With Dragonforce’s sixth album ‘Maximum Overload’ out this August, Killyourstereo.com chats with guitarist Herman Li about the prospect of a return to our shores, experiences on Soundwave and what it takes to get him pumped up to play.
Hey Herman, how’s it going?
I’m good, how you doing man?
Going good, thanks. Where are you at the moment?
I’m at home in London at the moment. I’m around here because we’re about to go on tour so we start rehearsing next week; playing a bunch of songs, jumping around like a lunatic.
Now after you tour this new album, do you think Dragonforce will ever change their sound?
No, I think if you’re gonna change your music drastically, you may as well get another band going. For me at least, for some of us here, that follow and are big fans of music and bands, every time you hear a band change completely you go, “what’s the point of that?”. People listen to this band to hear this, even though I like this style of music, sometimes you do find it weird; at Dragonforce we have this signature sound and played it all this time, you can’t just suddenly change into a melodic rock band, even though I love that kind of music.
Since you say you love that kind of music, I was going to ask: what is your favourite band, and if they wanted you to be their guitarist, would you join them?
My favourite band, I’d have to say, is probably Dream Theater, and no way would I ever play for Dream Theater (laughs). All those songs you have to remember, and how complicated they are, there’s some serious stuff there. I think I enjoy watching Dream Theater more than anything else.
Some people would say that Dragonforce’s solos are technical, how would you define the difference between a band like Dream Theater and your own?
In Dream Theater they do a lot of cool alt-timing, but they’re a progressive metal band you know. With alt-timing and all kinds of different time signature changes, kind of really weird stuff. We’re more big choruses, and you know, crazy chaotic solos; really it’s just different styles of music. I think we offer something kind of not completely different but still keeping in the best playing we can do. Just good playing.
You mentioned weird sounds, you’ve got the video game inspired interlude during ‘Extraction Zone’, do you think you’ll ever get tired of putting those 8 bit sounds into your solos?
Well we didn’t do any on the last album, we thought “you know what? This is it. We’ve gotta just let it go.” But actually the album starts off with a video game sound but you can’t really hear it because there’s a drum snare going at the same time. The first thing you hear on the album is [Herman imitates pacman starting sound] like a game, but ‘Extraction Zone’ we thought, to make it original, you’ve got to mix it with something that is not expected; the rhythm of the music behind it sounds pretty unusual to have that mixed together.
I feel like you’re one of the only bands who does that, do you feel like that’s sort of your ‘signature’ move nowadays?
I think we get a bit too much credit on the video game sound thing. I mean, a lot of Dragonforce is about video games, but it’s really still a small percentage of what we do and we’re more inspired by the world of rock and metal than video game music. I think when we did it, the first time people heard it in ‘Through The Fire and The Flames’, they go “oh my god, how do you do that Pacman sound with your guitar?” You know we’ve been doing that kind of sound on loads of different songs, people recognise us for that, I guess you’re right (laughs).
You’ve probably been asked this countless times and five years ago I would’ve loved to have asked this question so I’ll take this opportunity: can you play ‘Through The Fire and Flames’ on expert level on Guitar Hero?
I can’t believe people still ask me this. People are gonna ask me until I die, all the rest could never ask me about Guitar Hero ever again though, you never know. I can’t. I don’t sit there and play these games like a mad kid, I don’t have the time to do that (laughs).
Sorry, I just got the opportunity and had to ask.
Yeah, no chance I could play that, the controller is too difficult to press on.
All right, well we’ll move away from Guitar Hero, you covered ‘Ring of Fire’ on Maximum Overload, what’s the next cover the band is thinking of taking on?
We’ll probably never do another cover again. It took us that long to do that cover, that’s the first cover we’ve ever done, so we thought that was never going to happen again.
What made it take so long?
Basically, we thought doing a cover was pretty stupid unless you’re going to make it really different and make it your own, how your band sounds not just making it sound like the original. So we thought “let’s never do a cover”, that was back then, and with Ring of Fire, it’s a very Dragonforce sounding song; if you hadn’t heard the original you wouldn’t even know that’s a cover. Sam, when he heard that song, had the vision and just thought, “that’s the song I can change and make it sound like Dragonforce” and sound cool, and be a cover you would find interesting and want to hear.
Who inspires you to be a better guitarist, is it someone like Johnny Cash?
For me, it’s pretty much everything I listen to. It’s just not about listening, I go to a lot of gigs and watch a lot of bands, a lot of live music and seeing great musicians play really inspire me, like my favourite guitar players and my favourite bands. Like when I see Dream Theater, I saw them play recently. The great players like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, a lot of instrumental guys [inspire me] but I saw another band called Angora recently and that was really cool. All these bands inspire me, not just guitar players but drummers and you go, “wow man, that’s so awesome what this drummer’s doing, I wish I could jam with these guys and play on guitar.”
So do you think you’ll do a guest spot on an album in the near future or something like that?
I’ve never done a guest spot on any album actually, now that you mention it. I would never just do it for the sake of doing it, I want to do it because I like the music and I want to contribute something to that song that would make it what it is, so I don’t have any offers for that so far.
That’s surprising, since you’ve been selected as one of the fastest guitarists in the world, it’s surprising that no-one would want to have that sort of prestige on their album.
Well, a few people have asked me but it didn’t feel right for me, I don’t really enjoy playing only a section, I don’t feel like I’d bring anything out that would contribute to the song. I’m honoured truly, but you’ve got to express truly, you can’t just do it for the sake of it. I just haven’t received [an] offer that I really feel like it’s something right.
