From sweeping, orchestral cues and pop and rock-influenced tunes, to dramatic, emotional tracks and grooving dance themes, Joshua Matthews has composed all kinds of compelling pieces that drew me in within the first few seconds of listening. Check out my interview with the insightful, witty, and down-to-earth composer, where we discussed transcendence of music, creative freedom in video game music, and musical epiphanies.
Thank you so much for doing this interview—it really means a lot to me! So how did you get started with music?
Joshua: I guess my journey started when I was about I’d say seven or eight. And I got exposed to the game Chrono Trigger. And also Secret of Evermore. I never had it, but I just remember watching the commercial for it, and they had this whole grandiose anime style thing going, and I was like “What is THAT? I want to play that!!”
In terms of my beginnings, there are so many different things that influenced me, but long story short, I started off in band class in 7th grade, I was in the percussion ensemble in my school, concert band… I learned to play trumpet, and percussion, but the real beginning happened when I was like 3? My parents told me I was 3. They bought me this little Yamaha keyboard… It was a toy. (laughs) As I got older, I taught myself to play the piano from that.
So those two games—Secret of Evermore, Chrono Trigger—and just those early influences in band… That’s what really propelled me into that direction. I was kind of the weird one when I was younger. I would go to school, and everyone was listening to the latest rock, the latest rap, pop music, whatever. And I was listening to video game music. (laughs)
(laughs) I’m with you there, I was that weird kid, too!!
Joshua: It was just something that I did. I was around 12, and they had just started really pushing the midi type of hardware. And there were people who were making renditions of game music, like Sonic the Hedgehog, and they would record it via midi. And from that, I would go to the computer, click on something, and I would just listen for hours, and by ear learn to play what they were playing.
Right, awesome, cool!
Joshua: Yeah so that’s kinda my beginnings. I was in band from 7th grade to graduation, in marching band and all that stuff…
What did you play specifically in the pit? I was in pit too!
Joshua: Nice, nice! What did I play… I played virtually everything. I was that guy, just…
Running around with the mallets? (laughs)
Joshua: Yes! Exactly! Any auxiliary percussion, timpani, suspended cymbal, snare… Whatever they needed me to be on, that’s where I was. And so from that, I learned a lot about those bells and whistles, the ear candy that’s in orchestral music—like timpani rolls and rising roll on the suspended cymbal.
Awesome, so I see that you post a lot of tracks on soundcloud that are like “assignment”—are you currently in school? Are you studying composition now?
Joshua: Yes. I’m attending Full Sail. It’s a music production program, so it’s not technically composition. I take what I learn from that, and I study composition outside. So kinda self-taught in one form or another, on the composition side.
Oh, that’s awesome. So what was your very first composition? And what inspired that initial spark of creativity?
Joshua: It was a piece I called “The Quest”. What sparked “The Quest” is that I had this innate desire to realize this vision that was in my head. I would always have movie scenes playing in my head. That was around the time when I started with music production—I got Pro Tools and a few other tools, and I sat down one day and I was like “Okay. I’ve never done this before. I was never taught composition formally. But I’m gonna do it!” And so I used all the stock sounds in Pro Tools, which was very CPU intensive. But I took all of that, and I created three movements, actually. What inspired that was really just adventure—that’s why I called it “The Quest”.
I didn’t actually end up coming up with a name for it until I let people hear it. At the time my studio was very dark. I only had lights from the screen. So someone would come in, put the head phones on, and they would just lean back and listen… The piece itself was I think six or seven minutes, and at the end of it they were like, “Man… I feel like I just went on this voyage.” (laughs) So after that happened five or six times, I said okay, I’ll call it “The Quest”.
The three movements were… There’s like a jungle-type movement where you’re kind of seeing landscapes, so to speak. This is what people described when they listened to it. The second movement was more of this entry of a conflict. In my mind, I had two armies, two kingdoms, and the tragic story of this love between two characters—one is a prince, one is a princess, and they’re from opposite kingdoms that are going to war with each other. So that was the premise behind it. The last movement was kind of this reunion and reconciliation between the two kingdoms. So that was my first piece.
Awesome, what an epic first composition! Wow!! So what or who are some of your main influences and inspirations, musical or other aspects of your life?
