Hiroki Ogawa Interview: Dog Ear Records Producer (July 2010)
Hiroki Ogawa is a producer at Nobuo Uematsu's label Dog Ear Records. In addition to various management and administrative roles, Ogawa is responsible for conceiving, developing, and releasing Dog Ear Records' various album productions. His current productions range from soundtracks such as Lord of Vermilion and Xenoblade, to original albums such as Cellythm and Pia-Com, to even the CD and DVD releases of The Black Mages III.
In this interview, Hiroki Ogawa discusses his achievements at Dog Ear Records so far. He particularly elaborates on his considerations when producing albums and his inspiration for original projects. He also reveals what to expect from Pia-Com II, a piano tribute album to NES games featuring three arrangers/pianists from different backgrounds. Finally, he informs that Nobuo Uematsu's new band project is around the corner.
Interview Subject: Hiroki Ogawa
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Translation & Localisation: Hiroki Ogawa
Coordination: Chris Greening, Don Kotowski
Chris: Hiroki Ogawa, many thanks for speaking to us today. First of all, it'd be interesting to learn about your background. Could you tell us about yourself and what ultimately led you to become a producer at Dog Ear Records?
Hiroki Ogawa: As a child, I lived in both New York and Singapore as a result of my parents' jobs. Although I was in different countries, I used to play the Fami-com (NES) and other game systems that I brought from Japan. In junior high, I started playing music in a band. Back then, I'd never imagine two of my favorite things, "music" and "games", would become my work. Of course, I used to listen to video game soundtracks on cassette tapes nevertheless.
When I turned 22, I stopped performing in bands and started working as a contractor. As a contractor, I gathered musicians that suited each project I participated in and organized studio recordings. Through working on the job, I met Nobuo Uematsu in 2005. By then, he was composing the Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon E3 trailer. After that, I organized recordings for Final Fantasy III for DS, coordinated an orchestrator for VOICES - music from Final Fantasy, and an a cappella group "Moogles". Subsequently Uematsu asked me to join him when he founded his own label. That's how I got in.
Chris: At Dog Ear Records, you have a number of responsibilities. Could you elaborate on what your work involves on a day-to-day basis both in Japan and overseas? Although hard work, is it also enjoyable overall?
Hiroki Ogawa: I have tons of works that need to be done for Japanese clients, and then I get emails from foreign clients at night time. Although it is a hard job, I find it rather enjoyable and worth the challenges. Without this job, I would never be in foreign countries as often as I am and never have the chance to meet so many people. It is very exciting to see talented people getting together from all over the world to create one thing.
Chris: You have pioneered several soundtrack releases at Dog Ear Records, including Anata wo Yurusanai and Lord of Vermillion. What is important to you when preparing a soundtrack release and how do you aim to present them?
Hiroki Ogawa: For creating video game soundtracks, the tracks in the games are usually looped, so thinking of total time of the soundtracks, I carefully decide whether the themes should be repeated two times or just one loop is enough. The story of the game is important for me to set the order of the soundtracks as well. For designs and catchphrases, I try to perceive them objectively in order to make them attractive for both game fans and those people that have never heard of the game. To keep that level of objectivity, I try to take short breaks when working on products. In any case, the most important thing to me when producing is "to create soundtracks that I would like to pay money to purchase them."
Chris: At Dog Ear Records, you have also pioneered the digital format with iTunes releases of many soundtracks, singles, and original albums. What advantages does digital distribution have? To what extent do you think fans are favoring it?
Hiroki Ogawa: The advantage of releasing our products digitally is that we can offer an opportunity for customers outside of Japan to listen to our music online. We haven't released all the Dog Ear CDs on iTunes yet, but I do believe that the fans are happy for the fact that many are available online. It's always rather good to have a chance to get them.
Chris: You have also extended the bridge to the West with numerous releases and promotions aimed at English consumers, such as 10 Short Stories. Just how important are Western consumers to Dog Ear Records? Do they represent a major proportion of your customers or do Japanese consumers dominate?
Hiroki Ogawa: It doesn't really matter where they are from — all the people who look for Dog Ear Records' releases are equally important for us. I always want to deliver as many products to as many fans as possible.
The ratio of Western and Japanese customers is hard to say since there are products we haven't released outside of Japan yet. However, I do think Dog Ear Records is less acknowledged outside of Japan, so I do want to keep working to spread Dog Ear Records and our works.
Chris: Beyond album releases, you also spearheaded the DVD release of The Black Mages III. How does the process of producing a DVD compare with an album? How did you ensure it was worthwhile even for album consumers?
Hiroki Ogawa: There is more work involved when producing a DVD rather than a CD, simply because there are movies in addition to the sound. When making a good CD, we have to be keen to listen for details and I try to revise the recordings until the deadline to bring them to an optimal quality. However, making a live DVD doesn't require for me to be quite as meticulous with respect to sound quality because the live scene has got enough groove itself. So for that reason, I guess I can say there is less hesitation for me when deciding to produce a DVD, although there is more work that goes into it. And to ensure that we make album consumers happy as well, although it might be a cliché, we put a backstage documentary in The Black Mages DVD too.
Chris: It is common to see you behind the scenes at various concerts. What are your responsibilities when attending there? Are you a major organizational and creative force of Nobuo Uematsu's own concert productions, e.g. Press Start, The Black Mages?
Hiroki Ogawa: I attend concerts usually as a manager. My works there are interpreting, discussing details with the local presenter beforehand, and communicating with the local press. For Distant Worlds and Press Start, Dog Ear Records is not a host of these concerts, so I am not in charge of producing nor organizing of these concerts. However, I am a planner and producer of Dog Ear Records' label events in Japan.
