Profile – The president of Dog Ear Records who has composed music for many games, including much of the Final Fantasy series from when he was with Square Enix. Recently he’s also composed for games such as Granblue Fantasy and Terra Wars, and continues to receive attention worldwide for his talent as a composer and keyboardist.
Composer Nobuo Uematsu is a pioneer in the world of game music, and an all around great person. The sudden extended time off that he took last year sent shock waves through the industry, but he’s returned as of January 2019. He’s shown the fans his energy as he went around to 11 venues in 8 cities, as a part of the “Bra*Bra Final Fantasy” series of brass band concerts. We talked to him about his current state, as well as what the future holds.
Returning To Work In Good Shape, Despite Health Problems
It’s been about half a year since you’ve returned from your time off, but how have things been going lately?
(Uematsu) I’ve had some health problems, but once I started accepting them as just another part of me, I was miraculously able to go back to work as normal.
We were very worried when we heard about that. I think a lot of worry came from overseas as well.
(Uematsu) I think so. I’m very sorry for having to cancel the various concerts and live performances we had scheduled, including ones overseas. But there’s quite a bit to that story.
Did you end up getting hospitalized?
(Uematsu) Apparently I was close to dying! (Laughs) I wasn’t totally bed ridden, but was completely worn out and transferred to different hospitals. I’d thought that at least my body was still in good shape, but with this I’d completely lost confidence in that. It impacted everything, down to my mood.
It sounds like both your mind and body were fatigued…
(Uematsu) I like putting my all into everything that I do, so I’m going to keep giving it my best no matter what. That’s just a habit of mine, and I can’t change it now. I take on a bunch of work and put as much as I can into all of it, and that’s why I’m exhausted. But I can’t do anything about my age, and I realized for the first time I’ll have to start considering these things more carefully.
You really took on that much work?
(Uematsu) When I was younger, there was a time when I wasn’t able to make a living off of music. I haven’t been able to get away from the fear that I might not get any more work again if I turn something away, ever since then…That’s an experience so traumatic that it can change the rest of your life. But I’ve come to realize that things will get difficult for me if I keep working at that same pace.
You’ve made the reasons for your time off very clear. And we’re very relieved that you haven’t decided to quit working.
(Uematsu) I’m not going to quit. But this is the point where I should be thinking about what kind of things I’m going to create.
Excitement Over What To Do From Now On, And New Challenges
Has your way of thinking about creation changed since your time off?
(Uematsu) No, but some old feelings have been coming back. Because I’ve been composing songs for RPGs for so long, everyone thinks that’s just what I do, right? Of course that’s not completely wrong, but there’s a part of me that I wasn’t able to express through doing that. This may sound dramatic, but since having these health problems I realized that everyone will actually die one day…
It’s a very tragic thing that happens to us all.
(Uematsu) I’m 60 right now, and I’ll be 90 if I live for 30 more years. But 30 years passes in the blink of an eye, so it’s like I’ll be dead before I know it, as I’m just going about my business. If I don’t start doing the things I want to do right away, my life will be over (Laughs)
Has 30 years passed in the blink of an eye for you?
(Uematsu) I started working at Square, Final Fantasy ended up selling, and that’s kept me busy ever since. When you’re busy, time passes by before you know it.
I see, that is true.
(Uematsu) I felt completely different from when I was very young by the time I was 30. But when I went from being 30 to a 60 year old man, I didn’t feel like anything had changed at all.
(Uematsu) I haven’t changed (Laughs) I’ve been growing to understand this more and more lately, but adults really are just aged children (Laughs) Because right now, at 60 years old, I feel really excited about figuring out what I’m going to do with myself until I die. Putting aside that I don’t have as much stamina.
It’s great to still be excited at 60 though!
(Uematsu) From 30 to 60 I just set aside my own thoughts and did the work that was in front of me. Now I want to take on some challenges that will allow me to grow. My footwork isn’t as good as it was when I was young, but my network has really grown. I think I’d like to use whatever strength I can to make things that I wasn’t able to do previously possible now.
