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INTERVIEW – Herman Li, Dragonforce, August 2014

| 27 August 2014 | Reply

INTERVIEW – Herman Li, Dragonforce, August 2014
By Shane Pinnegar

Dragonforce - Herman Li 01

Modern British metal doesn’t get much more vibrant and exciting than 15-year veterans Dragonforce, a band reknowned for playing faster and more furiously than most comers. Guitarist Herman Li took the time to tell SHANE PINNEGAR about new album Maximum Overload, out now.

Maximum Overload is a heavy metal album. Arguably the heaviest record the power metal band has ever released. It’s also the first time they’ve worked with an outside producer – Jens Bogren. Li is over the moon with the result, and says the producer, who has worked with Opeth, Kreator, Symphony X and many more, got a great result out of the band.

“Yeah, we’re excited. It’s good to finally see the album coming out. Jens is a top world class metal producer and he’s done so many different styles of music and he’s very open minded to try different things with us and push us to another level,” says the Singapore-born shredder.

“He definitely pushed us really hard in our performance individually and as a band, the way the whole music works. He has a really good ear and he can hear if we play well or not play that well – and he’ll tell us! He’s really good.”

Bogren also gained a reputation as a bit of a hard-ass in the studio.

“Oh, yeah,” laughs Li. “He was nobody’s lapdog let me tell you that. Just because I will want something, doesn’t mean I’m going to get it. It’s almost like, ‘hold on, your ideas will be considered’ or whatever. He definitely took no shit.

“[But] actually, to be honest,” the guitarist continues, “I would say that this album was the easiest one to make: it was so easy. It was really smooth the way the whole thing [went]… actually, there were no big problems – or any problems at all really.”

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Maximum Overload is Dragonforce’s sixth album, and with each new record comes progression. As well as enlisting Bogren to produce, chief songwriter and guitarist Sam Totman co-wrote most of the tracks with bass player Frédéric Leclercq. The results speak for themselves: resolutely Dragonforce, but bigger and better.

“Yeah, I think it was a really good combo,” agrees Li. “They’d never worked together that way. It was good because we somehow had so much fresh ideas the way we expanded our sound. We actually did 15 songs on this album. We recorded that many at the studio. In the past, we only did about 9. We really loved their ideas.”

One of the unique things about Dragonforce is the über-dextrous guitar interplay between Totman and Li, who says they are always trying to come up with new tricks to up the wow factor.

“Yeah. Like, on this album, I always thought every solo on this album and each song, I have got to think of a new lick that I haven’t done before, so there was that in it – all those old video game noises, I have to think of new ones as well or combine them with some old ones and new ones. We’re definitely always trying to improve ourselves and even perhaps sit down and practice and try to work things out together.”

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An old friend of the band, Trivium’s Matt Heafy contributes backing vocals to three of the albums tracks, Li explains.

“It’s just really lucky that he was off tour when we asked him to do the songs – he said, ‘yeah, I’m going to finish the tour soon, I got a week off.’ I wasn’t really expecting there to be chances of doing things like this because they’re really busy. That was really actually a surprise. It was really lucky that we had him.”

On their last album, 2012’s The Power Within, the band included a blisteringly impressive acoustic version of the song Seasons. This time round there’s no acoustic track, but it wasn’t a deliberate decision either way – Li says they just didn’t consider it.

“We didn’t really think about not doing one, I think last time we just had to maybe do the acoustic version because I liked it – because we were just messing around and [said] ‘wow this sounds cool. Why don’t we try that?’

“On this one, we usually just go with the flow of the song, and ideas come out or they don’t come out and when you hear something you think, ‘hey we should try it that way.’ It’s not so much of a planned action though: the only thing we planned was the tempo of the songs, how many fast songs were going to be done and how many slower songs or mixed tempo songs, slower-ish compared to what we’ve usually played.”

Dragonforce have been a magnet for some crazy genre labelling over the fifteen years since they started out as DragonHeart, from ‘Journey meets Slayer’ to ‘Nintendo metal’ and everything in between. Li laughs at it but doesn’t take the pigeonholing seriously.

“Well, you read about it because there’s no point turning a blind eye to the world and not listen to what’s going on,” he explains, “as long as you’ve got thick skin and you know what you’re doing, that you’re not going to get deterred or they’re not going to mess up the path of what your idea is. Nothing can shake us around. I believe that we have a good ear to know what kind of songs we should do to make it sound what we like to hear.”

