Herman Li (Dragonforce) Interview


 Whatever you may think of Dragonforce, it is undeniable that it is a band made up of some of the most talented musicians out there; and in the case of Herman Li, the founder and guitar player of this British band, this is not simply my opinion. Having won a plethora of awards, including “Best Shredder” award at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods, and widely considered one of the fastest guitar players alive, his skills are beyond any doubt.
Herman Li met with us in Amsterdam, moments before hitting the stage during the final night of their tour with Huntress and Kissin’ Dynamite, on the 26th of November. Check out the transcript below and the video at the bottom of the page!

MB: How annoying has it been for you that Dragonforce keeps being associated with “Guitar Hero”?
Herman Li:
How annoying it is?… I don’t know if annoying is the right word. Some people will look at it and just think “guitar hero”, because it was such a big game, but before Guitar Hero Dragonforce existed and was doing fine.
To be honest, I guess I don’t really care anymore.

MB: In interviews you’ve mentioned that you were surprised with the popularity of “Through the Fire and Flames” with Guitar Hero, since it was apparently a hidden song or something. When you saw that it was becoming more and more popular did you ever think that maybe people wouldn’t take you seriously because of it, that you would always be associated with the game. Once you even mentioned how you had even been called “Nintendo Metal” or something like that.
HL: There are many ways in which you can look at it and, to be honest, no one really knows. It could have gone either way.
If people are uneducated they’ll think that this is the way things are, and you can’t really change that. Some people had never heard of the band before, so they think that we only had one song and one album, while others got into the band because of the game. Some people moved on and don’t like the band anymore, while others still do. You always win and lose fans throughout the years.

MB: How seriously do you take yourselves? When you see the videos or your demeanor on stage it doesn’t look like you’re taking yourselves too seriously. Is this correct?
I think we look at the music and the show very seriously; We are not screwing around. But when we are on stage we have fun, because we are always serious, we’re not trying to do that tough-guy kind of image. We just like to have a laugh and have fun. We’re playing music that we enjoy and having a good time, so we’re going to smile and not be all serious. We’re not gonna try to keep that “evil” and “tough” face.
People sometimes wonder why we are doing that, because everyone else is, trying to look all serious.

MB: One of the most enjoyable things in a Dragonforce concert is that everyone seems to be having a good time, that it’s not like you’re just here to do your job and that’s it. It’s also fun to watch since you do a lot of crazy things with the guitars, such as playing it with your tongue and jumping around. Have you ever had any accidents as a result of these antics? Did anything ever backfire?
What’s different in a Dragonforce show is that you don’t really know what’s going to happen. All the stuff we do are risky moves; if we just stand there and play the songs every night, you’d pretty much get the same result every time. But since we’re jumping around sometimes you get accidents. Last night I broke my guitar in three pieces last night… not on purpose! Just by accident, throwing the guitars around.
I think that a lot of the audience, hopefully, appreciate the risk we take to go over the safety lines and go and step further.

MB: Tell me a bit about the audition process that, eventually lead up to Marc being chose as the new singer. How many people applied? I remember that it was announced on the internet.
HL: Everyone was saying that it was an “Internet competition”. Well, it, wasn’t. While in the 80s people would send videotapes, now they’d send videos through whatever platform they could. We also approached other singers that we know, as well as professional singers from other bands as well. It was a big search, done in every way we possibly could, in order to find that perfect singer.
Marc just happened to be one of the guys who sent the video through the internet. However, after that the process still went on for ages, because we weren’t just trying him out, we were trying a few different guys. Auditioning, jamming together, rehearsing, going to the studio to record some demos… it was a really long process that took about a year and 9 months.

MB: Marc maintains the vocal style of ZP Theart, although with a wider range. Did you ever consider, as Iron Maiden did when they replaced Bruce Dickinson with Blaze Bayley, to take a different approach in terms of vocals?
HL: Not really. We like the way we do it because it’s melodic, and we’re not gonna have a singer that, for instance, can’t sing the old songs. We can’t simply change our sound and get a singer that just growls. The old songs are still in the set and we needed someone who could sing them as good, or better, in their own interpretation, while keeping the song in the way the fans want to hear it.

