Interview and photo by Mike Bax
Already in the studio working on their follow-up to Maximum Overload, the mighty Dragonforce on July 22nd will release a double disc retrospective of their earlier material, entitled Killer Elite – The Hits, The Highs, The Vids. It will be a 22 track set clocking in at two hours and 30 minutes of music. There is a standard edition and digi-pack deluxe edition including a DVD featuring all of the band’s promo clips.
Described by the band as a chance for new fans to become familiarized with glories past, and for long-standing supporters to revel in the attention to detail of a multi-format package balancing audience faves with compositions close to the collective DRAGONFORCE heart, Killer Elite, released on Spinefarm Records here in North America, is a wonderful way to be introduced to the earlier days of Dragonforce.
Guitarist Herman Li, who started the group in 1999 with fellow shredder Sam Totman, says, “The aim of this release is to give a strong flavor of everything we’ve recorded so far, and I’d like to think it shows a lot of diversity. Certainly, we tried to make it as broad-based as possible. Since Marc (Hudson) joined the band (replacing original frontman ZP Theart), we’ve actually released some of our speediest songs and some our most melodic compositions, too. Dragonforce isn’t just about the relentless tempos and the flashy solos; ultimately, it’s the feel of the music that counts…”
Currently working on their follow-up to Maximum Overload (at Fascination Street studios in Sweden with producer Jens Bogren) their new record is tentatively scheduled for a March 2017 release – with an accompanying world tour to follow.
Herman Li took 20 minutes to chat with Lithium magazine about Killer Elite; Brexit (and it’s possible impact on touring bands), the unlikeliness of a perfect guitar riff, and the power of Dream Theater. Note: We started quickly discussing Herman’s still missing guitars, lost a few days before our interview by British Airways en route home.
Mike: Any sign of your lost guitars yet?
Herman: There’s no sign of them yet. No. They have been missing since Sunday. Not a word from them actually (British Airways). They are saying they will find them. But that’s about it.
Mike: Are they treating it like lost luggage then? It’s not like its theft? They have just misplaced them like a lost bag?
Herman: Who knows, right? They took it off me at the gate and that was it. Yeah.
Mike: Man, that sucks.
Herman: Yeah. Two guitars. One of them I don’t really care that much about it. It was a brand new guitar. But the other one I do care about it. It was the first of its kind made of my signature model that I’ve played every single show with. That is the purple one, right?
Mike: That’s is the prototype, right?
Herman: Yeah. That is the one I played in the pool underwater. All kinds of things.
Mike: I hope you get it back, Herman. If it’s just lost luggage, they should be able to find it.
Herman: Let’s hope so. We even have fans that work for British Airways volunteering to help look for me, too.
Mike: Friends in high places. Cool. For your fans, I think Killer Elite may mean something different than it might mean for you and Sam and the rest of Dragonforce. How did assembling these songs for this retrospective make you all make you feel?
Herman: It was interesting to listen to all of our songs again, look at it in a different way and try to pick out the songs to fit together to introduce the band again, if you know what I mean? To make sure we had all of the songs that show the different sides of the band and to show where we came from originally.
Mike: And how did you decide on the live recordings you have included on this compilation? As opposed to using the studio versions? I think there are three songs you’ve included on Killer Elite that are live recordings. What drew you to those versions?
Herman: Um, it was merely a gut feeling. Seeing what version of the live songs fit in and what we all felt were good live versions. I did the live stuff at the end, fitting in a few live versions where they made sense, pretty much.
Mike: Could you possibly recall for me some of the early days of Dragonforce? How you and Sam first met?
Herman: I met him in another band previously. We’d just start playing together for fun with some melodic singing, which was a rare thing at that time – to find people into doing something with melodic singing. Most of the time there were bands with brutal growling or shouting. That’s what we wanted to do, something with melodic singing so that’s how we started.
Mike: Did you have any early dreams and aspirations when you were just starting out and recording some of those first songs together?
Herman: It was mainly to just do the best music that we could and hopefully we would be able to go out on tour and have fun. And ever since I played the first gig back when I was in high school, I’ve really enjoy performing. Regardless of how bad I was at that time, I just thought it was a fun thing. And the same thing with Sam. He really enjoyed going out on tour and playing music. So that is what we originally formed the band for – just to have fun.
