Kevin Penkin Interview: Writing Soundtracks with Nobuo Uematsu (August 2012)
At the age of 18, Australian prodigy Kevin Penkin was scouted to score his first commercial video game, an otome title by Idea Factory. In addition to giving him an opportunity to spread his music to international audiences, it provided him the opportunity to collaborate with a very high-profile name, theme song composer Nobuo Uematsu. The collaboration proved so successful that Penkin was asked to return alongside Uematsu for the upcoming release NORN9.
In this exclusive interview, Penkin reveals how he became involved in these titles so early in his career and discusses the approaches he took when scoring them. He also reflects on his wider work spanning independent films and video games, concert performances and fan arrangements of video game favourites, and two original electro-acoustic albums. Throughout the interview, he emphasises how he aims to produce emotional, memorable musical experiences in every one of his works.
The artist is now represented by Creative Intelligence Arts, the international group of musicians behind scores such as SoulCalibur V and The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya.
Interview Subject: Kevin Penkin
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Special Thanks: Hiroaki Yura, Hiroki Ogawa
Chris: Kevin Penkin, many thanks for talking to us today. First of all, could you reveal the experiences that made you passionate about music and video games?
Kevin Penkin: Thanks very much! I actually didn't get a home console until the GameCube, so I have most of my memories drenched in the worlds of The Wind Waker and Metroid Prime. The genesis for my passion of game music came from the theme of the Phendrana Drifts in Metroid Prime the combination of electronic synths and acoustic instruments was absolute bliss for me.
Chris: Your demo reel reveals that you are strongly influenced by the composers of both Japan and Hollywood. Could you tell us more about your musical preferences? Which artists particularly inspire you?
Kevin Penkin: I didn't really grow up on many non-Japanese games outside of Elder Scrolls and Halo. Japan was where it was at for me as a kid. Without writing a thesis on what I listened to growing up, Nobuo Uematsu-san and Joe Hisaishi were pretty massive influences. I also listened to things like Advent Children, Shadow of the Colossus, and Ghost in the Shell for years. After that, I really got into Kow Otani and the scores from Nintendo games like Fire Emblem. I also have a special place in my heart Michiru Oshima's ICO score.
Nowadays I find there's much more of a 50-50 balance between soundtracks from the West and Japan that influence me. I loved the music from Final Fantasy XIII, but at the same time composers like Jeremy Soule and the score for Austin Wintory's Journey score are really inspiring. The last part to this answer comes from non-video game music. I would say I spend almost 50% of my time listening to non-game/movie music. Artists like Sigur Ros, Bjork and Ryuichi Sakamoto's works are big influences. I like Sakamoto's collaborations with Alva Noto and Fennesz, in particular.
Chris: While your works are very diverse, they all seem to have something in common: an emotionally guided approach. To what extent do you agree with this? Could you give some further insight into your composing process?
Kevin Penkin: Well, I guess I could agree with that in a way. I think I have a minimalistic tendency towards writing. It's the idea of a few core ideas being developed and transformed again and again to bring on new emotional depth in every instance.
This is evident all over classical music, but to give a video game example: "To Zanarkand" is played at the start of FFX and at the end, but in different arrangements. The melody has been playing at you for 100 hours and it's finally presented in a scene where characters are not joining with each other, but saying goodbye under painful circumstances. Emotional investment in a melody can be so, so strong. FFVII's Aerith's theme is another example of this. It is this idea I want to exploit in my current works. Taking a small group of ideas and try develop them to mean something more to the player.
Chris: For several years now, you have been writing music for independent films (e.g. Play Lunch, The Adventures of Chipman and Biscuit Boy) and video games (CellCraft, Defender's Quest). Could you explain how you became involved in such projects?
Kevin Penkin: Play Lunch and The Adventures of Chipman and Biscuit Boy are both created by Perth-based filmmakers. Independent films are great because there's a lot of creative freedom. Perth is a small town, so it isn't hard to meet keen directors and producers that are looking for a composer.
I don't think anyone on the Play Lunch team thought the film would be as successful as it became. It has been played at festivals around the world since August 2011, the most recent showing being in Hawaii in June.The Adventures of Chipman and Biscuit Boy was fun. I got to write a Ska theme! I also found out later that Larry Thomas, who's the Soup Nazi on Seinfield, voiced one of the characters! I'm actually working on the theme for a new project with the same directors, so fun times are ahead for my film life.
Chris: Defender's Quest emerged as particularly successful, hybridising the role-playing and tower defence genres. Was it enjoyable to reunite with Level Up Labs on this title? What features of the game and its music provided the recipe of success?
Kevin Penkin: Honestly, I was totally unfamiliar with what a Tower Defence Game was for a while. However, the team at Level Up Labs are great guys who put a lot of trust in me, which I appreciate a lot. The game's gameplay is a key part of why I think Defender's Quest is successful. The guys who created this game (as well as Cellcraft) are TDRPG gamers. They know what they want, and what they want lines up with what everyone else wants. The fact that the music in the game was received well is a massive cherry on top!
Chris: Many were surprised that you worked on Jyuzaengi: Engetsu Sangokuden alongside Nobuo Uematsu. After all, it's relatively rare for non-native composers to be recruited to Japanese projects. Could you tell us more about how this collaboration came about? What was it like to work closely with Nobuo Uematsu on the title?
