It’s been nearly 17 years since the first installment of Kingdom Hearts — the roleplaying video game franchise that combines the worlds of Disney and Final Fantasy — introduced gamers to Japanese-American singer Utada Hikaru’s iconic 2002 single “Simple & Clean.” (Its Japanese-language version is known as “Hikari.”) Released as the official theme song for the original PlayStation 2 title, the ambient J-pop ballad, as well as its throbbing, celestial PLANITb remix, has since become one of the most critically acclaimed video game themes of all time.
So you’d think capturing the magic and nostalgia of “Simple & Clean,” or even Utada’s 2006 Kingdom Hearts II theme “Sanctuary,” would be a formidable challenge for the singer and collaborator Skrillex, who teamed up for “Face My Fears,” the new anthem for the just-released Kingdom Hearts III. But the Grammy-winning EDM maestro says that’s hardly the case.
“It didn’t feel daunting for me because I’m a fan of the game,” Skrillex says. “I knew what the song, the melody, the emotion, the lyrics needed to feel like. I’m not saying I have the only perspective or the right perspective, of course, but it really spoke to me. It’s a type of language we [Kingdom Hearts fans] all understand. It pulls on your heartstrings.”
Skrillex, 31, doesn’t consider himself a huge gamer, but like so many others, he did grow up playing the series — the first one came out when he was 14. Even to this day, the franchise holds a special place in his heart. “I loved Kingdom Hearts specifically when I was growing up,” he says. “I played the first two games on the PS2 console, and the other ones in between, but I just love the concept of Disney and Final Fantasy together. It’s every little kid’s fantasy collab, you know? Plus, the music is so iconic … You want to play the songs over and over in your car. There’s a deep emotional connection there.”
Being able to work alongside Utada, who is one of Japan’s most successful pop artists, was also a special treat for Skrillex, who outed himself as a fan when he tweeted about the J-pop icon back in 2011, lauding her 2006 album Ultra Blue. The following year, a twist of fate brought the pair together when the two global superstars bumped into one another while attending, of all places, a metal festival in Germany — but Skrillex says he’s been a fan of her work since the early 2000s.
“During that time, I was listening to a lot of electronic music, like Daft Punk, so when I first heard ‘Simple & Clean,’ it was a weirder, poppier thing for me,” he says. “I connected with everything about it immediately. The melody, the lyrics, the fact that it was electronic and dancey but emotional … That was my introduction to her.”
Since its Jan. 18 release, “Face My Fears” has seen a warm reception from both fans of Utada and Skrillex. The song, part of an EP that also includes a Japanese-language version of the track, hit No. 98 on the Billboard Hot 100 — the first time Utada has appeared on that chart — as well as No. 1 on the World Digital Song Sales chart and No. 3 on the Japan Hot 100.
To celebrate the release of “Face My Fears” and Kingdom Hearts III, out now on the PlayStation 4 and XBox One, Billboard caught up with Skrillex about working with Utada, his deep connection to the game franchise and his upcoming projects.
What is it about the music of Kingdom Hearts that resonates so deeply with players?
For me, there’s something [about it] that I immediately connect with my younger self, back when I was a teenager experiencing it for the first time. When you turn it on, it feels like you’re in that world, and when it comes to being a creator, everything you do, in a way, is a synthesis of the things you love in life. My goal for “Face My Fears” was to hopefully continue the legacy of that feeling.
How did the collaboration between you and Utada come to fruition?
Utada actually hit me up a couple of years ago, back in 2016, about remixing “Don’t Think Twice.” I was so excited, and I remember loading the stems into Ableton and sitting there like, “Fuck, I don’t know what to do.” The song was a little bit too hard for me to touch. I really liked it for what it was, but it didn’t feel like that jazzy melody lent toward a dance remix. I didn’t think I could do it justice.
The next year, I happened to be in London during the same time she was. I was writing on some other pop song with [producer] Poo Bear and found out she was there, so we texted. We decided to try to write a new song together, just for fun — to see what could happen. All three of us ended up getting into the studio and writing “Face My Fears” in under an hour.
How did you and Utada first meet?
How we met is crazy, it’s nuts! I was playing this heavy-metal festival in Germany called Rock am Ring in 2012 and was backstage in the Jägermeister lounge after the show. They sponsored me, so I was literally wearing my Jägermeister hat. [Laughs] I was just chilling, having drinks with my friends, when I get a tap on the shoulder. I turn around and this girl goes, “Hey, Skrillex, that was a really great show. I’m a big fan of yours.” I was like, “Awesome, cool!” We talked for a couple minutes before I even asked her what her name was, and she goes, “Utada.” I was like, “Whoa, wait, are you Utada Hikaru?” I became starstruck.
It was super dark in the backstage area, with artists just hanging around, and it was the last place I would ever expect to see Utada Hikaru. I mean, a heavy metal festival in Germany? It was crazy, so random. I guess she had come to watch the festival and caught my set. We became friends and hung out a couple times across the years, kind of scattered. She had no idea I was a crazy fan of hers for years, so it was pretty cool.
The response to “Face My Fears” was incredibly positive. As a longtime Kingdom Hearts fan, how did that make you feel?
I was actually in Thailand the day [the trailer] dropped, in a future time zone, so I wasn’t expecting it. I freaked out. I hadn’t seen it yet, and I’d been waiting a whole year for them to animate the intro with the song, which we turned in back in late 2017. It was a dream come true when that went live — an amazing moment.
After that, it was crazy seeing all the YouTube reactions and watching people hear the song and see the footage for the first time, having no idea what’s going on and then crying in the middle of it. People have a really strong connection to the franchise, so being able to connect to the Kingdom Hearts community, to push those emotional buttons the right way and see the amount of positive reactions was an amazing thing. I think I did it justice. It definitely came from a real place.
Fans are obviously eager for Skrillex news. What are you currently working on?
You know, people have been asking me about when I have a new album coming out, and it’s a little strange, because I never said I was making an album. [Laughs] Over the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to step away a little bit. I wanted to take some time to prepare for my future and life as an adult, to figure out how I want to approach my career. I just wanna be human for a little bit. I’ll release some new music soon, but I’m just trying to do it organically. At the same time, I still love to make music, and I’m obviously working. I’m actually doing a residency in Las Vegas this spring and starting to do more shows, but I’m going with the flow and trying be in one place for a while. That’s my goal for the moment.