Talk about an experience of a lifetime. I was super jealous when 1UP.com did their “One Day With Nobuo Uematsu” video interview last year, but I am confident when I say that Shota and I had an even better day with Nobuo Uematsu in San Francisco this past Saturday. He was in town for the Distant Worlds concert, of course, and man, it was a truly epic experience.
Aside from our lengthy interview that features some pretty bizarre questions, we saw Uematsu-san get assaulted (not really) by fans on the street who wanted his autograph, and learned that hey, contrary to popular believe, his English is pretty amazing. In fact, we almost didn’t even need Shota on hand, as I would often ask my question in English, and Uematsu-san would immediately respond in Japanese, and even English at times. Despite being called a “stalker” on numerous occasions by Uematsu, I I was quite content when the day was over, and we hope you enjoy the end result. Oh, and there’s more to come, so be on the lookout in the coming days and weeks!
Hear the answers to your burning questions about Uematsu’s legendary mustache along with many other things you never knew you wanted to know after the jump!
OSV: So, to start, does the name Original Sound Version mean anything to you?
Uematsu: From Final Fantasy. Original sound version. Yes!
OSV: Good, good. So, the biggest news recently for you has been the announcement that you’ll be working on Final Fantasy XIV. And so we’re really excited you’re returning to the series.
Uematsu: Thank you!
OSV: And so we’re curious how it is that after a two game absence, you came to work on the title, and what your approach is going to be with the music.
Uematsu: So Hiromichi Tanaka, the producer, called me up and asked if I wanted to do it, and I said, okay, I’ll do it. I’ll be in charge of the whole thing, as in all of the music.
OSV: So, like in Final Fantasy X and XI, there were other composers who contributed. Not this time, it’s all you?
OSV: Wow. Lot of work! [Laughs]
Uematsu: Yes. [Laughs]
OSV: How do you feel about returning to the series?
Uematsu: So I’ve been working on the series for 20 years, since I was in my 20s. There’s a huge amount of pressure for me, and I feel like I have to make it really good since I’ve been absent for two games.
OSV: Yeah, certainly a lot of pressure. So what is your approach to the score?
Uematsu: Well, there were no instructions for me to write anything specific, and I don’t really use a defined approach either, so I’ll look at the picture and read the scenario and go with it.
OSV: So we should we expect something similar to the oldschool style of IV and VI or something more modern like VII or VIII?
Uematsu: So, it’s like going up a flight of stairs. I’ve been writing all this Final Fantasy music, so it’s like a cumulative thing. I don’t feel a change. The listeners may feel it, but I really don’t. XIV will be the extension of the stairs.
OSV: So the next evolution!
Uematsu: [Laughs] Yeah!
OSV: So, on that topic, have you had the chance to listen to the music from Final Fantasy XII or XIII yet? I know Sakimoto-san and Hamauzu-san have been your colleagues, so I’m curious about your thoughts.
Uematsu: No, I haven’t listened to them. [Laughs]
OSV: So do you have anything to say to them as their former boss?
OSV: Maybe words of encouragement or something?
Uematsu: I’m really happy because I feel like I found a diamond in the rough.
OSV: So you feel you helped them along the way to scoring a Final Fantasy?
Uematsu: So when I was at Square Enix, there was a sound team of about 10 people. I tried to introduce them to some Final Fantasy work to give them some experience. So I was giving them a chance to get exposed and get their names in the credit, and now they’ve come all this way to a full score. Hamauzu-san was definitely one of the top talents on the team, and he had strong feelings about developing his own style, so that’s why I wanted to give Hamauzu-san more chances for exposure.
OSV: So… 10 Stories.
OSV: It’s your upcoming solo album, and it’s your first solo album since Phantasmagoria. So I was hoping you could tell us about how Phantasmagoria and 10 Stories will be different.
Uematsu: So, when I made Phantasmagoria, I was really into new age music, or healing music, but now I don’t really need healing. [Laughs]
Uematsu: So I wanted to make something more exciting or joyful.
OSV: So is that the story behind 10 Stories? A collection of joyful songs?
Uematsu: So when I was about 12 or 13, I was writing a bunch of songs with lyrics, so I pulled out one of those and thought maybe I’d make it into a CD since that’s what I had hoped for when I was young. That’s the approach I’m taking.
OSV: So that was, “Here Comes Conga Boy?”
Uematsu: No. [Laughs]
Uematsu: That was from last year. When I was 49. [Laughs]
OSV: [Laughs] So how long have you been planning 10 Stories, and what went into the decision to release the tracks individually leading up to the full album release next year?
