Every once in a while at a Los Angeles Kings game at Staples Center, the theme song from The Legend of Zelda will drift through the arena. It won’t sound like the 8-bit version you heard when you popped in that gold cartridge in your NES and reached the title screen; it will sound, rather, like Zelda by way of Sunday church. This would be, yes, Link’s theme as piped through an organ, a pretty thrilling thing to hear between puck drops. For that, we can thank Dieter Ruehle.
Ruehle is the music director for the Staples Center and the organist and DJ for the Kings and the Lakers; he’s also played at the U.S. Open and at five Olympic games, including the most recent Winter Games in Sochi. He was born and raised in the Valley, took piano lessons as a kid and got his start playing for the Kings back in 1989.
At Kings and Lakers games, Ruehle handles the entire music selection you hear before, during and after the game; he covers some songs on the organ and plays others as they were originally recorded. At a Kings game, for example, he may play everything from theme songs to Foster the People to Major Lazer to Terence Trent D’Arby. As if that weren’t enough, Ruehle also hits the goal horn during hockey games (“hit” being figurative; the actual “horn” is a switch.)
Both the Lakers and Kings’ seasons just started, so you can imagine Ruehle currently has his hands pretty full. As busy as he is, though, he was kind enough to take some time out to talk to us about in-game setlists, Zelda and what it’s like to blast the pipes at Dodgers Stadium.
This is your 20th season with the Kings and your 26th with the NHL. Did you think you’d be able to make a career out of playing the organ when you were a kid?
I knew when I was a kid that it was just sports organ music in general was something I loved. I don’t think I knew at the time that I’d be doing this this long, but at the same time, I didn’t think I wouldn’t either, you know? It just always spoke to me when I was a kid. I’d watch games in other cities on TV, when the Kings went to other places, and I’d hear the organ in the background and just think, That sounds so neat.
And that someone surely has that job.
Where are you located in the Staples Center?
I’m located on Press Level. About as high as you can go.
In your office up there, do you have a television with a camera focused on the net? Just so you know when to hit the goal horn?
I have a TV, but it’s mostly for watching the instant replays. I actually just watch the game directly.
So you’re just so used to keeping track of the puck that you can catch it when it crosses the line?
Yeah, exactly. I just stay focused on that, or maybe pause a moment to make sure it’s a goal.
Right, because what happened during the Oilers game was nuts!
You know, that’s happened to me before — where everybody thinks it’s a goal and reacts. But as soon as I see the referee wave off the goal, I’ll stop.
What’s your process for putting together a playlist?
I have two separate lists, one for the organ and one for the prerecorded music, or the songs for whistle breaks. I don’t always get to every song. But you can see the playlists for yourself — it’s posted on the Kings website. We have to track and log the music and send it to BMI, the music publisher, so the artists can be compensated. It’s also nice for Kings fans, if they’re curious.
If you notice, the playlist starts with when doors open. I usually play live for 20 minutes or so. So the organ set is listed, and it’s in chronological order, from the minute doors open all the way to the walkout music after the game is over.
People are walking out to a lot of L.A.-themed songs.
Yeah, I think it’s nice to end the night with an L.A. theme.
I read somewhere that you got the idea to play the Zelda theme from your girlfriend?
Yeah, exactly. About a year ago, my girlfriend pulled up the song on her smartphone, and I heard it and I thought to myself that it would be a good fit leading into a “Go Kings Go” [chant]. And now I’m reading Twitter that other organists play it, too. I just learned another song — “Gerundo Valley” — that’s used in another Zelda game, Ocarina of Time. That’s fairly new for this year.
Do you generally keep up with what other organists are playing?
If I get a chance to watch a game on TV, I turn the volume up to hear the organ in the background. Of course, on Twitter, there’s Organist Alert.
How do you determine what would be a good song to play on the organ versus just letting it play as is, prerecorded?
It’s kind of hard to explain other than saying it’s based on feel. I hear a song and I try to learn it and think whether it might be a good fit. And sometimes, vice versa, I’ll learn it and think, No, I don’t think it translates well on the organ. I think it depends on the song.
I think some of the more modern rock songs with a heavy guitar presence might not translate as well on the organ. However, sometimes, I do play a few bars of “Seek and Destroy” by Metallica.
And that’s pretty distinctive — once you hear it, you know what it is. Do you purposely choose songs that you know are recognizable and popular versus those that might not be as much?
I try to keep that in mind as far as playing what’s recognizable. Maybe if somebody doesn’t recognize, for example, Zelda, then maybe the next one I play is something that hopefully they’ve heard of. I feel that if I do one or two or three in a row that are kind of obscure, then I try to throw in something I think — I hope! — people would know.
Well, with 18,000 people, you can’t please everyone.
Putting together a playlist for a party is hard enough. I can’t imagine what the process looks like doing one for an entire arena.
It can be all over the place. But I think that’s where your audience is, too. That’s the thing: they’re going to a hockey game. They’re not going to a music concert with a certain artist. If they were, they would hear all songs by that band. But you’re going to a hockey game and you have people from all walks of life, so I think you can a variety of music. You can have hard rock, you can have electronic dance music and everything between.
Also, I think on the organ, I can get away with some things. Like, if I played the original recording of a song, it might stand out too much and be too out of place. With the organ, I can be a little more subtle. And I can always turn it into a “Go Kings Go.”
Do you play other teams’ home music, if you know a song is associated with them? Like “Brass Bonanza.”
Yeah, definitely when the Carolina Hurricanes come out, I’ll play “Brass Bonanza,” the old Hartford Whalers theme song. When the Sharks or the Jets come in, I’ll play a little bit of “America,” from the musical Westside Story, which features two gangs, the Sharks and the Jets.
From your perch, have you noticed any change in the popularity of hockey since you started with the Kings?
Yeah, I think overall from when [Wayne] Gretzky arrived in L.A. through today, hockey’s just gone on an upward swing of getting more popular each year. Now there’s a Kings High School Hockey League, which I don’t even think would have been a thought when Gretzky arrived. And it just seems like I could be out at the Target parking and see Kings stickers on cars. You see it more and more each year. Or, at least, I do.
And, of course, the Lakers are popular. Does the playlist for a Kings game differ from one for the Lakers? What’s a Kings song versus a Lakers one?
In some ways, it’s identical. In other ways, it’s different. Compared to the Kings, I play a little more R&B and hip hop at the Lakers. But they’re totally different. The sport’s different, the crowd’s different. In fact, I’m playing the organ during play during basketball. The NBA encourages the fan prompts during play. So if the Lakers have the ball and are dribbling up the court, I’ll play “Let’s Go, Lakers” while the game is in action. But in hockey, once the puck is dropped, the music has to be out.
I just realized that organists are more common in hockey than in basketball.
Yeah, as far as I know, in hockey, 22 or 23 out of 30 teams have an organist. In the NBA, I know of 4. Four teams for sure, maybe 5.
What do you think having an organ at the game brings to the game?
I think it brings a live, more personal feel. You have basically a live soundtrack to a live event.
You’ve also played at Dodger Stadium. What’s that like?
Dodger Stadium has the best sound system I’ve heard at a baseball stadium. But there’s a sound delay, so when I hit a note, I don’t hear it right away. I have to wear headphones because of the delay.
The great Nancy Bea just retired. Any chance you might be taking over the organ there?
I have no idea what the Dodgers will do. I enjoy filling in, but I have no idea if the Dodgers will even keep the organist position.