Orchestrating Lightning: An interview with Shota Nakama

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It might be a while until next March for Square Enix’s highly anticipated sequel Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. But it’s never too early to get psyched for the inevitably awesome musical composition of the soundtrack.

That hype undoubtedly got its kickoff at E3 2013, where it was revealed that lead composer Masashi Hamauzu would enlist the help of Boston-based Video Game Orchestra to orchestrate the Square Enix RPG soundtrack, due out in Japan at the same time as the game’s release on Nov. 21, 2013.

Being familiar with the symphonic rock band thanks in part to their stellar performance at PAX East this past March, yours truly got the chance to chat up VGO lead guitarist Shota Nakama. We discussed the upcoming release of Lightning Returns, delved into Nakama’s videogame music origins and even picked his brain about his favorite JRPG battle theme.

Hit up the interview past the break, and if you’re the type to enjoy an audio companion, the entire interview I conducted with him is also featured in the newly-released Episode 52 of the Pixelitis Podcast, starting at the 48:40 mark.

Alright, I’m here with Shota Nakama, the leader of Video Game Orchestra and the orchestrator of Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. Nakama-san, thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

Thanks for inviting me to this podcast.

Absolutely! So…how did you get your start with videogame music?

Just like anybody else. I was a big fan of videogames, especially when I was a teenager. In elementary school and middle school, before I started the guitar, I could call myself a gamer, I definitely was one. I was also taking some piano lessons, I guess I had some good ears for music. The game sounds were coming into my ears, and at the time, the music of videogames was being embedded into my memory and gene and all that. Soon after that, I started the guitar when I was fifteen or sixteen and that’s when I started focusing more on the music side ’cause I was gigging with a bunch of bands. So I had a little bit of a time-off from games, but still I was playing [music] constantly, and I came to the U.S. to study music.

In Berklee, right?

Before that, actually I was in Seattle and at the time I didn’t speak English. I really didn’t understand anything, so I couldn’t play games, because I didn’t understand the storylines (laughs). I didn’t play for a while, but Dragon Quest VIII was coming out and I said, “Dude, I have to play this.”

Right, on PS2. That franchise is huge in Japan.

Oh yeah. So, when I went back to Japan, I actually bought a Japanese PS2 and Dragon Quest VIII and I played that. That was like a comeback [for me] to games. After that, when I went to Berklee, I was studying film scoring, which is pretty much related to game scoring nowadays, especially with cutscenes. And one time, I was listening to some soundtracks and I encountered an awesome soundtrack called Chrono Cross.

Oh yes.

Hands down, the music is really, really awesome. I thought to myself, maybe doing this live would be kind of interesting. So I quickly formed a group called Video Game Orchestra. And that’s how it all started.

I know the first song you hear in Chrono Cross is “Scars of Time” and that whole soundtrack was done by Yasunori Mitsuda. Would you say that first piece drew you into it?

Absolutely. He definitely recorded most of [that soundtrack] live and it just has a huge impact. That song…anybody [who] listens to that song would say it’s great.

“Instant chills,” is what I would say.

Yeah, so that really hooked me [back] into this videogame music stuff again and I started re-exploring a lot of game soundtracks I hadn’t listened to for years and I was into all the Final Fantasy stuff, Kingdom Hearts, everything: all of the soundtracks from the games that I played when I was growing up. It was quite a good experience to re-explore myself. I remember listening through those things and I said “Yeah, I’ve played this one! Why did I not notice this, it’s such good music!”

Are you still exploring different soundtracks? Maybe things you might have remembered back then and you’re just rediscovering now?

Yeah, it happens constantly. The most recent one I listened to was Journey by Austin Wintory. Great guy, I’ve met him and he’s a great, great guy.

Oh, I imagine he is. Grammy-nominated!

Yeah, and of course I’ve been listening to Civilization IV, Christopher Tin. Awesome guy, also. And also Bastion. 

Yes, Darren Korb. It’s good stuff. Are you only now getting into the Western side of videogame music?

Not really, I’ve always liked Western games, especially after PS2, ’cause I think before that, Western games were still catching up with Japanese games. Now, it’s like, Western games kick ass! They’re really good. I love the God of War series. I love the composer: Gerard Marino. He’s a funny guy.

Very sweeping, epic scores from God of War.

Oh yeah, he’s an epic guy to begin with and his score sounds exactly like how he represents himself.

Nice, very bombastic I guess.

Yeah, exactly. I love that kind of stuff. And also, Blizzard and Halo. Lots of Western games nowadays have really, really awesome soundtracks.

I definitely agree with you. I wanted to also ask you: what are your influences? When I saw Video Game Orchestra perform at PAX East, when you were performing F-Zero’s “Big Blue,” and you did that whole three-guitar and bass-guitar switch-off, all I could think in my mind was “Steve Vai! Steve Vai!” So I imagine he’s a heavy influence for you.

