Chronic'Art interview with Creative Director Mohammed Taher

Renowned French publication Chronic'Art recently interviewed our Creative Director Mohammed Taher about all-things Brave Wave. We're glad to share with you the English transcript of the interview below.

Nicolas Turcev: How was Brave Wave founded, and what is it trying to accomplish?

Mohammed Taher: I was working on my first album, World 1-2, and back then, that’s all I wanted to make. There weren't any plans to turn it into anything bigger. But then, after Keiji Yamagishi (composer of Ninja Gaiden, Captain Tsubasa) sent me his track "Memories of T" for the album, I loved it so much that I proposed to him that we make a solo album together. He would compose and I would do other creative tasks (art direction, collaborators, et al). So now that I had two albums, I felt that they needed a common platform and from there the idea of a music label was born.

What is your personal background, and what are your tasks as a creative director and executive producer?

I was born in 1988 and my childhood was defined by Famicom, Disney comics, and Japanese animation. I kept my Famicom even when my older brothers started playing with the Super Famicom. I grew up in a house that appreciates music — my parents are huge fans of Yanni and James Last, Kenny G and The Beatles — so both music and video games were an important part of my youth. To this day I don't have any professional experience with either, but growing up with them I’ve developed a great passion and a specific taste that now informs my decisions at Brave Wave. My day job is not in any of those industries, it's not something creative, but living with games and music passionately and for so long allowed me to eventually dabble in both mediums, albeit in a different way.

Creative Director is… maybe "creative" isn’t the best word, but I chose this title because I thought it captures the multitude of tasks that I deal with on a day-to-day basis. With In Flux, for example, I directed a lot of the music that our artists composed, I was responsible for the visual direction of the album, some of the track names, and for our unique collaborations. I liked the idea of bringing Tim McCord (of Evanescence) to Manami's peaceful piano on Blue Star, to give it an Evanescence-like vibe. I wanted to let our audience hear and appreciate her piano skills—she's been a pianist for more than 25 years— so initially I decided to have her focus on that for In Flux. But ultimately I also wanted her famous catchy chiptunes back, so that's how her collaboration with Chipzel started. So, while I'm not writing or producing the music, I'm subtly shaping and directing it this way, planning and realizing collaborations and coming up with themes and images, both sonically and visually.

Executive Producer basically means I pay for everything. (laughs) The products of Brave Wave are born first and foremost from my love for the artists and their music, the love of the music itself and the people that create it. I expect us to grow to a point where the label doesn’t rely so completely on my financial and creative backing, but right now I'm the backbone of it. Similar to many independent creators, I'm funding all my projects out of pocket.

Being based in Kuwait, how did you manage to establish your network of Japanese and Western artists?

I started from nothing. And I know that a lot of people say that they started from nothing — but I really mean it when I say that. I knew absolutely no composer beforehand and I worked my way to where I am now slowly. I knew no one and no one knew me. I approached musicians on a whim for my World 1-2 project, and the beautiful and terrifying thing was that they all liked the idea and came on board almost immediately! It was an eye-opening moment to realize that people are out there and they're open to collaborating.

There were three defining breakthroughs, and Brave Wave wouldn't be what it is today without these important events. The first one was when Keiji Yamagishi accepted my proposal for a solo album. That kickstarted the idea of creating a music label — a place where we can create and publish music. The second one was when I met Manami Matsumae (of Mega Man). We had worked together on a few tracks for World 1-2, and a few months after that I approached Ippo Yamada (of Inti Creates, creators of Mega Man 9 and 10) about working with him. I mentioned Matsumae-san's name, and he's good friends with her so he picked up the phone and asked her about me. I still don't know what she said, but it must have been something pretty positive, because right now Yamada-san and I are working on a big project together. (laughs) He's putting his trust in me and letting me work with many legendary composers; I appreciate that immensely. And the third breakthrough was when I met our engineer and technical supervisor Marco Guardia (aka Monomirror). When I first proposed the idea of a solo album to Keiji, I didn't actually know what the process would be like — I simply wanted more music from him. I didn't know the details of the composition and production process, what mixing or mastering was. I was oblivious to many of the technical aspects, all I knew in my heart was that I wanted to make music. And then I met Marco, who had been in the music industry professionally for 15 years, and he's the reason why our music sounds as good as it does. I like this formation, this super-charged team of people with laser-sharp talents, because every member has an important role to play. I wouldn't have been able to make our albums alone — there's Marco and Manami and Keiji in each album we put out. It's a humbling experience and it definitely changed the way I look at things.