What’s your motivation for continuing to compose?
(Uematsu) I sometimes wonder why I do it…If I quit doing it, I wouldn’t be sure what to do with myself every day. I don’t really have any hobbies.
It’s a bit surprising that you don’t have any hobbies at all.
(Uematsu) Well, there are things that I like to do. I don’t know that I’d call it a hobby, but I recently got certified as a sound healing therapist.
You got certified as a therapist?
(Uematsu) I underwent it as a relaxation technique to help treat joint pain, but it helps relieve ailments through vibrating different types of large tuning forks. Even though they don’t touch my body at all, it’s so odd how relaxed they make me feel just from the vibrations…I believed it was because the melodies and chords moved something within people, but now I think the main reason might be the frequency and vibrations brought about by the sound. When I realized that there’s something more to sound itself than I’d thought about up until now, I started really wanting to study this more closely. I intended to just take a course on it, but I ended up getting certified (Laughs)
You’re the type of person who gets really deep into everything they do (Laughs)
A formative experience for me that first got me into music was listening to the Vienna Boys’ Choir. The mystery of why this kid who knew nothing about music was crying while listening to that choir is one that’s underlying for me. I actually dreamed of one day being a sound therapist, feeling that there was something about music that could heal people’s hearts. I’m happy that I can still explore these things that I’ve wanted to know more about, even at this age.
If You Want To Be A Game Music Composer, You Should Have Determination
Did you learn about music completely through self study?
(Uematsu) It was all through self study. But if I’d had the chance, I think I would have wanted to go to a music school? I would have been able to study it much more efficiently that way.
Materials would have already been prepared for you.
(Uematsu) I didn’t study piano or music incredibly thoroughly, and I went to a regular college since my father didn’t believe in that as a career…But when I was in college I read a lot of books on jazz theory and composition techniques, so I got really into the theory part of things. Wondering why C comes after G7, and things like that. I don’t know if all that stuff was useful to me or not, but when I’d browse through it I’d see my own unique musical structure forming.
No matter what the means, you still have to comprehend it all yourself in the end.
(Uematsu) But you know, the people who end up becoming professional composers aren’t the people who deliberately study to be them. I think the people who do are those that compose gradually, even if they haven’t bothered with all that other stuff.
I see…So what do you think young people who want to get into the game music industry these days should do?
(Uematsu) Let’s see…If you wanted to be a composer back then, you first had to get good at an instrument and then be able to write something. Synthesizers, multi-track recorders, and sequencers have become more prevalent since then though, so you don’t even need to perform it all yourself. And nowadays there are a bunch of different apps available, so that pretty much anyone can compose music relatively easily.
It definitely has gotten a lot more convenient.
(Uematsu) But if you don’t have a lot of determination, you won’t make it. When you have something you want to express, you used to have to start with practicing that instrument. But now you can think “Ah, I want it to sound like this”, hit a button, and you’ve got drum samples or whatever. Then you can just put it all together and call it done. So I think that feelings and seriousness around music are starting to become very different.
I see, that may be true.
(Uematsu) Being able to mess around with music easily is a very good thing. But if you want to be a game music composer, I think you have to have a very strong determination. If not, you’ll fall apart as soon as you get discouraged by something.
That’s one reason for not sticking with it…
(Uematsu) I still haven’t been able to express the same sort of emotion I felt when I heard the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and I don’t think I can stop pursuing that goal until I achieve it. There are both good and bad aspects to sticking with it for this long, and no one can really fully prepare for how discouraging it is when you hit setbacks. But I wonder if very many people think about it that much nowadays? There may many who think “If music doesn’t work out for me, I’ll just start painting or drawing”, and then they make the switch. That kind of do or die nature may just not be a thing anymore, like it was back then.