Joshua: Okay. I think I have probably thousands, so I’ll try to condense this. Lately I’ve been listening to Masashi Hamauzu. A LOT. Final Fantasy XIII soundtrack—all three of them—have been on replay… Shuffle… I’ve been listening to him since I was like 12, with Saga Frontier 2. The way that he approaches piano work is, to me, just phenomenal. I know the cliche thing to say is “Oh, it’s Nobuo-san!” or “Shimomura-san!” Well, she’s actually another one. She and Nobuo… They’re like neck and neck. I played a game called Legend of Mana. In Yoko Shimomura’s own words, that’s actually her favorite soundtrack, and that was the first time I was exposed to her. That right there let me know, this is what I wanted to do, when I heard her music in that entire soundtrack. Just the versatility… She did everything, from tropical to dark, dreary stuff, to epic, romantic, all these things… It was a story, audio-wise. So Yoko Shimomura-san is definitely easily one of my greatest influences.
Outside of that, American-wise… Brian Tyler. I like him because he fuses things together. He fuses orchestral instruments with ones you’d find in a rock band.
Okay, cool. So what programs and equipment do you use to make your music? You mentioned Pro Tools.
Joshua: Once I started using a Mac, that whole thing changed. I use Pro Tools for sound design, for any type of engineering, mixing, mastering… My primary DAW is Logic. I use a LOT of sample libraries. I have a library of sample libraries! But then of course instruments too… I try to have a one-stop shop of a studio. It’s been a dream to work with other musicians, but you know, that’s not always possibly, financially, and time-wise. So I like to be able to have the highest quality instruments that I can get my hands on, so that if a client asks me, hey I need this, I can do it right away.
Okay, yeah. So what was the first video game soundtrack you worked on, and what was the experience like?
Joshua: Actually, the first one is the one that I’m working on now. I’m working with Nue Technique Studios. They have a JRPG-styled RPG, called Chronicle Abyss. The experience has been… It’s been more personal, for me, not just because it’s the first video game soundtrack I’m working on, but also because the team that I’m working with is not just talented, but they’ve become my friends. We weren’t friends, prior to the project, so it’s become a really personal experience.
As far as the music goes, it’s been incredible. I have a lot of tracks that I haven’t been able to release and that I can’t release yet. Long story short, what happened with the game is that they are actually still in the infancy. The story and characters have been written, but in terms of development, graphics, coding, programming… They’re still working on those things. But I’m saying all of this to say that I’m in the beginning, whereas usually the composer’s brought in after everything’s done, and the pressure is on. It’s pretty much beta-tested, they’re ready to roll it out, they just need music… That’s normally what happens, but I have a unique experience because I’m brought in as they’re creating everything.
Yeah, so you get to be part of that whole process.
Joshua: Exactly… It’s been fun. The director, Cameron, will come to me, and be like “Hey dude, I need X, Y, and Z. And we’ve got this 4-stage set, and we’re playing around with some ideas, but I was wondering if you could do something, I’m looking for something adventurous. I want you to want the player to be there, I want you to get them into it!”
Awesome. So which composition of yours, if you had to choose one, are you most proud of? It could be game-related, or something completely different.
Joshua: Okay, well actually it’s the one I released recently. I named it “Reclaim Your Throne”, and it’s inspired by Final Fantasy XV. My professor threw an assignment at us, gave us parameters, and restrictions… I hate restrictions. (laughs) But I said okay, if I’m gonna do this, I’m going to do something that’s me. Because I’ve been in school, I haven’t had a lot of time to really do anything, like to really write anything. I work full time, come home, and there’s school work. For me, it was like a level-up piece. (laughs) I feel like I just gained experience, and am at a next level of expression, so to speak. I packed in a lot of things I’ve been influenced by. The piano was heavily influenced, in one way or another, by Shimomura-san and Hamauzu-san. Both of them are avid pianists… I’m self-taught, so I was just like “How would THEY do it?” That piece, “Reclaim Your Throne”, has been my favorite… It’s a hybrid piece: in the beginning, it’s very orchestral, then it moves into the second part where there’s this intensity. You’ll know when it gets to that part—that’s when the bass and cellos come in, and there’s this driving ostinato. That’s where I bring in elements of EDM, and mix it with that.
