INTERVIEW: Dragonforce’s Herman Li

It’s always tough on fans when a singer leaves a band. Sure, Van Halen did fine with Sammy Hagar, and AC/DC didn’t exactly flounder when Brian Johnson joined, but there’s always that moment of “Oh jeez, will this work?” Post-Lane Warrant, heck, even post-Hagar Van Halen – there’s lots of scope for a misstep. Well the new Dragonforce album, The Power Within, will immediately shut up anyone who expects the band to lose some of its edge following the departure of ZP Theart. About a year after Theart walked, Dragonforce announced they’d enlisted Marc Hudson as their new voice. And what a voice. Dragonforce still sounds like Dragonforce, but even more musical, more powerful and more exciting. For a band who dishes out killer riffs and impossible guitar licks as easily as walking, kicking it up a notch is quite a feat. But The Power Within delivers.

Hi Herman! We haven’t met before but I remember you kicking around on the Jemsite forums back in the day.

Oh yeah! I still go to Jemsite. It’s got good information.

It’s been great to see forum regulars like you and James McIlroy (Cradle of Filth) going on to such big things. 

Yeah! Actually James gave me the contact with Ibanez to get my deal!

No way! 

Yeah!

Well, first question: What did the switch to Marc bring to the creative process?

With the switch of singer we definitely turned the whole recording process, the rehearsing, the whole band thing upside down and changed everything around. I think it was going to happen anyway, because after we finished the last album I wanted to really look back at the ten years we’d been doing the band – y’know, how we did it, how we wanted to change things, how we could make it better. So for this album and the recording process, I suppose I can almost say it’s completely different from the last album, the last two albums.

I understand you even jammed together on ideas for pretty much the first time.

Yeah! Instead of the old days, especially the last two records, because it was such a rush then… When we finished the Inhuman Rampage album, our third album, in September 2005, we were still touring for the previous album. So it was all about going into the studio, writing the music, recording it and then, guess what: you’re going out on another tour for the previous album. But this album, we got the time to play it together and transfer that energy with which we play the song into the album. So it’s not like just going into the studio and coming out with an album. We had to integrate Marc into the band. It’s not just Dragonforce plus a singer. He’s actually in Dragonforce. This is definitely the great thing on this album: we were so open, so there’s no bullshit about upsetting anyone here. We talked about the music and said ‘ We don’t like that… we like that.’

The press release mentioned that you’re all relishing the chance to work with someone who’s open to everyone’s ideas instead of just trying to get their own across. 

This is definitely the great thing on this album. We’re so open. There’s no bullshit about upsetting anyone here. We talk about the music and say ‘I like this, I don’t like that.’ With Marc we tried so many things, many different vocal approaches, different ideas, and merging them together, all for the goodness of the album. For the music. The art.

There’s a particular feeling I get from this album in that it reminds me of all those great Shrapnel records, except the vocals on this actually sound the way those albums sound in my head – which is not how they sound when I actually listen back to them.

Haha. Yeah. I don’t know how many Shrapnel records I’ve got, but it’s a lot! I guess people might get confused because we play a lot of solos, but really everything in the song – all the solos, the leads – they’re worked out way after we’ve got the singing down. It’s got to be catchy before we put it in. So then it’s not just about playing simple chords and soloing over it later! So it’s definitely concentrating on the music first.

Another thing that’s very unique to Dragonforce is that kind of upbeat, powerful vibe. It’s like caffeine for the ears.

Of course we’re known for playing fast, the 200bpm stuff, but on this album we also went down to some midtempo songs, and in between. We also have a song which is faster than all our other songs. It was a way to make the music dynamic and explore the voice of Marc, because he definitely has a really wide range from low to high. And we wanted to use all the ranges to put forward the theme of the song.

Any cool new guitar tricks this time around?

Well, fans don’t need to worry. We definitely have all the fast stuff. But on this album, it’s not like the old album where we threw in all the whammy bar tricks, sweep picking, taps, whatever, into every song. This time each song has its own theme. And on this one we tried to approach it so that every note fit every chord really nicely and created the right tension and the right feel. So we’re kind of going slightly against the scene. Because everyone is shredding now – y’know, eight fingers on the neck, six, seven, eight strings, necks left and right, loads of stuff – but I think notes that sit on the chords and that move and bend into the right chord, we go a bit more into that. Exotic bends and all that kind of stuff.

Joe Satriani recently said in an interview that everyone makes weird sounds so much these days that he’s become really selective about when he uses them.

Yeah. I think the one thing that’s a lost art at the moment is vibrato and bending. Satriani told me the same thing once, that if you play a sweep where you pick every note you sound more the same than if you bend, bend bend. So I actually got one of the ideas from him on a song called Die By The Sword, I really concentrated on the right note, the right bend. There’s no sweeping or tapping or whatever.

WHAT?!?

Yeah! Bending, holding the bend up and down – it’s Andy Timmons-ish. Stuff like that.

You hear stories about David Gilmour sitting in front of a strobe tuner in the studio so he could get those sweet bends to be right on pitch.

On the last album we got a little obsessed with sitting there with the click and the music and trying to play every lick perfect. This album we promised each other to not do that. And I can hear things that aren’t perfect. On this album we tried to approach it that way so it was more organic than our last album, where I was sitting there trying to get every sweep perfectly timed, and tried to get even the noises of moving the chords away.

Your Ibanez EGEN signature line is great. Any new models you’ve been working on?

I have a seven-string version with the same DiMarzio pickups, and it’s got a violet chameleon finish so it changes from violet purple to green. So that’s a cool thing. We also have a seven-string Ibanez RG but the seventh string is fretless. I’ve got one like that with a Roland GR-55 synthesiser attached to it. So that’s a cool little thing! You can almost do slide on it because it’s got no frets. That’s pretty cool. Those are probably the really weird ones. And the Ibanez 30 fret limited edition one [RG2011SC]. So we’ve got that on some of the solos, because we needed to harmonize. In the old days we’d have to tune up the string but now we’ve got 30 frets to do the high harmonies.

What amps are you using? 

Pretty much the same as the last album but we just tweaked it up a bit. Rocktron Prophecy 2 preamp with a Mesa Boogie 2 Fifty power amp. And then there’s a bunch of pedals attached to the Patchmate 8.

Any cool pedals? 

Well the Roland GR-55 synth, that’s pretty cool. It’s got lots of wacky stuff, that. But pretty much the same: the rack wah, the Hot Hand – you know the Hot Hand, the Source Audio thing, with the ring attached to the finger. So we’ve got a MIDI controller of that as well, so if you’ve got anything MIDI in your rack you can control that as well.

Everyone always wants to know: any chance of a solo album one of these days?

Y’know, I’ll talk about it with a few friends, actually. So maybe I’ll get the time to do it, maybe not right now. Maybe.

Do you have a whole bunch of songs written that don’t fit Dragonforce?

The energy goes pretty much into Dragonforce, really. If I do it with friends it’s a lot more fun, because you don’t want to sit there alone programming drums. It’s not really musical. I want some guy to trade off guitar solos with and do harmonies with. Maybe if it happens it’ll be in about a year or two.

The Power Within Is Out Now