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Interview with CHiCO and Tomori Kudo on ACE (September 2010)

ACE's Hiroyo Yamanaka (aka CHiCO) and Tomori Kudo are a musical duo signed at Universal Music. Since their debut on Everyone's Tamagotchi, they have gone on to work on numerous soundtrack and album productions. Their most significant works include the huge worldly score for Emil Chronicle Online, the humorous arrangements and vocals of Nobuo Uematsu's 10 Short Stories, and a range of memorable and multifaceted contributions to Xenoblade.

In this interview, both artists discuss in detail their background, influences, and works before Xenoblade. They particularly focus on their experiments on their debut works and their diverse offerings to Emil Chronicle Online. In addition, they discuss their collaborations with other artists such as Nobuo Uematsu on 10 Short Stories and Ten Plants 2, Yasunori Mitsuda on Creid and Luminous Arc 3, and Yoko Shimomura on Xenoblade. Their scoring experiences on Xenoblade were discussed in detail on an official interview and the soundtrack liner notes, so are not further elaborated upon here.

Interview Credits

Interview Subject: Hiroyo "CHiCO" Yamanaka, Tomori Kudo
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Translation & Localisation: Shota Nakama
Coordination: Chris Greening

Interview Content

Chris: CHiCO and Tomori Kudo, many thanks for talking to us today. First of all, could you each introduce yourself and discuss your musical background, education, and influences?

CHiCO: Nice to meet you, I am CHiCO from ACE. Thank you so much for having us! In the group, I am in charge of producing the group, writing lyrics, composing, and the vocals.

Tomori Kudo: Tomori Kudo here. I am pleased to meet you and thank you for the interview! I am also in charge of producing ACE, as well as composing, arranging, and performing guitars.

CHiCO: Concerning my background, my sisters took lessons for the piano, harpsichord, and clarinet, and I studied the violin, and we grew up in a house where you would hear the classical music all the time. When I was little, I liked playing with the piano, hitting the keys to make noise. I would play something that sounds sad when I was sad, and I would play something that sounds happy when I was happy. There weren't even complete songs, though! The piano did not get mad even if I hit it hard, so I treated it like a great friend that I didn't have to be concerned about!

I did not choose this musical path in the beginning, though. Initially I became an actress in a professional theater company and, aside of acting, I was also an assistant of the choreographer. One of my responsibilities was to choose suitable music to play during the shows. One day, I thought it would be much faster if I created the music, rather than spending so much time browsing so many songs to play, and that is how I started composing. After that, aside of continuing theater works, I formed some bands, performed backing vocals for concerts, and eventually shifted my career to music entirely. Tomori was one of the members from a bands I was in. We had an opportunity to work on some music gig together back then and that led us to now.

Tomori Kudo and CHiCO

Tomori Kudo: As for me, I have always listened to music as I was growing up. I watched and listened to all the television and radio hit chart programs, so I would say my musical roots are from Japan's top 40 songs. My parents made me take lessons for the electone and piano from kindergarten up to about the fifth grade. When I was in a high school, I started the guitar because I wanted to pursue music. I was really into Slash Metal bands like Metallica for a while, then started listening to 60s - 70s blues-based hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin, before exploring 80s - 90s music like Van Halen and Guns & Roses, and and getting really into the blues before the 50s. After that, I began gaining interest in blues music that incorporates jazz licks through Robin Ford and that gradually led me into the world of jazz. Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, and John Scofield are some of the artists I was into. That is when I spent time researching how to improvise and go out of scales.

Afterwards, I turned my direction and joined a pop band through my friend, which brought me back to the chart style a bit. So now I am into pretty much all styles of music if they are good. This is my personal approach, but I have always liked people who have a serious attitude toward music and are constantly willing to challenge new areas, for example Bjork, Madonna, Cibo Matto, The Neptunes, Radiohead, and others — I could come up with so many that I like. For soundtracks, I really like Gabriel Yared, recent Hans Zimmer, Alberto Iglesias, John Williams, Ryuichi Sakamoto — the list goes on as long. I always feel inspired by music that features good harmonic structures, great performances, and simply a good sound.