With guest spots, Matt Heafy did one on your album; what other singers would you like to get involved with Dragonforce or even guitar players?
I would love to get Devin Townsend to do some vocals in the future on the album, after we toured we tried to get him to do it on the last album but he just didn’t have the time. That would be really cool, he’s one of my favourite musicians and singers around, I think he could do some really cool stuff.
Well considering he’s probably got about 50 other side projects going on, it’s not really surprising he didn’t have the time.
Yeah exactly, I don’t know how he does it actually.
On the fastest guitarist tangent, it must take some preparation to get you in the zone before you go on stage, what gets you pumped up right before you hit it?
My main thing about getting on stage to be ready [is] I need a good mental warm up. Not so much a physical warm up, but the mental warm up is the noted point, and I need to listen to music I love and play along and jam along to some music, that’s what I like to do. I like to listen too. So I usually put one of my favourite CDs on and something I’ve been listening to that I really like, and kind of jam along, play along just to get me fired up.
So will we be seeing Dragonforce anytime soon, maybe for Soundwave?
You’ll definitely see Dragonforce on tour in Australia, there’s no doubt we’re going to come there with this album, we just haven’t got dates confirmed yet. I would love to do Soundwave again, last time it was amazing. The fans were really crazy; when we get a free spot, hopefully we can get something going. Either Soundwave or tour works for me, I just want to get there.
Excellent, do you have any stories you want to share with our readers today, anything crazy from backstage etc.?
We went to Soundwave, and we stayed at this hotel, you know; got there on the first day, I think it was the day before the show? We thought, “Okay cool, let’s meet up with some friends who are doing the show, let’s go do whatever and party”. Then we realised, our hotel is miles away from everybody, we’re like down at the beach, by the seaside, really nice but miles away from everybody and we didn’t know what was going on. Then we realised because it’s been a while since we went to Australia, our manager was scared that we were going to go to the pre-party for Soundwave and get completely drunk, wasted and cause trouble and offend anybody, and get kicked off the tour before it even starts! You know, we don’t do anything like that, I don’t know why he would think that and put us in a hotel miles away. So if anyone asks “how come they didn’t go to the pre-party?” we say “it wasn’t our fault, we did want to go!”.
That was definitely not what I was expecting, but that’s excellent because obviously your manager’s got something from in the past that he doesn’t trust you with.
Yeah, we’re not that bad, I mean obviously. But yeah I guess, sometimes Sam goes a bit over the top when he’s drunk.
Maybe they should have put him in a separate hotel and you guys could have gone to the party?
Exactly, some people are allowed to have some fun. You know, just not Sam before the tour kicks off. You know, especially after flying for 24 hours you’d probably think about having a rest instead of going out and getting plastered.
Now, which album are you most proud of in your discography?
I mean obviously I can’t pick a certain one that I haven’t listened to in a while; it’s kind of like a soundtrack to your life, your old albums because you recall what you did at that time, you know what was that feeling, it brings you back. I know that the second album, Sonic Firestorm, every time I listen and kind of remember that time we finished the album and thought, “you know, this is awesome, this is really amazing”. You know, we did something really cool then, we had that big feeling about it. So, I’ll always remember that.
Well with those sort of big feelings with something you’ve put all your effort into, with the whole issue of piracy, what are your views on the matter?
I mean, what can you say? This is the entire world, people got used to thinking that music is free and that’s what it is. It’s pretty much up to the fans if they want to support the band, any band they like. If they’re not buying the albums, they will not see those bands on tours, they’ll lose their support and won’t have money to go on tour or anything like that. Especially the smaller bands, I think it’s up to the fans. They just need to be educated to know what happens. A lot of people say, “Oh I don’t buy the albums because the record label makes all the money”, the band needs the label somehow and they need the sales, a lot of the smaller bands, if they can’t make the sale, a lot of promotors won’t even put you on the tour. That’s like that other argument where they’re like, “it would’ve happened anyway”, no one knows what would’ve happened, that’s just the way the world is moving towards.
So do you think bands need labels in this day and age or that DIY is one of the ways you can make your name in the world?
I think you need the label, we did do DIY on the last album in Europe and that was so much work, it was impossible for us to go on tour and do a good job with that DIY thing. You do want people to hear the music and the DIY thing, at a point a few years ago when the internet was a new thing, yeah, you could do it yourself, but now the labels have to grab hold of the internet anyway to promote and everything. The world is changing so fast that the rules have changed so quick. So it’s up to the fans if they want to buy the album or not; I think it’s got cheaper, I don’t know about Australia, but it’s definitely got cheaper in England.
Yeah it’s still not the best, Australia’s not very good with the whole digital revolution movement unfortunately.
Oh really? I used to pay 15 pounds for a new one, now I can buy one for 10 pounds more or less.You have to bring inflation into it as well, so a bit less (laughs).
Just on a different tangent, what concert or festival has been your absolute career highlight and where do you want to be playing now?
We’ve done so many festivals; it’s difficult to say. I really don’t know? Download festival was a big thing, we did Donnington in the UK, we were really high up the bill at Donnington that was mental. We’ve played three or four times at Download festival now. Soundwave was really fun, we’d never done a festival in Australia and I was actually kind of surprised, after being away for that long and having a four-year gap between albums that people would still turn up and still remember us. In these Maximum Overload days, people forget things quicker and [were] distracted more (laughs).
That was a pretty good plug for the album there. But unfortunately, we’ve run out of time so thank you very much Herman for talking with Killyourstereo today.
‘Maximum Overload‘ is out on August 22 via 3Wise.