Interview with Akira Yamaoka (Spelmusik.net)
Date published: 2002.07.16
First of all, we’d like to thank Yamaoka-san for taking the time to answer our questions.
Spelmusik: What are your earliest memories of music?
Akira Yamaoka: I was totally knocked out by Visage’s ”Moon Over Moscow” when I first heard it on the radio.
Spelmusik: What kind of music do you like? We have heard that you like bands like Ultravox and Coil.
Yamaoka: When I was a school student, I was really into those 80's British sounds. I still like the atmosphere of that European taste. Especially Ultravox, Visage and Acony Plank with those synthesizer sounds. I also like German sounds as well. At that time, for example, Nitzer Ebb and Propaganda. I really like those big and fat sounds. To tell you the truth, I got hooked on punk rock in the beginning. I really like the sounds of Discharge, Chaos UK, The Exploited, Hardcore Punk, etc... And I still listen to that music too. Basically, if the sounds are original and persuasive, I like to listen to them.
Spelmusik: Do you have any favorite bands and albums to recommend?
Yamaoka: My recommendations:
...and much, much more!
Spelmusik: When did you start writing your own music?
Yamaoka: In the beginning, I was hoping to get a career as a designer. I never thought about getting a job as a musician at that time.
Spelmusik: We have heard rumours that you played in a punk rock-band in school, is that true?
Yamaoka: It is true that I was in a band playing punk rock. That’s something I can never play on Silent Hill (laughs).
Spelmusik: Do you remember what your first composition was?
Yamaoka: When I was a school student, I bought a computer and I learned about sequencing. That was the time I started making music by myself (I remember I did a cover of Sigue Sigue’s ”Sputnik”).
Spelmusik: Do you think of a scene before beginning to compose music?
Yamaoka: With Silent Hill, I just have to trust the main staff. This is because we all know what we want on Silent Hill - therefore, I don't really need to look at the scenes to do my work.
Spelmusik: You studied at Toyo Art College. What kinds of art did you study? Were these studies any help in your musical career?
Yamaoka: When I was a student at college, I studied product design and interior. I think this is because I got influenced by those European artists. At that time, Mick Karn of Japan [the synth-band Japan, that is - ed.], Steve Strange of Visage, and a lot of other musicians combined the notions of Art and Music with their own new style. I got really influenced by that. Therefore, every time I write songs, I try to combine Art and Music.
Spelmusik: Did you work as a musician on other projects before you started doing game music?
Yamaoka: Yes, I was working as a musician in other medias and fields.
Spelmusik: Did you work for other game companies before joining Konami? There are rumours going around that you composed music for a game called Jerry Boy/Smartball. If so, can you tell us a little about that music?
Yamaoka: Since it has been so long, I do not remember anymore... (laughs)
Spelmusik: Your first project for Konami (in 1993) was Sparkster for Nintendo’s Super Famicom (SNES) and Sega’s Mega Drive. Can you tell us a little about the music? Was it hard work?
Yamaoka: I do remember that (laughs). Since it was my first project at Konami, I remember it very well. I remember that there were still many limitations to the hardware spec. and I went through so many tries and errors. I also feel my music back then was too fresh.
Spelmusik: We have heard a rumour that you worked on the music for the soccer game Perfect Eleven [International Superstar Soccer in the West - ed.] - is that true? How was that music?
Yamaoka: At that time, I got a request to make a club sound, which was popular back then. You could say that it was the sound of break beats, represented by The Prodigy, etc.
Spelmusik: Your first major project was Speed King/Road Rage for the PlayStation. What kind of music was this? Tell us as much as you can about it.
Yamaoka: Originally, it was an arcade game and we converted it into a PlayStation game. The original music was fusion type and it seemed like it was something you would play in a car while having a date. I was quite upset with it (laughs). Then, I made it into cyber-flavoured and cool music with a sense of speed by incorporating minimalist techno and rave, etc. As a result, I ended up using none of the original songs from the arcade version (laughs).
Spelmusik: You have made sound effects and done audio engineering for many Konami games, like Vandal Hearts, and are also credited in the end credits of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Do you like sound engineering? Is it hard work?
Yamaoka: It is my stance that a sound designer is not supposed to be just creating music. He/she must be creating the ”sound” itself. Therefore, a sound designer should be doing everything from the engineering processes, sound effects development, etc. Of course, I enjoy engineering work among them.
Spelmusik: How were you selected to do the music for Silent Hill?
Yamaoka: Even from the time of concept planning, I thought it was just myself who was capable of doing this project. I myself raised my hand first to get selected.
Spelmusik: The music of Silent Hill has already become a classic. How did you prepare for this project? What were your influences? Some of the guitar-work sounds like Angelo Badalamenti’s music from Twin Peaks - did this influence you?
Yamaoka: It is true that I have been influenced by Angelo Badalamenti. Also, I have been listening to a lot of other music. Especially, I listened to emotional songs a lot. Among them, I also listened to groups such as Metallica and Depeche Mode.