CHiCO: In terms of my own influences, my musical roots are the classical music that was playing in my home everyday and I think absorbed it naturally. I was also in a local choir singing the music such as Japanese and foreign folk music and those influenced me, too. When I was a student, at one point I stayed in Switzerland, so I listened to quite a lot of American and British pop music like Madonna, Cindy Lauper, Depeche Mode, Phil Collins, Tears For Fears, and many others. Later Michael Jackson and The Beatles had a huge impact on me. What surprised me about The Beatles was their panning and mix; the right and left channel both give different sounds, and it was so much fun listening to the change in the acoustic placement of the instruments through my headphones! Afterwards, I started listening all kinds of music from Japanese indie bands, as well as ethnic music, soundtracks, jazz, hard rock, fusion music, minimalism, and so on.

Otherwise I was heavily influenced by Bjork as an artist. I was inspired musically around the time when 2 Step Garage and Breakbeat emerged, and, as a Japanese person, I also especially respect Cibo Matto. Additionally, I like listening to more deviant pop artists like Fiona Apple and Damon Albarn. On the other hand, I also like Ambient Techno very much from artists like Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, etc. Also since I was doing the theater stuff, I have listened to soundtracks a lot and, for some reason, I feel like the soundtrack world is so familiar.

Other than music, I got a lot of culture shock from living overseas at the time. I realized that there are so many differents types of people and things, and they aren't just one-sided. I think this experience has influenced my life and music very much. For our music, ideally we intend it to be "catchy while being multifaceted", but it is so difficult! I probably sound like an omnivorous person, and it comes from my mottos "cutting edge" and "freedom".

Chris: You two are the founding members of ACE. Could you elaborate on what this unit is and how you collaborate together? What roles are you each responsible for?

Tomori Kudo: My band, where CHiCO was the vocalist, once belonged to an agency and we happened to get an offer of a game music gig one day. I knew CHiCO did some musical works related to visuals, like choosing the music for a play, so we just decided to go for it. That is how we started doing game music.

Our unit, ACE, mainly focuses on creating our own original music. However, aside of that, we constantly try to challenge ourselves with new things such as producing or contributing songs for other artists, or creating game music, film scores, and television commercial music. We always keep in mind that we want to make music that can be visualized.

Bomberman 64: The Second Attack

CHiCO: Our roles are not exactly defined. Sometimes I come up with an idea and develop it into a song, and then Tomori arranges it. Other times Tomori would make the verse and he would leave it to me to make the chorus. In other cases, I would write the lyrics for a song he came up with, or I would put the materials in like loops and he would make the harmonic structure. Or if he is stuck while mixing, I would objectively approach the process and adjust the faders. We are very flexible in that sense.

However, when we come up with an image of a song, I feel like we just naturally know what our roles are. Once in a while, we would have a team competition. Tomori is pretty hard on my songs, though.

Tomori Kudo: Even though we call it a team competition, my concern is that there are only two of us, so we cannot decide by majority!

Chris: Before your breakout work on Emil Chronicle Online, you were both responsible for working on a range of game projects, first of all Everyone's Tamagotchi. Could you discuss what it was like to work on game music for the first time?

Tomori Kudo: Everyone's Tamagotchi was the first game that ACE worked on. Our tasks encompassed more than composing and we also made the sound effects and suchlike. At the time you did not hear "human voices" in Nintendo 64 games. Thus we came up with the concept of filling the entire game sounds, including the sound effects, with human voices.

CHiCO: At the time we were not thinking about the data capacity of the console at all, so later we had the hell of compression waiting for us. Haha.

Tomori Kudo: When thinking something like "Let's put this song over this scene!", my main focus was to make it absurd and unexpected. The scene where Tamagotchi runs on the running machine, you hear CHiCO saying "1, 2, 3, 4, Gokurosan" (Gokurosan = Good Job), which sounds really tedious, and it accelerates! I would start chuckling while composing, and that novelty was what the production was built on.

Chris: After this challenging project, how did you go about contributing to Robopon and Bomberman: The Second Attack?

Tomori Kudo: I have been involved with the development of Robopon since its Game Boy Color version. On these titles, my priority was how to create a real and thick sound with only four simultaneous sounds. Eventually Kalta Otsuki, one of the prominent drummers in Japan, did the arrangement (three sounds for the harmony and one sound for the rhythm). I still have the arranged score and it is so awesomely crazy! This was a turning point and it changed the way we thought of arranging.

