In recent years, one band has proved particularly divisive in the guitar sphere: DragonForce. Either you love DragonForce's music, or you loathe their material with a passion. Much discussion has centred on the group's live performances, and whether they can replicate studio performances in that setting, earning them the moniker "StudioForce" from more cynical quarters. Some have been satisfied by DragonForce's performances, whereas others have not. Obviously, some have made their judgements based on select YouTube footage. Of course, views on DragonForce's live performances are for the readers of "Hit The Lights" to decide (feel free to share your thoughts). Whatever opinions certain quarters have, few can argue with the band's unwavering popularity, and in this interviewer's opinion, those boys can indeed play.
To date, DragonForce
has issued four albums, namely: 2003's "Valley Of The Damned
", 2004's "Sonic Firestorm
", 2006's "Inhuman Rampage
", and 2008's "Ultra Beatdown
". Karl Groom
as well as guitarists Herman Li
and Sam Totman
produced and mixed, the album being recorded at Thin Ice Studios in Surrey, UK, and LamerLuser and BATMAM Studios in London. Mike Jussila
, meanwhile, handled mastering at Finnvox Studios in Helsinki, Finland, whereas "Android
designed "Ultra Beatdown
"'s artwork in San Francisco. "Ultra Beatdown
"'s first single, "Heroes Of Our Time
", was nominated for the "Best Metal Performance" Grammy at the 51st Grammy Awards.
Touring for "Ultra Beatdown" has been extensive. From early July 2008 to mid August, DragonForce toured North America as part of the Mayhem Festival, as well as the United Kingdom from late September to mid October. Late October saw the outfit tour Australia, whereas from November until late December, DragonForce toured North America once again. From late January 2009 to early March, the group toured Europe, visiting Japan and South East Asia from late March to mid April, and subsequently South America from mid April to mid May. European festival shows occurred from late May to early September. Late September to mid October is when final North American shows for the album will happen, the same occurring in Germany from mid October until late October, in South America during early November, and the United Kingdom from mid November until mid December.
On September 28th at roughly 19:05 GMT, guitarist Herman Li telephoned Hit The Lights' Robert Gray to discuss DragonForce's career.
Herman Li: Hello?
UG: Hello. Can I speak to Herman please?
This is Herman.
How are you Herman?
I'm pretty good.
Would it be alright if I began the interview?
If it's ok, I'd like to do an interview which is an overview of DragonForce's history. Would that be ok?
Yeah. Ask me anything you want.
The band formed under the name Dragonheart in September 1999. Could you tell me about that?
It's nothing special. I played guitar, and just like any kid that plays guitar for a few years, tried to start a band and play. Nothing extraordinary happened. I guess we started playing in September, or October 1999. We changed our band name to DragonForce before we released our first album, 'Valley of the Damned', and we've been going ever since.
When DragonForce originally formed, was DragonForce just another band? In that respect, I mean you didn't expect what would happen over the next ten years?
We just wanted to have fun, play some gigs, and hopefully release an album, and sign a record deal. It wasn't like we thought we were going to be the biggest band in the world. We just wanted to have some fun.
And obviously, you knew guitarist Sam Totman from another group (Demoniac).
Yeah, we played together in another band.
Demoniac was a black metal group, so was there a reason why DragonForce opted to change gears musically?
No. I joined that band - it was already going before I was in the band. We just decided to play this type of music because we like this type of music really.
So DragonForce's music was more from the group's heart?
Yeah. The other band was more of a joke really. It wasn't a serious band.
In 2000, DragonForce recorded the demo 'Valley of the Damned' (issued under the name "Dragonheart").
"It wasn't like we thought we were going to be the biggest band in the world."
The first demo was just like any old band's first demo. We decided to record five songs, and then we released it. We had a really good response from the demo, and made quite a bit of money from mp3.com. We got over half a million downloads from just one website (mp3.com), so that was a good start for the band. We had some shows; we played with bands like Stratovarius, and toured with Halford. That was a long time ago now.
And what was it like to support the likes of Halford?