MB: How did you react when, during the tour for Inhuman Rampage, and due to some problems with the guitar tech that screwed up your sets, some fans said that you simply couldn’t play so fast live, and that everything was simply sped up in the studio?
HL: To be honest, at that point I didn’t care what people had to say. I really didn’t care. Maybe I should have cared a bit about it…
The Inhuman Rampage era is areally busy time for us. Back then there was no manager in the band, I was doing a lot of the management work; at the same time, the band was going up really fast, so that caused some kinds of problems in some of the shows. Slowly, and as we gained experience, we were able to fix it.

MB: What lead to the lyrical change in “The Power Within”? For the first time you took a considerably less “epic” or “Fantastic” approach towards the lyrics, adopting a more serious one. Do you think that it’s the end of an era for Dragonforce?
To be honest, I can say whatever I want about the lyrics but, honestly, no one cares. We had an approach like this in our previous album, and nobody actually cared. Unless there is an abundance of it, and you keep going on about it in interviews, they still ignore it.
We’ve done [serious] lyrics like this in Sonic Firestorm, like “Prepare for war” and “Fields of Despair”; they are like The Power Within lyrics.
Whatever I say about the lyrics, people will interpret them in their own way.

MB: But have you encountered problems like this, that people think that Dragonforce is exclusively a fantasy band?
HL: I don’t know if it’s a problem. My thinking is continuouslychanging and moving. I’m no longer going to try to force people to think what means what.

MB: But with a name like Dragonforce, is it really possible to go beyond people thinking that it’s about fantasy?
: Well, it’s a matter of culture and language too. If you tell someone from Asia that the band is called Dragonforce, they don’t think of fantasy, because it’s not in their culture, in the terms of dragons, warriors and swords. Here, of course, people think that way.
I got to the point where I really don’t care what people think, because you can’t really change their minds. You can only do what you wanna do.

MB: Are there things about the way people see or interpret Dragonforce that actually frustrate you?
HL: Not anymore, I don’t care.

MB: And back then?
Back then you would think all kinds of things. In the old days we wrote lyrics and let people interpret them in their own way. People now say that changed and don’t sing about fantasy:well, we weren’t thinking about fantasy in Ultra Beatdown either, but no one cared to think that way, because we didn’t tell them anything, we just left it for their own interpretation. So, unless you guide them and point them in a certain direction, they won’t get it anyway.
In Ultra Beatdown, I can tell you what every song is about and you’ll go “REALLY?! it’s not about a Dragon being slain by a warrior?”. I can break it down; Ultra Beatdown it’s actually about our lives; so many lyrics are about touring life and all that, but it’s been disguised. You’re not going to blatantly write what everything is.
On this album, we just pointed the finger and said “this means that”, and people went “Oh, so these guys don’t just write random nonsense”.

MB: Do you think that there are some very marked differences, in terms of sound, since the early days of Dragonforce all the way to “The Power Within”? That Dragonforce has changed too much?
I don’t think we’ve changed too much; the basic structure (we’re trying to make good songs, good melodies with over the top guitars and push it a bit farther) still exists in our style of music. I think that with Ultra Beatdown we really pushed it really far and, well, how far can you push it? There’s no one else trying to push it in that direction. On this album we backed off a bit and tried to diversify it.

MB: You’re already considered one of the fastest guitar players in the world. Is there a constant desire to see if you can keep doing it or how fast you can go?
:  To be honest, I don’t even think I’m a fast guitar player. Not at all. I’ve seen loads of guys playing really, really fast.
To be a good musician you really have to practice so many skills in so many different parts of the guitar; playing fast is just one of them. I see a lot of guitar players that can play faster, but it’s perhaps they don’t have that kind of melodies in the songs, so that they can do it like that.
Being fast is just something mechanical, it doesn’t mean anything musically. Obviously, it’s cool if play music fast, but I’ve never considered myself fast.
Funnily enough, no matter what people wanna give us shit about, we’ve never actually said that we are really fast guitar players. It’s not really something we are pursuing, it’s just part of the sound of the band, as we write the music.

MB: In “The Power Within”, I’m not sure if it’s the first time but it was definitely the most noticeable, you used some expanded-range instruments, something that is not too common within power metal. Why did you opt for this sound?
In the new album we have some slower songs. We also have the “usual” (I don’t wanna sound like we’re doing the same thing again and again) or typical fast Dragonforce. We are sort of “balancing the force”, you know?
We have songs with 7-string guitars on them, which although had also been even used in previous albums, never all the way through, so that the song has to be played with 7 strings. We are just adding different dynamics.

