One of the founding members of power metal titans Dragonforce, half of the amazing guitar duo that has brought us fast and furious fretting, gargantuan solos and video game sounds, all Through The Fire and Flames. six albums under his belt and a seventh due out on May 19, I’m getting the pleasure of having a chat with Herman Li.
Welcome Herman and thanks for taking the time to talk with me. “Well thanks for wanting to talk to me!”
In this opening exchange we work out there is quite a lag on the phone when we cross over our questions and answers, have a bit of a laugh and now we can get down to business. The new album coming out on May 19, Reaching Into Infinity, is your seventh with Dragonforce; how easy is to keep the ideas flowing? “Well sometimes it easy, sometimes it is hard. You have to do everything you can to put yourself in a good environment to help inspire the band in the creative process. Nothing in life is an easy process and you are always going to find some kind of a roadblock somewhere but we find some way to work around it. That’s the attitude I have these days, you’ve just got to get on with it”.
What do you do to get yourself into writing mode? “Last year Sam (Sam Totman, guitars) and Fred (Frédéric Leclercq, bass) got together in France to start writing, they put together a schedule to get in the same room to write. Then we can add to that process. It has to be scheduled as you just don’t get any space and not enough time to concentrate when on tour. You’ve got people running around or you’re travelling all the time”.
What can we expect from this album? What does it represent for you? For the band? “The way the band works these days is we are constantly trying to evolve, improve wherever we can and add new ideas to expand ourselves. Gone are the days, which were the first four albums, where everything had to be fast. Those rules have now been thrown out the window, the only thing we need to do now is make sure we sound like Dragonforce. By that I mean when we are starting to play, you can tell it is Dragonforce. You will be able to hear the varied mixtures there, different arrangements”.
Yes – there has been a definite change over the past few albums, is that because you are now older and more confident in yourself or other influences? “It pretty much came naturally without thinking too much about it. You just know that this is the time to do things in a certain way, just like changing generally. There was no plan that we were going to do this now, it was just a natural progression. I don’t know what is going to happen in the future, we’ve just got to let ourselves be who we are and make that happen. It really ends up as a snapshot of your life at that time”.
You and Sam have an amazing chemistry in your playing, how much do you push each other when it comes to putting together your solos? How much does your familiarity with each other help the creative process? “I think it is good to know the strength and the weakness of the person your work with, in this case we really complement each other by covering each other’s weaknesses and helping with the strengths of each other. We know each other’s guitar playing the most out of anybody in the world and that’s how we work it. We’re not deluded to think that one person can do everything, that’s not possible. We can be very honest with each other, in that you’re able to say ‘I suck at that part, you should do it’”.
Your own signature guitar sound is fast and furious solos and electronic sounds mimicking early video games. What were the influences that drove your playing style? “Everything we did from the video games sound, to the live performance. We wanted to say who we are in the way we dress, through our music and leave as much room as possible to allow people to be who they are. Everyone has their own personality and we wanted to allow as much room as possible for take advantage of the strengths and differences they have. That goes from their music all the way to their way of living”.
Anyone you listened to that you wanted to be talked about in the same breath as? “I think it’s more opposite to what you’re asking, in the beginning when we started the band, everyone was making fun of us. ‘This is so stupid, this guy just playing a bunch of guitar solos and guitar solos are way gone, no one cares.’ But I think we took that and thought well if they hate it, then let’s do more of it and annoy the hell out of them. That’s kind of what happened in a way, we don’t really care about trying to make them like us. It’s pointless to even try, just make yourself happy”.
That’s a very different way to approach that. Videogames was how I was introduced to Dragonforce when I made it to the end of Guitar Hero 3, how much exposure has the band seen from those forays into the gaming world? ‘There is no doubt that it exposed us to a wider audience, but if they became fans, that is listening to more than one song, there is a difference. But I don’t really know. It doesn’t really matter; you are not there to force people to like it forever. People’s life changes, so at different times in your life you may listen to different types of music and be right into it, then that may not last for too long. Some people can listen to the same type of music forever. To answer your question, I mean it helped with exposure but it’s hard to say what brought what. The exposure can be trouble too, that kind of exposure can make people who like us, end up not liking us. You see some people who thought they really liked Dragonforce, but found out it was really only for the special more underground feeling of it. Mind you we were past underground by then as we’d done loads of touring when the game came out”.
Yes it is common to hear people saying so and so sold out, it really is a double edged sword. “Well you can’t really trust people’s psychological mind. Mind you, you can’t trust your own either sometimes. So you do just what you want to do at that particular point in time in your life. You can’t really listen to anyone else at that point, ‘well I like this and you should do this’. If you start listening to that then you are going to be torn apart trying to cover everyone’s opinion. You can’t wait and look for validation, like people do on social media, where they post something and hope people like it, or say thanks. Some people base their life on these kind of things, but in the end you’ve got to just say, you know what, screw you, I’m doing whatever and be happy with it”.