CHiCO: I was mainly in charge of the music for the mini games of Robopon for the Nintendo 64. The game has a stream of Tamagotchi, and my focus was on "how absurd" I could make it! When the Hudson staff come to the studio to listen, my considerations were "how to make them laugh". Even now those pieces are among my favorite songs.

Tomori Kudo: Bomberman: The Second Attack, on the other hand, was done by multiple composers including Mitsuda-san and Hiroda-san. ACE composed the themes for the opening, ending, title screen, boss battles, the character Lily, certain stages, and so on. I really liked playing Bomberman, so I remember the composing part went very quickly.

Chris: ACE's magnum opus to date is probably Emil Chronicle Online. Could you discuss what it was like to work on this MMORPG? What was the main concept for its music and how did you develop it?

Tomori Kudo: We were told in the beginning that the concept was to produce "catchy music that that you can listen to for hours without getting bored, which does not have too much impact". The concept seemed like a contradiction at first. The reason is because the same tracks are looped forever, often over ten hours, for online games. Also the theme was to produce "healing sounds" in line of the nickname, ECO, of the game (the acronym of Emil Chronicle Online).

Emil Chronicle Online

Until then, I had never thought of making "music with less impact", so even with the tight production schedule, I was not able to come up with anything good. One day, I changed my mind by thinking maybe people would not get tired of listening to "a good melody" and then I started trying very hard to create "not so intense but good pieces" and "music that has a healing quality and feels good". The schedule was extremely tight. I had to arrange and mix about three to four themes a day to keep up with it.

Chris: The concept of the series' music developed somewhat over the different Sagas. Could you elaborate on the main developments?

Tomori Kudo: On Saga 9, with the addition of the new militant character DEM, we decided to totally change the musical concept by incorporating more battle themes unlike the eight previous Sagas where we had more healing music. "Song for Basttle Field" (the theme for West Acronia Field) was created to represent the fleeting appearances of Messiah, so we naturally added a Messiah-like vocal part in and submitted the music. We were told that they couldn't use music like this, because it was too noticeable in an online game, but fortunately one of the audio leads at GungHo thought it sounded great and decided to use it. We eventually decided to feature more synthesized voices and lower the volume compared to normal vocal music. The last section features a raw voice, though.

The music staff, the other GungHo staff members, and I threw a bunch of ideas through trial and error for the production. Even just speaking about the final mix of the music, we did it over and over again. Emil Chronicle Online was very satisfying to work on as part of a team. I am assuming that the reason they offered us to compose for the entire, not just one game, was because we communicated with them really closely.

Chris: Emil Chronicle Online is known for its high quality use of world instruments and vocals. How were you able to offer such high quality sound for this project? How did you build such a authentic yet fitting Celtic feel?

Tomori Kudo: Of course, it would have been really nice to record a full orchestra, but we couldn't due to various constraints. Instead we selected soloists on the top of sequenced tracks to add a little thickness in the sound. These recordings with various live instruments enhanced the healing and worldly sound. Other than composing and arranging, I also did everything else by myself from selecting the musicians to booking studios. It almost made me dizzy taking care of all those things, but the recording session for ethnic instruments went great with fantastic musicians and it blew my fatigue away.

Ethnic elements are still very difficult to sequence, hence why we needed instrumental recordings. Not only Celtic instruments, but we also used Andes, Country, Italian, and other world instruments to make each piece distinct, so that the color changes every time you visit a different town in the game. For the wind instruments, we added an ocarina, quena, low whistle, pan flute, Bansuri-like flute, regular flute, and alto flute. And for the strings, we recorded a charango, banjo, aruba, oud, mandolin, and accordion. From Saga 9, we added vocals for the aforementioned theme and added more electric guitar tracks.

We usually include a lot of voices and vocal harmonies on the soundtracks we work on, from Emil Chronicle Online and beyond. When we are gathering song ideas, we often conceive tracks with vocals or we just start wanting to add voices as we are composing. That is because we are very interested in the various ways of producing voices, and also we think there are still new possibilities for "voices" as sounds.

Chris: CHiCO, according to Uematsu-san, you became friends after taking instrument lessons together. Is this what led to your involvement in the vocal album Ten Plants 2: Children's Songs?