It was great back then. That was our first tour, and even though it was a mini-tour, it was a great thing. Obviously back then, compared to now, we're a totally different band with totally different people. We've grown and changed a lot, and have improved as musicians.
Was there a point in DragonForce's history where you felt "Yeah, we're onto something special here"?
I think that type of feeling has to happen all the time. You constantly make music and constantly evolve, and me, I'm not one of those people who think one instance has changed my life. It's not just one moment, but a continuation of them - different times in your life that make you early on, and make things happen. When we made 'Sonic Firestorm', I thought it was amazing, and when we made 'Ultra Beatdown', I thought "Wow, this is so cool. This is the best thing ever".
In 2002, DragonForce signed a record contract with Sanctuary / Noise. How did that record deal come to fruition?
It took a long time, actually. We finished writing the album 'Valley of the Damned' back in 2001, early 2001 - we'd already finished the album, writing it. We had been negotiating since 2000. Think about that.. And then, we released the album in 2003. For us, it was a really long process, but we played loads of gigs and so on. We wanted to get enough experience before going on a recorded band tour, if that makes any sense (laughs).
Yeah, I'm with you. At that time, were any other record deals on the table?
Yeah. We talked to other record labels at the same time, but that was the best deal for us.
So the group didn't become frustrated with how long it took to negotiate a record deal, and eventually release the 'Valley of the Damned' album?
Some of the guys in the band did, but I didn't really care. I was handling the deal, and thought "Why would you sign your life away straight away?". You have to be careful, because if you just rush in, the terms of the record deal could make a big difference. We're still on that same deal right now.
That's a good point, actually. Debut album 'Valley of the Damned' was recorded in mid to late 2002, and then issued in January 2003. What feedback did 'Valley of the Damned' receive?
'Valley of the Damned' received good feedback. We were still a small band, so the amount of people hearing it wasn't that much. The album did really well in Japan, and ok in Europe, for a debut album. For a debut, they said the band really was received well. We toured 'Valley of the Damned' in Japan with Helloween, so that was cool. We did what we wanted to do, which was to go on tour. We went to Japan, and were just a couple of guys having fun.
How would you compare the production on the demo 'Valley of the Damned' to the production on debut album 'Valley of the Damned'?
The production is totally different. The demo was recorded in four or five days I think, whereas the album was recorded in I don't know how long, but longer than that. A month, two months maybe. I don't know. You can't really compare the sound. They're nothing to do with each other.
During the recording process for DragonForce's debut, did you learn a lot?
Yeah. To be honest, I learn a lot while recording every album, from the last one, all the way to the first one and obviously the demo. I'm constantly learning, and believing. I'm learning every part of, let's say, the art of making music.
Obviously, plans have been announced to release a remastered version of 'Valley of the Damned'. At present, where are those plans at?
Well actually, 'Valley of the Damned''s re-release isn't a remaster, but a total remix. We remixed the whole album because back then, as a young band we didn't have enough budget to mix the album exactly how we wanted it to be mixed. Now we're technically more experienced, and have learned more things, we've remixed 'Valley of the Damned' and remastered it. Remastering the album means nothing to me - the whole thing is about the mix. That whole album was totally remixed and remastered, and has bonus DVD footage and everything. That's coming out in January along with 'Sonic Firestorm', which'll also have bonus DVD material.
Was DragonForce's busy schedule the reason why those re-releases were postponed?
No. We were ready - I finished that project before we released 'Ultra Beatdown' (laughs). Sanctuary was being bought out by Universal Music, and that was the problem. We were releasing another album, as well.
Some of DragonForce's early festival shows were at the likes of Bloodstock and Sweden Rock. What were those early festival shows like?
