As a middle school kid (probably in 1985-88), Masashi Hamauzu knew he wanted to compose music for games.
He was a fan of Final Fantasy among others, and in 1996 he joined Square. He realized his dream and became a game music composer.
But for years, he wasn’t able to musically express himself fully.
He had trouble with SaGa Frontier 2 (1997) It took until Final Fantasy XIII (2009) for him to be able to really put his “heart into it and let loose”.
In this short interview, Hamauzu talks about his days at Square, his workflow, and the challenges of expressing yourself fully.
In 2010 he left Square, but we didn’t quite get to that in this interview. He has since been active with his band IMERUAT and arranging music for game music concerts, like the Nintendo concert LEGENDS.
(We interviewed Masashi Hamauzu at LEGENDS in Stockholm, Sweden on June 1, 2011. Interpretation by Johan Hallstan, with later edits to the translation by me. Photos by Valtteri Jokinen.)
Nikolas: How do you feel Stockholm is different from Japan?
Hamauzu: I’ve heard that Sweden has very high taxes and good welfare. Walking around the city I could feel it. I saw a lot of lakes and forests from the airplane. The city is clean, the climate is good and the evenings are cool. Those are the things that are different from where I’m living.
Nikolas: In college you wanted to work at Square. What did it feel like when Uematsu chose you to work at Square and your dream came true?
Hamauzu: Ever since middle school I wanted to work as a game music composer. I heard that Square was a really good company, especially its development environment. I always wanted to work there. When I got the job I was very happy and I even made a victory pose.
Nikolas: Did you think about the [sings Fanfare music from Final Fantasy]?
Hamauzu: Ah, yes, yes [laughs].
Nikolas: When you were working at Square, did you feel you got to work with interesting projects? Which project was the best one during your time at Square?
Hamauzu: Every title I worked on was very interesting. But it did take its time until I was able to enjoy and have fun with my work. Around Final Fantasy XIII I really started having a good time. Before that there were a lot of new and difficult things, so while it was fun, it was quite hard. It wasn’t until my recent titles that I’ve been able to really put my heart into it and let loose.
Nikolas: Why did you decide to leave Square? Have you felt that you’ve been able to choose projects more freely after leaving Square?
Hamauzu: I left Square because I wanted to work more broadly. Also, I get to keep the license for the music I create. While I’m currently not able to choose whatever I want, this concert [LEGENDS by Thomas Böcker] is something I couldn’t have done at Square, because I wouldn’t have been able to arrange Nintendo titles. So my possibilities have increased and I am very happy about it.
Nikolas: Do you feel you can express yourself better in music after leaving Square?
Hamauzu: Yes, I do feel that way. [Takes out the CD “Imeruat” by him and Mina from Ainu Rebels.] This is a CD I had the freedom to do. Please take one [laughs]. One of the reasons I quit Square was to be able to make CDs like these [laughs].
Nikolas: If we have time later, I want to ask about Ainu Rebels, but now I’d like to continue with other questions, if that’s okay.
Hamauzu: Sounds good.
Nikolas: Can you describe your workflow once you have been assigned to a score? I mean the workflow for an entire project.
Hamauzu: First I get the scenario or character art. That helps my imagination and I try to compose a theme song to a certain extent. As the game development continues I’m able to watch movies and scenes from the game. I go to my original score and alter it so it better fits the game and its mood. When the development reaches its last stages I compose the majority of the songs. That’s the overall flow.
Nikolas: When you compose a new track, what do you start with? Are you trying to find the right chords or melody or rhythm?
Hamauzu: It depends on the track. Sometimes a melody pops up in my head and from there add chords to it. When I’m pressed to create a lot of tracks, I sit in front of my keyboard, my fingers start moving freely and the melody and the chords come out at the same time. I start from the sound that comes from wherever I laid my hands on they keyboard and go from there. There are also times when the chords come first, but the pattern changes from track to track.
Nikolas: Do you ever play a wrong chord or melody by mistake, but decide to keep it because it sounds good?
Hamauzu: Yes, sometimes [laughs].
Nikolas: What kind of music do you listen to? What kind of music influences you?
Hamauzu: I usually don’t sit down to listen to specific music for inspiration. I mostly have my television on or browse the internet and from there I hear different kinds of music. Just with that I get inspired fast. Trying to do it consciously is tiring, so I usually don’t [laughs]. I’ve always liked classical music, but I also listen to music from Japanese television dramas and movies.
Nikolas: If you don’t have any inspiration, do you have a technique to get that inspiration back?
Hamauzu: It’s tough when that happens. Well, like I said previously, I just leave it up to my hands.
Nikolas: In the Chocobo no Fushigina Dungeon Coi Vanni Gialli orchestral arrangement album you said in the liner notes that “demand for classical music is still low in Japan” and that you want “to spread the word on this style of music by any means necessary.” Are you nowadays trying to convey any kind of message with your music?
Hamauzu: Game music concerts have increased a lot in the last 10 or 20 years. Some people get into classical music as a career thanks to that. Others have started to learn piano after hearing my piano tracks. I get a lot of e-mails from these kinds of people, who are now studying composition or the like.
Nikolas: In the Unlimited SaGa soundtrack the first half is orchestral/piano style. The second half is electronic. How did you end up with two totally different styles of music?
Hamauzu: [Laughs] In the middle of the development I was told they wanted a different atmosphere. I used a lot of orchestral samples and the sound just got overly smeared with an orchestral coat, since I used them so much. So they said, “Let’s go with a different sound.”
Nikolas: It’s a good combination.
Hamauzu: [Laughs] Yes.
Nikolas: When you composed the music for SaGa Frontier 2, you felt a some pressure to compose music for other people’s gratification. You finally started to compose with your own style. After the SaGa Frontier 2 soundtrack, have you ever felt like you are trying to make music that others want want you to make? Or have you always composed with your own style?
Hamauzu: Yes, I wrote that in the liner notes. If you just respond to other people’s demands, you’re just, for a lack of better words, a composing machine. Using your own ideas freely is more sincere, I think. I was doing that to a certain extent before SaGa Frontier 2, but now I’m doing it all the time. If I wouldn’t, I would become meaningless.
Nikolas: You have done many piano arrangements and some orchestral arrangements. Have you thought about making arrangements in another genre, like jazz, rock or something totally different?
Hamauzu: This relates to the previous question. I don’t compose whatever I want, but get ideas from the director. Like requests for something with a taste of rock. I agree to it, but do it on my own way. Then it turns into something close to rock, but is still different. There aren’t any genres I don’t do. There were several styles in Final Fantasy XIII, for example. But I do like the piano and feel that there are a lot things I still want to do with it. There might be more of that in the future.
Nikolas: What does it feel like to have an orchestra perform your music?
Hamauzu: I can only say one thing: I’m deeply moved by it.
Nikolas: What kind of concert would you like to organize? What would be your dream concert?
Hamauzu: The games that I’ve composed for aren’t really as popular as Final Fantasy. But there are fans and for them I would like have a concert with a collection of good tracks from my lesser known games.
[Someone comes in and says the time is up.]
Nikolas: Do you have any greetings for your fans in Finland?
Hamauzu: First of all, I’m very thankful that someone from Finland is willing to do this interview and I was surprised by how much you knew about me. I’m really happy that so many fans exists. I like European countries and Finland as well. Helsinki and the north. And the history of Finland, like the wars with the Soviet Union, is really fascinating and I used to like studying about it.
Nikolas: Thank you very much.
Hamauzu: Thank you very much. I really want to go to Finland. [All laugh!]