DATE OF INTERVIEW:
10th December 2009
METAL DISCOVERY: You’re approaching the end of what’s been a pretty long tour…is it eighteen or nineteen dates?
HERMAN LI: For this part of the tour, the UK?
(Herman Li on Dragonforce's autonomous success)
"I think we’ve never been too championed by any magazine…which is actually a good thing because our fans listen to it not because of a magazine. We didn’t have to kiss any of the magazines’ ass!"
Herman Li backstage at The Engine Shed, Lincoln, UK, 10th December 2009
Photograph copyright © 2009 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview and Photography by Mark Holmes
Since the release of debut album 'Valley of the Damned' in 2003, Dragonforce have risen fast within the scene to become one of power metal's hegemonists, and most certainly pioneers of what's oft labelled 'extreme power metal'. Renowned for high level musicianship, they have also encountered a degree of unmerited (and invariably unfounded) criticism as a live band during the past three or so years since what can only be described as 'having a bad day' during their performance at the Graspop Metal Meeting in 2006. Approaching the end of a lengthy headline UK tour, I met up with guitar maestro Herman Li early evening backstage at The Engine Shed in Lincoln ahead of Dragonforce's set later that night to quiz him, amongst other things, about such criticism; the band's plans during the their intended gig-free 2010; what exactly constitutes a virtuoso; and a particular jam with guitar legends Joe Satriani, Paul Gilbert and Marty Friedman at NAMM last year...
HL: Yeah, yeah, nineteen shows. We are three from the end.
MD: How have all the shows gone, and have there been any standout dates on the tour?
HL: They’ve been good. I don’t know about standout dates. I mean, sometimes maybe better, sometimes a bit worse. You know, it’s been pretty much what we expected it to be.
MD: How have audiences been; have there been big crowds?
HL: Well, Monday can be a bit more sober crowd, and the weekend can be more crazy; it depends, you know. But you understand that our fans…if you understand that they’re not here to start a pit and run in a circle. Our crowd enjoys watching the spectacle more than just like stamping on each other. We’re not really that kind of band. People watch the show and see how we play. So it’s been good, yeah.
MD: You have a lot of great musicianship going on so I guess you’re the kind of band people will want to stand and watch the great guitar playing or whatever rather than go crazy.
HL: Yeah, not totally like Dream Theater but I think kind of in between Dream Theater and a band that people would jump around to. Kind of in between I think we are.
MD: That’s a good analogy, yeah. Dragonforce seem to have a bit of a reputation in the media for enjoying a beer or two - how much beer has been drunk on average per night of the tour?!
HL: I don’t know, it depends on the person. You know, like Sam for example, he has to drink every show. I don’t really drink that much these days. Fred likes to drink whisky; Dave likes his wine. Everyone does their own thing. The thing is, we’re old enough; we don’t go crazy and become stupid chavs and have a fight! We never do really have fights or anything like that, so we just party and have a laugh.
MD: It was announced recently that you cancelled two shows in Tokyo that were booked for March next year because you’re going to concentrate in 2010 on writing material for the next album. Does that mean no festival appearances too or will there be no shows at all?
HL: Originally we were only going to do two shows. That was it. Obviously, if you read it on Blabbermouth they make it “ohhh, they cancel every single show” because they like making the band look bad! [laughs] So, you know, we were only going to do those two shows for the re-release of the first two albums for Japan only but we realised just two shows, going in and playing the songs we haven’t played for ages is no winner. We’re going to just concentrate on the album, so there will be no shows until 2011 anyway. That was the original plan.
MD: Do you have a concentrated period of composing when you write a new album or is it more of an ongoing process when you finish one album and then start having ideas for the next?
HL: No, we don’t start until the tour’s over. It’s impossible for us to write on the road. If people have been on the tour and see what we do each day they’ll realise that it’s actually impossible. You know, there’s no time.
MD: Do you write collectively, or do you all write individual parts, then get together and see how it all gels?
HL: Yeah, pretty much. Everyone goes and writes a certain type of music and then we all get together and…think about it, and work it out! [laughs]
MD: Unlike many UK bands of your ilk, you seem to do pretty lengthy tours of the UK, like last year and this year. Do you enjoy the whole touring experience, and would you consider less shows to do a fewer big arena headline dates instead if they came up?
HL: Well, that’s the thing, you end up being like all the other bands that tour the UK, like foreign bands. They come in, they do four shows in obviously bigger venues and, in the end, I think the fans get less out of it. People want to be close, they want to see…they don’t really like going to an arena unless they have to and see tiny little things far away. This show, on purpose, is to actually go against that. We want people to be able to see the band finally before the band goes away to work on an album. You know, how many shows are we doing in this area? Loads! [laughs]
MD: Yeah, and like I said when we were chatting before, hardly any metal bands ever play Lincoln, and suddenly there’s a big metal band here!
HL: Yeah, so they don’t have to travel and times are pretty tough these days. Getting a train is not exactly cheap, you know. You travel to gigs, eating and drinking, and you might have to stay there the night.
MD: Yeah, it’s pretty cool seeing a metal band play so many UK dates, as it doesn’t happen too often these days. Are you generally relieved when a tour’s done with and you look forward to some rest, or do you quickly get itchy feet and just want to be back on the road again?
