Legendary composer Nobuo Uematsu is often called the John Williams of video games because of his work on the Final Fantasy series and other famous Square games. Last year, he and his band, the Earthbound Papas, made an appearance at HEXXP. Now, with support from Babel Entertainment, the Earthbound Papas are returning to Hawaii with Oni Con, performing Saturday night at Hawaii Convention Center.
Online pre-registration has closed, but tickets are still available for the three-day Japanese culture and gaming convention at various location on Oahu, and at the door for Saturday night’s concert.
Having gone to the amazing first show, I was excited to see the the band return, and requested an interview with the man who wrote the soundtrack to my childhood. He shared some anecdotes about how his career got started, some advice for creatives, and talked about why he loves Hawaii so much. Here’s our chat:
One of the things I found interesting while doing research is that you originally thought you were not going to have a career in music, and had a job at a music rental shop when a Square employee asked you to make some music for them. You thought it was going to be a part-time gig that wouldn’t really lead anywhere, but here you are, decades later, still making music. How do you feel about that start now that you’re here?
Uematsu: I actually did think about doing music a little bit, but also a kid I wanted to be a pro wrestler, so there was that, too. (laughs) I was creating demo CDs and putting them out at that time, but wasn’t getting any answers back. Obviously, if you’re making demos and not getting responses, you’re not really making music or money, and can’t really eat like that, so I took a part-time job at the rental store. Square was down the road at that time, so was kind of close easy to get to. That said, there were a lot of different creative-type people coming over to my house, so there were people writing books, people doing music, all kinds of creative types would come and drink together and talk together. Out of all of those people, one of them came and said, ‘Hey, I do video games!’ That person was one of the people at Square, and that person asked me, ‘Hey, do you want to start trying to make music like this.’
It was at my house. But of course, you can’t just create music sitting around at home, so we were sitting on the street and Square guys basically walked by and were like, ‘Hey, what are you doing over there? So, like, you guys wanna do that in an office or something?’
Was that exciting to you? Did you think to yourself oh man, this is a huge opportunity?
Well, you gotta keep in mind, this is back 27 or 28 years ago. Square hadn’t had a game that was a really big hit. Now we say video games are a big thing, but back then it really wasn’t. The big thing for me was that I was thinking about getting married at the time, and to do that you gotta have some money coming in every month. Because of that I was like yeah, that sounds really good. Let’s go ahead and start that.
Was that Reiko? (His wife)
Wow, that’s awesome. So you were more excited to have a job than you were excited to be in video games. Is that right?
I find that’s an interesting point. Square hadn’t had a big hit at the time, so you were going into something unknown, and Square almost didn’t make it. You met Sakaguchi-san there and worked with him on what was going to be his last video game. I wonder, what was the environment at that time? Did everyone think Square was gonna go under? Was it kind of like a last hurrah? What was your life like at the time?
Like you were saying, it had come to the last hurrah. A lot of the employees were really young at the time, so their thinking was like we’ll put in all of our effort, make this happen, do it ‘till the end. But, of course, you have to start thinking about what’s next. Sakaguchi-san was really the only person who thought this was going to be a hit. Everyone else was thinking we’ll do this, give it as much as we can but, at the same time, we gotta be ready.
So, really, your career as it is now almost didn’t happen? Having been part of the crew sticking it out on a sinking ship that serendipitously created a life-altering hit, what would you tell young creatives like musicians and designers… should they go for it? What did you learn from that experience? What advice would you give?
It was just fate. I credit fate for a lot of my success to it, and a lot of where I have ended up. Just because you have a lot of talent and know what you’re doing does not mean you will succeed. At the same time, fate is something where you don’t really know what’s going to happen. It might happen tomorrow; it might happen next month; it might happen next year. My advice to anyone who is in the same position as I was is keep going at it. If you like Korean music, if you like being in a band, it’s important to just stick with it because you never know what will happen. It’s something that you can’t see and nobody can tell. So, don’t give up.
Okay, now I want to take a step back and talk a little about what could have been. You said you knew you were going to do something in music… What did you think that would be? Did you think it would be something like what you’re doing now with the Earthbound Papas? Being in a band, doing rock music? I know Elton John is one of your big inspirations.
Nobuo: (long stretch in Japanese, Nobuo and translator laugh)
(Everyone laughs.) I don’t sing, but I did like putting lyrics to song, so I would create the songs, create the lyrics, and create the CD’s that were in that [Earthbound Papas] style… But they didn’t sell at all. So, I ended up going somewhere different, and never thought I’d up in a rock band after that, let alone at this age.
