On DragonForce's new album titled The Power Within, the band not only premiers new singer Marc Hudson but they unveil some different music elements as well. The songs no longer run to seven and eight minutes and the tempos don't constantly hover at the insanely fast. Guitar players Herman Li and Sam Totman still shred but they trotted out an acoustic guitar for one song. Li talked about The Power Within and what it meant to record the new album with a new singer. He talked about slowing things down and acknowledging bluesier influences in his playing. Though the phones didn't want to cooperate and the lines was dropped several times, the guitarist soldiered through to provide an expansive and sometimes personal look at who he is and what he does.
UG: You played with Sam Totman originally in Demoniac when you joined in 1988. What was that like?
Herman Li: I mean to be honest it wasn't a serious band. Back then playing everyone was just there to have some fun and no one was taking it serious. I know everyone loves talking about what bands we used to be in but the reason we don't talk about it that much is we don't really care. It's just DragonForce and judge us by thatnot by the past.
Fair enough. Was there an instant communication guitar-wise between you and Sam Totman when you first played together?
To be honest me and him were completely different personalities. I think when we first started we both thought the other guy was a loser. Maybe he probably thought I'm a complete nerd and I probably thought he was a drunk loser.
So the idea of you and Sam Totman ending up in the same band together seemed pretty improbable?
Absolutely. Actually I thought they were kind of crap but I had nothing else to do so I said, Let's have some fun and play a gig. And they probably said, Well I want to keep getting drunk. After that I said, I'll never do another band with him. And guess what happened? Here we are 12 years later doing the same band.
What made you change your mind about working in a band with Sam?
I guess in the end I was playing in a bunch of bands and everyone hated me anyway because everyone thought guitar solos were lame back then. They thought, This is so uncool. So Sam was one of the few people who thought it was cool to play solos. So we said, Well I'm gonna start a band and he was gonna start a band with a singer so we said, Let's just do it together so it was that kind of thing.
Later ZP Theart and Sam Totman worked together in Power Quest. Were you aware of what they were doing musically?
Well that was way after anyway. Basically what happened was when DragonForce started, I called on those guys to be in the DragonForce band. But it didn't work out just like band things and they did their band and that's cool. What happened is they don't have a singer to sing the demo and they needed someone to help them arrange the songs. So Sam and ZP helped them out like that and that wasn't really a problem.
You remixed and remastered Valley of the Damned and Sonic Firestorm recently. Did anything strike you about those early DragonForce albums?
Yeah, of course. Listening back to that stuff, it kind of takes you back to some memories. Funny enoughI know that was released last year and I actually completed those re-releases, the mixes and that DVD came with it and all that video editing about two years before it came out. So they were sitting there because there was a big problem with the record labels then of Sanctuary and Noize Records being taken over by Universal Records and no one knows who is doing what. So I did this thing and then kind of left it and nothing happened. So I kind of almost forgot what it's like to talk about it now.
Do you remember anything about those albums?
It was kind of a back in time thing. I had to dig out all those videos and edit them out and everything on those re-releases were taken from the early days.
Was Valley of the Damned in any way a template for the music DragonForce would write on subsequent albums?
Yeah. I think the good thing about the Valley of the Damned stuff was there was great feedback on it. How do I say it? Psychologically I'm the guy that I don't need anyone to tell me if it's good or bad. I don't really care. If you say that's great, I'll say, OK whatever and if you would say, This is terrible I'd say, Whatever. I don't care either. But it's always good to hear the positive of course. I'd rather hear that than reading Blabbermouth for example and what people say everything is shit in Blabbermouth. And I think it was a catchy song and the solos were good and it was alright for us to do it. But I think put it out on the direction for me and made a more unique DragonForce sound came out on the second album Sonic Firestorm.
Heroes of Our Time from the last Ultra Beatdown album garnered a Grammy nomination for the band. What was it about that song that resonated so well with fans and critics?
I think it's a combination of the band getting tighter and playing together more and touring more. It's sometimes very hard to pinpoint things. I always try to look back at things and always go through everything in detail with a comb to try and understand them. But sometimes I only get it a year or two years later. I go, Oh, I finally understand. It's kind of a formula that I can understand later on. I think it was that along with the popularity of the band. Music is one thing but how can you say we were kind of the underdog anyway and people like the underdog.
You actually took several stabs at that solo to get it right. Is there a point where you'd sacrifice a solo that felt great but maybe lacked something technically?