Spelmusik: The ambient/horror part of the Silent Hill music is arguably the darkest game music ever made. It is very different from the music of Bio Hazard/Resident Evil and other horror games; most of these games use cinematic music that sounds more ”normal”. How did you decide to make the horror music of Silent Hill industrial?
Yamaoka: The biggest reason was that I wanted to make a differentiation from other video games. With that in mind, I chose the industrial sound. I felt that the industrial sound had so much of the essence needed, which I would not find in ”typical” music. Also, I thought that the cold and rusty feeling made only possible by industrial music was very fitting to the theme of Silent Hill.
Spelmusik: Do you yourself like that kind of industrial/synth music? We’ve heard that you like bands like Coil, and their music sometimes sounds industrial.
Yamaoka: In fact, I never listen to industrial music at all (neither at work nor during private time). I think you need to have a lot of courage and guts and patience to listen to the industrial sound (laughs).
Spelmusik: There are many pieces of music missing on both the Silent Hill CDs. Do you decide which music will go on the soundtrack CD releases? Are you the one who mixes the CDs, or are there other people doing that?
Yamaoka: With the soundtrack, I did all the work. I did all the mixing as well.
Spelmusik: How do you like the Silent Hill games? In another interview [found at RocketBaby - ed.] you said that ”it is only myself in this world who can express the sound of this title”. Is the universe of Silent Hill special to you? Tell us what you think of the games!
Yamaoka: The universe (world view) that Silent Hill has is a small genre of its own in some ways. It is not a game that can be accepted and respected by everyone. I am not limited to this title, I like all kinds of art (music, movies, drawings, etc.), but still I love it. I do not mind the long times I spend in creating it and expressing it. In that respect, Silent Hill is very special and I’m also confident that I can utilize the sound in this title in a way that no one else can.
Spelmusik: The Silent Hill music seems to be able to affect people very well emotionally. Do you think that it is an important quality of your music, to be able to touch people’s emotions?
Yamaoka: I am very honoured to hear that many people value my music in that way. I also think that in Silent Hill, everything from graphics, scenario, gameplay, etc must come together right in order to express the brilliance of this game. I would say that the emotional sound is surely important, however, if the sound in the game were to start walking by itself without proper backing from graphics, etc, then it would lose much of its impact.
Spelmusik: Did you compose the music for the Game Boy Advance game Silent Hill Play Novel? [so far only released in Japan - ed.] If so, how was it different from the other Silent Hill music?
Yamaoka: I was not involved in that project at all. It was done by somebody else who is not related to me at all (laughs).
Spelmusik: The sound of Silent Hill 2 is more sophisticated and polished than the first one. Do you feel that you have grown as an artist? In what ways did you improve on the sound of Silent Hill?
Yamaoka: I think I learned a great deal of stuff and gained a lot through this project. The first thing is the music style and I think it turned out to be very enriched. What this means is that in the whole media of video games, I think I achieved creating a sound and style that nobody had ever done before.
Spelmusik: You have said that the main theme (”Theme of Laura”) of Silent Hill 2 only took two days to compose. Was it difficult, or does it come natural to you?
Yamaoka: I don’t think there is any connection between creation and time length. The longer you spend time with it does not necessarily mean you will be getting something better.
Spelmusik: Are you satisfied with the sound of that tune?
Yamaoka: I am happy with the sound. However, I do not think that it was perfected (completed). There are many things that I would have liked to include in that music. At this moment, I will try to materialize those attempts.
Spelmusik: You mentioned in the The Art of Silent Hill 2 DVD [released together with the game Silent Hill 2 as The Making of Silent Hill 2 in Europe - ed.] that ”I don’t think that melody is the most important thing in a piece of music”. What do you feel makes a good composition?
Yamaoka: If there is melody and if it’s not good, then I do not think it should be there. The definition of good music and bad music varies from one person to another and it is not possible to define it conclusively in short terms. However, as for me, what’s important is whether or not the music is with or without meaning. There is no guarantee that the creation will be realized in the way that the creator had first intended. There are many reasons for this, but the primary reason is caused by the lack of information on the creator’s part.
Also, it is caused by the fact that he/she cannot utilize the information due to the lack of his/her capability. The right feeling is important, but sound created by the kind of creator that lacks the necessary knowledge ends up creating pain for the listeners. Also, I would say that good music or good music creation is sound which transcends the original meaning put in by the creator when it reaches the listener. And, on the flipside, music that is only adhering to code and music theories without any feeling is just painful.
Spelmusik: You are not only a music composer - you were also the overall sound director for both Silent Hill games. What work does this involve? Sound effects and audio engineering? Did you also decide when and how the music was going to be used in the game?
Yamaoka: In the title of Silent Hill, although it might seem strange or unrealistic to some, in actuality, everything that is related to sound; such as sound creation, sound effect creation, call timing of sound, data creation, sound mastering, engineering, mixing, etc. I did all the work for. Most likely, I would say that 6-8 people would be needed in the overall sound department for a normal project. But no one really touched it besides me from the time of creation to when it went on the CD and DVD.