CHiCO: The first time I met Uematsu-san was during a beer party at his place. Hidenori "Kalta" Otsuki-san from the same production team took me there, but I had no idea about the party when I was heading there. Then at the party I talked to Uematsu-san and realized what a wonderful man he is. Mrs. Uematsu was as nice and told me a lot of interesting stories while serving us delicious food. That night I totally became a fan of the two of them. At the time, my favorite album was Celtic Moon by Uematsu-san. However the person I met at the beer party was completely different and did not match my image of "the composer Uematsu-san". After that, when I had some sad experiences, I wrote them letters and talked to them about my life from time to time via emails. These communications meant that I was influenced by not only his music, but also him as a person.

After a while, the president of my office was producing the vocal album Ten Plants. I did the demo vocal track for the original Ten Plants composed by Uematsu-san. However, I am not sure why he then offered me to do Ten Plants 2: Children's Song, although I was very happy about it.

I think it was after that when I joined the fiddle lesson at his place. I tried not to skip one because the lesson and the tea break afterwards were both so enjoyable. At the tea break, they serve delicious sweets. We would fill ourselves with those and do some sessions playing a fiddle, guitar, bouzouki, and taiko. Sometimes Mitsuda-san and Okamiya-san from The Black Mages joined us. It is one of my fondest memories.

10 Short Stories

Chris: ACE were recently extensively involved with the vocals and arrangement of Nobuo Uematsu's solo album 10 Short Stories. Could you discuss your experiences working on this album? How were you able to enhance its liveliness, humour, and character?

CHiCO: The first song I received from Uematsu-san was "Coconut Castaway". I spent a lot of time thinking what I should feel when singing the song, but one day I just quit thinking so much and sang it. The results were so joyful that I found myself singing and dancing to it. I became Coco and then I became the narrator... I felt I was wanting to be in that world. While singing, so many arrangement ideas started pouring in my head. I considered Uematsu-san playing his piano riff, a wave-like acoustic guitar coming in and creating a big storm, and eventually I felt a wave of voices on my skin... the arrangement was done instantly as if reading a children's book or watching a film with Uematsu-san's poetry in it. This assignment, expressing what I had been doing with the theater works with Uematsu-san, brought significant meaning and self-discovery to my music.

Then it was followed by "Here Comes Conga Boy". This took two months to make because I spent too much time thinking how I could make Uematsu-san laugh the first time he listens to it. As a result, I have dozens of demos for Conga Boy that I made before showing him. The very first demo I made was me singing like a middle age man. Then I made a version with me acting a character with a screeching high voice. Eventually we got settled on what's on the CD, among many versions I had made. This song was absolutely the hardest one to create.

Tomori Kudo: As for me,. I had a hard time making the songs interesting throughout, even though they featured repeats. The first five songs, especially, have a lot of repeats. On the other hand, I feel like all our ideas gave the album a more uplifting feel. Because the lyrics are very strong and consistent, I gave more thickness to the sound by adding backing vocals and arranging.

I spent so much time directing the vocals for singing as certain characters. On Conga Boy, especially, we kept recording the vocals in many different characters, then stopped and recorded again until we felt settled. As a vocalist, CHiCO has a variety of voices and has a wide vocal range, so we needed much time to decide the vocal style and determine the keys.

CHiCO: If you listen to the whole album and think that it is unique and uplifting, I would be very happy. What I cared about while making this album was to pursue something fun and interesting for the vocals and arrangements; as the world of Uematsu-san was already catchy and universal, so I thought whatever I do, the goodness of the songs would remain. When the album was in production, I did not think of anything else but to make my first listener, Uematsu-san, laugh! Anyway, the way I think has changed so much as a singer from before I made this album. I am truly grateful to Uematsu-san for guiding me to such a life work.

Chris: Tomori Kudo, you appear to have a close relationship with one of Square's other legendary composers, Yasunori Mitsuda. Could you discuss what it was like to work with him on the legendary album Xenogears Creid?

Tomori Kudo: Hidenori "Kalta" Otsuki, who belonged to the same office that I was in, participated in Xenogears Creid, and I did the copyist job for the project as an assistant. It was the first time for me to use a notation software to create scores and parts. I remember sitting down in the lounge of the studio with a mac and printer, struggling with a job I was not used to at all. I really wanted to listen to the musicians playing for the recording but I had to stay in the lounge to do my job. So I could not watch how Mitsuda-san works in the studio when I worked on Creid.