Bloodstock was fun, and ensured that we had some fans early on as an underground band. Sweden Rock was a total disaster because our drummer had left two days before the show, but DragonForce never cancels a show. Even today, we always say we never cancel a show. We just had a fan to play the drums onstage, and obviously, that didn't work. No rehearsal, nothing, but hey, we never cancelled the show (laughs). To be honest, I don't know if it was clever, or if it was completely stupid. We didn't really care though; we're here to play the show, and we'll do whatever we can to make the show happen. I think that's been happening for years and years. On the 'Inhuman Rampage' tour even, we played shows where we couldn't hear anything of what we played. Nothing was set up well. The guitar - we couldn't hear it. It was fucked. We played the shows though. No point in sitting there, moaning and bitching. The result was that some shows weren't perfect, but we still played a show, regardless of moaning. So many bands moan, and say "Oh, this sounds shit. We're not playing" blah blah blah. We'll just fucking play anyway. I've done a whole show without even hearing my guitar, because as long as you do the show for the fans, it doesn't matter. There's no bitching and complaining about "Oh, I can't hear my sound", or "Oh, I can't hear the guitar".
It's a lot more difficult playing a show where you can't hear your guitar.
Well, the Graspop Metal Meeting of 2006 was another total disaster. The technician we had back then didn't even tune the guitar, and no monitoring was done properly. We didn't hear anything, but hey, fuck. You have to get onstage now. This is the festival. You have to take twenty-five to thirty minutes, and just go for it. You can't stop because once you stop, you lose another song because the schedule is so tight on the bill. You just have to do it. If you can't hear the guitar, you can't play technically. You rely on everything, just like when you think of your fingers going onto the fretboard. Hey, at the end, fuck. The fans will enjoy it better than you not playing.
I agree. DragonForce's second album was 2004's 'Sonic Firestorm'. How did 'Sonic Firestorm' improve upon debut album 'Valley of the Damned'?
When 'Sonic Firestorm' came out, that was the best album we could make. In 2004, it was so good, and really took the band to the next level. When 'Valley of the Damned' came out, it felt old; we had played that album's songs so many times, we didn't really care. We felt 'Sonic Firestorm' was really fresh for us, and I thought it defined the DragonForce sound - the beginning of the original DragonForce sound. That album did well; we toured with Iron Maiden, and did a lot of touring in Europe. Yeah, that was a successful tour. We went to many cool places for that one.
DragonForce went on a Japanese tour with Helloween, a European tour with W. A. S. P., UK tours, and then some European dates with Iron Maiden. Would you say that was the first time the group had been on a proper touring schedule?
Yeah, that was really. That was our first, real touring experience, and it was great fun, but was equally hard. At that time, we still didn't have a manager - I still booked the flights, and dealt with all those issues. For a long time, the band had to do lots of work at the same time. We were still this band that came out of the garage, and just toured stadiums suddenly with Iron Maiden. I thought "Wow", you know? So many kids who grow up playing guitar want to do that, and for us, it was like "Wow, we can experience this. This is amazing".
As you mentioned, you initially handled managerial duties. When DragonForce recruited a manager, did that take a lot off of your shoulders?
Yeah. That didn't happen until the second half of 'Inhuman Rampage''s tour dates (laughs). Even when we began to tour 'Inhuman Rampage', I was still handling all those things, and that was just way too much. 'Inhuman Rampage' became really, really big, and that's what pulled the band forward. We weren't as ready as we thought we were; we became big in America and everything, and it was lots of stress. As I mentioned earlier - Graspop 2006. I had to do a million things before that show, so I just had to run around, pick up my guitar, go onstage, run off to collect money, and shit like that, so it was really hard. I learnt from my mistakes. We started really from the bottom; we didn't have all these people helping us, like a crew. I had to find every single person, from the guitar person to whoever, so it was very hard to have a totally professional production to help the band move forward.
For 'Inhuman Rampage', DragonForce signed a record contract with Roadrunner Records. How did that record deal come to fruition?
It's quite simple; Mike Gitter in New York sent me an email via the website (laughs).
And DragonForce felt that Roadrunner Records was a good fit?
"We just took everything that we can further really, in terms of songwriting, production, and everything."
