.
Jason: When I was doing that first concert, I never imagined where I’d be at now. It’s been a lot of work. And you know, in our industry it’s fairly tough. Everyone is trying to get what you have. And everyone is trying to say they were the first. Everyone is trying to say it was their idea, you know. These games are not my creation. I am just a facilitator, I am just lucky to be able to do what I’m doing. The concerts are not about me. Not about anyone else. It’s about the creators of the game, Miyamoto-san, Aonuma-san, Kondo-san and Amy Anderson, our conductor and the Stockholm orchestra and choir. Those the stars of the show. So I am merely a facilitator, but I can organize, I’m very organized, I have a lot of contacts and resources to be able to these types of things and that’s why they have me.
One of the things that’s unique about me too is that I also speak Japanese. I also read and write. I used to live in Japan. I’m not just someone who’s this guy with an idea, but I actually know the culture, I know the people, I can speak the language. I’m still learning and I’ve been studying Japanese for almost 15 years. I’m getting old, man. What is it… Jesus! I’ve been studying Japanese for over 13 years. I still have a private instructor, even today.
Filip: Like this guy here.
Nikolas: I speak Japanese as well.
[We speak Japanese for a few minutes.]
Jason: Yeah, so that’s why I think I belong here. I live it, I breathe it, you know. It’s a part of me.
Jason’s biggest and proudest moments
Nikolas: That was very interesting to hear. The whole story. One thing that popped to my mind is: ever since you did the first Dear Friends, what have been your biggest moments in game music concert production? Your biggest moments, when you’ve been the most proud or most happy. What have been those moments?
Jason: My biggest moments and my most proudest moment are always my homecoming shows in San Francisco. Because my family gets to come, you know. I think my proudest moment was actually the Tokyo show, that I just did in February . It was a surreal experience.
Nikolas: What was so fantastic about it?
Jason: Well, I can tell you. So I went to Kyoto and did a video shoot and you’ll see some of the videos. I did them with Miyamoto-san, Aonuma-san and Kondo-san. I actually went there and I spent the whole day with them. I had met Miyamoto-san many times, [switches to Japanese] but he wrote a thank-you letter to me.
To be there in Kyoto with them before going to Tokyo to do the show, which was sold out. And to have Aonuma-san and Kondo-san be at the show. Miyamoto-san was too busy, so he couldn’t make it, unfortunately. But to see them so happy was probably my proudest moment.
Another time was with my daughter. Her teacher wanted me to come in and tell everyone what I do. Those moments are equally as proud, to be able to share what I do with my daughter and her classmates and to be able to teach them and inspire them. You know, kids coming at me saying, “I want my dad to do what you do!” You know, “I wish my dad did what you do!” Those are pretty proud moments.
But as far as the show is concerned I would say that the Tokyo show was a very proud moment
Nikolas: That’s fantastic to hear.
Jason: Yeah. It’s been a long haul, man. It’s been a long road. But I’m at a good point in my life.
The current state of VGM concerts
Filip: Why do you think this is happening right now? We are celebrating video game composers and we have been doing it for ten years and that’s not that many years. And video game music productions keep getting bigger and the interest from the people as well.
Jason: That’s why I’m appreciative of guys like Thomas Böcker. He really started it. He really took a lot of risk in Leipzig for example, with the Games Conventions. He was really someone who got the ball rolling.
Of course I had a different vision. His vision was to stay true to the music. My vision was to use the music and the visuals to educate. So for example, at my shows you’ll see a lot of video of the members performing. That’s always been a staple of my shows. At PLAY! we did a lot of videos where we would have the cutscenes from the game, FMVs. But we would also have some of the solos front and center. And also, this concert is set up much like a symphony concert. You have the overture, you have the interludes, you have the movements, the four-movement symphony, which is the core of the concert. And then you have the intermezzo, and then the finale. Intermezzo, movement three, movement four and the finale.
So the framework of a classical concert is there. The whole idea is to create a symphonic show where the music is front and center and the visuals are eye candy and the help to further tell the story. Because the two go hand in hand. You can’t play a video game without the visuals, just like you can’t play a video game without the music, you know. And with this particular franchise, there’s no voice for Link. His voice is the music. So these are all things I’ve thought about, these are all things that I’ve really been true to from the beginning. I’ve stayed true to my vision.
Nikolas: That’s good. That’s inspiring in a way.
Jason: Great, I love it. Because you know, I don’t talk about it very often and I don’t really have opportunities to tell people. A lot of people think I’m just some guy who’s disconnected and someone who’s got lucky. Someone who wasn’t the guy who came up with the idea. But they don’t know me. And they will never know me. And I don’t want to meet them. So that’s kind of where we’re at. I’ve been doing this for so long, so you know I’m not going anywhere. I’m hopefully going to be able to create other concerts. Until I get tired of it and want to do something different.
