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Aetherflow – Autumn 2018
The Primals, founded in 2014, is an official band formed around the Final Fantasy XIV sound director Masayoshi Soken and consists of five total members. After four years of sharing their passion for music and FFXIV with thousands upon thousands of fans, the Primals released their very first album in May of 2018. Though they are mostly known for their high energy and enthralling Fan Festival performances, which includes mimicking the infamous Moogles and kicking a cardboard box under the piano, the Primals have taken the stage by storm in many other concerts as well.
As a stark difference to their professional black attire, this group is vibrant on stage, easily capturing the hearts of fans worldwide. Never simply giving what the fans expect and always leaving them with wanting more, Soken-san and Koji-san of the Primals graciously sat down us and provided exclusive behind the scenes insight as to what makes this band the amazing success it is today.
Soken-san and Koji-san, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to sit down and answer our questions! To start off, could you tell us a little bit about yourselves?
MS: My name’s Masayoshi Soken and I’m in charge of the sound in FINAL FANTASY XIV. As Sound Director, my role involves composing music, designing the ingame sound systems, creating sound effects, recording voice tracks and instruments, setting up the sound systems and acoustics for FFXIV events, playing guitar and performing vocals at gigs, overseeing orchestral concerts, eating bugs on live broadcasts… I feel like lately, I’ve been working on an insane amount of different things. By the way, the last name “Soken” is really unusual in Japan, so I always have a tough time trying to explain it over the phone.
KF: My full name is Michael-Christopher Koji Fox, but I’ve gone by my middle name, Koji, since I can remember. When I was 20, I moved from my hometown Portland, Oregon to Japan, where, after a long and winding road of entrance exams, four years of university, certification exams, coaching basketball, and playing way too much FINAL FANTASY XI, I found myself at Square Enix working on the games I’d loved my whole life. Well, that and singing on a stage in front of thousands of screaming people. Needless to say, I didn’t see that last one coming.
What prompted the creation of the band, and why the specific genre of rock?
MS: Well, it all began with the first Fan Festival, where we wanted the final stage performance to be something that would really get the crowd going. After talking to the team, we decided that, since it was a massive two-day event, we should have totally different shows for the first and second days. We weighed up our options, in terms of how we’d go about it, budget, and the amount of preparation needed, and eventually decided to have a piano performance on the first day and a rock band on the second, to create a contrast between the two. The band formed to play on that second day became the Primals.
How did you originally choose the members that would make up the Primals?
MS: I asked one of my rock music friends if he knew any decent players who’d be up for joining a band, and his response was “Yeah, I know loads. What sort of people are you looking for?” I told him I was looking for guys with experience, rather than youngsters, with a focus on playing with passion over technical ability. It was a bit of a surprise when it turned out that GUNN was the only person who seemed to fit. I asked GUNN if he knew any similar kinds of players, and he said “You mean they don’t need to be young? I’m in touch with tons of people like that,” and ended up introducing the current members of the Primals.
Do you often get requests from other staff members interested in joining the band?
MS: No one’s ever asked me. Working on the in-game sound is already a super demanding job, so doing that while trying to put together live performances that the fans will appreciate is an unbelievably tall order. After they see the look of sheer exasperation on my face, I don’t blame them for not wanting to volunteer!
KF: Not too many. I’m guessing a lot of my co-workers in the Localization Department chose translation over interpretation because they prefer to stay behind the scenes. That said, there are a few who have gladly lent a hand when asked. Many of the FFXIV localization team have sung backup vocals on tracks, and I tapped a translator on another project to channel her inner-Lakshmi for the track Beauty’s Wicked Wiles.
As if the music itself isn’t captivating enough, the words also easily consume the listener. Who writes the lyrics for the various songs and where does their inspiration stem from?
KF: With the exception of the Japanese portions of a few new “Far Eastern”-themed tracks for the Stormblood expansion, I’ve penned the lyrics for nearly all the vocal tracks since the launch of 1.0. I’m usually given free rein to write pretty much whatever I want (there is rarely any original Japanese I’m translating from), the only restriction being that I follow the melody/syllable count that Soken-san provides (I only start writing the lyrics after he’s finished the music). Since these tracks are featured in-game during boss battles and whatnot, I first and foremost make sure that they fit the story they will be accompanying.
Next, I decide who will be singing the song, so the lyrics can be written from that point of view. Is the boss singing the song his/herself? Is it being sung by the bosses’ loyal minions? Or, is it a tale about the boss, telling of a past episode? Once all that is done, I listen to the song on repeat about a thousand times (at work, during my commute, at home, etc.) and let my imagination do the rest.
