Phoenix Down RPG combines live music with video games

Phoenix Down RPG combines live music with video games

Phoenix Down RPG members in action during a game of Dungeons & Dragons. (Photo: Eric Snoza)

Every living thing has a beginning and an end. The phoenix can burn as brightly as the sun, the sight of its majestic wings filling the sky with flames burning shades of orange and yellow, but every flame eventually dies out.

The life of the phoenix ends in the ashes, and a new one is reborn from the pyre, which is considered a heatless, gray ruin.

The term “Phoenix Down” comes from the Final Fantasy video game series. Typically in these games you have a team that goes into battle and if everyone falls in the game you have the option to use Phoenix Down to bring players back to life.

This was the inspiration for the name of the alt-classic band Phoenix Down RPG, founded by husband-and-wife duo Dylan Lloyd and Teil Taliesin. Playing a mix of classical, new, and geek chic, the group has gained popularity this year, hosting interactive events like Name That Tune and even hosting a live Super Smash Bros. tournament at Camp North End.

With the goal of making gaming and live music more accessible, Phoenix Down RPG has held regular events in the past, such as the Video Game Mixtape, Campfire Tales, and Klezmertron, which led to the Super Smash Ultimate Video Game tournament, where the duo performed the game’s soundtrack live.

The first Melody & Mayhem game, organized in partnership with local game development organization Potions & Pixels, took place on June 1 at Camp North End.

“It was really cool to see the players. They felt special being on the big screen and having us play music,” Lloyd said. “Sometimes, between rounds, they’d ask us, ‘Can you play this or that?’ It was really cool to see how special it was for them.”

“For us it was equally special,” Taliesin added.

On June 20, the city announced that Phoenix Down RPG would receive a $38,252.50 grant from the Opportunity Fund, part of the city’s new Arts and Culture Plan, which will allow the group to further expand its offerings by hosting 10 Campfire Tales events.

Phoenix Down RPG wants the event series to act as a portal that welcomes anyone and everyone into music and gaming. They want viewers to look at the stage and see themselves doing the same. They want the community of creators to be able to build on each other.

The “Name That Tune” event took place at Camp North End (photo: Xavier Jimenez)

“Our goal is to include as many different Charlotte-area artists as possible in this project. We want to bring in musicians, visual artists, actors, singers, dancers… you name it,” Taliesin said.

“We want to help them not only connect with our audience, but also show their creativity in a new light. They are storytellers, and we want their storytelling to be seen through the lens of a community, collaborative effort.”

Rediscovering passion

Like the phoenix, a person’s spark—their fiery passion—can burn out. The things they love to do become untouchable—an indescribable pain. For Dylan Lloyd, co-founder of Phoenix Down RPG, the efforts to earn a doctorate in musical arts caused the clarinetist to put his instrument aside for years.

He began school with the intention of becoming an orchestral musician. By the time he began his master’s degree, his interests had expanded beyond the orchestra, leading him to pursue a doctorate in music—specifically exploring klezmer, which is, in its narrowest definition, the instrumental folk music tradition of the Jewish people.

“It was a great way to have a good dissertation topic, to explore something that meant something to me, and to go beyond a purely orchestral perspective,” Lloyd explained. “At the same time, getting a Ph.D. is exhausting. When I finished, I was a little burnt out musically. I graduated and honestly didn’t want to touch my instrument for a while.”

Whether you’re sitting on a stand in the corner of your room, reclining in your favorite chair, or gathering dust on your windowsill, the tools you use to create art and meaning are burning eyes into the back of your head. The daunting task of perfection, meaning, and purpose looms in the background of your daily thoughts.

A month turns into a year, and then a year turns into two. Desire slowly turns into need, because this lost aspect of identity will make us feel whole again. For Lloyd, discovering his love of video game music through his classical education has reignited the fire within him.

Lloyd met his future wife, Teil Taliesin, at the University of Louisville while they were both studying music. Taliesin, a classically trained musician who began playing the oboe at a young age, still found music incredibly refreshing as a university student, although she was tired of playing the same Eurocentric composers at every concert.

“I started to feel like there was a lack of representation, not just ethnically, but also gender; women, non-binary people… I felt like there were a lot of things that were missing from the orchestra scene, which led me to start playing the oboe with loops,” Taliesin said.

Teil Taliesin and Dylan Lloyd from Phoenix Down RPG (photo: Dionna Bright)

He calls his playing style oboetronica and uses it during his live performances at Phoenix Down RPG.

“When Dylan started arranging video game music for a band we didn’t have, I saw the passion that brought him back to music. That’s what got me excited about playing music that other people loved,” she said.

Taliesin has found more representatives in the world of video game music than in the world of classical music not just in terms of gender and ethnicity, but also age and era. Composers are alive and well in the video game industry; while they reach smaller audiences, their fan bases are full of ardent supporters.

Classical music is often associated with the upper classes. There is an air of elitism surrounding the genre, based on the aesthetics associated with it—the opulence of the concert hall, the prices of tickets, the attire.

In recent years, however, classical music has been modernized: film screenings feature live orchestras, and series such as Bridgerton feature pop songs arranged using string instruments.

Like the Ivy League schools, classical music has been around for a very long time. We may put these institutions or genres on a pedestal because of their association with the upper class, but these associations are not built on anything.

“There’s a place and value in that,” Lloyd said of the high-quality aspects of cultural music. “There’s also a place and value in having a (video game) concert where you can show up in your T-shirt and feel comfortable.”

The Importance of Social Gaming

Phoenix Down RPG recently received an Infusion Opportunity Fund grant to host 10 Campfire Tales over the next year. The event series features live board games with local creators as players, along with, of course, interactive improvised music in front of an audience.

Receiving the grant was a huge achievement for the group, which they worked for eight years to achieve.

Musicians perform during the quiz “Guess the Tune”. (Photo: Xavier Jimenez)

When Lloyd started arranging music in 2016, he saw how important games had become to Teil—not just video games, but also community-based board games.

“I started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I injured my shoulder and had difficulty playing (music), so I needed another creative outlet,” Taliesin said.

“I’ve had a lot of D&D community blocking,” she continued, “which basically means that a lot of male players are either keeping me out of the community, or making games that are very uncomfortable, or pushing boundaries in ways that they don’t for male players.”

These interactions inspired Taliesin to host her first D&D game at a classical music festival. She initially planned to do a one-shot, which typically means a four- to six-hour game with four to six players, but ended up doing a three-day mini-campaign with 10 players.

The group continued playing together after the festival and began streaming their games on Twitch. About a year later, the team decided to take a weekend in Chicago to meet up and create theme songs for the characters. They released a series of albums called Dragon Ballad, which inspired Campfire Tales.

Both Lloyd and Taliesin treasured this time spent engaging in meaningful activities—bonding with their new friends through Dragon Ballad projects and using each member’s talents to create different strands of the larger tapestry.

A grant to Campfire Tales has enabled Phoenix Down RPG to expand the project by hiring 30 local artists, whose live performances will be recorded for the podcast.

“There will be elements of audience interaction in these performances that will help guide the path of the story as it unfolds. It’s going to be crazy fun,” Taliesin said.

And what more could we want than building community, creative collaboration, and crazy fun?

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