The reason why I studied the guitar was because of Deep Purple. So, after that I digged every guitar hero [from] the 70s and 80s. I could say Ritchie Blackmore, Van Halen, Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, Andy Timmons and all those really, really awesome guitar heroes were influences.

VGOBigBlueGuitarA lot of the prog rock guys.

As well as rock in general. I listen to a lot of those guys, and I love a lot of vocal songs such as [the band] Journey, Steve Perry, Boston (which is where I live now) and Styx, obviously Van Halen with Sammy Haggar. I like [the] David Lee Roth stuff, but the Sammy Haggar ones are great too. The ones with vocals and great melodies…I’ve always loved those.

When you attended Berklee, was there a scene for videogame music that you noticed?

No, when I started Berklee there was nothing. No one was really talking about videogames.

Around what time was that?

2006. It only really started around 2008. A friend of mine who was also doing a film scoring major decided to put together a videogame music club, because he thought the music was awesome. After that, I joined it and we kind of started this whole videogame music “movement” in Berklee. And the club grew quickly really, really big. There were over 50 [to] 60 active members and people were constantly joining and it eventually became a [200-person] club. So then the school noticed it and they immediately hired a part-time videogame music teacher, who’s actually a full-time teacher now.

I did hear [about] that. I had a friend who went to Berklee and he did mention something about videogame music-scoring classes, that sort of thing.

Yeah, so then the whole thing really exploded and those classes became really, really popular. I think now they have two full-time game-scoring teachers and also a bunch of other classes too. It has become a huge deal, really.

[It's] a very good thing, considering so many people grew up with it. There’s magic to be found [within] videogame music.

Exactly, and it’s good that it’s finally being recognized as, how should I say this, valid kind of music. It’s actually a genre of music, not just, “oh, you guys do Mario, right? You are like twenty years behind us.” (laughs)

It’s not bleeps, bloops and explosion sounds and things like that [anymore]. I wanted to move on to your work on Lightning Returns. Now, the main composer Hamauzu-san said he specifically wanted VGO to work on the game’s orchestration, so how did that come about, and did that come as a surprise to you?

(laughs) It’s actually nothing really interesting. Hamauzu-san and I have been really, really [awesome] friends ever since we met. When we met the first time, we felt a connection and we eventually became just really good friends, not just a “composer and production guy” [sort of relationship]. We talk about our private stuff, and he became one of the best friends of my life. We’re still in touch regularly and when I go to Japan I always meet [up] with him. One day he contacted me and he [said], “Hey, do you want to take this gig?” and I said “…Yeah, I will!”

“Do I want to work on a Final Fantasy title? Sure!” 

Yeah, exactly! How can you say “no” to that? So obviously I said “yes” and in the beginning our role was limited to certain things. But, eventually [Hamauzu-san said] “Okay, let’s just have you guys do the whole thing.” I orchestrated about 50-55 minutes of music. All the ones that he [composed] for the game.

[The soundtrack] was split up [among] three people, I believe?

Exactly, and then VGO recorded all of those things.

I believe the soundtrack to Lightning Returns is going to be four discs, so VGO was featured in at least a disc-worth of material?

I think so, yeah.

What kind of score can we expect from Lightning Returns? I know FFXIII and XIII-2 touched upon a wide variety of genres so can we expect the same sort of style from Lightning Returns?

There are a lot of things I can’t talk about, still. The ones we did are very gigantic…epic for sure. There are several pieces that are really, really intimate. Hamauzu-san is known for writing awesome piano stuff. You can definitely hear those. He was an easy guy to work with. He’s not too picky; he lets me have my own freedom as well. He would [say] “Okay, I trust you, so do what you want to do.” He gave me certain guidelines, but when he doesn’t like stuff, he’s good at telling [me] “no.” [jokingly] He’s like “okay, this sucks.” He wouldn’t say “sucks” but, “You know…I don’t really feel [it].” Luckily, that didn’t happen too many times. His scores are really, really unique. As you can hear from his music, his writing style is really, really different from any other composer in the videogame industry.

Especially when you compare FFXIII’s work to Uematsu-san’s work on the past Final Fantasys.

Hamauzu-san definitely knows what he wants to do with the music, and he’s very good at expressing it through his music. Something always gets me when he writes stuff. His music is just so good, it’s so ****ing good! (laughs)

One of the first pieces I heard from Hamauzu-san for FFXIII was “Blinded by Light.” And that’s now a really popular battle track from Final Fantasy

I know, that’s one of the best pieces that came out of that franchise.

Were you actually involved in the remix [of "Blinded by Light"] that they’re putting into Lightning Returns?

I wasn’t involved in that. That was Mizuta-san, I think.

lightningreturnspromoFFXIII-2 had pretty eclectic tracks. One that really stood out to me was the nu-metal style of “Crazy Chocobo.” Is there going to be that sort of experimentation within Lightning Returns, something kind of off-kilter like that?

