Q&A with Shota Nakama

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The Video Game Orchestra performs live.

Shota Nakama is a producer, guitarist, composer, and arranger, best known as founder of the Video Game Orchestra. Born and raised in Okinawa, Japan, Shota’s passion for music grew when he discovered the work of Beethoven, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. After playing with some local ’70s and ’80s rock cover bands as a guitarist, he began pursing a professional musical career in the U.S., spending several years in Seattle, then moving to Boston. He earned a bachelor’s degree in film scoring at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music and then completed his master’s degree in classical guitar performance at the Boston Conservatory. In 2008 he founded his “rockestra,” the Video Game Orchestra, which combines a rock band, full orchestra and choir, swelling as large as 100-plus members. Launched in 2008, the VGO tours the globe, performing their own arrangements of popular video game music. He also operates SoundtRec Boston, which provides music services for games and stage productions.  Among the games SoundtRec has scored are Bandai’s “Tekken Trek 2,” Rayark’s “Cytus Timeline” and many of the “Final Fantasy” games for Square-Enix. He has been featured as a guitarist for touring musicals such as RENT.

MaxTheTrax: You have created quite an international sensation with the Video Game Orchestra. How did you arrive at this intersection between music and games? Were you an avid gamer growing up?

Shota Nakama: I started taking classical piano lessons when I was 8 years old and continued it for several years. I switched to the guitar when I was 15 because I fell in love with Deep Purple and all those great ’70s and ’80s rock bands.  I did grow up in Japan during the golden era of video games. We had so many great games back in ’90s, and every boy in Japan played games.  So yes, games and music have always been there in my life.

MaxTheTrax: When did you get serious about music as a career, and what was your path?

Shota Nakama: I was a music major over at Pierce College in Lakewood, WA. It is a small community college, but my music teachers, Kelly Kunz and Jere Knudtsen, were just fantastic. They taught me everything they knew, made me sing in a concert choir, play percussion in a concert band, and play guitar in a jazz band. I am forever thankful to them for exposing me to so many opportunities. Then I attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. I majored in film scoring there. Again I had great teachers and friends whom I am still in touch with. After 2 years, I went to the Boston Conservatory and got my master’s degree in classical guitar performance.  I play the electric/acoustic/classical guitar mainly, and a little bit of the piano, bass, uklele, some percussion, and a few other things.

MaxTheTrax: What’s your experience been like composing original music for videogames?

Shota Nakama: I have done many orchestration/arrangement works for video games, films and anime. The titles are listed at SoundtRecBoston.com. The beauty of the internet is that you don’t have to physically be at the same location to work on stuff. Everything is pretty much done by emailing each other. First I receive mockups and and maybe some notes about what kind of scenes each piece will be used for. Then I import the MIDI files to Finale and started working on orchestrating them. When I’m done, I send in the pieces for approval. Sometimes they’ll want changes, but usually they trust me and it’s just a matter of tweaking. In general, I think there is still a long way to go for video game music to have the same kind of recognition as film music and other genres of music. I’d like to see more collaborative effort between groups like ours and the game composers, and even the companies, coming up with ways to help the industry.

MaxTheTrax: Are you surprised at the success of your VGO endeavor?

Shota Nakama: I could say yes and no to that. I have always believed in my vision, so I really did not care what people thought of it when we were starting out. When I start something new, I don’t really think about whether other people will love it or not. I wanted to do it, and I pursued it. Sure there were some hard times in the past, but I never stopped moving forward.

MaxTheTrax: Seattle is a pretty great music town. How did you wind up in Boston?

Shota Nakama: It was because of the Berklee College of Music, which I really wanted to attend. I love the city and I have been living here for almost 10 years now.  I was born and raised in Okinawa, Japan. I was an ordinary kid who wanted a bit more freedom than the people around me. I skipped so many classes and my attendance was like 50% in my middle school. It is not that I hated the idea of learning, but I never like the idea of being forced to learn what I did not want to learn. I never went to a high school, either. I encountered the music of Deep Purple at the age of 15, and that was it for me. I begged my mother to get me a guitar because I already knew that music was what I want to do with my life. I got the GED out of necessity since a high school diploma was required for getting a visa to study music in the U.S. When I was 18, I moved to the U.S. and never looked back.

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