Kevin Penkin: When I got the email from Ogawa-san saying "I might have work for you" I admittedly went a little crazy. It was an insane notion, to be working on the same project as Uematsu-san on any level. I was always updating my contacts in Japan on my most recent compositions and I guess I had finally progressed enough to be given a shot at Sangokuden.
If you section off your musical career into early, middle and late periods for a moment, this was one of those moments in my early musical existence that will stick with me. The idea that a respectable Japanese company is giving musical responsibility to a (then) 18-year-old kid from Perth would have been crazy to me. But, Ogawa-san supported me time and time again and got me this break. I have so much to thank him for.
Chris: Unlike most otome games, Jyuzaengi: Engetsu Sangokuden features a sophisticated orchestral score. What led you to take this approach for the game? How do you feel the final score complements the visuals?
Kevin Penkin: Haha, thanks! Well, Sangokuden has influences from the Three Kingdoms, so Chinese instruments and scales played a role in shaping the sounds for the game. I received visual images, which are always the best source of inspiration. Combining that with classic Japanese RPG writing were the main influences for the score. That been said, I did stick some electronic things in here and there, such as reversed harp/piano samples and some bowed guitars. I even managed to sick a 12-tone row in there at one point.
Chris: The score was also well-produced, benefiting from modern, reverberating samples. Could you explain your approach to implementing music? What hardware and software do you use to remain competitive?
Kevin Penkin: I appreciate the compliment, but looking back I would need to remix most the samples based on what I have learned over the last year in terms of sample manipulation and mixing. Sangokuden's orchestral samples are mostly from the Vienna Symphonic Library, which I'm very familiar with. Recently, I have been using a combination of VSL, LA Scoring String, Cinebrass, and a few other orchestral VST's. Sorry to geek out for a moment, but I'm also a massive fan of Soniccouture's 'Pan Drum' VST. Those samples are just nuts!
Chris: You're also experienced in the realms of live performance, taking a significant role in the concert production Video Games Unplugged this year. Could you share your memories of this event? What did your responsibilities entail?
Kevin Penkin: Hmm. I don't think my role was that big, but it was a good experience. I was in charge of score production for some of the compositions played on the night, transcribing percussion for tunes like Halo and Uncharted, and re-orchestrating some scores that had too many or too few instruments.
There were many, many memories though. Hanging out with my good friend Tomoki Miyoshi (SoulCalibur V Cinematics Composer) was just the best. Jillian Aversa kicking ass on stage was awesome and meeting Wil Wheaton was super cool.
Chris: In the fan arrangement field, you've also shared your love of various game and anime music with piano arrangements of various popular themes and an OverClocked mashup of Final Fantasy's most epic themes. Could you tell us more about such works? Is it safe to assume you enjoy the freedom that independent work brings?
Kevin Penkin: Oh for sure. Making music that's just for you feels so right. That statement can be applied to arrangements too. To take work you love and rewrite it the way you like it is fun, fun stuff.
I couldn't announce it at the time, but I did that "One Winged Angel" / "Liberi Fatali" orchestral mashup on OverClocked ReMix because I was about three weeks out from having to arrange Uematsu-san's theme from Sangokuden. I wanted to see how I'd go with some of his previous works before I tried tackling a brand new one!
Chris: Between such works, you're also active as an album producer. Could you tell us more about your electro-acoustic unit Cycle~ 440 and the inspirations behind your two original albums?
Kevin Penkin: Cycle's a great thing for me. It's not game music, nor film music. It's just a great project where I can try something completely different. Basically I play piano with microphones inside, then Sam Gillies (my partner in crime) records, manipulates and transforms my live sound into electronic textures. Together we try and take the audience to an interesting sound world where we can show the beauty of the piano in it's raw form, and then completely destroy it in a sea of electronic noise and chaos.
Out first album was our successful debut, but we both agreed that or new album released in April this year was a lot more coherent. As a result, we recently toured to Melbourne and Sydney with great success and are planning to try and get over to Japan early next year to spread some of the Cycle~ 440 goodness.
Chris: Looking to the future, you're reuniting with Idea Factory and Nobuo Uematsu to score NORN9. Are you largely continuing your stylings from Jyuzaengi: Engetsu Sangokuden or should we expect fresh new sounds from you?
Kevin Penkin: It's a huge pleasure to be working with Idea Factory and Dog Ear Records again. I had a sort of crisis after Sangokuden was released where I was asking myself "what the hell is next!?".
The game is still in development, but I can say that from the teaser trailer released you can hopefully see it's quite a different direction musically. I think my influences and sound sources will be different this time round. But the imagery from NORN9 is really cool, so it's not hard to go off on a musical tangent.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Kevin Penkin. Is there anything else you'd like to say about your music? Do you have a message for readers around the world?
Kevin Penkin: The pleasure's all mine, Chris. Thanks for taking notice of what I'm doing! I am still really young in this industry, so I don't know what I could really say other than that I really hope you like where this new collaboration with Uematsu-san will go and I hope I'll be able to show you more soon.
As for a message, just keep an open mind about what music is and you'll be able to find beauty in a much more expanded sound world. What a lot consider to be music and what isn't can be very restricting. That might be a little Cage of me to say, but I do strongly think that an open mind is the key to finding your true musical voice in a world where there is a virtually infinite amount of music.