And how the Black Mages started was actually kind of serendipitous as well. A co-worker asked you if you wanted to do it, and then you said okay… after being like, I’m a little busy right now.
Yeah, I definitely agree with you. How it started was that someone in the Square offices was like, ‘Hey, why don’t we start doing this. Let’s create a few songs.’ Obviously, at square they had a lot of different talent, so all of a sudden someone who plays the guitar comes out, then someone who plays the drums comes out, and they got to a point where they all got together and said we’re not going to do this without Uematsu-san. If he’s there, we’re there, if he’s not, we’re not.
And then you were like oh well, now I gotta. And then you liked it. Now you’re doing the same thing with the Earthbound Papas.
Yeah, you know, when you’re in your twenties and thirties, being in a rock band is kind of an okay thing, but once you’re past 40, going to the front of the stage with everybody to do all this… I just wonder is this something I can do? Is this something that’s okay? But being there, and doing that, it’s fun, so I’m continuing to do that.
I was there last year; it was totally okay! So, I know the Black Mages were kind of a Final Fantasy cover band, primarily doing reworkings of his previous work. Now, with the Earthbound Papas, you’re branching into new territory and making new work. Can you talk about what themes you’re going after and what inspires the band?
Actually, Earthbound Papas is still doing Final Fantasy covers as well as a lot of songs for other video games I’ve worked on, arranged for the rock, of course. There’s only one song on the album that’s entirely original.
Ah, I was under the impression you guys were working on new stuff. So, is Earthbound Papas sticking to re-imagined classics?
Going forward, I want to do both. When we were working on this album, we were creating songs about UFOs, aliens and mysterious ghost kinds of things… but we were afraid that if we created a CD of just that, it might not sell, so I wanted to borrow a little of Final Fantasy’s power and do rock arrangements of video game songs as well. Going forward, we’ll probably follow the path of including both original songs, and rearranged video game songs.
Opening the focus a little bit, I know you have a lot of incredibly talented people working with you. I saw them last year and was just blown away. How has working with people this talented influenced you or perhaps how you arrange the music to take advantage of their unique skills?
When I’m writing songs, I tend to stay by myself. When I’m done, I come out and say okay, guys, here’s what we’re going to do. When we go practice, that’s when the band members will raise their hand and say I think we should do this or that, and that’s when the song develops to take advantage of everyone’s talents and bringing them into the song and the music.
So, going back into your past a little bit, at your last concert you said you spent a little time in Hawaii while working on Final Fantasy IX, is that correct?
So, that was between around April 1999 to May 2000. The thing is, during that entire time, it was a lot of going from house to work to work to house to house to work, so in that sense it the same as it was in Japan. But at the same time, just being able to go down the street and see the blue sky and the blue ocean and all that was very calming and very conducive to my work. In doing so, it made me very productive… I was creating over 100 songs during that time, so every two or three days I’d have a new song made.
Outside of work, outside the blue sky and ocean, what was your favorite thing about working in Hawaii? As far as experiences go, anything that left a lasting impact on you?
In Hawaii, cars absolutely stop before the walkways. In Japan, they just come through. Also, especially in Waikiki, everyone walks around with a smile. In Japan, it isn’t really like that, so I really enjoyed that, too.
One last question. You have the Distant Worlds series. We happen to have the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. Have you ever thought about, or are there any plans to do musical work in Hawaii beyond Earthbound Papas?
So, the whole Distant Worlds thing, two or three times it’s almost stopped completely or just fallen apart. I’m not sure if it’s a money thing or a performance thing or what have you… but we’ve actually thought a lot about coming to Hawaii. Especially Sakaguchi-san really wants to make that happen, it just hasn’t happened yet.
Do you have any parting thoughts? Hawaii has a very strong video gaming community. In fact, all those people who grew up with his work are coming into their own, and some of them are starting game studios of their own here. With that in mind, musicians and video game people of Hawaii, is there any wisdom you can leave them with?
Hawaii is my second love of places to be in the world. I’m very happy to be here, and I definitely want to continue doing live shows and concerts with Earthbound Papas and, hopefully one day, Distant Worlds. As those events continue to go on and continue to grow year after year, I’ll definitely keep supporting them and definitely continue to be there for them. I’m excited to keep on doing it.
Translation services were provided by Babel Entertainment. You can follow Ed White’s shenanigans on Twitter, or your social network of choice. You can find Nobuo’s music at the Dog Ear Records shop, or some of it on iTunes.