Both Colette Bennett and I had the honor of meeting and interviewing Final Fantasy series composer Nobuo Uematsu, who was joined by Distant Worlds conductor Arnie Roth. The pair took time out of their busy schedule in the middle of preparing for their next concert in Grand Rapids, Michigan to talk to us about games, music making, boss battles, concertgoers and more.
The interview gradually becomes unconventional, as we chat with the famed composer about beer, business men, and the best moves from Final Fantasy VII to have in your personal arsenal. Luckily enough, he didn't think we were totally crazy. In fact, it seemed as if he was glad to play along.
I have to admit that it was hard for both of us to remain professional, as we are both huge fans of the 20 year game music veteran. Fortunately, Uematsu is an easy-going, fun-loving guy who, now that I think about it, could probably see right through us. He knew we were gaming geeks. Regardless, we had fun.
Read on for the full interview with Nobuo Uematsu.
Colette: Do you watch or play the games you compose music for before you come up with the music? Or do you just go on art and imagine the story from there?
Colette: Considering the success of concerts like Dear Friends, do you think an event such as the orchestral pieces from Lost Odyssey or the Blue Dragon event that was held in Tokyo could be successful in the United States? I'm a huge fan of Lost Odyssey.
Dale: What song would you feel was at the top of the voting?
Colette and Dale: No, not at all!
Colette: I'm looking forward to a fourth album from the Black Mages, if it's coming. We wanted to ask if that's something that we could look forward to, and if the Black Mages would ever consider playing music that's not from Final Fantasy.
Uematsu: The Black Mages have only been releasing albums every two or three years. In the next three years we don't even know if we'll be alive. [laughter]
Among the members there are a few who want to play something other than Final Fantasy music, but the name Black Mages is owned by Square Enix, so that's kind of difficult.
We've heard the idea that maybe we can change to name from the initials T.B.M. to something like Tokyo Business Men and just forget about the copyright and do what we want to do. [laughs]
Dale: And everyone would just wear black suits with black ties...
Colette:...and look tired
The Black Mages.
Colette: Back in the days of the Nintendo, you created sounds exactly as the would sound to the user. Now, with CD quality music in games, do arrangers and orchestrators make your job any easier? Do you still feel like you have complete control in how the sound comes out in the end?
Uematsu: Now that I have more opportunity to help me out, like, if I'm working on something like jazz, I can ask a professional jazz musicians to arrange it. I'm not doing this because I want less work. I'm trying to expand the music.
Now it's even better than before. Back in the day I would actually have to go somewhere to get someone to arrange it for me, and then get there to hear it. But it would be too late because it's already being arranged. I can't ask the person to change it. But now, because of technology, if I make something and ask somebody to arrange it, if I don't like it, he gets it right back. I have better control now.
Dale: My favorite work of yours is "Dancing Mad." Can you tell us what went into the creation of this song? What are the influences that went into this brilliant piece?
Uematsu: When Final Fantasy IV was being made, I knew that the game would be popular in Japan, but I also felt and sensed that people outside Japan were becoming more interested in the series. Everyone on the staff were very excited, and tensions were very high. I was doing any drugs or anything bad, [laughter] but because of this energy, I was able to make amazing pieces from beginning to end.
Colette: I have the same question for "To Zanarkand."
Uematsu: I actually didn't write that for Final Fantasy X. It was actually for a friend named Seo-san, who plays flute. She asked me to compose the song for a recital. I made it, but later thought that it was a little bit too gloomy. I decided to keep it for something later.
Later, when I was in charge of making music for Final Fantasy X, the staff was calling, asking where the music was. I said, "Okay, just take this one." [laughs]
Colette: That's a great story. I'm so glad I asked.
Dale: I heard that you make your own beer. [laughs]
Uematsu: [in English] Yes.
Dale: You'd have to be a pretty big fan of beer to make your own, right? What does it taste like? [loud laughter] What? I'd love to have a glass!
