SPIRA Interview: Joe Chen and Emily McMillan

Materia Collective - Spira Review 2

by Jason Parker (Ragachak)

Recently, I reviewed my first musical compilation, SPIRA: Music Inspired from Final Fantasy X by Materia Collective/Project Final Fantasy X. I was fortunate enough to sit down (via email) with two of the hard workers on this project, Joe Chen and Emily McMillan of Project Final Fantasy X. The following is my interview with them, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity. I highly recommend this album to fans not only of Final Fantasy X but video game tributes just in general. This is truly one of my favorites. There are 100 tracks, something for pretty much everyone.

Jason: One of the major themes of the SPIRA collection appears to be (to me) the start and end of the journey, starting with Spira/Zanarkand. Was there another overarching theme you went for when collecting music/gathering ideas for the albums?
Emily: The overreaching themes were largely decided on by the tracks we received. Joe describes our track selection process in more detail later on, but essentially, once we figured out what tracks we would have on the album, we spent an entire day figuring out how we would divide them up between the two albums, and how we would order them. We made the decision to split SPIRA into two albums simply because the tracklist was incredibly long, and we wanted to make them more manageable (and affordable!) to listeners. So we divided them by genre in part so that anyone who wanted to purchase SPIRA could find something that fit more with their musical tastes. We thought this made sense in a lot of ways. Final Fantasy X is all about Tidus and Yuna, so we tried to arrange the tracks in a way so that Besaid Mix reflects Yuna’s journey in the game, and Zanarkand Mix reflects Tidus’s journey. Additionally, we wanted the theme of journeys to apply to the music itself, as well. We asked arrangers on SPIRA to try something new with their arrangements – which could mean trying a new genre, selecting a track they’re not familiar with, or working with new performers – so they were going through something new as well! Since Final Fantasy X also features some new composers in its original soundtrack (resulting in a different sound from previous Final Fantasy installments), we thought it would be appropriate to really aim for something new and adventurous with our project.

Jason: How did you decide on Final Fantasy X (other than it has some of the best music in an FF game)?

Joe: We both have a personal connection to Final Fantasy X, as it was the first Final Fantasy game we had each played and partially what had hooked us on Square games and music in the first place. Creating an album collection like SPIRA is really a labor of love for both the music and the game. When you serve as an album producer on a large scale project such as SPIRA, the management aspect can become really overwhelming. That’s why we wanted to make sure that this project would recreate music from a game and soundtrack we truly loved. Whenever we had to push through difficult deadlines, we were always able to come back to the idea that we really love this game, this music, and the musicians were working with. I feel like we were really able to make something special by combining all these things.

Jason: What goes into making a collaboration of this size? As someone new to Materia Collective, is there a regular cast of musicians you call upon?

Emily: Whew! The short answer to the first question: a lot! 🙂 We could certainly have done a much smaller album where we focused more on each track. We chose not to do this because, in our view, Materia Collective arrange albums have always been primarily about community, and this route would have involved excluding a whole lot of arrangers who wanted to participate. Materia Collective was actually founded by a bunch of musicians who got together to make an arrange album for Final Fantasy VII – after which, people in the group immediately asked, “Okay, so what are we doing next?” Since then, the group has grown extensively. We have since added hundreds of musicians we didn’t have for that first album. Some of our projects are still fairly small – one or a few musicians get together to create a more manageable arrange album – but when it came time to do another main series Final Fantasy arrange album, we decided to prioritize inclusivity. Anyone in the Materia Collective group who wanted to participate got the opportunity to do so, including some brand-new members. I’m very proud we pulled it off, since I know how difficult it can be to dive into an already-established community.

Jason: Did they pick the songs they wanted to do? Were many tracks cut/not chosen for the sake of not running too long?