It was inspired by the first trailer they released for the game, before it developed to where it is now, I think… 2009, maybe? The premise is the main character is walking outside of this cathedral. And there are soldiers there, they’re armed with guns. This is the part of the song where it’s intense—I kind of scored that piece to the trailer, believe it or not. The beginning part, I wanted to do my own thing a bit, but the action and intense part is supposed to go with the part where he steps out of the cathedral. The whole story is that he’s taking his throne back. “Reclaim Your Throne” is one of the official taglines for FFXV.
Okay, cool. So in your opinion, what are some of the main differences between video game soundtracks and other kinds of music? Like what stands out to you?
Joshua: The freedom. Video game music, when you’re composing it, allows you to really blur the lines between what’s acceptable and what’s not—musically speaking. In orchestral music that’s meant for broadway, or a film, realism is the name of the game. You want something to sound real, you want it to sound grandiose, or intimate and delicate, or whatever the case may be. But you’re limited to those acoustic sounds.
With video game music, you can blend artificial or electronic with acoustic, orchestral, whatever! Sound design is welcome. If you want to take the sound of a cellist bowing a string, and you want to take that sound and warp it into a completely different instrument, and use that in a video game, that’s usually accepted, as long as it’s appropriate for what the director is looking for. So that, to me, is really what sets video game music apart, the freedom element.
Awesome, that’s a great answer. So I guess you’re still in the beginning stages of the video game soundtrack you’re writing, but what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far while writing that music?
Joshua: The biggest challenges that I’m facing are challenges that a composer would not be facing usually in this position, and that’s the element of time. And I don’t mean time as in deadlines, I mean time as in I’m juggling a full-time job, and school, and there’s really no time to pour into composing the piece. I do a lot of speed-writing, so whatever you’ve heard on my page has been written within an hour or two, to be honest with you.
Wow, that’s incredible!
Joshua: It’s, well… Thank you…? It hurts sometimes, because I want to spend time on something, and I won’t be able to, with my work week and everything. But especially the ones that are in my Full Sail playlist—those are usually done between one and three hours.
The other thing I could add to that is that since the game is in the beginning stages of development, the nature of the game tends to change. There may be a level that I wrote a theme for, and… I’ll give you an example. Recently the animation style of the game has changed. So it’s gone from this almost toy box-looking feel, to an official RPG, where the characters are fully developed, they have fingers, it looks really nice. Because of that, the director has let me know that he would like to revisit some things in the future. I take it more so as a challenge to myself, not necessarily a bad thing. But for someone who’s limited on time, that can be difficult.
Okay. So have you had musical epiphanies, where the music just came to you really quickly?
Joshua: Yes, it actually happened with “Reclaim Your Throne”. That song took me around two Sunday afternoons to put together. The first Sunday, I kind of woke up, (snap) I got it! (laughs) There’s this piano part in my head, I just gotta go! I got up, went and sat down at my desk, played around a little bit and found it almost instantly. The melody came very quickly, and it was very natural. It also happened with a piece that I wrote called “Heaven’s Mandate”. That was an assignment that my professor gave to us. He wanted us to compose a song using non-Western instruments. We had the choice between China, Japan, or an African country of our choice. I chose China, and I chose to use the guzheng, the xiao flute, and the erhu.
That’s my favorite instrument…!! ^___^
Joshua: Yeah, there’s something about the soul of that instrument…! So I used those, and the process was very fast. I sat down and started playing with the staccato strings, and before I knew it there was this whole thing. I was playing with the guzheng, doing that whole “blllrraaaoowww!!”
Oh, you have one!?!?
Joshua: I don’t have an actual one. But I do have a deeply sample guzheng library—they’ve recorded it artificially, and naturally. Artificially, they took the natural recording, of the pentatonic scale, and they tweaked the samples, so that it opened up all the notes in the range. I decided to use the pentatonic because that’s natural for the instrument. So when you do that, you can literally just slide your finger across and it makes the exact same sound… I had a fanboy moment, cause I love the guzheng. (laughs) So honestly, I had an epiphany there. That song took maybe… An hour. It came out so fast! Once the erhu got in there, the melody came, and everything just came together.
Awesome. So now if you’ve read my other interviews, you know I have a list of rapid-fire questions! (laughs)
Joshua: I don’t know if I’ll be able to answer them very quickly, but I’ll try! (laughs)
Okay! Favorite video game protagonist!
Joshua: Ah… Give me a second, give me a second… There’s so many!!
Joshua: Okay! Squall! Squall! From Final Fantasy VIII!