At Brave Wave, we can sense the idea of two worlds meeting, one of music and video games of course, but mostly one of Japanese and Western cultures, as seen on the album In Flux. Is it an attempt to bring together two clashing universes, with the Japanese video game industry becoming more insulated while the western market keeps growing? In a way, is it maybe even an attempt at making peace?

Even though we work on composing for video games, I don't think my original albums are influenced by the state of the gaming industry. For In Flux, I liked the idea of those East-meets-West collaborations because no one has done something quite like this before. I enjoyed the outcome of our first few collaborations and decided to make them the theme of a new album. There's a wall between Japanese musicians and the rest of the world, and I set out to break it down. The wall is still standing tall, but we're chipping at it, and maybe we'll get there eventually.

In the vast majority of the tracks, we can hear the love for 80s and 90s chiptune music; but at the same time, the sophistication, the span, and the creativity of the melodies bring in a more modern touch. Is Brave Wave a label of dualities, two eras, two cultures, two universes?

I grew up with the Famicom, and chiptunes were my first encounter with instrumental music. It feels natural to me to take the sound from the 80s and 90s and to build on it, to let our artists explore and experiment with that soundscape. But it’s also important to us not to confine ourselves to specific genres. We've made chiptune music, yes, but we’ve had many other styles as well and we are diversifying even more in the future. We have upcoming albums from bands like Akane, Saori Kobayashi's Japanese-folk band, and a solo album (from an unannounced musician) built around a fusion of acoustic guitars and electronic sounds. Chip music will always be an integral part of our sound, after all it’s the root of music in games, and I don't see it as a mere trend. But I'm very interested in exploring other genres, and particularly in the fusion of chiptunes with other styles. So, yes, in many ways we are a “multi-era” music label.

Brave Wave seems mostly interested in making music for games that adopt a retro-gaming style (Shovel Knight, Mighty No. 9, Heart Forth, Alicia). Why is that?

Our main composers specialize in chiptunes and are famous for their Famicom-era scores, so we tend to attract game directors who are working on games that align with this style. As we are joining forces with musicians who are well known for their versatile non-chip music (e.g. Panzer Dragoon's Saori Kobayashi and Metal Gear Solid's Takahiro Izutani), we'll likely also start making more music for games with that type of sensibility.

Knowing how Japan and Western countries can sometimes disagree in terms of standards, ideology, and so forth, does this clash of cultures at Brave Wave sometimes create conflict between visions and among creatives?

There's no conflict about our goals, which is focusing on making good music and promoting the people who make them, but we do have rigorous discussions about everything else we do. (laughs) Some composers aren't used to having a dedicated mixing engineer, for example, so the process of mixing tracks may be different to what they know. It's not so much a conflict as it is a new environment to work in. We’re all mature enough to be able to discuss and solve issues even when we don’t see eye-to-eye.

You support mainly the independent game scene, which is often in need of good composers. Do you feel a certain professional satisfaction and comfort being able to choose from the near infinite amount of titles that flood the crowdfunding platforms?

It's a privilege to be able to pick what projects we want to work on. It's not just about our desire to work with high-quality games, but also the amount of time and effort it takes to guide a score to completion, so it's not merely a job; I treat it with the same care I do when making our albums, so a project has to strike a chord with me and the composers before we agree to take it.

The game music scene in Japan is dismantling; veteran composers have left their previous development studios and become freelancers or have started their own labels (e.g. Nobuo Uematsu’s Dog Ear Records, Keiichi Okabe’s MONACA), while others are joining existing labels like yours. How do you explain this thirst for independence that’s striking Japanese composers?

I would say it depends on each composer. Keiji Yamagishi quit the industry because he thought no one would be interested in his style of music anymore, while Manami Matsumae went the independence route to focus on her role at home — she's a wife and a mother first, as she stated once. Digging a bit deeper, and from my point of view, I would say it's because the composers want to have a greater freedom in choosing their projects, as well as portraying and marketing themselves as game composers in a better light. As you may know, game companies have historically been pretty bad at promoting their in-house musicians. They rarely get mentioned in press releases or get much public attention, and depending on company policy, they’re tied down by strict exclusivity deals and have few if any rights regarding the sale and distribution of their work. Many musicians now prefer to be in charge of their own destiny and to make their own decisions about the projects they want to work on and how their music is being sold, even if it means less stability, irregular paychecks and a constantly changing environment.