Nikolas: Would you be interested in doing something else than Nintendo games?
Jason: As far as the financial goes, the risk and reward, I don’t think there’s that many games that can command the audience to pay money to come see a concert. And there’s also just not a lot of resources. You know, Zelda’s the perfect franchise, because the music is so powerful and the visuals too. And Final Fantasy, the same thing. I can’t really think of many other titles that could be able to have a concert. You could do it with Castlevania, probably. Castlevania’s been around almost 30 years too. But I just don’t think that you’d get the same turnout, the same appreciation and the same response. They also say World of Warcraft and Elder Scrolls. Nah, I don’t think so.
My point is that I don’t think those titles can really warrant their own concert. At least I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking the risk to produce those concerts. I would feel comfortable if they were paying the bill. I would produce it for them. And I could do a hell of a good job. Because I’m already doing it for the titles, but not an expansive full concert of a 2.5 hour performance.
Nikolas: Do you think there exists any titles that haven’t been done? I mean for a full concert and not just you know bits and pieces of different titles.
Jason: Well, that’s what I’m saying. It’d be very difficult. Give me one title that you’d think would be worthy of its own concert.
Nikolas: I think… Chrono Trigger, just one game.
Jason: I can agree with that.
Nikolas: Or maybe having Chrono Trigger / Chrono Cross.
Jason: I can agree with that. Have you heard my arrangement of Chrono Trigger / Chrono Cross? The medley that I created?
Nikolas: For PLAY!?
Nikolas: I’ve listened to the CD, so I must have heard it, but I don’t remember it.
[The Chrono Trigger / Chrono Cross arrangement is originally from Thomas Böcker’s concerts in Leipzig and has been re-used in PLAY!]
Jason: I love Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger. And I actually am friends with Yasunori Mitsuda. I have a lot of respect for him. He hasn’t come out with too much since then, though.
Nikolas: He has done a lot of pieces here and there, for a lot of games.
Jason: What did he do? Did he work on Xenogears?
Nikolas: He did Xenogears, Xenosaga. And he’s done…
Jason: Did he work on Xenoblade?
Nikolas: Just one piece, a vocal piece. He’s done Inazuma Eleven, which is also an anime series, but also a game series.
A concert for Spirited Away?
Jason: So I’ll tell you, one of the projects I have considered doing would be Spirited Away by Miyazaki. I thought it’d be really cool to do a film orchestra concert with that.
Nikolas: Just from that single film?
Jason: That film. From beginning to end with live orchestra. I think it’d be really cool to do it in like a concert hall. Because you’re gonna go to see a movie anyways, just imagine a live soundtrack.
Nikolas: And would you have the movie playing at the same time?
Jason: Yeah, It’d be on like on a similar sized screen with the movie from beginning to end with a live soundtrack.
Nikolas: Have you ever talked with Joe Hisaishi, the composer?
Jason: I have someone very close to him from when I was in Tokyo. I pitched the idea. But not just Spirited Away. I wanted to do some of the other newer releases that he’s come up with Studio Ghibli.
Back to living in Japan
Nikolas: By the way, what were you doing in Tokyo that time, when you were living there. Were you working on productions?
Jason: I was working for Square Enix as a freelancer with my company. I also worked on Pavarotti’s farewell tour.
Filip: Where in Tokyo did you live?
Jason: [Laughs]. So it’s a place that when I mention it, people are like “oh my gosh, really!?” I lived in an area that’s very famous and it’s called Aoyama. It’s one of the most expensive areas in the world. I had a good friend, who’s family is wealthy and they own a building that was slowly kind of pushing out the older people, because they were gonna tear it down. He was nice enough to say, “Hey you know, for at least a few years you could [live there], if you fix the place up.” The street that it’s on is Gaiennishi-dori that runs parallel with Omotesando avenue, which is like the Champs-Élysées of Paris.
So anyways, I spent some money on refurbishing the apartment and I was able to live there and work. It was just amazing. I had a girlfriend, but wasn’t married, so it was a lot easier.
I was also pursuing other musical projects. I was a lot closer to Nobuo Uematsu at that time too. We had a pretty strong working relationship.
I hired a [Japanese] agency to do a lot of the marketing, collateral and all the identity for the show. At the time I was kind of naive in thinking that that was how I need to do it in order to work with Japanese companies. It’s not the case. But at the time I was naive in thinking that if I’m going to be working with a Japanese client, I need to provide a Japanese agency. That was then, this is now.