However, looking back now, Mitsuda-san has always been great at computers (he even taught me how to use excel), is very particular about music, is always thinking about something in his head, and is always eager to learn. That was the impression that I had of him. I still have a huge respect for how he approaches his music.

Luminous Arc 3 Eyes Original Soundtrack

Chris: CHiCO, on behalf of Procyon Studio, you recently sung the opening theme of Luminous Arc 3: Eyes. How did you achieve a suitably elating feel for this song? What do you think it brings to the game's opening?

CHiCO: This song was composed by a female composer from Procyon Studio, Maki Kirioka. The first impression of the song was for it to be large scale and very epic. As well as the main melody, the chorus part is really sophisticated, and they are beautifully intertwined to make the piece full of emotion. The theme was really enormous, so my intention was to throw my full force to it without thinking anything. To tell you the truth, the key of this song is really high. But the high key made me feel nice as I let my voice out. It was as if I spread my wings out! I would love it if some fans let their voice out freely to sing this too.

I was able to do this because of Kirioka-san's personality and musicality, and she indeed is a very artistic and interesting person. After I got the offer for singing this song, I found that her studio and my studio became really close. I went over there a few times to talk to her while making this song. I don't know if it is necessity or coincidence, but I feel like we are connected with an invisible thread!

The producer, Yasunori Mitsuda, recommended me to the gig. From the studio, to the engineer, to the microphones, he gave me such a great environment to work in. It was so fun singing there. Mitsuda-san thinks that even the production environment is an important part of music. I was once again very much impressed by his attitude towards music.

This song plays right after a dramatic development of the story soon after you start the game. As a result, I was aiming for this image of spreading out wings and flying into this epic world right away and tried to make players think they must continue the game desperately for the excitement. I would be happy if I succeeded, but did I do it well...? The music is amazing and the mix and graphics are crisp and clear, so I am sure people would get excited. If I created the desire flying image with my voice, I can say that it was a success...

Chris: Finally, it would be interesting to learn a little more about wht it was like to work as part of the team of Xenoblade. Was it enjoyable to be involved in this giant score? What was it like to work with Mitsuda-san and Shimomura-san in this context?

CHiCO: That was the first time that we worked with Shimomura-san, and I was particularly anxious to meet such an accomplished female creator. I've learned so much from working with her. She is also a wonderful person full of charm outside of work. In that sense, it was fun working with her too.

As I mentioned in the earlier answer, Mitsuda-san let us work on Luminous Arc 3. He has also been a great friend in private as well as a colleague. I have always had a tremendous respect for him the way he thinks of music and how he works, so I was extremely happy to work with him again on a game.

Tomori Kudo: Having worked with Mitsuda-san previously on Bomberman and Creid, I am glad we worked together again on Xenoblade. He only participated on the ending song this time, but I think he concluded the game very well.

CHiCO: I should mention that usually there are only two of us from gathering the ideas to mixing, but on Xenoblade we added Hiramatsu to the team and worked as ACE+. I think we did a good job as a trio. We would like to leave open the option of more collaborations in future and work with interesting people from time to time.

Chris: Beyond game music, you have been involved in a number of other vocal albums on behalf of Universal Music. Could you elaborate on the extent of your works in this field? What are your proudest achievements outside of game music to date?

Tomori Kudo: Working with other artists' music is very inspiring always, but in terms of the proudest achievements, I must say that is ACE. We have so many unreleased materials and are committed to putting more effort on exposing those.

Xenoblade Original Soundtrack

Chris: Thanks so much for your time today, CHiCO and Tomori Kudo, and offering such insightful responses. Is there anything else you'd each like to say about yourselves or your projects? Are there any final words you'd like to say to readers around the world. Best wishes for the future!

CHiCO: There are a lot of amazing kinds of music, sounds, and ideas. I would love to absorb these things and experiment to create interesting music. Also as a performer, I would be happy to give interesting ideas to projects.

Tomori Kudo: I feel that I am very happy about being able to continue composing. Of course, I enjoy working on games, but I would also love to release songs and create film scores without limiting myself to certain genres. ACE does its own original materials aside of those things, so please check those as well. Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity for this interview!

Many thanks to Shota Nakama for translating this entire interview. Thank you to Universal Music, GungHo Online Entertainment, Procyon Studio, and Dog Ear Records for additional support. Learn more about ACE on their official website.