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Since recording Maximum Overload drummer Dave Mackintosh has quit the band, making way for Gee Anzalone to take up the position.

“Yeah, we’re still mates,” says Li, “we didn’t really have issues or anything. He’s been the band for so long, toured around the world so many times, he wanted to just cool down a little bit and do other things, which is cool I think. People shouldn’t feel like they’re chained to something they don’t want to do. Everyone’s in a band because they love what they’re doing, going on tour and all that. If you don’t feel 100% in it, sometimes it’s better to do something different. In life, you don’t want to just do one thing your whole life, you want to explore the world in different ways.”
Mackintosh isn’t the first member of Dragonforce to stand down: they had three drummers before him, three bassists before Leclercq, an early keyboard player before Vadim Pruzhanov and long-time singer ZP Theart left the band in 2010. Is it hard to find someone that fits in musically and personally and with the vision of the band?

“I guess,” answers Li. “It’s hard at the beginning. Later on now, it’s not so much because we’re known enough and we know lots of people from travelling and working with musicians. With Gee Anzalone it was actually the smoothest transition we had in the band member situation, because we knew him already and he was friends with Dave and everything, so he was kind of a friend already, and he was recommended by Dave as well. It was cool. Mark (Hudson) was… obviously, it was hard to find a new singer. That was much more difficult.”

Hudson stepped in to replace Theart after a long search for a new singer, and his vocals sound exceptional on Maximum Overload.

“Yeah,” agrees Li. “The truth is, this album was really easy to make. Mark made such an amazing improvement in his skills, but the previous album was so much more difficult to record because Mark was completely on the other side. He hadn’t done anything yet.”

You can’t buy experience!

“Yeah, especially when you do something, you make all the calculations, you make sure that everything’s going to go according to plan, but there’s always so many things that you cannot foresee that can happen,” he expands. “It’s all really down to experience – [but] even if you’ve got some experience, things are going to happen in a way that you don’t expect.”

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Born in Hong Kong, Li’s family settled in France when he was 11 years old, then a few years later moved on to England, where they have lived ever since. Totman was born in Hertfordshire, England but raised in New Zealand, returning to the UK in 1997 after a year in France. New drummer Anzalone is Italian, Leclercq is French, and Pruzhanov is from the Ukraine. It makes for a very multicultural mix, but Li still sees the band as Britain-based.

“We all live in the UK,” he explains, “but I never see it as a British or non-British We always say it’s a London-based band. That’s the phrase, even though most of us don’t live in London anymore. The world changes and the world is smaller at the same time, I think.

“We’re all so different culturally and [our] background and everything. It makes it interesting. It also makes it interesting to the music; the way we put it together and how we work together – and how we put jokes from different cultures into one and still understand each other,” he laughs.

Maximum Overload also stands out for containing a cover version – and not just any old cover, but a Dragonforce-styled version of Johnny Cash’s country mariachi classic Ring Of Fire. It’s far from an obvious choice, but they make it work.

“It was very natural how that song came about,” Li begins to explain. “We thought, ‘okay we’re going to do a cover song for the first time because, for us it will be original, because we’ve never done one before,’ but we would only do it if we found something that would sound like Dragonforce when we’d play it, the way we would arrange it. So Ring Of Fire just came on TV for Sam when he was watching, and he actually arranged it within 15 minutes to get the whole song the way [he wanted it], he had a kind of vision. And then we heard it and we thought, this is cool and that’s how it came about – it didn’t actually take that long, because it just felt right. If you’re stuck and can’t think about it, then you haven’t got the right song.

“We stick to the Dragonforce style – solos, guitars, speed… You have to do it that way because it’s a cover song because people have to hear the song, but go, ‘I know straight away this is Dragonforce.’ It’s got to have that stamp on it.

We wrap up with Li affirming that Dragonforce will be taking Maximum Overload right around the world – including Australia.

“We’re going to do a full world tour for sure. What we did basically, is starting in the UK first and then we’ll make our way probably through Europe and hopefully we’re definitely going to get our way to Australia. We’re just filling in the schedule like that. Hopefully we’ll be back down there again soon.”

This story was originally published in edited form in X-Press Magazine’s 20 August issue



Category: Interviews

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