DATE OF INTERVIEW:
10th December 2009
METAL DISCOVERY: You had the pleasure of jamming onstage with Joe Satriani, Paul Gilbert and Marty Friedman at NAMM in 2008 - was that some kind of Ibanez anniversary bash or something?
HERMAN LI: HL: It was a Satriani party. It was the twentieth anniversary party of his guitar.
(Herman Li on the unjust criticism of Dragonforce's live performances)
"A few years ago, before the existence of YouTube, we were an amazing live band…apparently. That’s what people were saying. Then when YouTube came out with some really bad videos of one gig and Sam tripping over on television, we became the worst live band in the world...But we will be releasing a live album...with no overdubs!"
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
Official Dragonforce Website:
Official Dragonforce MySpace:
Thanks to Michelle Kerr at Roadrunner Records for arranging the interview
Valley of the Damned (2003)
Sonic Firestorm (2004)
Inhuman Rampage (2006)
Ultra Beatdown (2008)
Official Herman Li MySpace:
MD: How was that experience for you and were those three musicians an inspiration to you when you was learning to play guitar originally?
HL: Yeah, it’s always great to play those. Obviously when I was a kid and I was playing guitar, it was a dream for me to be half as good as those guys. I still haven’t got round to being half as good as those guys but I get to play with them, so it makes me happy because I know so many people who hate me for having done it. I read so many times people say “he’s rubbish, I can’t believe he got to play with those guys”…
HL: Yeah, yeah. We got big enough to get so much hate which is kind of cool. I laugh and enjoy watching it, and I’m just kind of laughing at the same time and, well, I get to do it, haha!
MD: I actually watched some footage recently on YouTube of that and…how many songs did you play with them? Was it a kind of jam at the end or something?
HL: I did two songs or three songs….two songs? And the funny thing is, the year before that I did Steve Vai as well for like three songs.
MD: Really? Wow.
HL: Yeah, and I’m like a little kid! But it’s cool, yeah!
MD: The clip I watched was pretty phenomenal I thought, in terms of jamming to that. I mean, Dragonforce is very up tempo music, but the stuff you were doing with Satch was still your fast sweep picking and whatever, but it had a lot of feeling to it as well, and I think you held your own alongside Satriani, Friedman, and Gilbert, which is pretty phenomenal I thought. Comparable perhaps to Petrucci when he did the G3 shows with Satch and Vai.
HL: Oh, thanks! I think the main thing here is that Dragonforce attracts…not attracts, but we’re in the face of such a young audience and the young always hate this, hate that…“I hate that band I’ve never heard in my life; I hate that band because I’ve seen a photo of them and they don’t dress like me”. You know, that’s the thing so we really do get that but, luckily, the numbers being crunched show that people do actually like us and go to gigs, and buy the CDs! [laughs]
MD: You’re obviously now a guitar hero of sorts yourself for many aspiring young musicians out there. Did you ever envisage you’d be in such a position?
HL: No. Really, to this day, I still don’t consider myself a great guitarist. I’m just trying to do my best and learning every day…not just guitar but the whole music thing. I’m happy that I’m able to inspire people to play the guitar because I think every generation needs guitarists coming out continuously to inspire younger musicians.
MD: Definitely. I mean, I guess there must be kids out there who have heard of Herman Li before they’ve heard of Satriani, Vai or whoever. How does it feel when kids come up to you and say “you inspired me to play guitar”?
HL: Ah, it makes me happy. And I always say “and you’ve got to check out these other musicians” because for them to be great they’ve got to hear more than one style of music.
MD: Absolutely. Are you a fan of Chickenfoot, out of interest, Satriani’s latest thing?
HL: Chickenfoot…I’ve got the album and it’s pretty cool, but I enjoy it as a more kind of laidback, chill out kind of album.
MD: How did it feel to get your signature model Ibanez last year, the E-Gen?
HL: That was quite an exciting time actually because I spent so much time working on that guitar. I don’t know how many guitars I went through or how many emails, how many thousands of emails and phone calls to make that guitar happen. I was happy. And there’s actually another one coming out next year.
MD: So that’s going to be an E-Gen Mk II or something?
HL: It’s a slightly different one.
MD: There was an interesting blog from Alex Skolnick I read recently where he labelled James Hetfield as a virtuoso for what he does which engendered a mass debate on Blabbermouth as to what exactly constitutes a guitar virtuoso. Do you consider yourself as such and do you personally think that term can also apply to other guitarists who don’t just shred away the whole time?
HL: I think all these kind of words are very complicated. It’s very hard to say as everyone describes things differently. I mean, what’s a good guitarist; what’s a good musician? Some people, they say “oh, he’s a good guitarist, but he’s a bad musician” or “he’s a good musician, but a bad guitarist”. People ask me “what happened to the guitar heroes as they’ve been missing the last ten years?”, and I tell them that Kurt Cobain was a huge guitar hero. It doesn’t have to be a certain…a virtuoso doesn’t mean you have to play jazz, blues, rock, metal. What about all the different styles of metal there are? There are so many different styles of metal and how do you create a special sound that makes you a virtuoso? You can be a virtuoso in the metal style because it’s so vast. So, send that up to Blabbermouth and tell them to shut up, yep?! [laughs]
MD: There are always obvious candidates like Vai, Satriani or whoever, but people like Dave Gilmour, for me, is a guitar virtuoso. He doesn’t shred, but he can play four notes over ten bars and it will sound immense.