Yeah. Back then, the problem we had before we signed to Roadrunner was nobody really believed in us that much. We signed to Roadrunner for 'Inhuman Rampage', and across all the territories we were signed to Roadrunner for, the band became successful. We finally got lots of interviews, promotion, help and everything, and made our first music video too. We were finally able to do it. We're not signed to Roadrunner worldwide, but only in certain countries. Roadrunner do a really amazing job, but they don't interfere with our music. Everything is DragonForce, from the songwriting to the image of the band, as opposed to what people think on the internet about how DragonForce changed its sound for Roadrunner. That's absolute bullshit, because we finished recording the album 'Inhuman Rampage' back in September 2005, and we hadn't even signed to Roadrunner yet (laughs).
Midway through recording sessions for 'Inhuman Rampage', bassist Adrian Lambert left. What prompted his departure?
First of all, it wasn't going to work between us and him. People have their different priorities in life, and you just have to move on. He has a family and kids, so he's had to deal with that. As for the rest of us, we do whatever we want in our own time, but other than that, we just concentrate on the music.
Can the same be said for DragonForce's two bassists (Diccon Harper and Steve Scott) prior to Adrian Lambert?
No, not really. I just don't like to discuss this kind of past, because who cares? But no, before Adrian, Diccon suffered a tendon problem that required surgery. He couldn't really play anymore. There's no problem with him whatsoever; he loved touring, and was a touring musician. Before that, with Steve Scott, it just wasn't going to work out with me and him in the band.
Looking back, what are your thoughts on 'Inhuman Rampage'?
Looking back, that album was really over the top. 'Inhuman Rampage' is a real shred fest, and we really, really had lots of fun recording that album. It did really well, and was the album that broke the band worldwide. We became rock stars I guess; we were getting recognised on the streets in America, and all over the place. 'Inhuman Rampage' was a good album. We spent lots of time recording, soloing, and practising really hard on guitar on that one (laughs).
And you mentioned 'Inhuman Rampage' being a shred fest.
Yeah, yeah. Actually, you know what's weird about that album? We practised so hard to make and record 'Inhuman Rampage' that when touring started, it was impossible to play the guitar. There was absolutely no time whatsoever for us to practice or play the guitar, other than playing the show. It seemed like non-stop interviews every moment. Your bus arrives, you do interviews, you do the soundcheck, you eat, and then you go onstage. You really couldn't play the guitar that time (laughs).
(Laughs) Did that bring criticism from certain quarters? Certain people might've said "When you see DragonForce live, they can't play what they can play in the studio".
Yeah. That's what I meant. That album is when DragonForce wasn't ready in terms of the infrastructure in the back office, let's say, for the band to go that big. We were becoming so big, and we just weren't ready. At that time, we just started having management midway through, and really tried to work out a crew, a truck and so on. The touring schedule was so brutal, and all the interviews.. We just weren't ready, I think. We got big too quickly (laughs). Yeah so that took its toll on us. We did some really good shows - some of the shows for 'Inhuman Rampage' were really good. Midway through, an Ozzfest festival show in the Michigan area was pretty bad, yeah.
What are your memories of the 2006 Ozzfest then?
I thought Ozzfest 2006 was a good tour. It seemed we were the only band there that had never really played America (laughs). DragonForce was really gaining recognition worldwide. We even did a television show, but that was a disaster because Sam fell over, and the guitar went out, meaning there were a few things we couldn't play. Actually, I've learnt that the reason why we receive so much hate and have been called StudioForce is because at that time in the band's career, the only available videos of the band live were the shittest performances - like Graspop 2006. It's funny when I see such footage - I go "Oh my God, this is fucking horrible", but how do you play without hearing the guitar? The band couldn't hear anything. And shows like live on TV - Sam tripped over, and the guitar went out of tune. We began to play, but the lead sounded out of tune. These were the only things people could see when they searched for "DragonForce live", or ""Through the Fire and Flames"". That did a lot of bad things to us, but we're still here at the moment.
For 'Inhuman Rampage', DragonForce toured across the world. In October 2007 though, 'Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock' was released, which you've probably been asked about hundreds of times.
