I have butterflies in my stomach. My hands are sweaty. I am clutching to a notebook with interview questions in strange handwriting. I am so nervous I can barely read it. This wasn’t supposed to happen and I didn’t have time to prepare.
The next thing I know, the doors open and I am shaking hands with Nobuo Uematsu. He is the musical god in my life, and I never really thought I would meet him. But there he is, sitting and waiting for me to ask him questions. I am nervous and stiff as a rock, and everything feels so surreal…
If you’ve ever met the biggest idol in your life, you know what I’m talking about.
You either go in a total shock, or in a total fanboy mode.
For me, I was in total shock. I wasn’t supposed to interview Uematsu, my friend was. But he fell ill, asked me to do it in his place and handed me his questions.
Luckily the shock only made me nervous and stiff. I could still somewhat read and speak, so I read the pre-made questions out loud and didn’t have a clue what a real journalist does. I asked almost zero follow-up questions, which is like the thing about in-person interviews!
At least Uematsu was relaxed, and he happily answered all questions.
In this interview he talks about his early days, non-music interests, and how he sent demo tapes every day to music companies for 45 days straight.
(I interviewed Nobuo Uematsu at Distant Worlds II in Stockholm Sweden on June 11, 2010. Interpretation originally by Kanako Böcker. Additional later edits to the translation by me. Photos by Valtteri Jokinen.)
Nikolas: Mr. Uematsu, you have made a number of smaller soundtrack projects before you scored Final Fantasy. Can you tell us about those?
(Uematsu tries his best to remember specific games, while the interpreter Kanako Böcker finds a printed out list from Wikipedia of games Uematsu has composed for. They ask us whether we know this game or that game, and what they are called outside of Japan. After an awkward start and some laughter, Uematsu continues.)
Uematsu: There was Genesis, which was composed by someone else. I made some music for it at the later stages, but I’m not sure if it was used in the released version.
Another example is Seiken Densetsu, which was first supposed to come out on the Game Boy. I composed about twenty songs for it. Unfortunately Square couldn’t work out it’s release. Since they had trademarked Seiken Densetsu, after a few years they tried to release the game for the Super Famicom or something. Those songs are not public and I don’t know where the data for them is.
(Seiken Densetsu – known as Final Fantasy Adventure in the US and Mystic Quest in Europe – was released for the Game Boy in 1991. It was composed by Kenji Ito. Sadly I was too confused and ignorant at that time to ask more questions.)
Nikolas: When you first started composing for Final Fantasy, what were your thoughts about the game itself?
Uematsu: Nothing specific, I just worked like usually, like I did for the small projects before Final Fantasy. Of course I didn’t expect it to become a series and continue until today. Such a role-playing game already existed in Japan, the popular game called Dragon Quest. Already one or two of them were released, so Square wanted to make a game concept distinct from Dragon Quest.
Nikolas: Apart from technical advances, how has your work and your composing changed from the beginning?
Uematsu: In the past you had only the limited electronic sound. It was difficult to convey the flow of classical music, in the way today’s orchestral music style does. It was not possible. But today you have sampling and real live music, which you can use. That makes a very different impression. In the past I focused more on the melody, but today is less about melody and more about the music itself [as a whole].
Nikolas: So, if you wouldn’t be a composer, what would you do for a living?
Uematsu: When I was a child, my dream was to be a professional wrestler. But that’s tough on your body and you have to quit in an early age. Recently I’ve enjoyed cooking and been very impressed about how bread and pasta noodles are made by hand from wheat and water. Our generation grow up with ready-made products, which you just buy and cook easily. I learned how they were originally made by hand in a barbarian or middle-age style. Sometimes the concept is similar to composing music, you have to know about portions of water, like sounds in music. And then I think it wouldn’t be so bad. I think I probably would be good at cooking as well.
Nikolas: I think so too.
Nikolas: How did you find out about Square and what made you turn in a job application?
Uematsu: When I was a 24-years-old I lived in a rented apartment. Some of my neighbours were older and dreamed of becoming professional artists. We were close, had meetings and would sometimes drink together. One of them was working part-time at Square. She asked if I’d like to come over. That was the opportunity.
Nikolas: Heh, good apartment, good neighbours!
Nikolas: How many companies did you approach before working for Square?
Uematsu: None at all [laughs].
Nikolas: Did you ever think about approaching?
Uematsu: Not any specific company. At that time I was writing music during the day and recording in the evening. The next morning I would always bring my demo tapes to different publishers. I did that every day for a long time. I had no money, but kept at it every day. These guys receive thousands of tapes from different people. There’s no way they listen to each and every one. So you have to stand out somehow, right? My tactic was to just keep sending as much as possible to make them annoyed. One and half months later, I think I had sent them tapes for exactly 45 days at that time, an advertising company replied, “Fine, we’ll meet you, since these tapes keep coming forever and it’s annoying!”
Nikolas: When you started working at Square, what were your biggest challenges in the beginning?
Uematsu: Probably King’s Knight. But there was another challenge before that. Square didn’t buy me any musical instruments [laughs]. Because the company also had no money, hoho. They were a very small company. Around fifteen people. Most of them were very young and still university students. I expected to get a synthesizer, a computer and a monitor. That would have totaled at about 500 000 yen and I was asked, “Do you really need all this, Uematsu-kun?” There were times like that [laughs].
Nikolas: What part do you think music had in making Final Fantasy a big phenomenon?
Uematsu: I think such a thing is decided by the fans. There wasn’t really much difference between Final Fantasy and other game projects. What is your opinion?
Nikolas: I think the music is very memorable, everyone can hum and sing the melodies.
Kanako: For example? What titles?
Nikolas: Like everything. [We all laugh!]
Nikolas: And there’s also a big variety of music. Some are maybe classical, some almost like pop, some are rock. There’s so many styles of music. I think many people like that.
Uematsu: That is good to hear.
Nikolas: What is your best memory from Square?
Uematsu: Probably the trip to Hawaii with our staff [laughs]. That’s no good. I need to think of a serious answer.
Nikolas: Why Hawaii?
Uematsu: It was fun, man! Ever been to Hawaii?
Nikolas: No, I have not.
Uematsu: It’s a great place! [Laughs hard.]
Uematsu: A serious answer now. Square was a like a small company with fifteen students gathered together. Nobody expected it would become a big name. Not many people can experience such a great opportunity. And at the time the salary was really low. It was a situation where you didn’t know whether there was enough money for salaries or not. Now the company is known across the globe and I think I was really lucky to see that entire process.
(A man comes in and tells us that the time is up. We have to hurry to our next interview with Arnie Roth.)
Uematsu: Thank you very much.
Nikolas: Thank you.
Uematsu: Thank you very much.
Kanako: Thank you.
Nikolas: Thank you.
Uematsu: Thank you very much.
Valtteri: Thank you.
Getting to interview Nobuo Uematsu was a blast. He is a very a fun, warm, and polite person. Just look at all the long thank-yous he gave at the end.
Now, let me ask you something. If you would have the chance to meet him personally, what would be your number one question to Uematsu? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll make sure to ask it the next time around!