Mike: Many of your fans consider ‘Through The Fire and The Flames’ the defining Dragonforce song. Do you guys believe that as well?
Herman: I guess it’s the most famous song that we’ve done. I don’t think it’s the best song we’ve done, for sure. But that is just opinion, right? (laughs) It’s definitely the most known of our songs, that’s a fact. I think that music is a funny thing. It depends on what time it was made and when it was made and what year and what people wanted at that time. It’s just luck of the draw what song became the big song.
Mike: So have you ever found that the songs that do get popular, album by album, are the songs that you all believe are the best songs? The songs that have the catchiest hooks to Dragonforce’s ears?
Herman: Umm. Maybe? Sometimes. Sometimes not. It’s 50/50 most of the time, really. I thought the previous album Sonic Firestorm (before Inhuman Rampage became popular) I thought that first song ‘My Spirit Will Go On’ was better than ‘Through The Fire and The Flames’. Obviously people don’t agree (laughs).
Mike: Well, it’s a marketing thing too, right? ‘Through The Fire and The Flames’ was placed intricately into Guitar Hero and took on a life of its own from there and has been used in a bunch of other commercial ventures as your catch-song. It becomes that track, for better or worse, and takes on a life of its own. It’s served you well though, right?
Herman: Yes. The weird thing is that we were playing that song for a while before Guitar Hero. The album came out in 2006, and we were playing that track as the last song of the show then. Long before Guitar Hero came out in October of 2007, I believe.
Mike: Yeah. ‘Fire and Flames’ was out for at least a year before it was the go-to song on that game if memory serves. I remember thinking it was interesting, an older song getting a longer lifespan through video gaming.
Herman: Right? And people do like the song so I guess it was just a snowball effect later on from the video game, which is cool.
Mike: Oh yeah. Totally. Marketing is marketing. There’s not really a music television anymore. Not like it was when it was working wonders. It’s a totally new avenue now for finding new ears for music. Especially metal, a genre that has always been subverted.
Herman: Well, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I thought Music TV was bad for almost twenty years. (laughs)
Mike: And now I kind of miss it. I never loved it. But in hindsight, it was better than nothing.
Herman: You know, I never had cable in my whole life. But every time I went to a friend’s house, they had it. And I thought that I hated the music on the television.
Mike: Yeah. They never really played what you wanted to hear. True. What would you say is the most important thing that Dragonforce has taught you?
Herman: Well, Dragonforce has taught me a lot of things. Travelling around the world so many times and getting to learn from different cultures – it changes you. I believe for the better. Learning what’s outside in the world as opposed to being in just one city. There are so many things though. You keep learning. It doesn’t really stop. Learning about music, I guess that is one thing. But it reminds me of how lucky I am to keep doing what I am doing.
Mike: To my knowledge, there are only 2 live dates set up around Killer Elite’s release – the Atlanta Prog Power Festival and the small show you are doing in Brooklyn. Do you plan on doing any other live dates where Dragonforce will service your ‘best of’?
Herman: We added an extra date in Brooklyn because the first one sold out really quickly. So we added a second date. And we’re working on one more possible live date. I’m not sure if it’s possible, but we are working on that, yes. In an another city on the way to New York from Atlanta.
Mike: And that will be it for Killer Elite? You will just continue with your recordings for the new album? I’ve read that you are putting the seeds down for your next album at the moment in the studio so that will be it for the touring cycle on this compilation?
Herman: Yes, that’s right. We’ve been touring the Killer Elite cycle for a few months in Japan because they released it earlier there. And now we are playing in Europe for some of the festivals. So a few Euro shows and that’s it. It’s just a really short thing. It’s cool to play some of these older songs now, before the new album comes out which will obviously see some of the new songs in the setlists once it’s out. And we have already started recoding that album while we are doing the Killer Elite release. We are multitasking at the same time – doing the tour, and recording the new album for a next year release.
Mike: I’m going to quickly switch topics here just because it’s timely. We’re you surprised by the Brexit decision? Did that shock you?