MB: Since you mention this “typical” Dragonforce sound, and although I love the band, I want to get your opinion on this video…

HL: Yeah, I can make a cut of 100 bands just growling and put them all together. It’s the same thing. You can take a piss on every genre of music, dance, pop or death metal, just by cutting them together doing the same thing. You have to look at it within a wider context, not just two words.
Also, “Far Away” are great words to sing, since they sound great with so many kind of chords, progressions and speeds. People that don’t music maybe don’t understand that you can’t simply write random words that you feel like, because it won’t necessarily fit the notes and the melody.
Did we use “so far away” in The Power Within? We didn’t!
Basically, I’ve grown to understand that you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, damned whatever it is you do, it doesn’t really matter. Obviously, you look at things on Youtube and think “well, this guy complains that it sounds horrible”… then you think, well, an experience of watching something in your laptop, as opposed to going to a show with the big speakers blasting.
Times and information are moving fast, humans not so much, and people really think that a song, captured on a phone, from speakers in a concert, compressed and played on a laptop is, really, what it sounds like; or that the experience of watching something that small is really what a show is.
I really don’t get pissed off by these things. I’m really quite easy going these days things like that, believe it or not. The way I look at it, I’m not saying I’m right, is that it’s a waste to go to pay a ticket, go to a show and concentrate on your phone, to record something that you’ll take home and will sound like shit. You ruined your concert experience; you’re not enjoying it.
One more thing is that people are so obsessed to know the setlist for the tour… it’s like knowing the end of a movie before watching it. Where’s the surprise? If I go to a show I don’t wanna know what songs they’re going to play.

MB: Right now, of course, you must give priority to “The Power Within”, because you’re still promoting it, but in general how do you construct the setlists?
We have to play at least one song from each album, and we’re always moving and swapping around. Tonight we’re doing a different show, for instance. It also depends on the territory, whether you’ve played there or not. It’s not just one fixed setlist that goes around the whole tour; for instance, when we were in South America we were playing a bit more old songs.

MB: Are there songs you simply “have” to play?
Yeah, of course. I mean, we can laugh about it and joke that we’re not going to play that song, but we’ll do it in the end.

MB: Are there any guitar clinics scheduled for you right now?
Not at the moment. I don’t really do any while on tour, but I don’t really have the time sadly. Maybe one or two will pop up.

MB: Do you enjoy teaching?
I was really scared, but I had to face my demons and go and try to do it. You learn something from it yourself; you teach people and you teach yourself at the same. New skills that you come back with.

MB: You speak of facing demons. Were there a lot of things that you had to overcome in order to be the kind of performer you are right now?
Yeah. You learn to play the guitar, then you learn how to record it, you learn to be in front of a camera, you learn how to play a show, etc. These are all different things, just because you can play the guitar it doesn’t mean you can do any of those other things well. One thing I’m still pretty crap at is playing in front of the camera, I have problems, since I get kind of nervous. I don’t mean a live camera; if I’m sitting in a room with one camera in front of me, with two guys just filming me, I can’t really play, I make mistakes that I wouldn’t make if they weren’t filming.

MB: You’re a bit camera shy?
I guess. It’s something I’m not used to. This new generation is better at it than me, since they just film themselves and put it on Youtube. I never really film myself         playing or even watch videos of myself playing.

MB: If that’s how you play when you’re nervous… I mean, if that’s the worst you can do…
I’ve gotten better at it. I recently did something for a Japanese magazine, where I thought I played OK. Not as good as I would have liked to play, but we can’t just do ten hundred million takes.

MB: What’s in the future now for Dragonforce?
We have more shows and more tours. We’re also working on new music at the same time, trying to get a head start instead of waiting until we finish the tour; We’re sort of doing both at the same time.
I also need to practice with the guitar and reach another level. I can get better at it, and I think that when you get better then you open up new things that make you realize you suck. The more you learn the more you realize you haven’t learned enough.
Just like the band, we’re always trying to get better at things; Marc is always training his vocals to become a better singer, everyone in the band is trying to reach a higher level, which makes the whole band better. It takes a long time, if you’re playing guitar for this long, to reach that extra level. It’s easy to get good, but from there it’s much harder to get better… so I’m trying to push that one.

MB: Good luck with that!
Any final words?

We appreciate the fans for their support. We hope to see them, maybe, in a festival in the summer. Although there’s nothing confirmed  yet, we are working on doing some of those. It’s been a while… we haven’t done them (a summer festival in Europe) since 2009.