For many, Dragonforce erupted out of the Guitar Hero franchise a solid ten years ago. Folks ensuring future arthritis attempting the dexterity required to clumsily imitate guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman’s incomprehensibly epic axe solos on five coloured buttons in order to clock the game became a pop culture phenomenon, and remain a hysterical YouTube watch this day. It was an appropriate introduction to the mainstream from a band that sounds a lot like Ronnie James Dio’s Rainbow made sweet love to a glitching Super Nintendo on top of an exploding interstellar volcano… for infinity. I had the pleasure of chatting with an exceptionally humble Li prior to the band’s impending June headline tour down under in support of their blistering 7th album, Reaching into Infinity (a review of which – by yours truly – you can also read here). Through the beauty of modern telecommunication, half this interview took place from Los Angeles, and the other from the verdant centre of Royal Melbourne Showgrounds; home to the dearly departed Soundwave Festival many times back in the day, and sweet memories aplomb for Dragonforce over the years.
Hey Herman! How are you, mate?
“I’m good. You alright?”
I’m great, thanks! I’m actually sitting in the Melbourne Showgrounds where Soundwave used to be.
“Yeah, I remember that place! We had fun down there.”
I’m standing in almost the exact place where I saw you guys play a few years back before Soundwave died.
“It was very unfortunate. I’m glad we were able to play it two times, and I’m sure it’s played a part in Dragonforce returning to Australia for a tour this time.”
Is it trickier to get down here for a tour now that Soundwave’s gone?
“It’s hard to say… you could almost say Soundwave sucked the metal scene dry because every metal band was playing down there at some point. If you wanted to go, you had to go far away and at a certain time, which was Soundwave. It’s hard to say, I guess I’m not really in the know to tell you exactly how that works, that end of the touring (laughs). We went to Australia a few times before Soundwave hit, so I guess it kind of replaced our shows back then.”
I remember about nine years ago when Ultra Beatdown came out, I got to swing a boom on an interview with Sam and (keyboardist) Vadim for a local radio station. How’s the band and life been in the last near-decade?
(laughs) “I think things are generally going well. The band are still making albums, we’re always touring, and the feedback for the latest album has definitely been good. The best we’ve had, actually. Some people that didn’t like us actually like us now, which is cool. It probably doesn’t mean anything at all, really (laughs). We get to come to Australia for a headline tour! It’s been ages since we’ve actually done that, not since 2009! So that’s cool.”
That’s a long innings as a band. Speaking of which, Reaching Into Infinity is the title of the new album. Your albums are always quite epic, so how do you come up with titles to match?
“It’s got to have that big name, that powerful name, as we see it. Music is kind of infinite and reaches people around the world everywhere, all at different times, and stays for a long time. You can listen to an album that stays with you for ten or twenty years later. Reaching into Infinity is also about escaping, like the music takes you away to somewhere else or the crazy stuff that happens around this world. When you listen to Dragonforce, it’s more uplifting kind of music, I would say.”
So was it your intention to take people’s minds off what a lot of people consider a darker and crazier world we live in with this album?
“Yeah, definitely. I think whatever is happening in the world, people’s lives are always changing a lot. Some folks aren’t as fortunate, and music helps them escape from that. We tour all over the world to poorer countries and try to lift them up. We just did the beginning of this tour to Indonesia and the Philippines, and you see the people are so, so grateful to come and see the show.”
It’s no secret that much of the music world sees you as the most talented guitarist on the planet. Is there a pressure to maintain the unbridled pace and scale of your uplifting musical capabilities to a certain standard?
“Thanks for that! But to be honest, I’m very serious, right; Sam and I have never said in interviews that we are great guitar players, and we don’t think we are. We just do our best and have fun. That’s what we’ve always done. Our approach to music is to have fun, not trying to be cool and out play the other guy, or think we’re better. We just have fun. I don’t think I’m an extraordinary guitar player, and neither does Sam think he is! We just try to do what we can.”
So whatever comes out, comes out? I guess that’s often the best creative approach.