Uematsu: So it’s been at least 5-6 years because I’m used to writing melodies and music, but not with lyrics. So I’ve been thinking about this, and 5-6 years had suddenly passed. For the iTunes releases, you know how they used to release singles instead of albums? When I was waiting for Elton John’s new singles, I wanted to give that feel, and get that feeling again for myself, so my opinion is that the old single record idea is basically like iTunes. Downloading singles.
OSV: I like the single format. I’m a big fan too. And when was the first track released?
OSV: And isn’t it supposed to be one per month? [Laughs]
Uematsu: Hmm… [Laughs] Well, one every few months. So the next one is the one I composed when I was 12.
OSV: I’ll look forward to that.
Uematsu: End of August.
OSV: So Guin Saga was your latest project, and it was one of your first anime titles. How did you come to work on this project and was it challenging writing music to fit a certain scene in a certain time instead of writing looped music for a game?
Uematsu: The Guin Saga producer, when he was thinking about who was going to write the music for the anime, he was walking around the office, and heard the soundtrack of Lost Odyssey coming out of one of the rooms, and he said, “Okay, who composed it?” So I got a call. Guin Saga is like a really long fantasy anime. There are 120 episodes, so it was a lot of work for me! Do you know if it’s out in the US?
OSV: Actually, I don’t think so.
Uematsu: How about the novel?
OSV: It’s been translated into so many languages, I would imagine it has been in English, but I don’t know.
Uematsu: So there was a guy working in Square Enix who I think translated it, so it must be out, actually. Let’s get it!
OSV: There are 123 volumes! Since the 70s!
Uematsu: Yes, late 70s.
OSV: So that’s a big project to tackle. So I’m wondering what it was like writing music to a picture rather than writing looped music for a game.
Uematsu: So, it was really difficult for me because I wasn’t quite sure what approach to take because there were no visuals! So the audio director said if I write something with a lot of dramatic elements within the piece, he could just cut and edit it later on. I was relieved, and started writing.
OSV: Wow. That sounds like a very non-ideal setup. Like, in Hollywood where they write the music to the screen.
Uematsu: Yes, that’s right. Very different from movies.
OSV: So what have The Black Mages been up to since the concert last August? Have you been in the studio at all, and are there songs in the Final Fantasy catalogue that you think still need to be performed by the group?
Uematsu: So there aren’t any specific plans yet. I just shot an email to everyone, asking if she would do something. Like, “Let’s go and drink!” Since they’re all Square Enix employees, their time is very limited.
OSV: So which songs do you think still need to be performed by The Black Mages.
Uematsu: Hmm… “One Winged Angel…” what else do you want to hear?
OSV: How about… [long pause] “Troian Beauty?”
Uematsu: By The Black Mages?!
OSV: Why not? You did “Matoya’s Cave,” which is a happy track. And you always leave off “Grand Finale?” from the Final Fantasy VI opera scene. The battle theme at the end. So when you do the opera scene, you have to tag that on the end.
Uematsu: Hm, I’ll think about that.
OSV: About The Black Mages, I have to ask. At the last concert, at the very end, you ran to the front of the stage, and you pulled back your pant leg, and you have the piano socks… [Laughs]
Uematsu: Yes, yes! [Laughs]
OSV: So, where did you get those?
Uematsu: I bought those a long time ago, and you normally wouldn’t wear socks with keys, so those were the debut of the socks. I want MIDI! [Laughs]
OSV: [Laughs] It’s way better than the necktie! On the same topic of The Black Mages, Lord of Vermilion, it sounded because the style it could have been a Black Mages project, and given that it was Square Enix, The Black Mages would have made sense, so why didn’t they perform on the soundtrack?
Uematsu: So, they are like Black Mages. Maybe unofficial Black Mages.
OSV: Well, okay. So you’re a huge fan of rock music obviously, so I wanted to know about your experience working with Ian Gilian on “Eternity” from Blue Dragon. How did he get involved with the project?
Uematsu: So it wasn’t really out of my will to get Ian Gilian. I knew somebody who knew him, and he said, “Yeah, I can hook you up.” But Gilian is old, you know, he’s over 60, and we didn’t know if he could sing. So I asked him to look into some other singers as well, and I didn’t hear from him for awhile. Then the deadline was approaching, and he finally got ahold of Ian Gilian. So it wasn’t really my choice.
OSV: So are you a fan of Ian Gilian?
