I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Skotein, of Pokémon Reorchestrated to discuss our love of video games, their music, and of course, Pokémon Reorchestrated iself. As an added bonus, he decided to give us here at ZI a special sneak peek of Kanto Symphony, the upcoming album slated for release this October. Keep reading to see the interview and scroll all the way down to have a listen to the full-length version of his completed arrangement of the Gym Leader Battle theme.
For those unaware, Pokémon Reorchestrated is a one-man project devoted to reimagining the songs of the Pokémon series in fully orchestrated majesty. Skotein, the orchestrator, has his current list of songs available for listening on YouTube. Since then, he’s floated away to work on Kanto Symphony, a full-scale album containing arrangements of every song from the original Red and Blue. It’s really proving to be a huge step up from the singles currently available, so if you liked those, prepare yourself for something even greater.
If you prefer audio interviews, you can directly download the interview here, or listen directly below. It’s quite long, so I trimmed it down to the essentials for the text. The audio has a ton of long digressions, so if you’re itching for some questions that didn’t make it to the text, or for some extra discussion, be sure to check it out right below, and scroll to down further for the Gym Leader Battle preview.
Colin: Hello Skotein, it’s good to have you here!
Skotein: Thank you, it’s good to be here!
C: Let’s go back to the beginning: What’s the first memory of Pokémon you have, and how did you get interested in the series?
S: My first memory of Pokémon was from elementary school. I was very into the TV show. In fact, I remember we had a book fair at the library, where they sold—I think it was the PokéDex books by Maria S. Barbo, and they were the first picture PokéDex book on the market, and I hadn’t seen the TV show prior to that, but the design of the monsters sparked my interest. So you could say I got into the anime first through those books, and then eventually, when my family wasn’t poor *chuckles* I got a GameBoy and a copy of Crystal Version that my friend gave me, and since then, it was history.
C: Oh, I assumed you started with Red and Blue
S: No, Johto for the win! I played Yellow after Crystal just to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and it turns out I did, because I didn’t realize who Red was when I got to Mt. Silver in Crystal Version. That was a little perplexing, but then my mind was blown.
C: Do you have any one favorite memory of Pokémon, or maybe most vivid?
S: I think my favorite moment, or most memorable moment from the Pokémon video game series was defeating the Elite Four for the first time in Crystal Version, and ending up back in new Bark Town and finding out I could surf across the water to this new region, and the music that played—I think it was Route 26 or Route 27… That theme song has stuck with me ever since, and it’s just so triumphant and glorious and it reminds me of taking my first steps back into Kanto, which is a region full of history. And at the time, I’d only been told that it was the region from the old Pokémon games, but that song just created such a powerful legacy on its own for the region, I felt like I was about to step into a place with a lot of clout.
C: I’ve got to ask: What’s your favorite Pokémon
S: That’s… not fair.
If I had to pick at least two… Charizard, for sure. Oddly enough, not my first starter. Typhlosion was. But I’ve always loved Charizard form the TV show and I awlways imagined if I had a Charizard, I’d just fly around on its back. I feel like that’s a really contrived response. If I had to be a hipster and pick a second Pokémon that less people like, I guess I would say Cloyster. And not because I like female genitalia—I do like Cloyster. And I also like the color scheme. Whenever I design my Pokémon teams, I like to add Pokémon that are one uniform color and make kind of like a rainbow.
C: So How did you get interested in music? I know for me, I found remixes on YouTube, and it invoked some incredible nostalgia when I realized I could hum every note of every MIDI instrument I heard, and that sort of opened my way into the world of composing and arranging. So do you have a similar story, or had you always been more attentive to the tunes?
S: I would say listening to a lot of film scores when I was little was sort of my gateway drug into the world of composing. *laughs* I got into composing by accident, I was doing really small orchestral arrangements of Pokémon music on YouTube, and I was mostly inspired by Zelda Reorchestrated, who were doing a similar thing for Zelda music, and so I was striving to meet their quality. Since then, I’ve amassed a large amount of pretty expensive sample libraries to make sure that these Pokémon tunes really sound realistic compared to their 8-bit counterparts. So I feel like Pokémon was a huge motivator to actually understand music and learn all of the structure and forms, and then find creative ways to arrange them for orchestra.
C: Which composers have you found the most influential in writing music?
S: I listened to a lot of the Harry Potter film scores, so John Williams was obviously a huge influence when I was little. As I grew up, my tastes changed a little bit, and I became more inclined to listen to Japanese composers, like Joe Hisaishi and Yoko Shimomura from the Miyazaki films and the Kingdom Hearts series, respectively. And So I really loved their style of music. I also love Austin Wintory, who composed for Journey, and I think he influenced a lot of my string writing.
Also, I’m a huge fan of Alexandre Desplat, who’s the composer for the last two Harry Potter films, Deathly Hallows 1&2. He’s awesome, and I feel like he’s been a huge influence, especially while writing Kanto Symphony. He uses some ostinatos measures and untraditional harmonies and progressions and sometimes I follow those. Unintentionally, of course! It just sort of happens.