Actually, I think the Chocobo theme was done by somebody else, [like] Mitsuto-san or Mizuta-san. I think either one of them did it. Hamauzu-san was not really in charge of that. We did really important themes, the ones that you would definitely notice. (Editor’s Note: “Crazy Chocobo” was arranged by Shootie HG, while “Groovy Chocobo” and “Chocobo Rodeo” were arranged by Mitsuto Suzuki and Kengo Tokusashi, respectively)

The ones that play in pivotal moments?

Yeah, like important cutscenes, such as the opening. I guess I can spoil that much. Opening, ending and some of the really important cutscenes – we did a lot of those.

Do you get a chance to see the actual environments of the game prior to working on the music. What’s your process when it comes to writing the music for a specific cutscene?

First, [Hamauzu-san] sent me the rough draft of the music. It was entirely sequenced, and also [the] MIDI file. [For] very important themes, he sent me the video [of the cutscenes]. So I did see a lot of those. When I saw the video and listened to his music…I mean he’s already good at expressing the story with his [own] music so I didn’t necessarily have to watch the video and try to emotionally outline the scene.

Would you say Hamauzu-san’s work just directly influenced what you would put out?

Yeah, exactly. All I had to do is maximize his intention and also embellish the music so that it comes out nicely and I can fully express what he wants to do.

Very nice. So, moving away from Lightning Returns now. VGO recently worked with Koopa Soundworks to record a medley of Captain Tsubasa 2and that was for the album World 1-2. How’d you come to work on that? Is Captain Tsubasa something that you’ve been meaning to cover?

That was kind of [an] interesting one to work on. The producer of the CD, Mohammed [Taher] got in touch with me and he [said] “Hey, would you be up for arranging this one?” He has the emotional attachment to the game. I’ve played the game when I was in elementary school. I still remember this red cartridge with the Tsubasa picture on it. I did play that a lot of times. But I was too young to remember the music. When I listened to it, I still kind of [remembered] it. It’s definitely a rock-sounding soundtrack. I kind of wanted to make something that definitely reflects that style, but also add my own taste. You know I arrange all the music for VGO as well. I tried to stick with the band style for that song plus piano and some strings.

I must say I do like the rock organ intro, [it's] a very cool way to kick that medley off.

Oh, thanks! (laughs)

So speaking of covers, I did hear that you’re also doing a Super Hexagon remix, which is interesting given that game’s style of music. So, when can we expect to hear it?

Mohammed told me it’s coming out in August, but I don’t know when.

Are you planning to play some of these new tracks like Super Hexagon and Captain Tsubasa at the “Boston Plays Indies” in September?

I would actually love to play Super Hexagon stuff, because it came out really, really awesome and for that track. I definitely added some more symphonic elements to it than Tsubasa, and we actually did have almost a full orchestra sound, and some choir stuff. And obviously with the rock band, and you can expect really fast, shredding guitar. It’s almost like a Metallica-ish.

That actually sounds pretty cool, especially given that Super Hexagon is mostly an electronic kind of soundtrack so I’m interested to see how it translates to a heavy rock sound.

Yeah it’s… (pause) It’s good. Trust me, it’s good. (laughs)

I’m very, very looking forward to that. My final question: since you are working on a JRPG, I just have to ask, what do you think is the greatest JRPG battle theme of all time?

Oh man, that’s a hard question!

I feel like with JRPGs, some of their best music, or their more rock-sounding music comes from battle themes and they’re always really, really catchy [and] very melodic. So I was wondering, what would you pick as one of the best ones?

The last boss battle from Dragon Quest III. That one’s really, really awesome.

Ah! I’m going to have to catch up on that. I’ve only played a few Dragon Quests so I’m going to have to check that out now.

You’re gonna have to, ’cause it’s just crazy good! That theme is probably the most well-known battle theme from Dragon Quest.

I’m a little more familiar with Dragon Quest VIII’s battle theme, “Give a Roar,” which is very nice.

Yeah, that’s pretty good too. [Dragon Quest III's final battle] sounds like really contemporary-style, classical stuff. You should definitely listen to it.

Oh, will do, will do. I’m always in the mood for listening to new videogame music. So, is there anything else you wanted to add about your work on Lightning Returns, or…?

I mean, I wish I could talk more about it but…

You gotta keep your lips sealed on it, I understand.

Yeah, until November because that’s when the game is coming out in Japan. I think by then I should be able to talk more about it, and I can say “oh yeah I did this-this-this-this!'”

Definitely, I’ll have to follow up with you on that then.

Yeah, absolutely! Please do.

Thanks for your time Nakama-san, I really appreciate it.

Oh yeah, it was fun. Thank you so much for inviting me.

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Author: Patrick Kulikowski View all posts by
Patrick Kulikowski is a Rutgers University graduate with aspirations of joining the game industry. I have a strong love of games and their music. When not serving as Associate Editor for Pixelitis,net and a writer for Game Music Online, you'll see him working on a game music drum cover project entitled "VGdrum" and managing his Breath of Fire Facebook and Twitter fan pages.

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