But yeah, that’s what I was doing. I was totally immersed. You want to get a crash course on learning how to speak Japanese? Try going to another Japan and not speak any English for months. That was what I did.
Nikolas: I did that for four months.
Nikolas: I will be doing that again.
Jason: You’re gonna love it. Where’re you gonna be going?
Nikolas: To Kyoto, I’m gonna do an internship there.
Jason: Oh wow. Rad! That’s awesome. We should exchange e-mails. I go there all the time.
Jason: I took my daughter on a vacation there in February. I’ll be going back, because I’m planning a Japan tour.
Nikolas: I wish I would have had time to prepare more for this interview.
Nikolas: I just came up with the questions on the way here, because I didn’t have time. And I didn’t expect to get to talk with you this long.
Nikolas: You have many interesting stories to share.
Jason: Oh yeah. This is probably the first time I’ve had an interview like this to be honest with you. I don’t usually do this.
Nikolas: Because I like to, you know, not just talk about business, but also about your biggest moments and your experiences, you as a person. That’s interesting.
Jason: Yeah. Most people ask the same questions. It’s kind of like “did you check the FAQ?” [laughs].
How does he deal with rivals?
Filip: There was one question I would like to ask. And I totally respect if you don’t want to answer it. How do you deal with the competition, with other productions? We have Video Games Live and you mentioned Böcker.
Jason: How do I deal with competition? I try not to talk about it, because any time you talk about competition it’s like a bad thing. I like competition. But I like people to be informed. And kind of the points that I was talking about, how it’s not about me. That’s all I want to say about competition.
Tommy Tallarico and Video Games Live is not about the games, it’s about Tommy. And I don’t like that. I don’t think that’s good for our industry. I don’t think it’s good for the credibility of our industry. Because I don’t see Tommy as being a very credible person. Anyone who works on Earthworm Jim is not in my mind a talented composer.
I don’t think that my show is anything like that show. But because of the association with video games that we share, I get lumped in. So it kind of defeats what I’m doing. Because here I am, pouring millions and millions of dollars and countless hours to put video game music on a big stage to appeal to mass audiences. And then you have this other project [Video Games Live] that doesn’t represent the music and is a smaller version where people are kind of like “oh well, it’s cool”. Yeah they got the visuals. Yeah they got the air guitar and this guy, who’s this personality that many people don’t know. But they just kind of feel like he’s cool, even though he’s almost 50 and he’s not really useful [laughs].
It’s hard, because I get lumped in with someone like that and I’m totally opposite. That’s the hard part. Guys like Thomas [Böcker], I respect. But I don’t really respect Tommy Tallarico and Video Games Live. It kind of defeats everything I’m doing. And he also badmouths me. I don’t like to talk about him, I just like to say we’re different. There’s a place for his show, but I’m constantly trying to distinguish my shows from his show. And that’s kind of painful. Because there is no comparison. The quality of our show and how I’ve worked so hard to be able to get the rights to do this and to get the trust of Nintendo. The Japanese, you’ll learn, is a lot about trust.
Presenters have the option of presenting a show that’s cheaper with a smaller orchestra and less production. Or they can produce my show, which is more expensive. Orchestra size, costs, things like that are much greater in my show. They’re gonna take the show that’s cheaper. So it’s not about our quality. I always use the example of PC and Apple. You can have a PC or you can have the Apple. That’s kind of how I’ve always compared my show to the competition. You have this high-level production or this kind of like spectacle of a production, that has what they can get by, but nothing more. It’s like “What can we do to just get by?” Whereas I’m focused on the end result. And making sure that the experience that I deliver to the fans is of highest quality. No playback, all symphony, all orchestral. So that’s the difference.
Filip: Okay. Thanks. A very honest answer.
Jason: But don’t take that as me badmouthing Tommy. It’s just different. And we’re two totally different people, you know. My path in video games is far different from his. And my relationships with people are more business and more executive-type. And also I have experience living in Japan and working in Japan, so it’s totally different. We’re just two totally different people that have two totally different visions. His is more self-serving and mine is more for the greater cause. And that’s it. That’s how I feel it. Not to diminish his contribution, but I’m just on a different level.
There’s not really any other competition. And that’s a good thing, but it’s also a bad thing. Because there is no one else to lump you with. I love competition. As a college athlete, it’s what gives me the fire in my belly, to keep doing what I do. Competition for me is motivation. Because I wanna be the best. I want this show to be the best show that you’ve ever seen for video game music. And maybe the best show you’ve ever seen, period.