And then of course, the original Pokémon composers, Junichi Masuda and Go Ichinose.
C: Who are some of your other favorite composers, be they classical, contemporary, video game, or otherwise?
S: Some classical composers I like to listen to are Béla Bartók, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and a couple of others, but I love those guys because they tend to push the boundaries and limits of the craft.
C: Aside from Pokémon, what are some of your other favorite franchises? I know there’s Zelda and Final Fantasy, but are there any more that are quite as powerful in your mind?
S: Yes, I believe that the Mother series holds an equally important place in my heart. I love Mario, but I’ve gotten so frustrated because I suck at platformers.
I just fall off and die all the time and give up. But with the Mother series, just seeing this whole Japanese caricature of American life, and then mashing it up with a lot of crazy pop culture things like zombies and aliens… It’s fantastic. It’s quirky and beautiful. And Mother 3, It’s pretty quirky, but I also find its story to be emotionally more powerful than EarthBound, and it tugs at my heartstrings. And the music is comparable to Pokémon and Zelda and the best video game music of all time.
C: Getting onto the topic of Kanto Symphony, what specifically made you choose Red and Blue?
S: It has the least music of all of the games *laughs* So it’s actually feasible to tackle an entire album. I wanted to work on a single album and be able to be motivated by a constant narrative, but also be able to finish within a reasonable amount of time. Kanto has some of the least lengthy tracks, but also some of the most memorable tracks. I also felt like I needed to make up for the fact that I didn’t get into Pokémon in Generation 1, so in order to earn my Pokémon stripes…
C: Your Poké Balls?
S: To earn my Poké Balls, I would have to go back and rescore Kanto the way everybody had imagined it when they were kids. And in that process, I found a new appreciation for Kanto, and all of the music, and its contributions to the franchise as a whole.
C: I’m well aware of the mission statement, but for everyone following this interview at home, what’s your goal with Kanto Symphony?
S: Kanto Symphony is an album and also a story. It’s a narrative. It’s a tale of Pokémon Trainer Red and his journey across the Kanto region to defeat all of the Gym Leaders in each city and battle his way to the Indigo Plateau and the Elite Four, and to become the Pokémon Champion in the Pokémon League. However, I wanted to convey the emotional experience of being a Pokémon trainer and embarking on this journey as a ten-year-old, into this big scary world full of trainers, and wild creatures that possess vast amount of power. And I wanted to convey the fears, the excitement, the loss, the sadness, the homesickness of being a Pokémon trainer. I really wanted to make it a real experience, because listening to the 8-bit music is super nostalgic and it evokes a lot of emotions, but I don’t feel that the 8-bit accurately represents those emotions. So I wanted to use these orchestral instruments that have a variety of colors and tones to evoke those same moods that everybody was feeling. So it’s an emotional journey, it’s an emotional story, and I wanted to convey that with an orchestra.
C: So close to this album’s release, you must have most of the songs finished by now. Do you have a personal favorite of your arrangements, so far?
S: We might have to categorize it. *chuckles* Just like Pokémon, it’s hard to pick a specific piece. My favorite city theme that I’ve arranged so far is Cerulean City, and I think a lot of people are going to be surprised by that. Cerulean City’s theme is also the same as Fuchsia City’s theme.
C: Speaking of which, you didn’t do two versions for the themes that are used more than once, did you?
S: No, there wasn’t really too much of a difference. You know, some cities had exclusives, but none of those really seemed relevant, so I just stuck to one.
(Back to the favorites)
S: But I think a lot of people will be surprised be Cerulean City and by a couple of the other town themes, because they all incorporate a specific theme that gives them a little more personality. Cerulean City in this case, is a very Disney-like arrangement, it’s very happy, and bouncy, and lots of woodwinds because the world needs more woodwinds.
My favorite standalone piece is Team Rocket, which is an arrangement of the Team Rocket Hideout theme. With it, I wanted to convey what it would actually be like to infiltrate the secret hideout of a Pokémon gangster mafia. Honestly I think it’s a little terrifying, and I think a lot of people might pee their pants a little when they hear it. There are a lot of eerie string chord progressions, slow and underlying and frightening. But there are very quiet moments of dread and very loud moments of chaos and terror.
My favorite battle music I’ve arranged so far is the Champion’s music. The title is The Final Showdown, and it’s the track that plays when you battle your rival for the last time. It has a decent amount of buildup, and it incorporates a few different themes from throughout the album as whole and that sort of ties it together and gives the whole conclusion some cohesion. It’s really exciting, and I can’t wait for people to hear it.
C: What’s your favorite composition of the original 8-bit music?
S: My favorite 8-bit piece from Red and Blue is the Silph Co. Theme. It’s so… scary! *laughs* It’s like a Russian March of doom, and I think you’ll definitely get that doom vibe in my arrangement, but I love that the composer, Junichi Masuda, was able to convey that Eastern European feeling with only 8-bit instruments, especially the crazy glissandi *imitates the song* I think it’s fantastic.