Yeah, that's a interesting way to say things. How do I say it? Let me take you back to what I experienced in my life. You know for years I listened to guitar music like Shrapnel Records stuff and Malmsteen, Satch and Vai and all those guys. I hear all the people back then when I was in school saying, All this fast stuff there's actually no melody and no feel. It's just wanking. I always felt the music when I listened to Malmsteen or Vinnie Moore so later on I just thought, Well to be honest it's just a matter of the person's mind if it's musical or not. If I can feel it and I think I'm a pretty good judge of guitar music not as a player but as someone who listens to music, by listening to all those albums by Tony MacAlpine and Eric Johnson and all that stuff, I think I know what sounds good. So when we play fast we still think. I've tried to listen back objectively to my music that it's still catchy and it's got a feel. Obviously not the same feel as when you bend a note right into that chord; the perfect note and that kind of feel. You know what I mean? By people who say Malmsteen's got no feeling but when I listen to that solo I go, Oh my god, that's incredible.
Did you listen to earlier players like Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix?
I listened to some Hendrix and Jeff Beck albums. I remember I got Guitar Shop on vinyl and I went out to the shop to buy it years ago. Gary Moore and those guys. But to be honest when I started learning guitar it was the grunge and New Metal time. So I went backwards and I was the extremely uncool guy at school and listened to George Lynch and all those guys and the 80s rock stuff because they had so much great guitar in it. So I guess I come from that kind of background.
In talking about those 80s rock bands were groups like Journey and Bon Jovi influences on DragonForce?
Oh definitely. Journey stuff I got that and Neal Schon's Double Eclipse Hardline album; Bad English. I got all that stuff. I loved the rock stuff no doubt and that kind of music definitely inspired us. Bon Jovi and I love Ritchie Sambora's playing and I think that got me into guitar originally. Europe's The Final Countdown and Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet and Brian Adam's stuff had great solos on those albums. Apart from listening to shredding, I really loved those kind of music. And they help in the kind of catchy composition of the band and the production and the way we approach the music. So it's more than the speed but I know of course people talk about the speed a lot. And somehow I think in the last few years people over-emphasize on the speed of us and having a laugh and think it's funny all the time. If you want to talk about bands with a crazy image what about the metal image? I don't know.
You worked with producer Karl Groom on several albums including Sonic Firestorm and Ultra Beatdown. Did he bring more of a prog element to DragonForce since he came from that type of background?
Karl really helped us. I went to Karl originally back when we did our demos because I was trying to look into what kind of production DragonForce should have and the closest I could relate to was prog metal. Yeah, power metal and like the Stradovarious stuff shared a similar kind of toneage in terms of clean production. I was going for that kind of thing because I know Karl's band [Threshold] opened for Dream Theater and that's how I knew the band and that's how we started. Later on of course now we produce ourselves more and more because I've really learned a lot in terms of production and how things work. He really helped us get the right frequency and the sounds and make sure everything is clean on the mix so people hear the instruments.
You've produced the last several DragonForce albums: is that a difficult to wear in being both the performed and the producer?
It is very difficult because you end up spending more time than you should probably. Myself I'm a guy who loves everything being perfect straight lines. I put stuff on my table in straight lines [laughs.] I'm sure the screens are perfectly aligned screen-by-screen for color changes to the three monitors, yeah?
That is so funny.
Yeah, I know. No one really asks me these crazy questions. Always people ask me if I got drunk the other night. So what happened on this album after I finished my solos I actually asked everybody in the band to email me to tell me if any solos sucked and what needed changing and what didn't sound right and I won't get upset. Later on I changed a few things and people thought that one should have been better. So as much as I'm insane I'm quite happy to listen to people's ideas that I respect.
Obviously the biggest change for DragonForce is the addition of singer Marc Hudson on The Power Within album.
We realized changing a singer could go three ways: you can stay where you are; you can go completely downhill; or you get bigger. I think every band face that challenge anyway when they make an album. We thought, Well, let's take the worst case scenariowe have to take a few steps back to move forward. So let's look at it that way. Because we write the music and Sam writes a lot of the songs including the vocal melody and the lyrics and the production, we haven't lost the composition or the production of the DragonForce sound. What happened is in a way we try to look at things positive and say, Well we got a whole world to look for a new singer. Back then of course we made great albums with ZP and we got lucky with ZP. He was the first thing we chose and the only guy we knew and that was it. But now we've got a chance to really kind of do something and take the band to a different level. And no disrespect to ZP's singing ability but when people hear the new album we definitely have more tones and ranges different on the vocal front now.
What were you looking for in a new singer?