Chris: A tie-in with The Black Mages III's concert was a performance by the cello quartet Cellythm. Could you discuss how this quartet came to perform Final Fantasy battle themes for the live and studio setting? While the album inspired both praise and criticism, were you personally fully satisfied with it?
Hiroki Ogawa: We were looking for a band for opening act when we are planning The Black Mages' live concert. Uematsu and Mr. Ishiwata, the other producer, were always thinking of getting together a female cello rock band, and they thought it was the time. They had be an opening act at The Black Mages live and they were gathered to be a rock band; that's why they came to perform Final Fantasy battle themes. On the live stage, they were using cello pickups with Marshall Amp.
Everyone gets their praise and criticism. I do think getting no reaction is the saddest thing ever, so I am satisfied with what I am getting for the album and the project. It was the first time that I built a band project from scratch like CELLYTHM, so to watch the group grow was very exciting and educational for me as well.
Chris: In addition to Nobuo Uematsu's work, you have released albums for other artists such as Keita Egusa and Ian Hartley. What is it like to work these artists and how did you come to collaborate with them?
Hiroki Ogawa: As I mentioned before, I was a contractor so I received opportunities to work with many different musicians every day. As a result, it's rather normal for me to work with artists other than Uematsu. It's more like "my past experiences brought a positive effect to my job now". I used to work with Mr. Egusa back when I was working as a contractor and I met Ian as one of ante's friends at Final Fantasy Remix. In addition to being great artists, both of them have great personalities. This might be the biggest reason why we came to collaborate with them.
Chris: Last year you engaged in a further collaboration with Keita Egusa on Pia-Com I. What inspired the concept of this album and how did you approach the track selection, arrangements, and recordings?
Hiroki Ogawa: I always give a reason for what I want to do and how I make it come true. The thing I wanted to do back then was to make album after KALAYCILAR with Mr. Egusa. But I know business isn't that easy. I needed a good idea to make the project work. Then I realized that many of Dog Ear Records fans are also game fans and I have strong feelings and devotion to retro video games. That's how Pia-Com I was born — tying all these reasons up. Mr. Egusa's play style also matched to the sound I was looking for as well.
For track selections, they were decided mostly from my own judgment. Mr. Egusa also had his ideas and favorites he used to play before, so those are incorporated too. For arrangements, first I decided the order of the tracks, thinking which way works the best for each piece. Then I sent Mr. Egusa the setting of the games and the fundamental elements that I'd like to be included. I then left the rest of the arranging to him. He has done an excellent work that perfectly matches to the requirements.
Chris: This year, you will release a sequel to Pia-Com I. How will the album compare and contrast with their predecessors? Will fans of the original album be in for a treat?
Hiroki Ogawa: The biggest difference between Pia-Com I and Pia-Com II would be the number of the arrangers/pianists that participated. For Pia-Com II, we have got three arrangers/pianists, including Mr. Egusa from Pia-Com I. I didn't want to change the image too much since it's a sequel, and I wanted to keep the atmosphere of the sound from the previous release. To make a difference, I came up with the idea of having other arrangers/pianists. At first, I was thinking of releasing a Pia-Com series with one arranger/pianist for each release. However, Pia-Com I came to be richer in variety than I imagined and it sounded good, so I thought there wouldn't be a problem adding another arrangers to an album. I believe the sequel will satisfy the original fans.
Chris: Pia-Com II will be co-arranged by Hiroyuki Nakayama and Masato Kouda. What inspired the choice of these arrangers and how will they approach the album? How will the arrangers of the series come together to form the Pia-Coms?
Hiroki Ogawa: At first Pia-Com I and Pia-Com II were planned to be released at the same time, so Mr. Nakayama, was on already set to be Pia-Com #2 since last year. As for Mr. Kouda joining the Pia-Coms, it was a fortunate coincidence; he had a chance to listen to Pia-Com I and liked it very much. We heard that he was interested in arranging and playing for a Pia-Com album through other people. Then I actually contacted him if he would be interested to join the album as one of Pia-Coms when we were planning for Pia-Com II. He said "yes!"
Mr. Nakayama and Mr. Kouda's styles are based on classic music, so I asked them to arrange the pieces in a way that suited their styles. As Pia-Coms, they don't do a four or six-handed performance. They are group of arrangers and pianists that perform as soloists.
Chris: Evidently, the scope of Dog Ear Records' productions are wide. What ultimately determines whether you produce an album or work with an artist? Is it primarily a commercial decision or a creative one?
Hiroki Ogawa: To make Dog Ear Records unique as a record label, it's important to find the music Uematsu can be passionate about, and for me individually, to release products that make me want to pay money to listen to from the bottom of my heart myself. It may be a bit different when it comes to soundtracks; however, there is no difference in the feelings of wanting to share the joy by recommending the product to others.
Concerning whether a commercial or creative decision, we add the commercial aspect to make the creative one launch out to the world. There may be a matter of which one comes first, but I do think both components are equally important.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Hiroki Ogawa. Is there anything else you would like to say about Dog Ear Records' productions? Do you have any messages for fans of the label around the world?
Hiroki Ogawa: In addition to Uematsu's works, of course, Dog Ear Records is planning to release interesting music all over the world. Uematsu's new band, the Earthbound Papas, is going to active from the later half of this year too. We'll do our best to make sure every fan has a happy face, so please keep an eye on us. We really appreciate all your support. See you at the concerts.