(On the Evolution Theme and its use in the Safari Zone, and other songs used in multiple contexts)
S: I sort of ignored it again, mostly because I was being a purist. It would have been very difficult, but the evolution arrangement that you hear on the album is also fantastic. That’s the one I show off to casual acquaintances when they ask me about my music, I show them the evolution theme. The way I wrote that was, I had a chamber ensemble of musician instrumentalists slowly evolve into a full orchestra playing this repetitive “dun DUN dun DUN…” I can’t wait for people to hear that. Literally, the orchestra evolves with your Pokémon, and of course it has the congratulations fanfare at the end.
C: So it’s coming in just a few weeks. Are there any songs you think people should particularly be on the lookout before, besides the ones previously mentioned?
S: I would definitely pay attention to Dreams and Adventures, which is the “Oak’s opening speech” track. I actually already released a preview on my website. Not only does it contain the awesome music that plays when Oak is introducing you to the world of Pokémon for the first time, but it also introduces a little motive that people might recognize at the very end.
And same with the other tracks on the album, they all sort of reference each other: The S.S. Anne references Vermillion City, for example. There are also many moments where the Route 3 theme plays. It’s actually the motif I picked to represent Red. It’s so heroic sounding, I wanted to pick that to represent Red and have people identify with him.
C: For this interview, you decided to release the Gym Leader Battle music a special track for us here at ZI. Why did you choose it?
S: I chose it because it’s also one of the most memorable Pokémon battle themes, I mean which one isn’t? But it’s also more epic than the preview that I released for the wild Pokémon battle. With Wild Pokémon Battle, I wanted to convey a sense of urgency, but not make it over the top, because with a wild Pokémon, there aren’t a lot of stakes: You either catch it, or you don’t, or you murder it and get EXP!
Whereas the Gym Leader Battle has a lot more weight to it, and it’s a lot beefier than the Wild Pokémon Battle in that sense because you’re battling a highly skilled trainer with a specialized Pokémon team, and I wanted to show that off to people.
C: What is this I hear about bonus tracks?
S: Ah, yes, there are a lot of bonus tracks I plan to release as a mini-album probably early next year… I don’t have an exact timeframe. But they will include some lesser-known tracks, and some super popular tracks such as Jigglypuff’s Song, the PokéFlute theme, and some of the Trainer Encounter music. But it will also include two original pieces that I’m going to write for Mew and Mewtwo. They’re not going to be arrangements of what was in the first movie. Although I love that score, I wanted to write my own character themes for the game versions of Mew and Mewtwo.
C: And this will all be available on iTunes, correct?
S: Yes, I’m partnering with Joypad Records, who are a fantastic group of dudes from San Fancisco who are big game nerds and also copyright experts. They’re the ones who are allowing me to distribute my album, but also to not get in trouble with The Pokémon Company, paying royalties to them, instead of doing it for free and then getting sent a nasty letter.
C: I remember at on time you were considering a physical release, as well? What became of that?
S: It will be on iTunes and Amazon MP3 for sure. There may be other platforms, but I still need to talk to Joypad about that.
C: I know you’ve said Kanto Symphony is it in terms of big projects, at least for a long time. Can we hope for single releases every now and then, or will you be shifting your focus entirely to your education and work life once Kanto Symphony is over?
S: I would like to be able to produce singles. I can’t really hold myself to it though, because as I’ve just started education in composition, and music theory, and ear training, I’ve realized how difficult it is to be a disciplined, formally taught musician. I’d gone my entire life without taking piano lessons. I’d taken choir in high school, and I’m pretty much self-taught in everything, and I realized how much discipline I lacked when I got to school, so I want to shift my focus to school, but that’s not to say I won’t make time for video game music, because it’s really hard for me to tear myself away. I just love video game music so much, especially form Pokémon and EarthBound and Mother… So you might actually be seeing more EarthBound stuff in the future
C: Winding down here, there’s a lot to learn about arrangement, but if you could choose one piece of advice to give aspiring orchestrators, what would you say?
S: *laughs* Just one?
C: It can be a long one *chuckles*
S: I think it’s very important, if you’re serious about becoming a composer, and orchestrator, and/or an arranger, that you find the best music education possible and that you stay motivated. That could either mean enrolling in an arts school, or music school, or conservatory where they teach you that sort of thing, or it could be self-taught using books and videos (the internet is great for music instruction). However, with the latter option, you definitely have to hold yourself accountable for assignments and learning. And a lot of people lack that, like me! *laughs* So I’m going to music school instead. But the one thing you need to do is stay motivated. Listen to all of the music you love, listen to all of the music you’ve never been exposed to. Get people to send you mix CDs or MP3s of styles that you’re interested in. Expand your musical horizons and always be open to learn and work hard.
C: Are there any last words you have before we wrap up?
S: Gotta catch ‘em all!
So there you have it! What do you think? Are you excited for Kanto Symphony’s release next month? If you’re itching for more, you can check out the audio interview linked near the beginning of the post. And be sure to check out our special preview right below. It’s nothing short of fantastic, but why trust me when you can hear it for yourself?