Cool Story, Bro: My Oni-Con Weekend with the Earthbound Papas
I had wanted to write this blog quite some time ago. Oni-Con took place in the last week of October. And my entire reason for wanting to be down there was solely to see the Earthbound Papas. Well, who are they?
Quite simply, this is the most recent band headed by lead keyboardist, Nobuo Uematsu, best known for his long-standing compositions from the Final Fantasy video game series, among many other titles and projects. I’d grown up on the games and his compositions, and I’ve always thought Uematsu was an incredibly talented man, probably highly under appreciated by anyone outside of the gaming industry. So I made my plans to head down to Galveston to attend the event.
I spent a good hunk of my Friday waiting outside the door to the panel room where the Earthbound Papas Q&A session would be. I was the first in line, and couldn’t wait to take my seat, front row and center. The band walked passed me as the hour of the start of the panel approached. I was excited, but I hadn’t yet seen Nobuo. I assumed that they would take him in some other way, perhaps so he wouldn’t get mobbed by the line that swiftly grew behind me. But finally, I saw him approaching from down at the end of the hall. I said nothing, not wanting to cause a ruckus. And, as fangirlish as it sounds, I got inwardly giddy and excited as he walked only feet away from me and into the panel room. It surprised me how it seemed that so few people behind me appeared to actually recognize the man. But finally, we were allowed in. And I took my seat right in the front row. Fantastic!
I was thrilled to be able to pose a question to the band myself, regarding an awesome contest that the Earthbound Papas are holding. They have this remix contest going on through their official web site. Remix the track they have posted, and if they like yours the best by the end of the contest they will work with you on their next album. How cool would that be to work alongside Uematsu and crew? I was rather pleased to be one of the few people who actually DIDN’T ask a question solely of Uematsu or related to Final Fantasy. There were so many FF-related questions, and I suppose that’s really no surprise, but I can easily imagine that Nobuo probably gets sick of it after a little while. One question, for example was from a girl cosplaying as Sephiroth asking Nobuo about his inspiration for composing “One-Winged Angel”. How many times do you think he’s heard that question? There was also the question, “Everyone, what is your favorite Final Fantasy game?” I was happy to hear a total of none of them respond with “Final Fantasy VII”. Another question posed to the whole band, however, was, “Which song is your favorite to perform?” One of the other band members responded with, “One-Winged Angel,” to which Nobuo followed up promptly with, “UGGGHHH!”
Nobuo himself has an amazingly cheerful personality. His English isn’t fantastic, but he seemed to love using it wherever he could. During times where he heard somebody bring up his previous band, The Black Mages, he would suddenly jump in, and with a deep, villainous voice, slowly and deliberately state, “BLACK MAGES NO MORE!” He was always all-smiles, always laughing. One question came up directed at the band: “What is your favorite food?” I don’t rightly recall what Nobuo’s exact answer was. It was a traditional Japanese meal, though. But after making that statement, he followed it up with, “…and steak.” Everyone laughed. It was obvious Nobuo had done his research on Texas. But he passed the microphone over to the next member, who said, “Ramen. …And steak.” And as the other three band members listed off their favorite foods, each one of them finished with, “…And steak.” “…And steak.” “…And steak.” Nobuo himself seemed particularly obsessed with steak. From that point on, it didn’t matter what the question was. He simply had to end his answer with, “…And steak.” He was asked if he’d ever return to Texas. He said something to the extent of, “I need to come back because I was told that if I come to Texas I need to try the steak! I still need to eat this famous Texas steak!”
It was great just being in the presence of the Earthbound Papas. And that felt like a successful Friday. But the experience wasn’t nearly finished.
Saturday was the day of the Earthbound Papas concert. Just trying to figure out how to line up was craziness in and of itself. It seemed that two lines were forming at the door to the main ballroom. And as it turns out, the original line I chose to be in was NOT chosen to be the official line. I eventually was instructed to move to the end of the other line. So, I wouldn’t be first in line. No big deal. I wasn’t sure how they would be doing seating, anyway. If they were going to be putting everyone in seats and telling everyone to move all the way down to the end of the row, I certainly wouldn’t want to be the first in line for that reason. But then, not long after that, we were told that the line would need to relocate from one side of the door to the other (nevermind the fact that that’s where I was originally standing). So, rather than calmly directing the line to the other side of the door, the volunteer staff yelled out, “Everybody, move over there!” As you can imagine, this caused people to tear off down the hall to the other side of the door, getting out of their original positions in line, and cutting into places where they weren’t before. It was pretty infuriating. But I was still pretty satisfied with where I was standing.