Uematsu: Well, sure! I’m a fan of Deep Purple.
OSV: So did you work with him in person, or over a distance.
Uematsu: Distance. So Deep Purple was doing a European tour, but he had a break for a week in Canada. So we sent him a Pro-Tools file with everything recorded and some pre-recorded vocals as a guide track. So Ian Gilian recorded 5 takes, and his famous screaming, and he said “just use whatever you’d like.”
OSV: So, interesting. Must have been great for you as a fan of his music.
Uematsu: Well, I thought I was going to meet Ian Gilian! [Laughs] I had my Machine Head album, and I wanted to get an autograph, but I guess my wish wasn’t granted.
OSV: I guess you can mail it to him.
Uematsu: Yeah, e-mail!
OSV: So, my next question is about Cellythm – Those Who Distorted. It’s an interesting encounter between you and the rock world. What went into the creation of this album, and how do you feel about your music appearing alongside rock greats like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin?
Uematsu: So I was initially inspired by T-Rex. T-Rex had a really nice mix of strings and electric guitar, and I always wanted to do it, but Apocalyptica, who play rock music with four cellos, did it first. So I put the idea in the closet for awhile. But then I met this person who said, “I know this person who does rock music on cello,” and that was the start of what ended up being the Cellythm album.
OSV: And how do you feel about your music appearing alongside The Beatles?
Uematsu: Well, I actually hadn’t really thought of that… but now that you mention it, it’s a really happy feeling. So this was the first album, so we put some famous tracks in. But I already have some ideas for the next album. I don’t want to give away too much, but something like Kraftwerk, or something minimal.
OSV: Very good, very good. Real quick, why weren’t the Ante and Cellythm opening acts from The Black Mages concert not featured on the DVD?
Uematsu: I actually don’t know. Ask Ogawa-san!
OSV: And a strange question. Are you a fan of Harry Potter?
Uematsu: Well, it’s not my favorite, but I’ve been watching it.
OSV: Well, the reason I ask is because when The Black Mages come out on stage and take off their hats, they kind of look like Harry Potter!
Uematsu: No, it’s the black mage character from Final Fantasy.
OSV: Yeah, but when you take off the hat, it looks like Harry Potter.
Uematsu: So we made the costumes just for that concert.
OSV: But black mages in Final Fantasy wear blue.
Uematsu: Yeah, you’re right. So we talked to a designer, and they had a bunch of sketches and idea, but black was the most suitable.
OSV: Black is more rock.
OSV: Well, maybe Harry Potter is a black mage too. He casts magic. [Laughs] Well, you’ve been a long-time fan of Celtic music.
OSV: Are you still playing the fiddle?
Uematsu: Mmm…. not so much recently.
OSV: Given that you’ve been so focused on rock music lately, are you interested in getting back into Celtic music? Is it possible we’ll see something like Final Fantasy IV: Celtic Moon again in the future?
Uematsu: So, I still love Irish music. When Celtic Moon came out, the reception was actually really poor. In Japan, Irish music wasn’t really known, and people thought the Irish violin sounds with the scratches and chops sounded too harsh. And the drums are kind of all over. But as time has gone by, people have been telling me it’s their favorite album.
OSV: It’s certainly one of ours. So does Final Fantasy IV have any special meaning to you? The “Theme of Love” is a piece that’s performed by children in music classes in Japan, but are there other tracks that you’re really fond of from that soundtrack?
OSV: “Troian Beauty?”
Uematsu: Yeah, I like it! “Troian Beauty.” And also “Red Wings.” I want to do that one with an orchestra someday.
OSV: Good, but do “Troian Beauty” too! [Laughs]
Uematsu: [Laughs] Actually, now that you mention it, it’s really suitable for an orchestra. Maybe we should do it.
OSV: So now I have a really philosophical question. Technology has changed so much over the years. Back on the Famicom and Super Famicom, you used to be single-handedly responsible for the sound that the end user heard, but now that we have live music in games, you have a team of arrangers, orchestrators, and performers, and so on. Do you feel that having this team that helps you create a live sound detracts from your musical expression and do you feel you have less control over the final sound?
Uematsu: Well, this team makes it completely limitless and actually expands my musical expression because I can’t do everything. And even if I could do it all myself, it’s still better to have people because sometime’s it’s like one plus one equals three. We can add more ideas and be more creative and come up with more ideas. Creating things by yourself is not quite possible these days. There are limited things you can do, and you have to rely on other people to do certain tasks. It’s a team approach. Maybe you can do certain tasks, but with a team, you can do even more.