You are touring Australia in June (including coming to Canberra!), what can Aussie crowds expect in coming to see a Dragonforce live show? “We are known to be, well people say in posted comments and feedback, that we have lots of energy in our shows, in fact it seems that they think we are hyperactive. It’s not the same as other bands in that way, no matter how energetic they are, we just do it in a different way. We’ll be playing a variety of songs – older favourites and tracks from the new album. Add in some surprises and it should be a fun night out”.
I am very sad to say I am actually away when you are here, so will miss out on this. What are you favourite tracks to play live and why? What seems to fire up the punters best? “I like playing the old songs, they are easier now. As a result I can have fun with the crowd when playing them as I know them so well and played them so many times. The reactions to be honest has been changing over the years, there was a time where people favoured the older songs but recently this has begun to turn to favouring the newer songs. Maybe changing of fans, or changing of age of fans, maybe the people who used to be up the front are now older and newer fans have moved more up the front. It also changes from territory to territory”.
So in saying that are there any gigs that stand out for you, anything that is really special? “Oh, I can’t remember those, there has been so many now. It’s hard to just think about one right now (laughs)”.
Ok, this question is from Alex, my son – he plays guitar himself and has watched your you tube videos and thanks you greatly for helping him get a good technique at tremolo picking. What is a normal level of warming up that you guys undertake for playing a gig? “Ah, that’s cool. To warm up and the way I see it, it’s a little bit different to most people, at least to what I read when I was learning. I like to warm up my brain mentally, rather than just the physical. I think the physical is important but in the end it is the mind which controls your fingers and your movement and the notes. I like to play to music, to jam along to a CD I’m listening to. I like to play along and while that is warming up the fingers. Instead of just doing exercises where you move one finger at a time and then in a different pattern, a different physical way, when you play to music you are warming up your brain at the same time and you really feel you are into the zone, the music zone. Half an hour is good for me”.
You and Sam are the only original members that have been there since the start, with keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov the next longest serving member. The majority of the band (five of six) have been together since 2011, what’s the key to longevity? “To be honest, there is no key because everyone’s life changes and that is what I have learned. People have a girlfriend, then they don’t, they get married, have kids, or whatever, it’s that their life priorities change. It’s hard to say what keeps the band members because everyone faces different challenges at different times in their lives. In terms of what keeps the band together, it’s hard to say what does. When I look at different members, well Fred, for example has been there since 2006, that’s like over 10 years and compare it to when we first started out rehearsing, back in ’99, well some of the people seemed to be there for a few minutes. So to keep it together as a band, I believe it is a common goal, just to write the best music possible, stick to what we believe in, and write in the concept of the Dragonforce style. Really everyone can relate to it after they’ve been here for a few years, this is life”.
You now have delivered 7 studio albums, received Golden God Awards, playing with the likes of Iron Maiden, Disturbed, & Slipknot. Looking back to 1999 when you guys first formed Dragonforce (or Dragonheart as you were then), did you ever see this in front of you? “Not really, as I never set out to be a professional musician, it wasn’t my goal. It was really just for fun, and have a good time playing music, get to do some shows, I was happy enough that way. Of course there is something about when you do something; you do it as well as possible. That’s how my life is, if you do something, you do it properly, not a half job. So when Dragonforce took off to another level, it wasn’t because we were pursuing a professional career, it was the effort. I’m very glad it happened, and I’m happy I quit my job back then and took my chances on it because it got really busy!”
Just out of interest, what was the job you quit? “I was a Solaris, Linux, system admin”.
Ah – IT, sounds very familiar, I work in IT and know I am much more passionate about my ‘Rock ‘N Roll” job… “(Laughing) To be honest I have no problem doing computers, I remember it was really fun. Sometimes it is much easier to deal with computers than people, the way it is a logical thing. Computers are logical and objective, it either works or it doesn’t work some way, music is much more subjective and all that”.
As a result of the hard work and effort it must be good to be in this position, have people listening to your music, looking up to your playing. What advice would you give for new bands starting out based on what you’ve learnt over the years? “I don’t know where to start; I would say you have to be open minded and willing to learn as much as possible. I don’t think just learning music; it’s learning to live, it’s learning all the things around the business from making your music, recording, performing live, and then realise that there is no limit to what you can learn. It is one way to carve out your individuality, show which kind of guy you are, which direction you take. Are you more of a performer, songwriter, or a technical guy? How do you wish to carve the cake up and set your percentages in different skills? It’s good to know a bit of everything, to know you can’t be an expert in everything because there is too much, but be a specialist in some areas. This ensures you become more rounded, if you’ve got no interest in learning then you are going to become bored in the same things very quickly. If you can learn stuff while you are at it, that’s kind of the fun part. I don’t want to sound totally boring as you can learn to have fun, learn how to throw a great party while you’re at it too. It’s not just technical skills, social skills are important too, they all help, they all shape you”.
Final question: If you could have dinner with 5 people dead or alive, who would it be and why? “I wouldn’t invite anybody, I can’t be bothered having them around and then having to clean up… (both of us laughing) I don’t know these people I don’t want to invite them over”…
On that note, Herman Li, thank you very much for taking the time out to talk to me – it’s been a pleasure. For me, talking with someone with your profile and experience it’s been a very interesting experience. I am sad that I will miss you guys when you are down here. “Thanks, it was good fun talking to you too”.