It would still be a couple of hours before the show started. I made friends with a couple of people in line, some of which had some really interesting pieces of material they wanted Nobuo to sign later on after the concert. It felt really good to talk to other people about Nobuo’s music, and really go toe-to-toe in knowledge. There were plenty of people whose knowledge of Nobuo’s Final Fantasy work rivaled my own, but I really felt that I was one of the few people who were there for every one of his songs, including the tracks the Earthbound Papas performed from Guin Saga, Blue Dragon, and Lost Odyssey.
The line for this concert was amazing. It stretched from in front of the door, down the hall, out the door, outside, out in front of the building, all the way around, back inside the front doors, and ended just about where it started. It was a crazy circle of a line. I considered myself incredibly lucky to be standing where I was!
Well, finally, four o’clock hits, and that’s the time listed on the schedule for the concert to start. And we actually get let in on time! How amazing! The line quickly rushes the door. And I quickly see that there are indeed no seats for the concert. The stage is set up with a barricade a few feet away. And, luckily for me, I was close enough to the front of the line that I was able to run right up to just barely off front-row-center. A perfectly good position for me! The band didn’t quite appear ready. They were just standing there, off to the side of the stage! They were really great with their audience, though. They saw us coming in, waved at us, gave us peace signs, rock fists, thumbs up, all that good jazz. A member of convention safety was overheard saying, “Oh, no. This isn’t right. Everybody, all you guys, need to go back outside. You’re not even supposed to be in here yet.” Everybody I was hanging out with and anybody else up that close to the front row who heard him just scoffed. Like, did he see the predicament he was in? We all looked behind us. There were already a hundreds of people piling up to the front, with hundreds more still coming in the doors, who heard no such message. What, did he really think he was going to get everybody back outside? Logistically, that was a complete impossibility. On top of that, even if you DID manage to get everybody back out the door, what were you going to do? Tell everybody to line back up fairly in the positions you’d been standing in the last three hours? Hah, I think not! Luckily, it seems like the staff realized very quickly that getting us back out the door wasn’t going to be an option.
The first band to show up on stage before the Earthbound Papas was a band called Otokage. Or, as I lovingly called them, “Naruto: Live in Concert”. They’re a ninja-themed J-rock band. They seemed pretty standard, as far as J-rock is concerned. Had a decent gimmick. But they weren’t really my thing. The lead guitarist spat water on me. It was an interesting experience.
Finally, however, the band we were all there to see took the stage! All dressed in rather earthy, hippie clothes, the Earthbound Papas gave a fantastic performance. Nobuo tried to speak as much English as he could, somewhat unsuccessfully without the assistance of cue cards. It felt great, knowing every single song in the playlist, humming along if there weren’t lyrics, singing every word if there was. I was probably the only person who knew the lyrics to the songs from Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey! In the middle of the performance, Nobuo stopped and said, “This is a song everybody knows. …I hope.” So we sat and waited in anticipation. When we finally heard…
Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Oh, yes, they began performing Bohemian Rhapsody. And the crowd went absolutely nuts! There wasn’t a silent voice in that crowd, I’m sure! Nobuo had great energy himself, too. He was all smiles and had lots of personality, even if he was mostly confined to the space behind his keyboard. Sometimes he would venture away from it, like when he would go up to the vocalist for the song Eternity and silently mimic shouting into an invisible microphone just like the vocalist.
But the show didn’t stop once the concert was over. There was still one thing left to accomplish. I knew after the encore was over I was going to have to tear out of the concert and get to the other end of the building for one reason and one reason only – autograph session time. But, as you can imagine, with me being pressed up against the gate up at the front row and hundreds of people behind me, this wasn’t going to be easy. I waited only until I was absolutely sure the encore was over, then risked the idea that they would come up for a second encore (which they didn’t) and shoved my way through hundreds of other people behind me to get out the door and race down the hallway to the other end of the building, where the line for the autograph session was already starting to build. Now, granted, there would be an autograph session the next morning, but I didn’t want to have to wait and take my chances. What if I managed to be too late the next day? Then I wouldn’t have any opportunities left at all. No, it had to be tonight.
I stood in line with the friends I’d made while waiting in line for the concert. We gushed over how great the performance was, and just how much Nobuo’s music had meant to us over time. One guy was carrying a song book for the full score of Final Fantasy VI. Another brought an original NES cartridge of the very first Final Fantasy released in the States. Someone else ahead of me brought 3-D WorldRunner, one of the very first games Nobuo had ever composed for. It was an incredible mix of things people had brought to sign. I was upset with myself. I owned a physical copy of the Earthbound Papas’ debut album Octave Theory, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out where I’d placed it before it was time to leave for the weekend. It was really disappointing, but in the end I decided I’d just have them all sign their page in the Oni-Con program guide.
But something truly awful and disheartening happened before I could even get that far. After quite some time of waiting, a volunteer staff member came up to the man directly in front of me, put her hand between him and me, and said, “Anyone behind this guy right here will have to come back tomorrow at 11!”