Spelmusik: We have heard that you created over 200 footstep-sounds for Silent Hill 2. Is that true?! If so, it is certainly very impressive!
Yamaoka: Yes, it is true. As you know, also in regards to creation of the sound effects, just like the music, I wanted to differentiate it from that which you hear in other software. I wanted it to sound more natural and more realistic than ever. Although it was a video game, I wanted to make it so that you would feel as if you were watching a movie of high interactivity. That goal was not limited to the music only, so I spent a lot of time in the sound-creation of footsteps and other sound effects as well.
Spelmusik: Will there be an arrange album of Silent Hill music? Many other popular game series get arrange albums, have you thought about an arrange CD for Silent Hill? We know that many people would be interested in something like that...
Yamaoka: That sounds like a good idea and I would like to see that! Including Bristol-style artists like Portishead and Massive Attack as guests, I would like to make such a request to artists of completely different genres! At this moment, nothing is certain, but I would like to consider it as one of my future actions.
Spelmusik: You have made some songs for Beatmania and DDRMAX. How was that? Was it very different from your Silent Hill work?
Yamaoka: I really love creating club tracks besides sounds such as those found in Silent Hill. Just like the Silent Hill project, I really enjoy working for these projects as well.
Spelmusik: Are you working on anything new now? Surely you must have some project going?
Yamaoka: Yes, I am. If you could have waited a bit, I would have been able to tell you more (laughs) [oh, &/*/!£$££”&#&*!!!!! - ed.].
Spelmusik: Will there be a Silent Hill 3? And if so, will you be there to compose the music for it?
Yamaoka: Yes, there will be a Silent Hill 3. And of course I will be the composer! [these questions were asked before Konami had announced the game - ed.]
Spelmusik: What do you see yourself doing in the future? Will you continue with game music, or will you maybe explore other areas of art? You mentioned in another interview that you were interested in creating a ”combination of music and picture”. What does that mean?
Yamaoka: In the world of creative expression, I do not think there is any border whether it is music or drawings. If I wish to express myself, whether I compose music or draw some pictures, they are in essence the same things - expressions of myself. However, I do not wish to be involved with some easy or cheap collaboration such as a game or a movie made just for the sake of ”combining music and picture”. Although it has not been materialized yet, I would like to do some sort of combination in the future.
Spelmusik: Could you see yourself performing music live? Many of the compositions from Silent Hill would be awesome in a live concert! Have you thought about anything like that?
Yamaoka: I perform music from time to time with a friend who shares my tastes. A live performance of Silent Hill is a fantastic idea! You really made me feel I should do it! [maybe we’ll get the SH arrange album there, eh? - ed.] Two years ago, when I went to see a live performance my friend did, he was making a live performance of the Silent Hill 1 theme song (”Silent Hill”) in a progressive rock style (like King Crimson). Even though it was my own song, I really felt it was so cool! (laughs)
Spelmusik: Which of your own songs is your absolute favorite?
Yamaoka: ”Tears of...” from Silent Hill 1.
Yamaoka: As you probably have noticed, this song repeats the same phrase over and over. In the words of techno music, it would be called minimalist. However, it is the techno minimalist style that is being expressed in an area that is NOT techno.
Spelmusik: Is there any game music you like yourself? Do you have any favorite game music composer?
Yamaoka: Unfortunately, there isn’t any game music I like. I do not have any favorite game music composer, either. It seems to me that many of the game music composers do their work as their side business. I cannot really have respect or a close feeling toward much of the game music I’ve heard. I suppose many of the video game music creators are really shallow... In other words, those people seem to be in the business just because their true dreams did not come true; person A might have wanted to do business in the music business, person B might have wanted to play in a band, but could not make enough money, etc.
Of course, that is not true for all game music composers, but in any case I think there are many shallow creators who seem to do their work as a side business. Also, as to the music style itself, I don't think there are many composers who are making really interesting music. The structure, the focus on ordinary music theory, regular instrument formations, etc... Everything like that seems very boring to me. The originality is often lacking and that’s very boring.
Spelmusik: Is there any other artist you would like to work with?
Yamaoka: I do not have such a wish with regard to artists in Japan. However, there are many people whom I would like to work with outside of Japan.
Spelmusik: When you don’t work on music, what do you like to do? Any favorite hobbies?
Yamaoka: I live with my cat. That alone is very amusing. Besides that, my life is pretty much occupied with music. For the last few years, my hobby has been DJ-ing. When I first began doing it, I felt like ”hey, it’s just spinning records” and I was thinking about it as too easy and plain. However, now I am so much absorbed in this mixing and playing, which occupies pretty much most of my free time.
Spelmusik: Any closing words to your fans?
Yamaoka: I would like to keep creating music that feels new and that reaches into you. I would like to extend the genre of video games into a cool new age; as one scene that is full of interactivity which is superior to any other expression of culture. Not just the music, however, it would be my great pleasure to reach you all in various formats. See you soon!