“Exactly! Anything that anyone writes on the internet that says we’re horrible, terrible guitarists, we never get upset because we never thought we were that great anyway (much laughter). It doesn’t make any difference to us, just like ‘Oh yeah, maybe they’re right. We’re not that great, but whatever.’”
Who do you consider to be some of the world’s best guitarists, then?
“Oh, there’s so many incredible players but some of my favourite are Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Dream Theater guitarist John Pertucci… I don’t know, man. There’s SO many great ones.”
Do you guys get competitive in the band to try and musically outdo each other?
“I think these days we’re less and less competitive with each other. I don’t think we ever really were, but if there was an element of that I don’t think we really have it any more. We try to get the very best out of each member and use their skills. We recognize that no one’s good at everything, and we need to use the best of each person and what they’re doing. If I can’t do a certain thing, it’s like ‘Well you do that, because you’re going to do it better’.”
It’s quite cohesive to do an album, then? I read that (guitarist) Fred was doing a lot of writing for this album.
“Yeah, that’s true. Fred has written more songs now than he used to before. We needed something a bit different, so that’s why we needed Fred to help out and bring in a different kind of vibe as well. Sam and I have been in the band since the beginning, so it’s always good to get some ideas we haven’t thought of before, and work together afterwards from it. In the early days there was more of Sam and I going ‘Okay, we’re going to do these songs, that’s it. You don’t need to write songs for us, thank you very much’ (laughs). I guess you can call that a bit competitive, if you want. But these days we don’t care who writes, we just want to make the best album, so whoever wants to do it, come on, help us out!”
Saves you a job in one sense!
“Yeah, we’re now just working more as a team as we go along.”
Because you’re perhaps the fastest guitarist on the planet, does it get harder to up your game and go faster and more complicated on each album? Is that something you try to achieve?
“I’d say the skill set we try to get better at is not trying to play faster, but trying to play better slower. Being able to play fast and slow are not the same thing. We’re always trying to fill the gaps, and any weaknesses we had previously, we try to get better at. I guess I’m getting a bit old to say stuff like that! (laughs heartily).”
Oh man, no way! I play the drums and know it’s tricky to slow down. Dialling it back and playing softer is a whole different ball game. You have to ease in to it and concentrate, like meditation.
“Ha yeah, playing drums slow and quiet, and in time? How hard is that!?”
Do you guys flesh much stuff out on acoustic guitar?
“I’m not really… my level of acoustic guitar playing is not as good as electric, so I’m always electric. My skill on the acoustic is WAY below electric.”
Yeah, plus you’ve got that cool little ring that makes wild noises when you wave it different ways near your strings. That wouldn’t work on acoustic.
“Hah! Yeah, I’ve got the ring to make weird noises. I think I’ve done more weird noises than playing acoustic guitar, I reckon (laughs).”
Listening to the new album, there’s definitely a more complex, even tempered and cohesive structure to it all, maybe more so than previous albums that just erupt out of the gates almost non-stop. Was that intentional?
“I think it was always in our minds to try and write a cohesive album for this one. The first few albums everything was fast, 200bpm. We tried to do something else than go high speed crazy all the time. People in the band have trained musically from classical music. A few guys have done that from an early age, so yeah… we haven’t really showed some of those other skills. I guess now is really the time to expand Dragonforce, so it’s still fast, still melodic, still epic, but we can do it more ways than just one tempo.”
It’s been a pleasure chatting, mate. Before you go, do you have a message for the Aussie punters before coming to see you in June?
“It’s been a long time! Hopefully we see everyone at the show this time. We’re excited! It’ll be fun.”
Interview by Todd Gingell
Dragonforce return to Australia in June, support acts were announced not too long ago, grab a ticket and get hold of their new album here
DragonForce – Reaching Into Infinity Australian Tour
Tuesday, 20th June
Capitol, Perth (18+) (Supported by Silent Knight)
Wednesday, 21st June
170 Russell, Melbourne (18+) (Supported by Teramaze)
Thursday, 22nd June
The Basement, Canberra (18+) (Supported by Immorium)
Saturday, 24th June
Manning Bar, Sydney (18+) (Supported by Lord)
Sunday, 25th June
The Triffid, Brisbane (18+) (Supported by Chronolyth)