Play! A Video Game Symphony: Jason Michael Paul

Play! A Video Game Symphony: Jason Michael PaulIt seems like only yesterday. I remember sitting in my living room, playing Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Running that little man across the screen, jumping over mushrooms, and sliding down big green industrial pipes… it was all in a day’s work for Mario! Games have changed over the years, and as the graphics have gotten better I have become more obsessed with gaming. I never got into the role playing games, but sports games are a blast. I am just too competitive!

When I first heard about Play! A Video Game Symphony, I was immediately intrigued. Imagine, an orchestra performing nothing but video game theme songs. Sheryl was excited too, so we loaded up the car, headed to Dayton, Ohio, and grabbed our seats for the evening. But before we got too comfortable, I managed to sit down with Jason Michael Paul, the producer of Play! Jason knows his way around the entertainment business, especially when it comes to video games, and he has a pretty impressive resume. Learn more about Jason here as we talk about his favorite games, what it was like working with Luciano Pavarotti, and his obsession with Play! A Video Game Symphony.

Before we get too far into this, where did this idea come from? Imagine… taking video game theme songs and putting them to music. I love it! But where did the vision come from?

I created a show in 2004 that was called Dear Friends: Music from Final Fantasy. That was the first video game music concert in the United States. It was exclusive to Final Fantasy. It was at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with the LA Master Chorale. That was where I realized the potential success of such a concept. I took that show on tour, did twelve dates across the country. We stopped in Atlanta, Fort Worth, and Chicago. Pretty much all over.

You get to perform in some pretty impressive venues. How do you pick which venues you play in night after night?

I don’t. We work with house orchestra. I have always been working with the local orchestra. My agent is responsible for the booking of the show.

You cover a lot of different games. How do you pick which game you wish to put in the set?

We tend to work with franchises. We work with what’s hot. We choose games that have musical merit. The games must have scores and be something we can work with. It ultimately comes to the support of the publishers and the people who license the games. That lends greatly to the ability to present the music and the visuals.

Have you ever had an agency turn you down?


Where do you guys practice?

I have one agency. My agent actually sells the show into the orchestra and that orchestra does that show.

What happens if someone makes a mistake? Is it noticeable or does the rest of the orchestra sort of drown that all out?

It could be, but it’s really noticeable to the person that knows the music. For the most part, they are well rehearsed and typically don’t make mistakes. They are total pro.

You are performing at the Schuster Center with the Dayton Philharmonic and Chorus. Have you played here before? What special meaning does this place have for you?

We did this before. We did a show in 2009; it was a different show under the same name. We recreated this show for tonight’s show.

I am sure you get asked this all the time, but what is your favorite video game?

I like Legend of Zelda. I am a Nintendo guy; grew up on NES. Sonic the Hedgehog is one of my favorites. Super Mario Brothers. As far as RPG, Final Fantasy. I have to admit, I don’t have much spare time to play video games.

So you are the producer of this. How do you know Andy, the Principal Conductor and Music Director?

I hired him to be my conductor and musical director. We met when he was the associated conductor. I previously had another music director and principal conductor. I brought him in to take over full-time.

What was it like working with Luciano Pavarotti?

It was great. It was a once in a lifetime experience. I learned a lot about being in this kind of world, the orchestra and symphonic world. It was an eye-opening experience to be exposed to everything; I was at such a young age. It was by far one of the best experiences of my life.

There are three major players in the world of video games. I own all three consoles, but which one do you prefer? (The three consoles are the Microsoft Xbox 360, the Sony Play Station 3, and the Nintendo Wii.)

I have all the consoles. Everything from a Wii to an Xbox to the PS3. I have them all. They are getting some dust right now.

Tell me a little bit more about Dear Friends: Music from FINAL FANTASY Symphony Tour.

It was just something that I was working with the producers on. I had a great relationship, a long time relationship with SQUARE ENIX, and they hired me to do the show during E3. It just all clicked. They took what I was doing with Pavarotti; I was actually touring with him in Japan at the time. I was able to invite a lot of them to see it. I was able to show them first-hand what I do, how I can do it and how I see this working with video game music.

It’s basically a Pavarotti concert, but the music is the video game. Those take center stage. That really just opened the floodgates with me, and having that with friends is priceless. That led to the progression of the show, and led to more video games and not just Final Fantasy. In my opinion it is making it more accessible to more fans, not everyone plays FF. I wanted to create something that was utilitarian; something that everyone could appreciate. Or at least have some appreciation for the music that we were creating and have some connection to it. Final Fantasy is a very… it takes a lot of time. RPGs normally do, the game play is somewhat difficult. It’s not that easy to play.

I have heard a lot of great stuff about the graphics that display above the orchestra while you perform. Who is behind all that?

Yeah, I am behind that. I am the creator of the show. Everything about it I have created. I am involved in every single process of all the shows I do. I produce everything. It’s all self-funded. I fund these projects myself. I am the mastermind behind it all. It all has my touch. If it fails, it fails, and in the end I have no one to blame but myself. That is actually a good thing.

You guys have been all over the world. Tell me more about not only being in Europe, but also performing over there.