I don’t think that making a living elsewhere if your chosen path doesn’t work out for you is necessarily a bad thing.
(Uematsu) It’s not a bad thing at all. But that’s what I’d say when asked “I want to make a living from working in game music alone, what suggestions do you have for me?”. Anyway, I just want to say don’t try and mimic someone else.
You’ll just end up in second place that way, after all.
(Uematsu) You shouldn’t be dependent on the opinions of others…but you should ask for them. It’s important to get into the habit of deciding on things yourself when push comes to shove. If you just chase after people’s opinions and fads, you’ll lose sight of who you really are.
So then you have to have a “core”, much like you do, Mr. Uematsu.
(Uematsu) It’s fine if it’s just rock, or just jazz. That’s just you liking something unconditionally. People who can hold onto that sensation of bold emotion are strong, and I think that people who have that kind of brush with music when they’re young are very lucky. The kind of music that’s life changing.
And you’ve experienced that yourself (Laughs)
(Uematsu) I guess so (Laughs) That’s been the case for me with the Vienna Boys’ Choir, rock, and classical. I think the era has a big influence on that. Nowadays there are so many choices, even just on an iPhone.
(Uematsu) Back in our day, just about everyone wrote something about music or movies in the personal interests section of their resume. And all of them were completely immersed in those things (Laughs) The ones who loved movies really knew a lot about them, and there were a lot of bookworms too. But be that as it may, if you were to ask me whether things were better now or back then, I wouldn’t really be able to answer. I haven’t done anything other than music, and I’ve listened to a ton of different kinds. I’ve been very lucky to have had a lot of emotional seeds planted in me as a result of that.
Every generation has it rough in a different way.
(Uematsu) Right? There’s so much now that you just can’t choose, right? But when you’re young, you’re a blank slate. You have the potential to be anything, and that’s so wonderful.
Have you ever thought about wanting to go back to when you were young again?
(Uematsu) Nope! I had no money and no job, I wouldn’t want to go back to that painful of a life again (Laughs) But it was really fun talking about our dreams with friends that were in the same situation…Somehow, it feels weirdly like being 60 right now (Laughs)
I’m sure there will be some pretty exciting stories from you in the coming 30 years (Laughs) It seems like you’ll be pursuing some of the emotional experiences from your youth then.
(Uematsu) I suppose I will be…I think that if anyone else listens to the Vienna Boys’ Choir, they might experience the same feelings I did. It may sound self-important, but my life has been complex because I’m of always thinking that I need to move other people with my music in this same way (Laughs)
Not at all! I think a lot of us have been moved by your music quite a bit!
(Uematsu) I’ve thought about becoming a music critic and letting others hear the music that moved me so much. There’s just so much of it I want to show others. But if I think of me composing as passing that music on to the next generation through my own filter, I think my job may basically be the same thing.
Aiming To Have More Solo Live Performances
So what are your plans for the immediate future?
(Uematsu) Let’s see…I think I’d like to have more solo live performances. Inviting guests to sing, showing pictures that people have drawn for and having people do readings of stories I create…I’d like to keep challenging myself with that sort of stuff.
You’ve given us a glimpse into a world of yours that’s clearly very different from the one up until now, and it sounds like a blast!
(Uematsu) If I could just get a small club in the city for about an hour once a year, that would be good enough for me.
Just an hour? But I’d guess it would be a unique experience.
(Uematsu) Thirty minutes of that would be me talking though (Laughs) I’ll give it a try, and when I mess up or it doesn’t go off like I think, I’ll get scared and will freeze up before I even finish. But then I’ll gradually work on fixing the bad parts, that’s my plan (Laughs) So it may be rocky at the start, but that’s totally fine. Even if I’m insulted by everyone who attends, I’ll understand. It would be really nice to try doing something just for myself like this.
You’re just a person who can never stop. I hope you can keep on pushing forward like this forever!
(Uematsu) I won’t be settling down (Laughs)