Herman: YES! I was actually quite surprised. The funny thing I was watching it while I was away. I can’t remember which country I was in actually. (laughs) Maybe in Finland? It was a rushed night, then I bolted quickly to go to the airport. And I remember going to sleep not wanting to know the answer. I was determined to wait until the morning to find out. I can remember thinking it was pretty crazy at 6am when I found out.
Mike: How do you think that will change Britain in the coming years, Herman? Have you put any thought into that?
Herman: A lot of changes will happen for sure. I mean, no one really knows because this has never been done before. The arguing over things when the campaign to make this change was going on, it felt like most of the people involved were just lying. No one really knows what the reality is going to be. You don’t know what’s better. Everyone has their thing to say about it. I know for a fact that touring, which is already getting more and more expensive for a band in the UK; the prices will definitely go up when it comes to touring. It will be much more of a pain for the band to go and play in Europe now. Yeah. It felt weird just saying that – ‘in Europe’. We’d never toured before when there was the Deutsche Mark and the Francs, but I hear from people who did that they were dark times – how much of a pain it was to go on tour. We’ve kind of forgotten about that. Everything has been open; the border; a single currency. It became easier.
Mike: Yeah. It will be more paperwork, more border checks, more visas… more of all of that fun stuff for you guys.
Herman: Exactly. Just going into Europe, it’s not like it was.
Mike: I’d love to know what your definition of a perfect guitar riff is, Herman.
Herman: Umm, well, there isn’t one. Everyone is different. Everyone is programmed differently. Maybe not programmed… but everyone has different tastes. There are people who love Nirvana and they can really feel that band. And there are some people who just don’t. So it doesn’t really exist.
Mike: You had touched briefly on where you were heading in regards to new Dragonforce material earlier. Is there anything you are willing to share about where that new material is taking the band?
Herman: It’s definitely too early to honestly say. Because we are still in progress right now, and we still have a long way to go. It’s better to hold off. I like to talk about the new album once it’s actually done and there is something physical there to talk about. Otherwise, people will say “Oh, he’s a liar, too”. (laughs)
Mike: On the last album Frederic wrote a number of the leads. Is that something that might happen again? Will he contribute more in that fashion?
Herman: Yes. Definitely. I think Dragonforce has grown to be able to use as many skills of each individual member of the band as possible. If we have that many guitar players in the band, and that many possible great ideas, why would we not pursue that? We have Fred who can play keyboards and play guitar and play bass and he can sing? Of course, we always try to get the best of our ideas together, but anyone can contribute from guitar riffs to lyrics – they are always welcome to put things in. It’s the only way to be stronger. That feels a bit silly saying with Brexit having just happened, doesn’t it? But I believe it.
Mike: So, here’s a curious question, Herman. Killer Elite is released through Spinefarm Records. Is that your new home? I was expecting a Metal Blade release?
Herman: Well, no, actually. To take you back, when we first signed our record deal from the first album all the way up to The Power Within – they were on Sanctuary Records, who owned Noise Records, one of the old German labels. Afterwards, Sanctuary was bought out by Universal Music, who also own Spinefarm Records. Spinefarm is now the metal / rock division of Universal Music. So our older material has transferred to Spinefarm Records. Except that back then it was through Sanctuary, and before we wound up on Universal, we licensed it all to Roadrunner Records who released it in North America. (laughs) It is actually rather complicated, isn’t it?
Mike: Ok, cool. I was wondering if your deal with Metal Blade had lapsed or something. I’m assuming your new album will be Metal Blade – over here, anyway.
Herman: That’s right. Maximum Overload was released under our own label, which we licensed to different territories. We fulfilled our obligation to that record deal. We signed that record deal, wow, ten years ago? Ten years of our lives. New bands out there? THINK about it when you sign your record deals.
Mike: Personally, I consider Maximum Overload your best album to date. I know that I am maybe not in the majority on that, but I really like the way that you have progressed as a band, and I feel like Dragonforce reached for some higher fruit on Overload. So, having said that, as you prepare to step into the follow up to Overload with your seventh album, is there an afterward you might have on Overload? Something you might like to say about it now that it is starting become an entity in your rear view mirror?