It’s a different mentality over there. It’s nice to have a different perspective. The musicianship is different. The mentality and styles are different. What makes a great producer is having that international experience. Obviously you have to adjust. Things are not the same in the States. We have it really good over here. Things we take for granted are not readily available when touring. It’s great to have that experience. It makes doing shows here in the US so much easier.

Folks can buy a live CD recording as well as a DVD. How cool is it seeing your performance on TV? How many times have you watched that?

Buy it online; I also sell it from my website. You can download the digital version, or buy the hard copy. The downloadable version doesn’t come with the CD that comes with the hard copy.

I don’t even think I’ve ever watched the DVD. The CD I have listened to a few times. It was shot in Prague at the Devorach Hall, home of Devorach. He is one of the most amazing conductors and composers. It was a very well-known orchestra and choir. It was a top-flight production. We were limited in terms of the production. That hall is very small. We could only do one screen that night; we were just limited. There was nowhere to hang the other screens.

With all those folks on stage, what’s the biggest challenge you face on a regular basis?

Just overcoming the idea that video game music is something that is shunned. I think that a lot of people don’t have an appreciation for and don’t know what it is. They then start to realize this is music to be taken serious. One of the violinists for this very show said it was her favorite show since she has been with the Dayton Philharmonic.

It’s really hard to get your arms around it until you have seen it performed. The reaction from the fans is something that you’re not used to. It’s not a rock and roll show, this is like… we are not used to this! The reception is very well-received. That is encouraging. It gives a lot of presenters a lot of hope that they could help to grow and keep the arts alive.

Speaking of all those people on stage, what’s the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened on stage?

For me, personally I think it was when something goes wrong with the screen. Or a dark, blank screen… those are the things that raise the hairs on the back of my neck. It doesn’t happen very often, but when dealing with technology once and while it will happen. The show is so projection driven… but we try to cover all our bases. We have primary and back up projectors, and always trying to be one step ahead of technology.

Everything is at such high caliber. We could easily take the cheap route and do one screen. Not just three projectors, but have six. We are not trying to cut any corners here. We hope that I obvious. These productions cost a lot of money to put on. Orchestras are not cheap; they are very expensive. That is why it is very hard to keep some of these orchestras going.

I bet your audience is always telling you new games to put in the show. How often do you take their advice when picking a new song?

Not really. The show tonight we do have three new pieces that I arranged for this show. We are premiering them at this show, actually. One of them we are doing is Tara’s Theme, from Final Fantasy. That is a brand new addition, new arrangement. We are doing a new Castlevania with a new video sequence. We are also doing Dragon Age. We are going to be doing the world premier in Seattle in June. This is a western premier of Dragon Age. They did it Europe already. On another note, we just launched a new website!

Where are you originally from?

I am from San Francisco. I also own a café there.

Tell me a little bit more about Jason Michael Paul Productions, Inc.

Jason Michael Paul Productions, Inc. has been doing the shows that I create. We are going to be doing some other projects too. We do other projects, but obviously this has been the focus. We are trying to make this a profitable show. We are trying to grow this, make it more smooth and getting more shows as a result of this. We have a lot of other projects in the works right now that are coming to fusion between 2011-2012, not just Play! related. They are projects that are in development.

I also do some other projects for corporate clients, Nintendo… a lot of marketing and branding projects. Things like that… special events, and trade shows. I used to do the booth for PlayStation at E3. That is where I got my start in all this. We did all the parties and built their booths. We did these huge parties. The highlight was doing Elton John for Sun Microsystems in Hawaii. I was an associate producer at a very young age.

Coffee Bar? That sounds fun! What’s your favorite cup of Joe?

My own. My business partner is MR. ESPRESSO; has been since 1978. Some of the best coffee in the world comes from our place. We actually grew up together about ten miles just south of San Fran. We have had our business for three years in the financial district in San Fran. The lease is singed and everything. A lot of good thing came out of that.

We were voted the best café in San Fran by The Guardian. It’s the village voice in that area. It’s exciting; it’s fun. A lot of reward to that. I want to be known for someone that has always done what I love. I do what I love.

How long does it take to get setup when you first arrive at a venue?

We are pros. We can get it set up, from start to finish, in roughly twelve hours. We usually do two rehearsals and a performance. The orchestra gets here before the show, then the day of, then the performance.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

My daughter will be almost nine… that’s an interesting question. I think I will be doing what I’m doing now, but I will have opened at least twenty cafes. I will have produced over a hundred play shows, and will have created new shows that are torn properties. Just expanding upon what I have already done. I just want to create a life for my offspring and that they live comfortably.

What do you want to be remembered for when this is all said and done?

Just being someone of integrity and someone that always had a vision. Someone that took risks, a doer not a talker. Someone that is a revolutionary and the first to do things. Like tonight, I am using a Square to sell merchandise. This might be the first time anyone has some merchandise using Square technology. I am selling merchandise tonight using this technology! Maybe the first show in the world to use this technology. It’s incredible.

In all of the interviews that I do, I always give the artist the last word. Go.

Let me think about that one. Let’s connect virally. Find us on Facebook, find us on Twitter. We are always going to be doing things. I think people should stay tuned, and a lot of good things are happening. And if you are in San Francisco, then stop by my coffee bar. And check out Play! Keep art alive.