INTERVIEW: DragonForce’s Herman Li & Sam Totman

IK Multimedia's MODO BASS

The mighty DragonForce have always brought the epic energy, triumphant power-metal riffage, anthemic choruses and intense shred to their work, but what makes their new album Maximum Overload stand out a little from the rest of their catalog is their willingness to step outside of their established sound just far enough to keep it fresh. Vocalist Marc Hudson has well and truly settled in now (he joined prior to the recording of previous album The Power Within, and Trivium’s Matt Heafy contributes his vocal power to three tracks as well. And for the first time DragonForce have worked with an outside producer, Jens Bogren, who has also produced, mixed or mastered the likes of Soilwork, Symphony X, Pain of Salvation, James LaBrie, Devin Townsend. Throw it all together and you have Dragonforce’s biggest-sounding album yet.

DragonForce’s guitarists were initially split on the idea of using an outside producer, even one as respected as Bogren. “I actually didn’t want to, personally, because we’d produced all our records before,” guitarist Sam Totman says. “We’ve always sounded good so why should we use a producer?” And Herman [Li, co-guitarist] was like “Nah, we should try something new” and I was like “What if it sucks and it’s worse than the other albums?” So we had a little bit of arguing about that. But now looking back on it I’m really glad we did, because even though I think all our other records are really good, at the same time because we’ve been on our own for so long we could end up getting stuck into a hole without even realising it and getting behind the times.” For Herman it was a chance to focus more on the guitar work. “We learned a lot from someone who was actually a pro, and the approach was definitely different in that I don’t have to worry about all the production, checking the other peoples’ stuff, making sure everything is done,” he says. “So that was easier for me. It’s probably the easiest album I’ve made. It’s the least drama I’ve had to deal with, so I can just worry about playing properly.”

DragonForce-Maximum-OverloadThe DragonForce songwriting style is very distinctive and it remains intact on Maximum Overload, even if the sonics are a little more euro-metal. “I just like fast music,” Totman says. “I still am. I was raised on death metal and I always liked that typical drum beat we always use. I would listen to a Slayer album and I would like the fast songs, but the slow ones not so much. The speed of it came from that. If you take one of our songs and just listen to the rhythm guitar it’s actually quite thrashy, so that was the basis for it. Then the melodic stuff comes from Iron Maiden, those guitar harmonies and stuff. It’s basically Iron Maiden sped up, and all the solos are everything I ever listened to. Even if you listen to hard rock bands they’ve all got great guitar players – Paul Gilbert, Andy Timmons, those guys – and they definitely can play faster than us, it’s just not so constant, I guess!”

As for the growing diversity in Dragonforce’s sound, Herman says; “I guess a lot of people ask me ‘What do you play at home?’ I don’t play everything fast. Maybe when I was 16, 17, 18 I just tried to be shred, shred, shred. But now when I’m at home I listen to different kinds of music, and now we actually get a chance to show a little bit more of that on the album. It’s a different approach to playing than to just shred.”

Trivium’s Matt Heafy contributes guest vocals on three songs on the album. “Yeah, it came about by accident,” Herman says. “We were listening to the songs and we felt we needed somebody else on the backing vocals, different more aggressive backing vocals, and it just came to our mind at that point; maybe we should ask Matt to do it. Me and Sam were afraid to ask Matt, actually, because we knew was on tour and he only had one week off so we didn’t want to ask him. So Fred [bass player Frédéric Leclercq] asked him. I guess it just reflects us; if we have one week off tour I’m not going to go in and record someone else’s album! But he did it.” Particularly attention-grabbing is the cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire.” Herman, what’s up with that? “It’s one of the really fast beats,” he says. “It’s got lots of energy. I really like it. Of course the song got changed to a minor key and things like that. Y’know, I’ve never really liked doing covers but that was cool. Sam did the demo. I get to use a slide on the solo, at the end of the solo. I just couldn’t think of where else to put it. We’ll probably be playing that on the tour.”

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At the heart of the album’s guitar tone is a surprising piece of kit: the BOSS GT-100 multi effects unit. Previously the band’s sound has burst forth from the Rocktron Prophecy, but this time the BOSS won out. “It’s just a more powerful unit,” Herman says. “The Prophecy has got a really good sound but it didn’t have the effects I needed. I need harmonisers, I need a slicer, I don’t want to plug another thing in the loop now so I’ve got a slicer in the GT-100, and I can send a MIDI signal to change the BPM of the system and change the timing of the delay, so I don’t have to program in different delay settings for every song any more.” Guitar-wise, Herman mainly stuck with his signature Ibanez E-Gen models, including his LA Custom Shop 7-string version. “It’s basically the same guitar, same pickups but seven strings, and a chameleon finish. It’s a really nice guitar. I got two of them built based on the old Ibanez 540S7 back when they had really thick necks. One of these models I got from 1991. I brought the neck to LA and said ‘I want the same neck but 24 frets.’ Li has also started using the tremolo-stabilising Zero Point system, a feature of the E-Gen’s bridge that he had previously removed – until playing one of Steve Vai’s guitars with a different-but-similar-idea stabilising system and realising the benefits.

Totman’s guitar tastes aren’t as specific as Herman’s: “I love Ibanez guitars. They’re really nice to play, but apart from that I don’t have much knowledge about guitars at all. Pickups and stuff, I wouldn’t have a clue. So I said to Herman, ‘I don’t know about gear and sound and stuff, just tell me what’s good.’ So I’m using the signature model that Ibanez was nice enough to make for me, and that seems to do the job. And I did use this other guitar. We got a 30-fret guitar off Ibanez so I used that, and we’ve got some seven-string stuff on there so we’ve got an RG seven-string too. That’s as far as my knowledge on guitars goes!”

Maximum Overload is out August 22 via 3Wise Records.