The one thing I try to keep consistent in all my lyrics, though, is mirror Soken-san’s use of phrase repetition. Throughout his compositions for FFXIV, you will find certain music phrases or themes that are shared. I like to emulate that technique in my lyrics, choosing to use similar words or phrases across seemingly unrelated songs.
Preparation for all of the concerts and Fan Festivals seems like quite a daunting task. How often do you practice?
MS: If we’re getting ready for a live show, we get everyone together and rehearse regularly for about a month beforehand. We’re mainly just trying to get the performance down. In the run-up to the concert, we spend several days and nights working on how it’s going to look on stage, pretty much to the point of keeling over.
We put a lot of thought into what each member of the band can do to make it fun for the crowd. It’s quite tiring, but at the same time, it feels like organizing a party to take on a high-end raid so we really get a kick out of it. We also go into the studio for pre production when we’re planning the Primals’ versions of new songs.
What are these practice sessions like?
MS: While we’re actually playing, we take it very seriously and give it everything we have. But on the other hand, when we’re taking a break, all of our energy goes into messing around. We really are a bunch of no-hopers during breaks.
KF: By the time I am called in, the other members have a good grasp of what they’re supposed to do, so a lot of times we simply play straight through the set like we were performing it on stage. There’s very little guesswork. Everyone knows what they’re supposed to do, and is professional enough to make things work, even if I flounder. Outside of that, it’s simply having the chance to talk with the guys about all their adventures during their illustrious careers as rock stars. All that juicy gossip over tasty pork cutlet bentos is well worth the price of admission.
The music is simply amazing, how do you balance the exceptional performance with the lively production you have on stage?
KF: If you ask me, the whole thing is rigged for success! First off, the songs are amazing. Soken is such a talented composer, as well as one of the funniest guys I know.
When he speaks, people listen. Next, I’m surrounded by some of the most talented rock musicians in Japan. Tachibana-san, Iwai-san, and GUNN-san have all been playing professionally for an average of 25+ years. Add to that, the amazing crowds we get. FFXIV fans are some of the greatest of any game, and they can really bring energy to a concert. With all that in my corner, a lot of the pressure comes off. I can just go out and have fun, and not worry about what might go wrong… because chances are, it won’t.
FFXIV fans are some of the greatest of any game, and they can really bring energy to a concert.
With so many songs to choose from, how do you choose which to perform at the Fan Festivals?
MS: Since it’s an MMO, we choose a mixture of songs that will get a reaction from the fans and are popular with the fans, or “in season,” at that particular point in time. Sounds like I’m talking about cooking, doesn’t it?
Congratulations on the release of your first solo album earlier this year! How does it feel and did you ever foresee reaching this achievement?
MS: I’ve always thought that if I’m going to be in a band, I’d want to release an album of our material at some point. But since this band is so strongly linked to the Fan Festivals and the primals themselves, we can’t continuously produce new music, not to mention that we’re affected by the timing of the primals appearing in game, so I felt like it would be hard to put together an album.
In the end, it was encouragement from the fans that pushed us to release it. I know I always say this, but the energy of the fans is a real driving force. Thanks to them, the Primals somehow managed to climb above scores of Japan’s top musicians to reach fourth on the album charts. It’s amazing to think that working in games development could lead to this, and just goes to show what an impact games can make.
KF: Thank you! It is all kind of surreal. I never dreamed that a job translating item help text for a Japanese MMORPG would lead to being involved in the creation of a Billboard-ranked best-selling CD. I kind of feel how Jesse on Full House did when his band, Jesse and the Rippers, got famous in Japan.
Okay, maybe not exactly like that, but you get the idea. On the other hand, there was this moment when we were recording the vocal part for the track Oblivion in the Square Enix studio, and I thought to myself, “This deserves to be on the radio!” Sokensan is a massively talented individual, and maybe somewhere, deep inside, I always knew that someday the rest of the world would eventually realize this, too.
Which of the in-game primals do you personally relate to and what primal theme is your favorite?
MS: For me, it’s Oblivion. I mean, I’m not much of a singer, so it’s nice not to have to do any vocals on this one!
KF: While I love them all, the track for the Sephirot battle, Fiend, is by far my favourite. I had a lot of fun with the lyrics on that one, and the Primals’ arrangement is perfect for a little oldfashioned headbanging.
I probably relate to Odin the most. I mean, how can you not relate to a moody guy in black who gets to cut all of his problems in half with a big-assed sword, and then ride off into the sunset?
What are the future plans for your group?
MS: The thing that makes MMOs different to other games is that they’re constantly evolving. This MMO spawned the rock band, the Primals, so we too will continue to evolve, becoming even more savage! Whether it’s at our gigs, or at Fan Festivals, we’ll keep pushing ourselves to give those Warriors of Light something to remember!
To learn more about The Primals, listen to their music or grab some amazing merch, check out their official website.