First of all one of the most important things is the guy have to be able to sing the old songs and sing it great and give it justice. Because fans want to hear the old songs as well. We're not gonna be one of those bands that goes on tour and plays only the new songs and two old songs. It's not gonna be a completely different band. So while we were looking for the singer, we were writing the music together and we already had an idea that we were gonna make this the most dynamic album with different tempo changes in the songs. We needed a guy that could sing even lower and higher in both ranges so that was the criterion. And then there's that extra criteria unfortunately that we have to talk about is do we want a guy who's professional and who's been in a band and knows exactly what he's doing or are we going to pick the newcomer? Who hasn't done it before but what he brings to the band is he hasn't been on any other albums and when you hear his voice he's unique and he's on the DragonForce album. Oh, I've heard that guy. He's been on that album and in that band and that band. So that was a quite difficult decision on that because really we had a lot of great singers to choose from.
What were those first sessions like working with Marc Hudson?
We had only seen him about six times in the studio so we had to play together for a long time jamming and playing the new songs before we recorded them. Then you've got a guy in the studio who's comfortablewe know each other and we can record and be honest with each other and explore the possibilities. When you have a stranger sometimes you're holding back your punches. We were just trying to create great music and we were able to find that with Marc. We tried so many different things and he sang so many different styles and approach to the album for each song so it became a longer process. But all that jamming and playing together, which we hadn't done on the previous three albums because we basically had to write the music and go straight to record and then straight on tour. This time we can transfer the energy from playing together before going straight into the studio and record. So it's more organic I think the whole thing.
"So as much as I'm insane I'm quite happy to listen to people's ideas that I respect."
Wings of Liberty has various tempos and vocal styles. Is that an example of this new-sounding DragonForce?
Yeah, I'll give you some examples. Cry Thunder and Seasons are more mid-tempo kind of style, which call for a different kind of groove onto what we usually do. And the approach of the playing sounds very different because there's only how many solos you can do over 200 bpm [beats per minute]? We finally found out [laughs.] So yeah, I can learn a few more licks but it's still that kind of dynamic. So we had to break it up and do the different dynamics.
What about a song like Holding On?
That's one of your classic DragonForce that starts in the high range most of the time songs. But then you got the other stuff that fits in to show the other kind of stuff. You know it's kind of weird because people always thought we only can play fast stuff.
How would you characterize Fallen World?
Well Fallen World was where we had to do the other side of the game. So let's say we slow down some of the songs to have a different tempo so we have to go faster too. So we're pushing a different direction in the band's musical territory. We're not only going left but we're going right as well or whatever you want to call itup and down. That was the reason to make it more extreme with 7-string guitar, faster and a bit more aggressive on the vocals in the verses and stuff like that.
You touched on the acoustic version of Seasons. Certainly that was a different direction for the band.
Well the weird thing was it wasn't even meant to be on the album. Because we always thought, Well we're not an acoustic band. But what happened was we thought we'd make a bonus track of a song just an acoustic version and that was it. The labelRoadrunnerloved it and said, Can we have it on the album? Then we actually made n effort to record it properly. We got an acoustic bass and two acoustic guitars.
Hard to believe that you even own an acoustic guitar.
I don't want to namedrop someone but I have to anyway because it's kind of funny. I have an acoustic guitar in my house that's been sitting here and the strings on it are from 2006. Right? The last person that actually bothered playing that guitar was Gus G when we were touring together. So he was playing it on the tour bus because we were sharing a bus then. So I picked it up and said, We haven't changed the strings since I got this guitar. So that was the story of that acoustic.
You used strings from 2006?
No, I got rid of the strings but the strings were still on it from 2006. We definitely don't play acoustic very much.
There are some cool chord changes on Seasons.
It's cool that people realize it. Even though I don't care, I get sick of people saying every song sounds the same. I know they're gonna say that no matter what we do anyway but hey [laughs.] Actually not DragonForce but every band sounds the same if you don't care about them.
Who did the solo on Seasons?
Uh, I can't remember.
Last Man Stands had some of Vadim Pruzhanov's keyboards in there. How important are keys in the DragonForce sound?
On every single song we sit there while we're jamming or recording and we just basically look at every single thing: Do we like the sound on that? How does it fit with the key of the song and the rhythm guitars? The different kinds of pad sounds and these kinds of things.
You wanted each song to really stand on its own?
We really work on everything and the approach on this album is different. On the last album we threw everything into every single song so there wasn't a song that didn't have weird noises from the guitar or keyboards or Theremin or sudden drops. You can name it in the vocabulary of music. Wings of Liberty was meant to be the most important song while in Die By the Sword the keyboard really sits back to let the more kind of classic metal sound through. So I guess we learned something on this album on the dynamics on this album that we don't have to destroy everything with everything. Not destroy but really go full out.
Ultra Beatdown had a lot of stuff happening in each song?
Ultra Beatdown was every single gap had to be filled with something and that was the point of it. It's not that I don't like the album but the point of it was every song was long and there was a million solos and a million guitar noises and a huge production and everything.