Joe: As much as people love tracks like “Suteki Da Ne?” and “Zanarkand,” we know that having too many tracks with the exact same theme can be draining on a listener, especially if there isn’t enough stylistic variation. Members of Materia Collective were able to submit track proposals where they told us which tracks they would like to arrange and what their artistic vision was for each proposed track. We, as the album producers, approved only a subset of those proposals to try and make a balanced listening experience. Although not every proposed track made it into the final albums, we aimed to make the project as inclusive as possible and tried to get every Materia Collective member who was interested in the project involved in one way or another.

Jason: As the producers, do any of you have particularly favorite tracks among the regular games OST?

Joe: I’m particularly fond of “Beyond the Darkness,” which plays in the Omega Ruins. The encounter rate is so high in that dungeon that it’s one of those songs that I rarely get to hear fully play out. When I heard the full version, I thought it sounded absolutely gorgeous. I’m a big fan of well-used piano and strings, so this track really hits the sweet spot for me.

Emily: Joe took my answer! 😀 Beyond the Darkness is one of my absolute favorites, which is unusual for me since I’m not a massive fan of many of Hamauzu’s tracks on that score. I also love the Guadosalam theme and A Fleeting Dream. I think the latter is one of my favorites just because of the area it plays in – it’s one of the few places in the game where the area music isn’t cut off by the battle music, so it’s just a gorgeous part of the game and soundtrack.

Jason: Do tribute albums like this require any sort of permission from Square Enix, or does it fall under “Fair Use”?

Emily: While many of Materia Collective’s projects aren’t officially affiliated with Square Enix, because we do sell our projects, we ensure that all our music is licensed, and rights holders are paid with every use. Sebastian Wolff, Materia Collective’s founder, is an avid advocate of musicians’ rights has made that a central theme of Materia Collective as it has developed.

Jason: Who are your favorite Hero/Villain characters from FFX?

Joe: My favorite hero is probably Yuna. In addition to being a great party member as a summoner-healer combination, I liked seeing her grow as the game progresses. She starts off as someone being swept away by her own fate without question, but as the game progresses, she learns to stand up for herself and not just let others dictate her actions. My favorite villain has to be Seymour. He’s really a driving antagonizing force against the party throughout the entire game, but the sidequests really do a great job of fleshing out why he’s so antagonistic.

Emily: Yuna is one of my favorite protagonists in the FF series. Her character development in the game is great. I’m also a big Auron fan (who isn’t?) – I love the whole “dad” storyline that you uncover as you play through the game. (I also think it’s a fun little throwback to the Final Fantasy VIII dad storyline) Regarding villains, I actually have this ongoing opinion that Seymour is the only real villain in the game. His story kind of plays out like the stereotypical Final Fantasy villain – a million final forms and all – but he’s not the main antagonist and ignoring him, most of the other antagonists aren’t really bad guys. They’re misguided, or trapped, but not really evil. It’s one of the elements of the game that I think is really cool, and sets it apart from the other FF games – I can’t think of any other games in the main Final Fantasy series where the final battle itself is that emotional!

Jason: Can we expect to see more obscure RPG tribute albums (Lufia 2, I will not rest until someone covers it), or maybe something more thematic, like Secret of Mana, as it’s receiving a remake?

Joe: Possibly! The great thing about the Materia Collective is that there are so many people with unique interests, and the leadership changes from project-to-project. Final Fantasy X is really special to the both of us, but I’m sure every member has their own equivalent game and soundtrack. All I can say right now is that the Materia Collective is always working on something new.

Jason: If you could pick any game to cover without any arguments from anyone, what would it be?

Joe: I would absolutely choose Xenoblade Chronicles. The setting of the game lends itself to a really diverse soundtrack from orchestral to electronic to metal, and there’s so much talent behind the original soundtrack. I’d love to see how our musicians re-imagine those tracks.

Emily: Oh boy. I guess the first thing that comes to mind is Final Fantasy XIV because there’s such a cool array of themes on that soundtrack and its expansions. Stormblood and Heavensward, in particular, have featured some of my favorite game music over the past couple of years. I’m a big fan of Masayoshi Soken! (I interviewed him! The link is right here! – Jason)

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