HL: After a while you want to get back on tour, but we know we have everything planned out right now, what we have to do next year. So it’s not like we’re just gonna go home and what are we gonna do next year? We know whatever is gonna be announced in the news upcoming in a few months has all been planned and thought out, and that’s the way it has to be done. So whatever news you’re gonna see about us doing whatever, there’s a reason for everything; a good reason.
MD: You can’t afford to get itchy feet next year then and think, say in April, that you want to be on the road again!
HL: I’ll be doing some guitar clinics and Dave will also be doing some guitar clinics, so it keeps my skill level up.
MD: And performing in front of an audience of sorts.
HL: Yeah, and guitar clinics are much harder.
MD: What kind of clinics do you do out of interest?
HL: I will call them guitar seminars…is better. Clinic sounds kind of, erm…
HL: Clinical, yeah!
MD: What kind of seminars do you do then?
HL: Well, I’ll play obviously a bit, discuss about the guitar, and people can ask me anything they want. I play along to tracks and break down things, like guitar parts and all that stuff.
MD: You toured with HORSE The Band in the States around three years ago…
MD: What are your memories of touring with them?
HL: As far as I know they hated it! They obviously didn’t get a response that was kind of different for them. I thought they were a cool band and would be different to have, and cool to have, to make things more exciting for the tour. For me, from what I know, I didn’t really get the chance to talk to them. You know, we didn’t really gel personally in terms of the same interests. We thought we would. They were actually…I wouldn’t say a new band but, as far as I know from the crew, they didn’t really know how to be on a tour. You know, technically; everything; the way things run.
MD: I think the only likeness I could see is that you get called ‘Nintendo Metal’ sometimes and they coined the term ‘Nintendo-core’ for their music. It seemed like a weird billing to tour with HORSE The Band.
HL: I mean, they were the opening band, so there was also All That Remains on that tour.
MD: I actually asked HORSE The Band in an interview once how their experience was of touring with Dragonforce and they came out with some very weird answers! Something about their singer stole your tour manager’s Hawaiian shirt…
HL: [laughs] Did he?!
MD: Apparently so! He thought it was a left over shirt backstage so wore it onstage one night, lost two buttons and got it covered in beer. They didn’t realise it was your tour manager’s until he started asking round if anyone had seen his Hawaiian shirt!
HL: Yeah?! They had a hard time on that tour unfortunately, but nothing I could’ve changed!
MD: The first time I saw Dragonforce was on the main stage at Bloodstock in 2003. It’s also the first time I recall seeing so much plastic weaponry at a metal gig, although the whole toy swords and axes thing seems to be quite common now. Like anyone who’s labelled as Battle Metal by the media, people will turn up to their gigs with load of toy swords. Can we blame Dragonforce for starting that trend?!
HL: Well, we don’t get any of those anymore, ever, at gigs.
HL: Yeah, it was only on the ‘Sonic Firestorm’ tour. On the ‘Inhuman Rampage’ tour, it slowly kind of died out. Because we haven’t sung about swords and warriors since the first album…well, I guess the second album a little bit but it didn‘t really mean that. It’s kind of passed onto the other bands now, so I don’t know if you can blame us for that! [laughs]
MD: Blame is quite a strong word, so maybe just starting a trend! I find it quite funny when you turn up to a gig and loads of people in the queue have plastic swords but then security confiscate them on the way in.
HL: Yeah, I remember that. I think that’s one of the reasons they don’t bring them to our shows anymore! It’s got to the point where the venues have a lot stricter security. Now we move up the venues, the more professional venues, like the Academy, you can’t bring anything in.
MD: I think the funniest one was at the Thirteenth Day festival in Birmingham Academy where Dragonland and Finntroll were playing and there was a Toys ‘R’ Us opposite the venue, so everyone seemed to go over and buy loads of plastic weapons, but security had a big box on the way in and confiscated everything!
HL: I remember that one. We did the Birmingham Academy and everything got confiscated coming in.
MD: Journalists seem to throw around a lot of labels to describe Dragonforce’s music - what are some of the more amusing ones you’ve heard?
HL: I think it’s gone to a really kind of…am I allowed to swear on this thing?
HL: It’s gone from shit to…you know, there’s all kinds of labels now. We’ve gone to the point where we’ve got big enough to get really slagged off, really badly, really hated by people that have never seen the band or heard the band. So it’s got to the point where the whole thing is just whatever you want to call it. It doesn’t really matter to us.
MD: It seems to be a very British thing where people build up bands, particularly in the press, then when they get so big they start hammering them down. You see it happening with bands like Cradle of Filth the whole time - they used to get front page of Kerrang and Metal Hammer the whole time, hailed as the best band Britain’s had for years. Then they get to the top of their game and…you know, Dani Filth seemed to get bad press on Blabbermouth every week at one point…that seems to be Dave Mustaine at the moment though!
HL: Yeah! [laughs] I think we’ve never been too championed by any magazine. I think the magazine that gives us most support these days is Metal Hammer and I don’t think the other magazines really champion us that much. Kerrang, for example, they never said “blah, blah, blah, this is the band”, you know, you never fit into that kind of category…which is actually a good thing because our fans listen to it not because of a magazine. We didn’t have to kiss any of the magazines’ ass! We still made the front cover - thank fuck for that!