INTERVIEW: Herman Li (DRAGONFORCE)
He's one of the most influential musicians of the new generation, and one sixth of professional heart-starters DragonForce - and blistering shredder Herman Li is getting ready to bring a whole lot of fire and flame to the band's epic world tour that's coming through Australia in June this year. For those unacquainted, DragonForce erupted into the world with a bang in the late 90s, and their jaw-dropping power metal has endeared them to even the faintest of hearts. Their sound: explosive. Their stage presence: majestic. And fittingly their lyrics dabble in fantasy realms, complementing the otherworldly speeds these boys play at. What's perhaps most intriguing about a band described as everything from "Nintendo metal" to "Bon Jovi on speed" is that their love of what they do outweighs any desire to be gimmicky. They are a ridiculously talented band whose thumping beats and melodic vocals are insanely enjoyable - and a great alternative to caffeine when you need a sudden jump-start in the morning. So before DragonForce land on Australian shores, shred-ledge Herman Li gave up some time to chat all things guitar, metal and more (click the video below to set the mood).
'Ashes of the Dawn' from DragonForce's latest release 'Reaching into Infinity'
TIANA SPETER: Hey Herman, great to be talking to you today.
HERMAN LI: Hey no problem, thanks for having me.
TIANA: Now super exciting news - DragonForce are headed over to Australia in June for the 'Reaching Into Infinity' tour, and apparently we are one of the first countries who will get to hear the new album live?
HERMAN: Yes, you're one of the first countries on the tour for the first time. Australia usually gets put later on for some reason, you know usually we do the US first. So we decided to start in that part of the world and make our way through the US afterwards. So yes you guys are getting us nice and fresh for the tour.
TIANA: Excellent! And what are you most looking forward to coming out here, I know it's not the first time you've played out here, do you have fun playing in Australia?
HERMAN: Yeah definitely! The last few times was with festivals, the Soundwave festival. So we haven't actually done a headline tour since 2009, which is like - ages ago! So it's great to be back and do our own shows finally. And we've been getting some good feedback before the tour on social media already from the fans for the new album. So we're excited to get out there!
TIANA: Well we're all definitely excited too, especially to see you in action. You're a real force to be reckoned with on the guitar and I know you've heard it a million times, you're labelled as one of the most influential guitarists of this generation. But what was it like the first time you picked up a guitar, do you remember picking it up and just thinking "yep, this is for me".
HERMAN: (laughs) I think the first time I picked it up...well I was 16 years old. I picked up the guitar and I couldn't even play one chord! I tried to play Nirvana with one chord. But I started off playing guitar for fun, it wasn't like, you know, trying to be a musician or trying to be anything. Just a fun thing and it just slowly ended up being a profession. I never expected it.
TIANA: No secret signs you'd end up where you are now?
HERMAN: It was an accident. (laughs) A good accident.
TIANA: Well that is promising for me, I just got given a guitar on the weekend actually and I'm already up to two chords. So I don't think I'll end up quite as good as you, but I'm excited.
HERMAN: (laughs) Two chords! That's more than I knew. How are you you doing better than me already? (laughs). I better watch out!
TIANA: Oh yep, I'm coming for you! And is it correct that you are self taught?
HERMAN: Yeah, that is correct! I pretty much learned from videos and listening to music. That helped the way I play. I didn't have any lessons or anything like that. And it's actually even easier with all the resources out on the internet now for someone to pick up the guitar and learn how to play. I think that helps accelerate the whole concept of people learning and getting their knowledge out there very quickly.
TIANA: Definitely. And how did you go from watching videos online to absolute face-melting metal? How did you make that progression?
HERMAN: (laughs) I used to tape some friends, that was before the YouTube videos happened. And just watching videos of people play guitar or live videos of people like Guns N Roses, Metallica and watching how their hands are moving. I'd look at how they'd play and where they'd put their hands.
TIANA: Speaking of hands, is it true that you're left-handed but that you learned to play right-handed?
HERMAN: Well...it's true but it isn't! I use my left hand for a lot of things, but I use my right hand for other things. So I'm kind of both! I just do whatever (laughs).
TIANA: And you were one of the driving forces behind DragonForce forming back in the day, coming from some underground rock and metal bands. Did you know what type of band you wanted it to be from the start?
HERMAN: Well, I was playing in a different kind of 'extreme' metal band. Like death metal RAHHH (roars). Or grimecore. Whatever-core, whatever they were. But I always wanted to play in a band that had melodic singing. And DragonForce were the first one I've been in that were a melodic band. But it started off with Sam (DragonForce's other legendary guitarist Sam Totman) and I, and we've been doing it ever since.
TIANA: And you and Sam have been playing together for so long now, is that part of the secret to your success?
HERMAN: I guess the secret is - it's fun. That's pretty much it. It's a fun thing, it's a fun band to play in and while it's fun we'll keep doing it. And when it's not fun anymore and we don't want to do it, we'll just stop!
TIANA: That's the perfect way to be. So you seem to have always been a big fan of the heavier genres, but what are you thoughts on the metal scene right now since you've been around so long? It seems like a lot of the genres are blurring right now?
HERMAN: I think it's a more diverse scene now than before with the help of the internet. People can express themselves without following a trend and get recognised, and people start to like it. But I still think it's dominated by RAHHHH metal. A bit more aggressive, and maybe more "natural' men (laughs). But melodic stuff, I guess Iron Maiden are the biggest band...but it's definitely a more diverse scene now compared to once upon a time when metalcore was the main thing or you've got this one star. But the internet definitely helped musicians.