In looking at some of the solos on The Power Within, who plays the solo on Die By the Sword?
Sam does the first solo and I do the second one.
Last Man Stands?
I play the first solo then there's a keyboard solo and then it's Sam and then it goes double leads again. I think it's Sam; I can't remember off my head.
I do the wah solos and Sam does the non-wah solo.
That was a terrific wah solo you played in Cry Thunder.
I'm glad someone liked it [laughs.] Actually I really liked the Die By the Sword solo and it's probably one of my favorite ones.
"We realized changing a singer could go three ways: you can stay where you are; you can go completely downhill; or you get bigger."
Why do you pick out the solo in Cry Thunder?
I guess it's because we're playing a solo over something that isn't fast. We do less of those and I really the bends and the simplicity and there's really no shredding on that solo. It's just the bends and the vibrato that we concentrate on. My view and maybe this is unrelated but maybe is but the way I view guitar solos now is it wasn't cool 10 years ago but apparently it's really cool now to be shredding. Everyone is going doodle doodle doodle [mimics a fast shred lick], sweep sweep sweep, four-finger taps, which is cool. We have to not stop doing it but we have to pull in the other side that we talked about: Gary Moore and the blues guys. Jeff Beck and those [string] bends and we have to go a bit more into that too to make sure we don't lose what's important, which is the bends and the vibrato. I try to explain sometimes to people that those are actually harder to do than a sweep [laughs.] A really nice vibrato, oh man!
That is so encouraging to hear you acknowledge that developing a truly unique and lyrical finger vibrato is maybe the hardest thing for a guitarist to accomplish.
I think it just takes years to develop that right bend or however they're gonna do it or approach it. I think it actually takes longer to develop that. I always loved that kind of stuff but sometimes you forget when you start playing and you just wanna shred [laughs.] And also those notes that fit on that chord perfectly; those passing notes or that note you bend into that moves to the chord. It's really a vital thing. In DragonForce we always try to make the solos catchy at those moments than just going diddle diddle diddle [impersonates a fast meaningless shred riff.] Of course we love those too.
Was there an aha moment when you were first starting to play that you realized you were capable of great speed? When you said to yourself, I'm becoming a good guitar player.
Maybe I can explain it this way: I'm not a person who's over-confident. If you think you know, you really don't know. Me personally I think the more you learn, the more you realize the world of guitar is so big and you haven't really learned enough. There's not really a time that I feel I mastered anything. I think each album is just a snapshot of our lives and things change and people come out with other things and you go, Oh, that's cool and take some things from that. If I think I know then I think the music becomes boring because there's nothing to pursue.
Did the addition of singer Marc Hudson and the different approaches on The Power Within work for you?
I really think so. I mean I really like the album and this is the story on how I know that was a good album. We were mixing the album in December so I was flying from London to L.A. and I had a rough mix of the album and I put it on my phone. I was sitting on the plane and I was thinking, Oh, my god. Am I gonna listen to this? I'm scared. Honestly I was sitting there and I was watching movies and I go, Oh god. Do I wanna listen to this? I've been working on this album for two years. And when I put it on I actually listened to it like five or six times non-stop in a row. And then I realized, Yeah, we made a great album. Because hearing it for that long and hearing it now I still love it to be able to have it on loop it means something to me. Because sometimes you spend so much time on it and you're so close to it it's hard to tell. After doing this promo trip the feedback has been really phenomenal. So I think we've really done a lot on it. I think one of the main things on this album that we captured also was the energy of the band; the live energy. Even though we spent a lot of time on it, we didn't spend it just recording in the studio. There was a lot of jamming and playing together and that really shows and that's why I like it a lot.
You must be looking forward to touring with Marc Hudson.
That will be fun because with the new songs it will be a different dynamic on the setlist. The old songs were all seven minutes and eight minutes and with the songs on the new album with different tempos we can do a different kind of show.
Have you ever had brain freeze onstage at the beginning of a tour when you simply can't remember how a song goes?
It has happened and sometimes your mind is completely in a blank space. I think I get that on videos. One thing I really need to practice is being confident sitting on videos where they're saying, You've got to play this and that. You put a video in front of me and I don't even know how to play The Flames chorus or something. It's weirdyou learn to play live and in a band with your friends but you never practice to play in front of a camera in a room. It's the missing puzzle of everything. You never sit there and practice just filming yourself. Maybe now you do as the YouTube generation but I never had a camera to film myself. So every time people would put a camera in front of me I'd go, Uh, I don't know how to play that and you're really being judgmental and I'm really getting nervous. So that's one field I have to learn and it's like everyone has different things to learn. But I get a complete blank and I don't know what's going on.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"We were trying to create great music and were able to find that with Marc."