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Herman Li Is Coming To Get You. Mick Stingley's Excusive Chat with the Dragonforce Guitarist

By Mick Stingley, Contributor
Monday, August 25, 2008 @ 10:21 AM

"I think this album…is more epically triumphant then the last one."

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It is around 2:30 in the afternoon on Tuesday, August 5th at the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Tour, in Mansfield, Massachusetts. The sun is blazing down and the show kicked off about forty-five minutes ago at the side stages (Hot Topic & Jagermeister)... and I'm waiting in the press room/compound to be walked over to meet and interview Herman Li, the stellar guitarist from Dragonforce. The tour co-ordinator gets off the phone and nods to the small batch of rock-journalist types assembled to chat with the Dragonforce guitarist.

"Herman Li is coming to get you. He's going to walk you over to the tour bus and you can do the interviews there."

Huh. Kind of strange: usually, in situations like this, some publicist or tour manager is likely to handle this task.

The artist is going to come meet us and walk us over? Weird. And pretty cool, actually; most musicians can't be bothered or wouldn't know their way around a venue without benefit of handlers. Not always the case, but this was pretty rare and already gives some insight into the kind of person Herman Li is. At least for me, here's a guy clearly not hung up on the superficial pretense of being a rockstar. And, let's face it: Herman Li is a rockstar...

Ever since Dragonforce broke out in 2006 with "Through The Fire And The Flames" they've been dazzling people with their mind-bending guitar histrionics. Their sound is incredible: a mix of Iron Maiden, Children of Bodom... and, um, well, older fans must recognize the passing similarity of singer JP Theart's voice to Steve Perry (Journey, anyone?).

And the video game probably helped a little.

With time being something of an issue, I was able to sit down with Herman for a bit and chat. He is very gracious and charming; the Hong Kong born shredder is very articulate and self-deprecating. Sitting across a table in the front of the Dragonforce tourbus, the long-haired Li spoke about touring, writing and the new album Ultra Beatdown which comes out August 26 on RoadRunner Records and Tapes...

KNAC.COM: Can you tell me a little bit about the record and the writing process?

LI: We started, yeah... I think the album took about... (pauses) We finished it about two weeks ago, three weeks.

KNAC.COM: Is that right?

LI: Yeah. That... down the line we kind of worked on it. It took about less then half this year, so a year and a half to write the songs on this album. This last one; and about six or seven months to record. So that's the longest process we've done, you know, to making an album. Ever, yeah.

KNAC.COM: Do you all write together separately, do you come together to write an album?

LI: Write separately and then come together; then work it out afterwards. Very hard to start something with everyone together, we've got so many different ideas you know. You've got to start something... like a root; the basic... thing. And then we can work on it together. In demo stage and in album stage and then pretty much until the end, yeah.

KNAC.COM: What was the root, the genesis of Ultra Beatdown? Did you have a discussion about it?

LI: (laughs) We always say that we have to make it better then previously. You know, we keep our style that we've been building up all the way until now. That's what people like us for, and that's what we like to play; so we pretty much keep the style and improve it and improve it. And I guess this time compared to the last album which was I think we should compare the last album because it always is the closest to what we, in terms of timing of doing things. We didn't put any boundaries on it. "Sick! - Inhuman Rampage!" The last album we actually said we are going to make the album sadder, darker, you know not too happy and uplifting for some reason. Yeah, and this time we didn't really say that. So I think this album compared to, without going into details about the guitar, the keyboards are slowed down or whatever, is more... more... epically triumphant then the last one.

KNAC.COM: "Epically Triumphant?" (laughs) How do you personally categorize the music of Dragonforce- when people tend to hang different names on the kind of music you play-?

LI: Yeah - I would say that... to my ears - the best of metal and rock all combined into one…to my ears. So if they don't have my ears they probably think it's a pile of shit! Everyone thinks differently and at least what I'm thinking at least this style of music, like melodic singing and catchy songs, that's what we think is the best, the best combination. We try to put everything we think is good; like the guitar the drums. Everything we like to have, yeah, into one style and keep that one style into all the songs, because there's no point in making a compilation album. Anyone can rip off another style, you know, and just make... a thrash song, a death metal song, a black metal song, a hard rock song, a grunge song... whatever. It's not very hard, you know, to copy what is the existing style; but to have one style that everyone recognizes immediately as the band, that's the most difficult.

KNAC.COM: How significant was the video game in the promotion of the record? "Guitar Hero"...

LI: That's kind of a funny thing, because we actually finished the album cycle. The touring cycle in America in, I guess April, May last year. And the game came out in October of last year so it brought a kind of new life to the album like it's brand new again. The radio started playing, the TV started playing, it's like two album cycles with that one.