Herman: I really like the album. I think it definitely defines us now as the way our unit works together in the band. In the past, it was Sam and I producing. Maybe you might say, “That’s why all of the songs were fast!” because that was our trick, right? Now we definitely have more involvement but we still stick to the true formula, or style, that we do. People understand that is our signature and we are deviating around that template to try and improve. So there are always little continuous evolutions happening, like a car motor every few years, it gets upgraded.
Mike: Nice. Who in Dragonforce is the joker / comedian amongst your ranks?
Herman: Sam is known to be joking all of the time. And second would be Fred. I don’t want to sound like I’m the boring guy. But they definitely like to joke around more than I do. (laughs)
Mike: In your mind, what has changed the most for Dragonforce since Marc Hudson joined as your singer?
Herman: Um, it’s kind of weird because we have this ongoing evolution of improving all of the time. But the way we work together and it’s likely to do with getting a bit older as well, we seem to look at things differently. In the past, Sam and I definitely made the final decisions in the band. It was us, and that was it. Now, we definitely have more discussions together. Fred is more involved with the band and songwriting and other things too. It seems like there is more for us to do now. We are much busier day to day now than we used to be. We are on longer world tours. Maybe it’s the way technology and the world is working, we definitely have more things to do on improving the shows and the progress of the band.
Mike: What do you find you like to draw upon for inspiration before you start creating new material Herman?
Herman: I’ll give you an example. I started on the last album, Maximum Overload, before I’d start working on the improvising or making of a guitar solo for a song, I would try to study something on the guitar. Learn something or read some books, music books or guitar books on albums or what have you. This was to try and think of some new ideas each time. Then I’ll have something that I haven’t tried before, at least in my mind, technically and musically to approach in each solo – so it doesn’t sound like I’m playing the same lick all of the time. Because, after doing that many albums and doing that many solos, and there are so many long solos on our albums, I don’t want to ever feel like I’m saying ‘that’s good enough’. If there is nothing there that makes me excited by the solo, that’s no good. I like to be able to say, “Ok, I’ve done this new thing on this one – this is cool.”. And that forces me to evolve and get better.
Mike: Was there a defining moment for you as a youngster that steered you towards a life in metal?
Herman: Not really. I just wanted to play some music and enjoy it. I never thought of it as a career. Of course, the way music can define you as a teenager in the early twenties, music definitely defines where you hang out and the crowd you hang out with. Listening to metal is always a minority thing. That aspect defines in some way how you are living it.
Mike: Have you in the past ever taught guitar to other people? And if you haven’t, would you consider doing that down the road?
Herman: No, I’ve never been a guitar teacher. I was more like a computer nerd who plays the guitar. So I was doing other things. I’ve done guitar clinics around the world. That is almost like teaching, I would say.
Mike: And lastly, name a band that has never let you down.
Herman: Ah, wow. I would say it’s got to be Dream Theater.
Herman: I saw them on this tour, for the The Astonishing, and I thought it was just so amazing. Probably the best show I’ve ever seen them play. The whole thing was incredible. I think the album is amazing. How they managed to come up with a double disc like that? If you give it time and listen to it, I think that is probably one of the best albums they’ve done. And the live show was incredible. And I really enjoyed the show even more because they told people to NOT film the show. It was so great not having to watch the band around people sticking their cameras and phones in the air and ruin the experience.
Mike: You know, that is very true. I saw The Astonishing in Toronto. And I went in not having played that new album at all. And I was worried that they were only going to play the double album and not play their back catalog of music at all. And I walked away feeling the same way. I thought it was a pretty amazing evening. I certainly have played The Astonishing a lot more since experiencing it live.
Herman: I must have heard that album a hundred times before I went to the shows. So that was easier. I just thought “My God”. I couldn’t believe the video and the live presentation being so perfectly in time. That has really inspired me to improve the Dragonforce show. We have videos and things like that, but seeing the way Dream Theater did it, I felt I’d learned something. I actually said to John Petrucci that I was going to get really geeky send him an email and ask him how these videos were done and how they approached them.