One thing that I can tell you about is obviously one of the causes of the hatred we get these days. People say "Fuck DragonForce, Guitar Hero III, and all that shit", but a lot of people only listen to one or two songs, and make a judgement on the whole fucking band's career (laughs). We had sold out tours for 'Inhuman Rampage' way before 'Guitar Hero III' even came out; we did the Ozzfest, and three sold out tours in America before 'Guitar Hero III' came out, so all that sort of happened while we weren't touring anymore (laughs).
Do you feel that "Through the Fire and Flames"' inclusion on 'Guitar Hero III' helped DragonForce's success, or not?
The way I see it right now? We're in 2009 now, so it's been awhile. The 'Guitar Hero' thing got us some recognition, and obviously, it also made us a lot of money, but long term wise, is it good for a metal band with diehard fans? Does it deter fans away, or? What happens? You can't really weigh up the good and the bad, because obviously, negativity happened from the 'Guitar Hero' thing as well. It's hard to weigh. I think it scared a lot of the diehard fans, and later, a lot of people came to the shows who didn't really know a song except "Through the Fire and Flames". Yeah, this whole 'Guitar Hero' thing is strange.
Would you describe DragonForce's relationship with 'Guitar Hero' as a love / hate relationship?
I think that love / hate relationship was there before anyway, because we play the kind of music where people have said "What the fuck is this shit?" for years (laughs). It's nothing unusual. There's all kinds of weird people, people that say "Fuck DragonForce. This is shit. Steve Vai is better". Obviously, yeah (laughs). Steve Vai's been playing for way longer. Even us playing guitar solos causes a problem now, as though we shouldn't be doing them. With everything we do, there's some kind of problem. As long as you do what you want to do though, it doesn't matter.
DragonForce followed up 'Inhuman Rampage' with August 2008's 'Ultra Beatdown', the group's latest album.
Yeah. Technically, 'Ultra Beatdown' is the band's most successful album. It went up the charts around the world, and we were in the top twenty and the top ten in certain countries. In the album charts - I don't mean the rock charts. We've been touring ever since we did the Mayhem tour with Slipknot and Disturbed last July , and we're still touring it right now. Technically, 'Ultra Beatdown' has been much more successful than 'Inhuman Rampage'.
Musically speaking, how would you compare 'Ultra Beatdown' to 'Inhuman Rampage'? Obviously, 'Inhuman Rampage' had ultra fast shred, so where did DragonForce want to venture from there in recording 'Ultra Beatdown'?
'Ultra Beatdown' is a much more dynamic album. Of course, there's fast things in there, but there's also lots of tempo changes. The album is much more dynamic in terms of songwriting and composition. 'Inhuman Rampage' was just shred-shred-shred all the time, whereas 'Ultra Beatdown' has much more different changes, slow parts, really melodic parts, and really great vocals. Again, we've taken the keyboards to a new level; we're not topped too much by the keyboards, so I think we got some really good riffs in. We just took everything that we can further really, in terms of songwriting, production, and everything.
Is 'Ultra Beatdown' DragonForce's best album to date?
I really think so. Looking back on our previous albums, before we work on our albums, we see how we'll approach a given album. We didn't want to make another 'Inhuman Rampage', but we didn't want to write another 'Valley of the Damned' because we've grown so much. 'Inhuman Rampage' is like 'Sonic Firestorm', in that it's the next version up. 'Ultra Beatdown' is the next version up of 'Inhuman Rampage', but without sounding too much like that album. That's why 'Ultra Beatdown' is much more dynamic, like "The Last Journey Home", which is our first long, slow, epic, mid tempo type of song with fast bits at the end. "Reasons to Live"'s instrumental section is different than what we've ever done before, and "Heroes Of Our Time" has lots of tempo changes too.
Entering the touring schedule for 'Ultra Beatdown', would you say that DragonForce was much more prepared and everything, and had learnt lessons from touring 'Inhuman Rampage'?