OSV: So I guess the perspective that I think of sometimes, because a lot of our readers on the site are hardcore fans, or very serious fans of your music, and if you have a team of people creating the music, that it almost feels like this end product isn’t “you.” It’s this person and that person. We’re not getting “pure” Uematsu-san.
Uematsu: It will sound horrible if I make it on my own! [Laughs]
OSV: [Laughs] That’s not true!
Uematsu: It’s like I make the heart of the person, and the other arrangers and orchestrators and mixers dress up the kid. So sometimes it’s great, and you take a new arranger, he will put new clothes, and it’ll look good. So it’s different every time.
OSV: So if you make the heart… who makes the brain? [Laughs]
OSV: Okay, I get it. So of course we’re here today for Distant Worlds. I’m wondering what it’s been like for you traveling around the world and seeing the effect that your music has had on people over the past 20+ years? And are there particular arrangements in the Distant Worlds catalog that you’re particularly proud of?
Uematsu: So, I go to different countries and see people loving my music. It makes me very happy and makes me glad I was born! Recently, people come up to me and say, “I want to be a videogame composer because of your music.” This makes me exceptionally happy because it’s like how I started music with Deep Purple and Elton John, and now I almost feel like I’m one of them, inspiring people to get into music.
OSV: That’s an interesting comment, because a lot of aspiring composers that really look up to you and your music really like your battle themes. So we have a friend who’s kind of made it in the game music industry, and he gives talks to aspiring composers about what to expect when they get started, and he opens with, “You’re not going to be hired to write 7,000 battle themes!”
Uematsu: There are actually certain pieces that I like from the final boss battle themes, but the regular battle themes are just so-so.
OSV: Really? They’re very popular among fans.
Uematsu: I put so much focus on final boss battle themes because that’s the moment that everything ends, but the other battle themes aren’t as exciting.
OSV: So what are some songs that you think need to be a part of Distant Worlds?
Uematsu: Well, we have a list of songs that we want to add.
OSV: Can you tell us your top pick?
OSV: [whispers “Troian Beauty”]
Uematsu: So you said that earlier, and now I think we can actually do it.
OSV: I would love that. I’ll fly out wherever you are to the debut. So, can you tell us your favorite project that you’ve worked on since you founded Smile Please?
Uematsu: 10 Stories. That’s my favorite. When you make game music, you have to satisfy the users and the game company. But for 10 Stories, the only person it has to satisfy is me. So it’s a relief.
OSV: So no end user, huh? Just you. Based on “Conga Boy,” it’s very good so far, so I’m looking forward to your next track from when you were 12 years old.
Uematsu: “Coconut Castaway.”
OSV: “Coconut Castaway?”
OSV: I have to ask, are you going to be singing on any of the songs on 10 Stories?
Uematsu: I do some voice acting, but no singing.
OSV: Why not? I hear you’re really good. [Laughs]
Uematsu: [Laughs] At Distant Worlds in Seattle, I actually sang along with the choir for “One Winged Angel.”
OSV: So that’s perfect. With only 4 singers at this show, you can really stand out.
Uematsu: No, no, no! Not this time. [Laughs]
OSV: So, you obviously have a very close relationship with Sakaguchi-san, and you haven’t worked with him in like a year since Lost Odyssey, so will you be working with him again in the near future?
Uematsu: There are so many things I can’t say. So I “may” be doing things… I “may.”
OSV: You know, I think Cry On was canceled.
Uematsu: Yeah, canceled.
OSV: Had you written any music for it when it was canceled?
Uematsu: Well, I was actually quite happy to hear the project was canceled because I was way too busy! [Laughs]
OSV: So, you’re going to be busy with Final Fantasy XIV and 10 Stories throughout the rest of the year, but what are some other things you’re going to be working on that you can talk about right now?
Uematsu: So, next week there will be one new game title announced in Famitsu, and one in the fall, but I can’t talk about them yet.
OSV: Wow, so busy. So, I have a couple more random questions that just popped into my head. The Final Fantasy VI Special Tracks…
Uematsu: Oh yeah, the single CD.
OSV: What is that?
Uematsu: [Laughs] Do you remember what was on the CD?
OSV: Some unused town themes… oh, let me pull it up real quick.
Let me ask, at every show anywhere in the world, they have to play “One Winged Angel,” or the fans get angry. What are your thoughts about the track, and what do you think about “Dancing Mad?” It’s so long and epic, so why doesn’t it get more recognition?