KNAC.COM: Are you concentrating on the new album at all for this tour?

LI: The album comes out the end of this month the 26th. So it's no fun playing live new songs that people have never heard of. We are only playing "Heroes of Our Time" because it's the single. Yeah...and songs that people know and recognize from the pervious album. So, technically we haven't really gone on to the next album cycle yet; not until the 26th of August.

KNAC.COM: What are the plans for after Rockstar Tour?

LI: We're booked until pretty much middle of next year with touring (laughter) So, you know; but obviously a lot of stuff is not announced. I pretty much know where I'm gonna be next May and next March and next June pretty much. Can't say more, though.

KNAC.COM: Fair enough. Will you be doing a headlining tour? Something to look forward to; a longer set?

LI: Yes, the headlining tour kicks off in the UK in like, a month after the albums out, and then Japan... Australia and all that stuff. There should be a US tour sometime.

KNAC.COM: Do you feel there is a different perception about the band elsewhere than in the US or North America? There seems to be a greater love for power metal outside of the US...

LI: Um... to be honest that game is out pretty much everywhere around the world, even Japan now, so... we've always had video game influences in our music, and I think the US knows a bit more about us on the video game side because, to be honest, video games are still big in the US and Europe. I think we have a lot of the fans that don't listen to metal, they're just like video game fans that listen to some music, and I think that's the main difference. Compared to the other countries.

KNAC.COM: Speaking of video games: do you have any favorites, video games? Do you play?

LI: I'm a nerd, I mean. What can I say? (Laughs) Um, yeah. We've got video game music influences because we play those games so much that this stuff is stuck in our head. I mean my favorite console is the PC engine... I don't know if people would know. Turbo Graphix 16 - we're going way back here - that was my favorite one when I was a kid. I've got all the consoles: I've got all, everything.

KNAC.COM: Do you have one here on the bus?

LI: We have like a 360, Xbox 360. I've got my PSP and I've got all my (emulator) games on my laptop, but I don't really play them on tour.

KNAC.COM: Oh you don't..?

LI: No time.

KNAC.COM: No time? Do you practice... out on tour?

LI: Only, well; I don't think I really do anything on tour, just kind of hang around and talk to people and kind of waste time... (laughs)

KNAC.COM: (laughs)

LI: But yeah; and I do some Jiu-jitsu training at the beginning of the day for like an hour and a half or something. Judo, Jiu-jitsu...whatever martial arts.

KNAC.COM: Is this the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu I've read that you're into?

LI: Yeah, do that just to keep myself healthy, and play a (unintelligible) guitar before I go onstage.

KNAC.COM: Do you drink Rockstar?

LI: Um... you might need to. When you're tired before a show, caffeine really does help make you concentrate. So, sometimes I just take a couple of sips, that does it for me, because I don't drink coffee or anything; so anything I do with caffeine, I'm like "Whoa! Wow!"

KNAC.COM: I read that you were born in Hong Kong... did you grow up with a music scene over there?

LI: Well, would you call pop music a music scene?

KNAC.COM: I don't know. Not me personally...

LI: Everyone likes music in the world. I think the only thing that stops…the only big difference between the different places is what's...what they can hear. You know what I mean? The choices of music they get to hear; and the smaller the country the smaller the choices are because the less people there are... different people, different things. You know, like in the US you've got way, so many different radio stations. You’re in the UK there are no rock radio stations; you'll never hear one. Yeah.

KNAC.COM: But you're self taught- no training whatsoever?

LI: Self taught training means training right, you know. I watched videos, and listened to CDs.

KNAC.COM: But you didn't go to school... people are so clearly mystified by you. What can you impart to aspiring guitarists about your playing?

LI: I think because I never had any training... so anytime I was playing guitar, I played what I liked and not what I was forced to play. So, in a way anytime I'm playing something, anything, I'm really learning because it's something I like. It's very hard to learn something you don't like. So, I think that really helped me to be natural with the instrument. People say: "Why do you play so fast?" I think it's because I feel the notes naturally without thinking about it. That's when you can play fast.

KNAC.COM: Are you influenced by any guitarists?

LI: Um, yeah. I mean loads. There are so many great guitar players and the only way to be good is to listen to so many players, different music. Beyond the guitar. I mean Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, all these guitar players. - I mean legendary guitar players obviously - played a big part in my life when I was (first) playing the guitar, and I still listen to those guys and I go "Wow this is amazing!" So, yeah.