Okay! Favorite mystical creature or animal in a video game!
Okay! And actually another one is favorite Pokémon!
Joshua: Hm, I’m out of the loop. I’m from old school, I only go up to 151. (laughs) So I would say Arcanine.
Okay, nice! Favorite video game series!
Joshua: Kingdom Hearts!
Favorite time signature!
Favorite battle theme!
Joshua: Hm, that is hard… You hit me with that…! I’m hurting right now!! “J-E-N-O-V-A!”
Joshua: Yes, from FFVII!
Okay! Favorite character theme!
Joshua: I will say Lightning, from Final Fantasy XIII.
All right, if you could befriend any video game antagonist, who would you choose?
Joshua: Oh boy. (laughs) For me it couldn’t be one—it would have to be the group called the Ten Wise Men from Star Ocean: The Second Story!!!
Oh okay, I don’t know anything about that game.
Joshua: These guys… They’re off the wall! In the story, they’ve conquered and destroyed most of the worlds in their galaxy! I’d be that guy who would befriend them just to pick their brains! (laughs)
(laughs) Okay, if you could make a weapon from any instrument, which instrument would you choose?
Joshua: Ooh… Dual-wield saxophones. Yeah. Dual-wield TENOR sax.
A little smaller, easier to handle?
Joshua: Yeah, you know. You have to be agile with them, gotta get the form right!
Baritone saxophone?? Urghh!!! (laughs)
Joshua: (laughs) You’re holding it wrong! You gotta grab it from the top, and it’s like a club!
Swing it around!
Joshua: Yes, exactly.
That’s awesome. Okay cool, that’s the end of my rapid-fire questions.
Joshua: Oh my god… See, I knew that they were there, but it’s just… Does that happen to everybody?
Yeah, everyone is like “Ahhh!!!!?!?” (laughs) It’s pretty great!
Joshua: This surge of information! Which one do I choose!? WHY!?!? Oh my gosh. But yes, that’s it. If you had a question about which antagonist I probably would have the biggest beef with, it would definitely be Kingdom Hearts’ Xehanort. I have a problem with Xehanort. He’s like… That guy… He just needs to go. Like, aside from Final Fantasy VI’s Kefa, he could easily be labeled the ultimate TROLL. So when it’s finally released, I’m gonna get Kingdom Hearts 3, just to put him down. It’s just gone too far! (laughs) I REALLY didn’t know how many people’s lives he’d ruined until fairly recently. Once I found out, I was like, “Nope. Come KH3, you’re done.” Fans of Kingdom Hearts will know how I feel.
Oh my gosh, don’t spoil anything for me! I haven’t played all the games yet!
Joshua: I haven’t spoiled anything! Just know. That name. Xehanort. You will know. And you will hate him as I do.
I’m looking forward to that hatred! (laughs)
Joshua: Yes, yes. I promote it.
Okay, so my last question… What are your future plans? I guess you’ve touched on that, with the video game that you’re working on. Anything else you’d like to mention?
Joshua: Well, I plan to do a series of collaborations. Funny story, you interviewed my friend Cal, and I was like “Oh, Cal, I see you.” Then you interviewed Holly, and I was like “Huh. Okay, Holly. All right.” So, my goal is to work together with them, because they are super talented.
One my immediate goals is, first of all, to graduate. And the second thing is, it’s funny because Holly had the idea that I was thinking about doing. I want to do a collection, I don’t think I want to make a huge thing of it, but I want to make a collection of royalty-free songs, that I can provide to game developers around the world—like a $5 package of songs. It’s almost exactly what Holly was thinking. It’s hilarious that I’ve been talking to people about this, and she is too! So that’s the immediate thing, working on that, and portfolio-building.
Awesome, those are all the questions I have! Any final thoughts?
Joshua: Well, I would say to whoever is reading this… Whatever your dream is, be it art, engineering, dance… Whatever thing you express yourself with, never let go of that. Ever. Because that, to me, is when you stop living. It’s kinda like your heart stopping. So whatever it is you’re passionate about, don’t stop it. And if you’re not passionate about anything… Find something to be passionate about, so you can live.
Awesome, great… Thank you so much!
Check out Joshua Matthews’s outstanding, adventure-filled music on soundcloud.
Beautiful supplementary photos courtesy of satora_satoko.