Uematsu: So we had a vote from the audience listing the top five tracks for fans to vote on, and “J-E-N-O-V-A” and “Dancing Mad” won. We’re planning on doing these with Distant Worlds.
OSV: Huh… how would you do “J-E-N-O-V-A” with an orchestra?
Uematsu: I don’t know.
OSV: [hums the descending melody] It has so much synthesizer!
Uematsu: Well, I don’t think so. They’re just going to have to create a different arrangement.
OSV: “Dancing Mad” is just… is it a special track to you? It’s so long, it has like, movements like traditional classical music.
Uematsu: So you know how Kefka transforms?
Uematsu: Well, I wanted to create a different theme for each stage, so that’s why it’s so long.
OSV: It feels like a concert piece with the different movements. You could probably make an entire concert out of just “Dancing Mad.”
And oh, here’s Special Tracks. It has “Approaching Sentiment.”
Uematsu: So, Sakaguchi is kind of a musician wannabe [Laughs] So he always wanted to put a CD together. So he wrote a song, and we put together a singing group consisting of the staff. So we did it, and it’s like a commemorative song.
OSV: It’s a good track.
Uematsu: So, the first verse was sung by Sakaguchi, and the third verse is Tesuya Nomura, the character designer. You’ve heard this?
OSV: It sounds like a choir track from church.
OSV: So, there are some unreleased tracks here as well. Why didn’t you do something cool like this for any other Final Fantasy?
Uematsu: Well, it was more like a bonus track for Sakaguchi’s single. So it was just there.
OSV: [Laughs] For his benefit.
Uematsu: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s kind of not possible to just make a CD just with Sakaguchi singing!
OSV: So your hair. It’s growing very long. Is that to go with your rock style?
Uematsu: Yes! … No. [Laughs] So, you know how humans really had no culture of cutting hair when it wasn’t necessary or not annoying? Well, nowadays, people cut their hair for fashion or for whatever reason. I want to feel that threshold of when I feel like I “want” to cut my hair. That’s the sole reason, really.
OSV: So, your mustache is kind of legendary. Everyone talks about how Amano-san, Sakaguchi-san, and Uematsu-san each have unique mustaches.
Uematsu: So there are two reasons. Around Final Fantasy III, Sakaguchi said, “Hey, do you think I should grow my mustache?” And I said, “Yeah, you should do it!”
Uematsu: [Laughs] So Sakaguchi said, “Okay, let’s do it together!”
Uematsu: So that’s the first reason. And the second reason was I had to direct a team of audio guys, but most people didn’t listen to me because I looked so young. So this barber that I went to told me, “Maybe you should grow a mustache.” The timing collided, so I had two reasons, and I did it.
OSV: Wow. [Laughs] That’s really funny.
Uematsu: Once I grew it, I thought, “Okay, maybe I shouldn’t shave anymore.”
OSV: You have to go for the threshold. [Laughs] See how far you can go before you feel like you “have” to cut it.
Uematsu: [Laughs] So, hair I can hide with a bandanna, but not with a mustache. If it grows so far, what do you do with it?
OSV: You can tuck it back into your hair or twirl it.
Uematsu: Yeah! [makes twirling motion]
OSV: So, I have a question about your work on Chrono Trigger. Mitsuda-san got sick, and you had to fill in. I’m curious about the tracks you wrote, and if you were given specific instructions.
Uematsu: So I was actually on vacation, and I got a call from guess who? Sakaguchi. He said that Mitsuda was kind of down and under so much pressure, and he can’t do it, so I had to return from vacation and return to work. There were specific scenes and directions already given for the pieces.
OSV: Are these pieces at all memorable to you?
Uematsu: None. I don’t remember any of them.
OSV: Really? Well, fans liked them. You had a rockin’ “Tyrano Lair” track.
Uematsu: It was more like I was an additional or supporting composer. It’s Mitsuda’s work, not my work. It wasn’t even a collaboration, so that’s why I don’t remember.
OSV: Well, it’s good. But thank you so much. It’s great meeting you, and thank you for talking to us.
Uematsu: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
[Special thanks for Chris Szuberla, Leanne Araya, and Arnie Roth at AWR and Hiroki Ogawa at Dog Ear Records for helping make this interview possible. Translation provided by Shota Nakama.]Distant Worlds, Dog Ear Records, Final Fantasy, Interviews, Square Enix, The Black Mages, Troian Beauty, Uematsu