From top to bottom, and with every single show, the 'Ultra Beatdown' tour has been pretty much consistent, almost perfect playing and everything. With 'Inhuman Rampage', some of the tours were fucking great, but sometimes, there were always one or two shows that were shit. To be honest, I've read a lot of things on the internet, though I've stayed away from the internet, YouTube and all this stuff for awhile. I only started reading it pretty much six months ago, or maybe about a year ago, and then I saw all these comments. I thought "Oh, fuck me. What's going on here?". People say this and that, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to one secret. I'll tell you. The secret for the success of 'Ultra Beatdown' is, above everything else, having a great crew to make the shows happen, who keep everything in tune, and everything set up well. Since touring 'Ultra Beatdown', we can even hear the monitors now, and that makes pretty much hundreds, hundreds of difference in terms of our playing. We can finally hear what we're playing wherever we go onstage, and we're known to be a band that runs around onstage, jumps around, and goes to the left part of the stage, the right part, the middle - everywhere. When you walk around, sometimes you can't hear your amp, and when you can't hear but play guitar, you know what it's like. Not hearing and playing guitar is very difficult; you play guitar out of key, and sometimes you just can't hear it.
Since we've had in-ear monitors, our playing has gone through the roof. Again, boom.
For those that may not have visited DragonForce's website, what are the group's current touring plans?
We're pretty much in the last stage of touring now, so December will be the end of us touring 'Ultra Beatdown'. We've done so many shows in a concentrated amount of time - we're on our fourth US tour right now (laughs). At the end of the US leg, we'll tour Germany, South America, and then will finish off in the UK. We always like to finish back at home, and we'll be playing all over the place, places that we've never played before. The economy isn't amazing. Even the trains are a rip-off in the UK, so we're going to the fans now.
Has DragonForce written any material for a fifth studio album?
No. We haven't had time. It hasn't been possible. If you've seen the schedule we've had to go through, then you'll know we have no time to do anything on tour. We have to stop touring to make a new album.
So basically, DragonForce will stop touring in December, will spend time at home for Christmas, and then will begin writing and recording a new album next year?
Yeah. We'll start writing next year.
In terms of DragonForce's fifth studio album, are there any musical directions you would possibly like to venture in?
"We just wanted to have fun, play some gigs, and hopefully release an album, and sign a record deal."
I don't want to give too much away. We've spoken about it, and thought about it. We'll get the music written first though. Things change all the time, as DragonForce is very dynamic.
Obviously, DragonForce will want to incorporate new things. In terms of the band's fifth studio album though, would you prefer the album to be more in the vein of 'Ultra Beatdown', or 'Inhuman Rampage'?
Neither really. We won't go in the vein of any of our previous albums. We'll go in a new vein for our next album, the next evolution of the band. We never try to reproduce one of our previous albums. We'll try to take elements from all of our previous albums with new elements. That's the idea - a mixture. 'Ultra Beatdown' is a mix of 'Sonic Firestorm' and 'Inhuman Rampage'. A little bit (laughs).
What do you feel the future holds for DragonForce?
I don't know. It's hard to say really. Young musicians want to play in a band, but the world is changing so fast these days for a musician with the CD, mp3, and all these things. We don't know what's going to happen. Will there even be musicians in future? Will people still want to play guitar? I don't know. It's a weird thing. I know DragonForce still has a few albums left to record, and we'll just keep improving. The guitar playing and being in a band thing is so massive to learn, whether it be learning to record, learning to play onstage, learning about equipment onstage, or the whole touring thing. We're still constantly improving, and every time DragonForce releases an album and goes on tour, we're always getting better.
Do you have a message for the fans of DragonForce?
Yeah. Thanks for this serious interview, which I guess is a long one. People should check the interview out, and read it. Check out our new stuff on www.dragonforce.com, and www.youtube.com/dragonforceofficial. See you on tour. There's not really much else to say, apart from that.
Ok. Thanks for the interview Herman. It's really appreciated.
Thanks. No problem.
All the best.
Ok. Take care.
You too. Bye.
Interview by Robert Gray
Ultimate-Guitar.Com Â© 2009