KNAC.COM: Anything outside of rock/metal you enjoy, musically?

LI: Yeah, I mean... not really like, a genre that I like outside of rock. That I like. Mainly rock and metal but there are bands now and then from other genre that I like. I can't say I love that this or that genre or another genre.

KNAC.COM: What about jazz guitarists?

LI: Yeah like stuff like Scott Henderson. Kind of fusion, jazzy-fusion kind of guitar players. Which makes me think of it differently. I even see friends that play jazz and I talk music with them and play a little bit just to get different ideas. Can't learn everything. And that's one thing I did on this album actually, was to, um, meet up with some friends that I haven't seen in a long time; friends that are guitarists that have been to guitar school and studied their instrument, like every day, and we just kind of discussed it. And they actually said to me, "I can't really teach to how to play something different, you've been playing that long anyway." -and, yeah, I shouldn't try to change and play different. Because people recognize me for the choices of notes that I pick in the end, and the timing of it so... so it was just discovering yourself as well. And it's easy to think, "Oh maybe I need to change and do something different, because I've done it before." But you know you can change - but you still have to sound like yourself.

KNAC.COM: Regarding your songs and the music of Dragonforce... this epic quality, these long solos and song times. Have you ever considered shortening your songs for easier radio digestion? Has there been any call for that within the band, or from the record company? You know... "Hey, this is great; but can you make it like three minutes and twenty seconds?"

LI: They're gonna talk to a brick wall (laughs). I mean, they never really said that to us, you know, because you can sign those bands if they wanna. I mean they are available everywhere. Like short, three minute songs. If they want, you know, power-metal bands and short songs. There are shit-loads of them in Europe and everywhere, you know. They've got their radio edits so they're happy. People listen to Dragonforce because they can't get it from anyone else. If you start to dilute it... (smiles).

KNAC.COM: So you believe that what you do should not be trifled with.

LI: We do what we do.

KNAC.COM: You do what you do.

LI: We produce our own albums, so we can't even trust a producer. I mean we got Carl Broom who we work with; all the albums as part of the production. But he'll fight us in another direction because we know we always want more, more, more, more! Faster, faster, you know? More catchy. So each time... he helps us in different ways.

KNAC.COM: What were the biggest challenges on the new record?

LI: Finishing it! (Laughs) To accept that, that's good enough, it's the hardest thing. Because then, basically if you give us another six months before the album is done, it'll take another six more months to finish!

KNAC.COM: But are you happy with the album then?

LI: Yeah, I mean I'm happy with the album. To this finishing point now, it has to finish. I think you give us another six months, and we'd make it even better.

KNAC.COM: Sometimes when bands aren't happy with an album they put out a live record to show the changes or improvements. Any plans for a live record? So people can hear you do live what you do in the studio?

LI: Live would be different, I mean to be honest, I've never done one. It will be the new territory for me to go into. Boom, boom- start doing live stuff, you know. And people been talking about it and you know, I say, "Well if you want to do one you can do one, but it's not gonna happen until near the end of the album cycle." When we play about a hundred shows then you can do a live one.


LI: That's what the tours are for.

KNAC.COM: I saw you at Ozzfest... what did you make of that tour? Your first real big exposure to the US and US audiences.

LI: I met a couple of fans and I met other people who told me what people said, they said, “That's weird. I thought they were gonna suck." Because they read stuff on the internet they go, "This band sucks live," or you know, "I thought this was really good, I thought it was going to suck, I read it on the internet." I tell these people... people say our album is shit. People say we've got the most unmelodic, unmemorable song. You know, it depends on whose listening to it. Just because someone says that we're shit live, a hundred people, a thousand people will say it's great. So, who are you going to be listening to? We definitely divide the audience in love and hate; there's no doubt. Yeah

KNAC.COM: So what are you looking forward to with so many dates booked ahead? I mean, you say you're booked...

LI: Yeah...

KNAC.COM: Ten, twelve months ahead...

LI: Ten, twelve months... (laughs)

KNAC.COM: Will you be doing any guitar clinics?

LI: Oh, no time for that. I had just done a batch after we did the Inhuman Rampage tour. Right after two years so, um, you know, we just try to do a better show, improve the live show as the live show goes on it's going to get better and better. It's like a different... making an album is a different art than making a great live show.

KNAC.COM: Okay then. I know our time is limited. Anything you want to add?

LI: No! Absolutely not. LIsten to the music! And let people decide, for themselves. I could be talking absolute shit. So, that's pretty much that!

Ultra Beatdown comes out on Tuesday, August 26. Order your copy now in the KNAC.COM More Store Click here.

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