TIANA: Now you yourself, you've won so many awards including 'Best Shredder' award, 'Best Riff'...but you've also had a hand in the production side of DragonForce, and you've also jumped behind the mixing desk on 'Ultra Beatdown' and 'Inhuman Rampage'. What was it like switching over away from the production side of things?
HERMAN: Well really, Sam and I always knew that we wanted the music to sound a certain way. And knowing what we do and the way the technology was moving on, we thought it was better that we don't produce and get someone to produce all of it. We still have our input in it, but we don't have the time to do everything anymore. In fact, it almost feels that because of the internet we've got less time to do things. And there's more ways than ever to do things.
TIANA: It's hilarious, you don't have to leave the house as much these days to do things, but we have less time than ever.
HERMAN: Exactly! There's data just going everywhere. I can't even take a break! You take a break and come back and there's so many emails and I just think "here we go again!"
TIANA: Now, 'Reaching into Infinity' came out last week and it's been a huge release for you guys with people hanging out for this one for ages. But I've noticed a few new things, there seems to be a little rock ballad in parts, and then on 'The Edge of the World' there's a little bit of a prog vibe. Were these little additions intentional, were you trying to go somewhere a bit different? Or is it just you guys evolving naturally?
HERMAN: I believe it's just a natural evolution of the band. Since the beginning, we've always been evolving towards something, but now it's even more obvious, you know, the diversity that we're moving towards, while keeping it melodic and catchy and energetic.
TIANA: And with an 11-minute song like 'The Edge of the World', how do you prep for these shows? Some of your solos are practically heart-stopping to listen to, do you just instantly fall into performance mode, or do you have secret ways to get gig fit?
HERMAN: Well we haven't played 'The Edge of the World' live...yet (laughs). But our previous long song was ten minutes, so it's only one minute more than the previous one. Based on the previous one, I don't know. We just play it! It doesn't seem that long when you're having a good time. If the song is horrible, then even a three minute song would be too long (laughs).
TIANA: On that subject, what is your favourite DragonForce song to play live?
HERMAN: I like playing songs from the first two albums. It's always easy, we've played them so many times we can just relax, and we can do fun things and weird stuff with them onstage.
TIANA: Just switch your brain to autopilot!
HERMAN: Yeah, some of the newer songs, we've played them one thousand times less than the other ones, so it's going to be different (laughs).
TIANA: Now, 'Reaching Into Infinity' is the seventh album for DragonForce and it seems that everytime you guys release an album there's the expectation that it's got to be bigger and faster than ever before. Is this something you take into consideration when you're writing new material?
HERMAN: We tend to write the music for ourselves and not try to fit into someone's idea of what they want it to be. And if they like it, that's cool. And if they don't like it, that's cool too! (laughs).
TIANA: I think you're pretty safe with this one.
HERMAN: That's the thing, though, some people that liked our earlier stuff may not like it now no matter what, they've changed their tastes. And same in reverse, people can't always make up their mind and know what they want so at least we know what we want, and we just stick to it.
TIANA: And what is the song-writing process now that the band's been around so long, is it a smooth process? Is everyone still talking, everyone's still friends?
HERMAN: Yeah, we've had a change from the past times. On this album we've had more songs written by Fred (Frédéric Leclercq – bass, backing vocals), and every time we've had a few changes, not every time's the same. But we get along, there's no ego, no one's saying "I have to write more songs than you". We just get together to make the best thing possible.
TIANA: Now there's no hiding the occasional vintage video game sound with you guys, I've heard you described as 'Nintendo metal' which made me laugh a lot. And you yourself have mentioned in the past the inspiration from video games, but is there any specific game soundtracks that have played a big part, or are they just a general influence?
HERMAN: I would say general influence, all from retro video games. Like your older games, before the Playstation 1. Back when they had to make weird chip sounds from the processors of those games. Old arcade games only!
TIANA: Back in the day when you really had to work for it.
HERMAN: Yeah, back when you had to make good tunes because the technology just wasn't there at that point.
TIANA: And speaking of video games, obviously you would be aware, but 'Through The Fire and the Flames' is on Guitar Hero 3 and is still considered to be impossibly hard, even earning a Guinness World Record as the most difficult in the series. Have you actually played it?
HERMAN: Yeah, I've played it. In fact, I've even been forced to play it in front of a camera as well. I had played it back at home ages ago, and that was more fun to play than in front of the cameras to see how bad I am at it (laughs)
TIANA: Well, it's obviously quite different to the real thing. But I think I got blisters from trying to play it just on easy mode. I think I prefer the real thing.
HERMAN: Well you've got your two chords already!
TIANA: I can be back-up for your next album. But from your current album, what's your favourite song, have you got a favourite yet or are you going to wait until you play more live?
HERMAN: I guess I'll wait until we play it live to see which one I like more, maybe the live experience will change it for me! We'll see!
TIANA: So the album's out, you've got a huge world tour ahead, but what will be next for Herman Li after the tour?
HERMAN: I don't have any plans to NOT do anything...I'll need something to do when the tour's over. I don't take holidays much, so maybe something like that. I'd like to go back home, but that's probably not going to happen (laughs).
TIANA: Well thank you so much for your time, cannot wait to see you guys out here in June. And I'll bring my guitar just in case you need back-up.
HERMAN: Yeah, by then you'll probably know twelve chords so you'll know all you need to know!
TIANA: Can't wait. Have a great rest of your day.
HERMAN: Thanks, you too!
DragonForce will be melting faces in Australia in June, for ticketing info head to: www.tickets.destroyalllines.com
BY TIANA SPETER