Prior to working with us, both Manami Matsumae and Keiji Yamagishi didn’t get the needed media coverage (both in Japan and in the west) and that's not because they lacked talent, but because it's hard for musicians to promote themselves, especially when they’ve never been in a role where that was necessary, in addition to the time-consuming job of making music. Now if you google their names, you can immediately tell that they have the media’s attention again, all around the globe, and that's something they were not used to seeing before joining Brave Wave. We're very proud of this transformation. Marketing is a tough but rewarding job, and I think the independent route is more appealing to aspiring artists who don't want to be confined and strictly guided.

How was your experience in attending BitSummit this year, and what have you learned from it?

It was a great experience, and mostly because the show placed the same importance on music as it did on games. We hosted three live shows by Manami Matsumae, Saori Kobayashi and Chipzel (of Super Hexagon). We also invited Ninja Gaiden’s Keiji Yamagishi, Mega Man 3's Harumi Fujita and Little Nemo's Junko Tamiya to the event, and seeing them interact with their fans was heartwarming. Video game composers, especially in Japan, aren't used to this kind of exposure in the gaming industry, and we're trying to change that by letting people interact with them directly — and the reactions have been nothing but positive. Both our fans and the composers are happy about this.

I wrote about my experience in much more detail in this photo-essay:

Right now you’re focused on composing for Western video games. Do you plan on collaborating more with the Japanese independent scene?

That's one of our goals. Manami Matsumae recently composed the music for Rainblocks, an iOS puzzle game by Japan-based Eric Koziol. We helped in producing other aspects of the game as well, and I'd like to do that more often in the future — connecting indies with our composers and also helping them out with various other parts of their games.

Do you see yourselves working on a big project for an important studio some time?

We just finished work on a project with WayForward. We can’t talk about all the details just yet, but it’s an upcoming major-name video game. It's a multi-composer score featuring our artists Eirik Suhrke, Chipzel, Keiji Yamagishi, Ian Stocker and Monomirror. I would definitely love to do more of this type of work in the future.

On your website, we are allowed to listen to all of your albums for free. Is this a part of your philosophy?

That’s a difficult question and something we constantly talk about internally as well. We realize that some people might not buy our music if they can stream it all free of charge in our store, but we're placing our faith in our audience. Another important point is that we don't follow the production process of big labels with our albums — we don't rely on one or two big hits for an album; we put in the same amount of effort and care with each and every title, and we’re not interested in fillers. So our thought process is something like: here you go, we're confident in the quality of our work and we’re happy to let you judge for yourself before putting down your hard-earned money. Generosity breeds more of itself, and I like to think of our audience as smart and supportive.

Last but not least a question about your independent albums. Making video game style music without an actual video game accompanying it, is there a certain irony in that? Do you think video game music, with its inspirations and codes, can subsist without that context, just like other types of music?

As far as I’m concerned, video game music has already been able to prove that over the last few decades. Not only do people listen to soundtracks outside of their respective games, but they also seek out new remixes and arrangements. Huge communities have built around these aspects. I still listen to the music of Mega Man and Captain Tsubasa. Consider how iconic some of these themes have become and how prevalent the melodies still are. It’s been decades and yet Mega Man 2’s music is still all around us. That's the greatest testament to what game composers have been able to achieve even back in the days of extremely restrictive sound chips. They made music that could stand on its own AND stand the test of time. So for us, being able to make original albums in this style lets us sidestep some of the limitations of composing for games. We can fuse chiptunes with live orchestra; we can have a 6-minutes long chiptunes track; our arrangements and instrumentations are not bound to the often much stricter rules of video game music; we are not concerned with short looping parts, with level or character themes. We can take a signature sound and put it in a more song-like context. We can make concept albums that simply wouldn’t be possible otherwise. And all of this will be apparent with Keiji Yamagishi's upcoming solo album, which we're hoping to release early next year. We've been working on it for two years! I guess that's one advantage of focusing on making music, because no one would allow a 2-years period for a soundtrack album. (laughs)