I could have died. I was so depressed and disappointed. Now, granted, I somewhat thought that this might happen. After all, there were a LOT of people in line for these autographs. Hell, the line stretched out FAR beyond me and the group of people I was standing around with. It stretched back so far that I couldn’t even see where the line went anymore. Now, had the cut-off ended anywhere else, I would have understood. Like, if it were way ahead of me, then okay. Or, if I was much farther back toward the end of the line, alright, fine. But the thing that killed me is that it was DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF ME. I just stood there for a couple minutes in disbelief, even though I’d just heard I wasn’t getting in tonight. I knew I’d have another opportunity the next day, but I wasn’t prepared mentally to wait for that. I really wanted to get it done now.
But one of the guys I was hanging out with basically said what I was thinking. “Well, I’m not walking away yet. I’m just gonna stand here for a little while. The worst they could tell us is, ‘No, go away’.” So, we all shook our heads and agreed. And, wouldn’t you know it, another volunteer staff member came up directly behind OUR group instead, placed her hand there, and shouted again, “If you’re standing behind this guy right here, come back tomorrow at 11!” And the realization slowly hit us. We did it! We were the last ones in line for these autographs! What an amazing come-from-behind turn of events! I had gone from my lowest possible moment to the greatest high you could possibly imagine in a matter of minutes. This was going to happen. I was going to be able to go one-on-one for just a brief amount of time with Nobuo Uematsu!
I had been told one very important thing before going to Galveston that weekend. “Don’t be a pussy. Talk to Nobuo, and use your Japanese.” You have no idea how intimidating an idea this seemed. It’s true that I went to school for Japanese, and that I came back with a cool certificate and that I’d taken a JLPT test and am certified in incredibly basic Japanese, but that didn’t make it any less intimidating. My Japanese is NOWHERE near perfection, and it needs a metric ton of work. And trying to speak to someone who heavily influenced and inspired me was going to be difficult in any language, let alone one that is not native to me. Sure, I could pansy out and just tell him something in English and let his translator do all the work for him. But, you know what? What I was told was right. I needed to challenge myself. For my own sake, to get over my petrification of using Japanese at all, I needed to do this.
Eventually, it was my turn to speak to Nobuo. He was the first one out of all of the band members, so I had no time to look at him and think about it. I had to do this now. I’d hardly given any thought to what I wanted to say. I started with some really simple things in Japanese. I held out my program guide, page already turned to the Earthbound Papas spread. “Sign this, please.” Nobuo seemed unsure of where to sign it, since the page was covered in text and photos. But it didn’t matter to me where he signed, so long as he did. I told him, “Anywhere is fine.” So, he began to place his signature to the page. And in my head, I’m watching him sign the thing, and it’s all going in slo-mo, and I’m thinking to myself, “You idiot! He’s halfway through his signature! If you don’t say something now, the moment will be gone and you’ll regret it forever!” And my tongue feels all slow and fat as I start, but I finally manage to get out in Japanese, “That concert was the greatest.” And he looks all taken aback and asks me if I’m serious… I’m pretty sure I said something else, but in the moment I’ve lost memory of what I said, and he and his translator complimented me on my Japanese, but I did the polite thing I was always told and said to them, “No, I still have a long ways to go.” I was thrilled. I thanked Nobuo, and Nobuo thanked me. The exchange was incredibly brief, but you have no idea how satisfying it was to address this fear of mine, and to say, “I did it! I exchanged words with one of my greatest heroes!” This man has held presence in my life for pretty much as long as I’ve been alive and playing video games. This was an incredibly triumphant moment for me, no matter how small it may appear on the outside.
Talking to the other band members was pretty great, too. When they heard me using Japanese, they decided to speak to me in Japanese, too, rather than going to their interpreter first, which was fun. The drummer actually recognized me from the front row! All the other band members noticed I was carrying a pizza box (I’d been smart and kept myself fed while waiting in line for the concert). I offered each of them a slice, and while none of them took one, they all laughed as I offered it to them in Japanese. Whether it was because they thought it was cute or thought I sounded stupid trying to speak Japanese, I didn’t really care at that point. The experience was fun. Some of them attempted to try to autograph the pizza box. Heh, that would have been cool, but not nearly as cool as the end result on that particular page of the program guide.
I basically considered my weekend over after that night. I left back in the direction of San Antonio early that next morning, more pleased than you can imagine. I plan on eventually getting this page picture framed, as a reminder of this awesome story, a story of a great night at the front row of a fantastic concert, pushing my way through massive crowds, and in the face of adversity finding myself achieving when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to. What a fantastic story! What a great event!
Thank you, again, Uematsu-san and the Earthbound Papas! It’s a set of memories I’ll never forget!