Uematsu: I think it's really delicious. Have you tried making beer?
Dale: I've always wanted to, but never tried. What would you liken your beer to, brand wise?
Uematsu: It's nothing like Japanese beer. It's more of an ale. But my friend won't drink it. [laughter]
Dale: Then he's not a real friend.
Uematsu: He can't be a real friend then.
Dale: Have you heard the numerous fan arrangements of your music out there on the internet? It's kind of like our version of the Japanese doujin music scene. If so, what are your feelings on this music?
Uematsu: I'm honored. According to law, legally, it's no good. Square Enix doesn't like it [giggles], but I don't mind. More people are listening and appreciating my music.
Dale: You told us before that you've played all the Final Fantasy games, specifically Final Fantasy VII. If you had a Limit Break, what would that be?
Uematsu: Dolphin Blow? [everyone looks at each other and laughs]
Or Cloud's Omnislash?
Dale: Mr. Roth, how did you first come to work with Uematsu? This was back in the Dear Friends days, right?
Roth: Back at the first performance at E3 in Los Angeles, it was producer Jason Michael Paul, who I knew from some other concert productions. What was interesting is that nobody in the United States believed at that point that Final Fantasy could be a concert. They thought that the E3 concert was around a convention, and that it couldn't sell by itself.
Jason had been trying to get concerts in the United States but had no luck at all. He called me upset, saying that nobody wants to take this. Like a crazy person I decided to try it.
So we were the first ones to do a commercial concert this way, not connected to a convention or anything. And then I went on with the tour at that point, I was asked to do all the rest of the Dear Friends concerts. That was my first time working with Uematsu's scores.
Dale: Initially, how did you feel going into videogame music concerts? Were you apprehensive?
Roth: No. As a conductor, looking at the scores and listening to reference tracks, I could tell the quality level of the orchestration and the music, so that part was of no question to me. Really, the stars of these shows are the orchestra, and its really meant to showcase the live performance of music by the orchestra. So for that reason, it works very well as a vehicle to bring new audiences in for orchestras.
Dale: We've heard from other orchestra players at other game music concerts that they were surprised that the music they were playing. Is that what you're getting from your orchestras?
Roth: There's no question. The comments are more about the quality of the scores. You have to understand that when orchestras play for pop artists, when they do what they call a crossover concert, they have a lot of whole notes. Not a lot of activity, and they're not featured either -- they're in the background. That's very different from what this concert is. The difficulty level and the spotlight level is on them as performers.
I remember when we did the Royal Stockholm concert for the first time. Every one of them could not believe the audience reaction or the quality of the scores. They really appreciate that. There's a preconception that this is going to be like a pop concert, but it's not, and they don't understand that.
I don't think that was the case at first. At the first, the Los Angeles concert, there were a couple of little comments, little quotes like "we shouldn't be playing this." I could never understand that. I worked with them. What went on there? But I've never had any issue. All of them are delighted with the scores and the audience response.
Arnie Roth at work.
Dale: Are you aware of the new type fans that attend these shows? The dreaded hummers? The ones that hum the songs all through the concert with every song?
Roth: No. That's bad.
Dale: You don't want to sit next to a hummer.
Colette: But you're sitting next to me! [laughter from group]
Dale: You had better not hum!
Colette: I wanted to ask about Dog Ear because I really enjoyed the CellRhythm release. Will we see more releases coming from Dog Ear Records like that? Has that release been a success so far?
Uematsu: I am not into making J-pop kind of music. I want my releases to be unique, with my own style. Next year in March, I'm going to be releasing an album through this. You can download current releases of ours on iTunes. Can I advertise this?
Destructoid would like to thank Chris Szuberla at AWR Music, Hiroki Ogawa at Dog Ear Records, Arnie Roth and, of course, Nobuo Uematsu for this opportunity. We're still embarassed about the karaoke!