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Japanator Interview: Nobuo Uematsu and Arnie Roth talk of Distant Worlds and the future

11:36 PM on 04.13.2009 // Zac Bentz

It's hard to believe, but in 1990, I was 13 years old. That was the year that the original Final Fantasy for the Nintendo Entertainment System was first released. That was also the year that I ignored the outside world for many days as I played it non-stop until Chaos fell.

While I can still vividly remember everything around me while I played (often in the kitchen where the best TV was) I remember most clearly listening to the music. Specifically the “Prelude.” That simple, spiraling arpeggio, looping over and over again. I swear that I must have had it running for twenty minutes at a time, trying to somehow get inside it and understand just how it could be so beautiful.

Nineteen years later, I found myself shaking hands with that song's creator, Nobuo Uematsu.

Not only did he write that song, but also “Matoya's Cave,” probably my next favorite from the entire Final Fantasy series, and that's saying something. At last count, there were roughly elevenyzilion absolutely incredible songs surrounding the Final Fantasy series alone, not to mention all of the other great works that Uematsu-san has been a part of. His work has spawned millions of bedroom remixes, both good and not-so good, uncountable numbers of serious music producers and more than a few fond memories.

Twenty years (give or take) has brought a lot of change to both Uematsu-san's music and the games it appears in. Now his creations are being played around the world buy massive orchestras in front of thousands of adoring fans. The most recent iteration of the phenomenon is called Distant Worlds. Directed and conducted by Grammy award winner Arnie Roth (Dear Friends, Voices, Play! Etc...) the giant show is taking a swing though America and around the world. Full of both light humor and very serious moments, the show does much more than simply “remix” a few of the more popular songs. It brings them to life in a way that is much more real and human than most could imagine.

I shook hands with both Uematsu-san and Mr. Roth at noon on Saturday April 11th, 2009, a few hours before they were set to hit the stage for the first night of the new tour in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Arnie Roth

The unfortunate thing is that for some reason only the howling void at the center of the universe knows, our recording equipment decided to feast upon its own electronic heart, rendering its functions largely infective. It kept this secret suicide to itself until it knew the time had passed to make any outside intervention effective.

Nevertheless, since I have a memory like a steel trap (a live bait trap perhaps, but still) I do have a few of the highlights to display. I was interested to know what it was like to travel around from town to town with little more than a bindle and a song (literally) hopping from orchestra to orchestra and hall to hall. Mr. Roth seems to enjoy the variety and the forced freedom of having to be ready to change up the performances at each stop. By working with local orchestras, they are able to connect with the local area and showcase its talent. They are also able to send out the scores well in advance, and in fact have already sent out the scores to places like Singapore and Taipei. For the Minneapolis performance, they were whipping out an entirely new song, “Ronfaure” from Final Fantasy XI. In fact, they have so much freedom that they are polling the fans to see what songs they should add in next.

Both Roth and Uematsu put a lot of thought into the program. For Distant Worlds, they have picked a sort of “greatest hits,” culling the set list from many of their previous outings like More Friends and Voices. Roth was fascinated to see hear the many different version of the Chocobo theme spanning many different musical styles, something that inspired the jazz version appearing on this tour.

Going back to the fans, they seem to get a very mixed bag of people showing up. Spanning all ages, the people in the audience also have a wide range of fashion preferences. One unique aspect of the Distant Worlds audience is that many of them are coming to the orchestra for the very first time and subsequently have some rather traditional expectations. They dress to the nines, some going all out with tuxedos and gowns. Others (perhaps these very same orchestra n00bs) come dressed in whatever it is they normally wear, the t-shirt and jeans type. Though of course there are also our friends the cosplayers. Roth mentioned seeing many that had extremely elaborate costumes indeed. For the most part though, he said that the cosplayers were in a vast minority, with most people dressing up only a little, which is in fact  what many orchestras are encouraging. They want to include everyone and t-shirts are as welcome as tuxes (and Tonberries.)

Nobuo Uematsu

As far as those grand, analog and acoustic versions of his original 8-bit songs are concerned, Uematsu-san sees very little difference from one to the next. His approach to writing for either extreme hasn't changed much. Perhaps this is a result of the amount of work that goes into every song. I asked him flat-out about just how much of himself, Nobuo, was in each song, and how much of "the company" was. He said (quite frankly, I felt,) that only about 20% of the music is his own expression, with the rest coming from someone looking over his shoulder, seeking very specific themes.

Specifically, Uematsu-san has a hard time with both town themes and battle themes. The former because it's very difficult to imitate the sort of hustle and bustle of a city street in music. The latter, because he actually doesn't like conflict and glorifying battle. He doesn't like the questionable morality of it. Of course everyone had to laugh at this when I immediately mentioned The Black Mages.

If you don't already know (and if you've read this far you must be a fan and therefor are well aware) The Black Mages is a sort of progressive rock/metal band that does some pretty intense versions of the battle themes (among others) from the entire Final Fantasy series. The project started when a couple of Uematsu-san's producer friends got together and started fooling around with some of the Final Fantasy music. They invited Uematsu over to hear it. He thought it was great and was soon helping to put a band together with himself on keyboards, becoming something of a band leader in the process.

Nobuo Uematsu

Obviously, the staggering body of work that Nobuo Uematsu has created for the Final Fantasy series has changed the face of not only the video game world, but the much larger universe outside of that relatively small niche. While he has many more video game projects in the works, he has also produced that soundtrack for the currently running anime series Guin Saga. In 1994, he released an album of his own solo work called Phantasmagoria. Perhaps going against his previous claim to having only 20% of himself in his game work, the album is in fact much like his more grand and soothing work for video games.

I asked him what he had planed for the future, and I was delighted to learn that he is working on a new solo album, due out around March of next year. He is even writing his own lyrics, some in English, that will be sung by a variety of vocalists. He said that at this time in his life he is quite busy, but that his life is very full and happy. He is very excited to get his new album out. “We all are,” I said.

My suggestion for his album's title?

Nobuo 100%

[HUGE thanks to Uematsu-san, Mr. Roth, Ogawa-san, Tanaka-san, Leanne and Chris for making all of this possible and totally amazing!]

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Zac Bentz,
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