The other thing is, I don’t wanna be pigeon-holed or lumped into just a video guy. I wanna be appreciated because it’s a quality [production]. If you didn’t even know that this was Zelda, you walk in here, you would just be like “oh my god, this is amazing, this is so cool”, you know. That’s what I want. That’s my goal. It doesn’t need to just appeal to video game people, it needs to appeal to all walks of life. So that’s really the goal that I’ve always tried to have with these productions. Because not everyone knows Zelda. You’re gonna track the core gamers, the core Zelda fanbase, but outside of that you wanna have overlap. You wanna be able to kind of appeal to other people.
Advice to an aspiring VGM concert producer
Nikolas: Actually, I want to become a producer of game music concerts.
Jason: Oh yeah? [laughs]
Nikolas: And what would you give as advice to an aspiring game music concert producer? You have so much experience.
Jason: I think the only advice I can give you would be to… [takes a deep breath]… try to create your own style, but also… [sighs]… maybe think twice [laughs].
It’s a lot of work, man. I just think I got lucky. Some skill obviously, but a lot of luck. And not everyone can be so lucky. I’m trying to think of what advice can I give you, besides have your own vision, have your own idea. Try to focus on thinking outside the box a little bit.
The team that you put together is always important. Make sure that you take care of the people that work for you. Just be realistic with your expectations. A lot of the things that you don’t see come from a lot of experience, that I had to painfully go through in order to be able to have a successful touring show. You know, I had to pull cable, I had to be the first one there or the last one to leave. I had to put my time in. I had to learn everything. I had to learn everyone’s job and do everyone’s job. I think that’s gonna be the best advice I can give you. You have to walk in the shoes in order to tell someone what to do. When you get at my level, my job is to make sure that people don’t make the mistakes that I made. I don’t need to be out there now, because I have my staff. I have amazing people that I work with that I don’t need to micromanage. So it frees me up. I can focus on the things that I need to do.
But also, the show is small aspect of this. The show is just a two and a half hour production. But everything that led up to this is took six months, a year of preparation. The contracts, hiring the orchestra, negotiating, getting the prices to where it makes sense. Knowing what you should be paying, what you shouldn’t be paying. Knowing what you should be paying in taxes in each country. There are always people that are gonna short you and try to rip you off. Make sure that you’re working with people that you can trust. Those are the things that you have to go through.
And it’ll change you. Trust me. It’ll change you. Hopefully you’ll learn in a positive way and not a negative way, but you have to go through it. I got lucky so I don’t really recommend anyone doing this, to be honest with you. I just don’t. And not everyone can have The Legend of Zelda, you know. Every show I do is almost sold out. But it’s not because of me. I just create. I’m a facilitator. I have these resources and I can do it. But you can’t always have a successful show. And unless you can be prepared for that, I don’t think that anyone would want to do this business.
I went through a lot of failures before I had this projects. I got lucky in the beginning, I had a little bit of luck with PLAY!, I had a little bit of luck with rePLAY, but at that point I was more focused on the product, when it was more of like a passion. I wanted to do it. It was also a collaboration with me and a person from my hometown that I grew up with, that happened to be a wonderful guy and a producer of video games. My buddy Ryan Hamlin, he produced Lair. I grew up with him in Alameda [California], where I’m from
This is kind of a long-winded explanation of advice, but there are so many layers and that’s the point I’m trying to make. There’s so many different layers, that you need to be prepared for it. This is one layer, but think about eeeverything that went into this. If you’re prepared to do that, then I would suggest that you might have a future.
Nikolas: I am.
Jason: I’m gonna give you a piece of advice. Create something that you can own. Create something that no one can take away from you. Create something that is original. That would probably be the best piece of advice I could give you. Something that no one can take from you. Why do you think I’m in the coffee business? Why do you think I created rePLAY, even though I still gotta go to people for the licenses to get the rights, the visuals and the music.
Nikolas: Thank you for the advice.
Jason: You know, one of the things that I always like that we did in Stockholm, was to have Uematsu come and do a Q & A.
Filip: The meet and greet.
Jason: Remember we had an interview, the press conference? That was really cool. I wanna do more of those things.
Nikolas: It always elevates the experience when you have one of the composers or some important person there.
Jason: It’s nice to be able to do that.
Nikolas: Do you think you could get Koji Kondo to any of these concerts?
Jason: So difficult. He’s too busy, plain and simple. They make video games. This business is not their core business. The amazing thing about those guys is that they punch in and punch out just like anyone else. Miyamoto included. Seriously, that’s what they did. They had their punch cards, can you believe that? The guy that created Nintendo. They’re punching in and out, just like anyone else.
Nikolas: Hard to imagine that.
Jason: But it’s not. Because if you go to Kyoto, you know how traditional it is. Tradition is the key, it’s what they live by.
Nikolas: Thank you so much for the interview.
Jason: Ohh, definitely. I wish you the best of luck. Anything I can do to help.