HL: Yeah, and Brian May, you know, all those guys. I think it’s just because the shredding generation, that when they came out in the mid-80s, they call it the virtuoso, but I think that can be applied to so many styles of musician, and so many styles of players.
MD: So do you consider yourself a virtuoso?
HL: Er…no. To be honest, I think I can do many things as…I never consider myself a musician. I think I try to be more than just that - production, recording, you know, everything. I think that maybe makes me a bit more virtuoso. Obviously I’m not a great jazz player or a great blues player, but I can do quite a bit of metal and rock. So I’ve basically dug myself out of a bit of a hole from the previous answer there! I never look at myself as anything, as a virtuoso, as a great musician or whatever.
MD: You just do what you do.
HL: I do what I can do.
MD: That’s a good answer. Would you say you’ve peaked as a player in terms of your fast shredding abilities or do you always strive to improve your technique in different styles?
HL: Always constantly trying to improve, there’s no doubt. I see players like the previous generation, like Steve Vai and all these players…Malmsteen…they still got better. So just different ways. Maybe as you get older in your body you can’t physically do some things but I think mentally, your experience, can take you to a different level in another category.
MD: Of course. How old is Satriani now actually, he must be hitting fifty?
HL: I don’t know, I’m not that kind of guitar anorak, so I don’t know the age of everybody! [laughs]
MD: I’ve heard you plan on releasing a live CD next year - do you see that as a good opportunity to silence your critics who claim that Dragonforce are more a studio band than a live band? A lot of people seem to unfairly aim that criticism at Dragonforce.
HL: We are going to release that but I don’t think you can silence the critics in any way, really. I mean, you can release a live album and they say “well, they probably overdubbed the whole thing and just recorded the crowd”. A few years ago, before the existence of YouTube, we were an amazing live band…apparently. That’s what people were saying. Then when YouTube came out with some really bad videos of one gig and Sam tripping over on television, we became the worst live band in the world. And now, that we play properly, people either say “oh my god, they’re not drunk anymore” and “apparently they’re not miming”! So, you know, what can you do?! Nothing you can do about it. But we will be releasing a live album and we have recorded every single show, and we will be releasing a live album with no overdubs!
MD: A big sticker on the front - “NO OVERDUBS”!
HL: Yeah! But, however, I was thinking about this, we’ll write down and tell people there are no overdubs on this. We recorded nineteen shows, you know, there’s gotta be a good song in there somewhere! [laughs] And people download the albums anyway so they wouldn’t care!
MD: It must be frustrating in a way knowing you are good live and that your hardcore fan base know you’re fucking great live and then to have that kind of criticism aimed at you.
HL: I think that hurt the band, the rumours of the Graspop 2006 gig which was really horrible. I mean, when I look at it I laugh myself to death because it’s so bad, I couldn’t believe that could be that bad, and we carry on playing anyway while we were being bad. The difference is I think these new videos now that’s out seems to have made a difference and “oh, they couldn’t be that bad every single day”. You know, they think if you’re bad on one day, you’re bad every single day, and if you’re good on one day there’s no way you could have been good.
MD: You were nominated for a Grammy award last year for the ‘Heroes of Our Time’ single but you got pipped to the post by Metallica, although the nomination was still a prestigious thing. Did that come as a surprise to get that kind of nomination?
HL: Of course, of course a surprise, we wouldn’t expect stuff like that. We’re honestly, truly, not like this band who think “ah, we’re gonna be in a band; we’re gonna be big; we’re gonna be huge; we’re gonna make loads of money; we’re gonna be cool”. We just make music and we have a laugh. A lot of our humour and sarcasm seems to have taken people by surprise and they actually think we’re real dickheads. But I kind of realise that. It took me a while and I’ve learnt how to communicate with people. A lot of younger generation people don’t understand sarcasm and they don’t understand a lot of the jokes we talk about. They think we’re real and Sam is gay because we happen to make stupid jokes and do stupid things, but people will actually take this the wrong way. Oh well!
MD: Finally, ten years down the line for Dragonforce now, do you predict another ten years for the band or do you not really look that far ahead into the future?
HL: We definitely still have a few albums to do. We haven’t run out of ideas yet…believe it or not! There will be some crazy changes next year.
MD: In terms of?
HL: We’re gonna make the ultimate album, the ultimate Dragonforce album, and we have to move forward and make sure everything’s as good as possible. That’s the reason why we have to spend that time making an album. Next year when you hear whatever happens in the news, everything is done in the goodness of the band to move forward and get better at what we do. So keep an eye on us - we’re not disappearing next year!
MD: Crazy changes…why crazy?!
HL: We’re gonna release a live album, that’s crazy enough! [laughs] You know, I’m excited about next year to work on this new album. Everyone in the band is really excited. It’s the first time we’ve actually thought - you know what, we’re gonna take this to a new level that we couldn’t do on the last album.
MD: Right, cool, thank you very much for your time.
HL: Thank you. Cool.