Interview with Jason Michael Paul – Zelda, ‘Play!’ concert series

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So, you can’t go to E3 this year because it’s not open to the public? You may just have a great alternative in The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses tour, as it has a show on the second day of E3 (June 6th at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles). From what I’ve heard of it, the arrangements are absolutely phenomenal. The concert series covers a multitude of Zelda games, and it pays particular attention to Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and (excitement explosion incoming) A Link to the Past, one of the greatest games of all time (no bias here, really).

I had a telephone interview with Jason Michael Paul recently. He’s the producer of PLAY! A Video Game Symphony, the 25th Anniversary Legend of Zelda, and of course the new The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses concert series whose tour dates can be found, here.

Me: So, Jason, you might be one of the pioneers, or maybe the pioneer in bringing video game concerts to North America.

J: Well, that’s definitely, uh, I appreciate it. Um, but yeah, I pretty much started this thing in 2004 when I created the Dear Friends concert series for the Final Fantasy franchise, and I haven’t really stopped since then. So now we’re on to Zelda, and it’s one of the finest projects that I’ve been a part of.

Me: So, you were in Japan and you were working with Pavarotti, and you had the opportunity to speak with Square-Enix (which lead to “Dear Friends”)?

J: Yeah, I had a relationship dating back to the Playstation days when, you know, Squaresoft was working with Sony for Playstation platform. So I had been working with them for quite some time with Kingdom Hearts and other various games as far as product launches, and game launches, and things like that. I had the privilege of working with Luciano Pavarotti and The Three Tenors and putting together his concert tours. So anyway, I had already kind of warmed up the executives in the US office at Square-Enix. They were instrumental in facilitating further introduction to the folks in Japan while I was over there doing the farewell tour with Pavarotti. So I was able to invite them to kind of give them the idea of what I was thinking, in terms of creating a video game music concert with Final Fantasy.

Me: So, would you say, like, you were the driving force for creating that, or was it more like they came to you about the idea?

J: Definitely, I was the one who was pushing for it.

Me: Did they seem hesitant, as if they thought the North American audience wouldn’t accept it?

J: It was really a matter of timing, I think. That was the year that Enix and Squaresoft merged.

Me: Mmm hm.

So it was really kind of the emergence of Square-Enix as a company as a whole kind of dominating the RPG genre. And I think, you know, Uematsu San was really pushing for the idea of a concert, you know. And uh, it was just really timing. You know, Walt Disney concert hall had just opened, and the LA Phil was available. So, all the stars aligned.

(I laugh again. At this point I start asking him about guests who appear at his concerts. He’s had Koji Kondo, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Zelda Williams, the daughter of Robin Williams. He wants fans to focus on the music itself, and from what I’ve heard of it, it’s fantastic. At this point, I also gush about how good the concert music is, which he appreciates.)

Me: So, umm, I did pull a quote from the internet, and I don’t know how accurate it is, but you described your “Play!” series as being a straightforward music program designed to keep the arts alive in a way that is classy. So, can you tell me a little bit about that?

J: Yeah, of course. Umm, well, my background obviously is presenting opera like Luciano Pavarotti and The Three Tenors. The idea is to create a show that is true to the symphony format. We’re not a rock and roll show per se. It’s more or less just a straightforward music program with visual accompaniment. With this particular show, The Legend of Zelda, which is different from Play!, we’ve streamlined the whole process. We’ve streamlined the whole show to where it’s all on click. So the orchestra is playing along with the click track, and the conductor is on click, and so everything’s fully in synch with the video. And it’s just a more seamless production. It’s just wonderful. But again, there’s no playback. You know, it’s all live. It’s not a rock and roll show, like, some people would say that the VGL (Video Games Live) show is a little bit more theatrical, but our show is just more straightforward.

Me: Does the video playback for the Zelda concert series differ from the Play! series?

J: It does only because we don’t operate on a click for Play! All of the video direction and everything is live (for the Zelda series), between the gameplay footage, the full-motion video, the graphics to the live camera feed. They go back and forth. The Zelda show is on a click. So there’s really, there is the same kind of interplay between the video, but there’s also the camerawork with the orchestra as well. But everything is on a timeline, kinda’ like how we would do a Hollywood score. We do it in the same fashion, which has really never been done before.

Me: So the video that accompanies the music, how is that developed?

J: My team and I have worked very closely with Nintendo, capturing hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage, you know, from their earliest games to some of the new games. We don’t have skyward Sword in this particular concert, but the game is still obviously being sold. It’s still kind of fresh (laughs a bit). We didn’t really want to pursue that. But um, yeah, I mean, it’s just been a total collaboration between Nintendo of America, Nintendo of Canada, and Nintendo of Japan. And we’ve worked very closely with Koji Kondo and his music team in developing the arrangements, and then of course with the video team as well.

Me: I’m just a little curious about this, but I know that you run a coffee shop, and I was wondering if you would ever cross video game culture with a restaurant or a coffee shop.

J: Well, you know, it’s funny you say that. I’ve been asked that question before. Yeah, I’ve done things. I used to host a game night at our place where we would actually set up an old NES and we would have certain games projected on a screen, you know, like Duck Hunt. So, yeah, definitely, um, it’s just like anything else. If the business model makes sense, and the numbers make sense, and it’s something that people would want, then I’m totally game for it, because I think it would be great. It would be great to combine those two elements, you know?

Me: Are there any other game companies that you might be working with in the future?

J: I work with all of them. You know, obviously Nintendo takes up the major bulk of my time right now. I’ve recently been working to add the music of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to Play!. That’s debuting in Calgary next week. So, I definitely have my hands full in working with other companies.

(He’s adding Skyrim, everyone! Seeing as how the concert is somewhat of a more formal affair, I definitely wouldn’t recommend that the crowd accompany the music with simultaneous shouts of FUS RO DAH.)

Thanks for the interview, Jason. We appreciate it.

Ryan Southard

Ryan Southard is a video game enthusiast, dissecting games down to their tiniest details. Whether it’s new or it’s old, as long as it’s awesome, he’ll play it. Follow him on Twitter at @Ryan_Southard

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