Dragonforce Begins the Final Leg of Its Ultra Beatdown tour in Sacramento

The name Dragonforce conjures imagery that’s both epic and impossible. Luckily for the British power metal outfit, their music lives up to that fantastic billing. Though many people became familiar with the group thanks to the inclusion of “Through the Fire and Flames” on Guitar Hero III, the band had been amassing a strong following through more traditional means for around seven years prior by touring the world over and scorching faces of live audiences with flashy fret board acrobatics and an exuberant stage presence.

Herman Li stands at the center of the Dragonforce firestorm. Born in Hong Kong, the talented guitarist is more than a mere shredder. He also works as the band’s producer and, as Submerge found out in a recent interview, pretty much whatever else he can do to help keep Dragonforce roaring along.

“We’re still a young band, but we’re trying to learn all the skills possible so that everything we make, we make by ourselves,” Li says. “Dragonforce, even in this state as a big band, we do everything ourselves as much as possible. We have artist control and no one can take it away from us.”

Li’s work behind the scenes of Dragonforce probably goes unnoticed to many of the band’s fans—not surprising considering his work on the guitar is worthy of the spotlight, which he shares with fellow guitarist Sam Totman. Listening to the band’s music, it would seem that Li and Totman were cut from the same cloth—perhaps even destined to play music together given their shared penchant for blazingly fast, yet rapturously melodic, leads. However, Li states that the two of them are perhaps a bit of an odd couple.

“To be honest, the first time I met Sam, I was thinking, ‘What the hell is this individual?’ I’d never met anyone so strange and bizarre,” Li says of his first impressions of Totman. The two traded licks as guitarists for the black metal flavored Demoniac before forming Dragonforce.

“He was walking down the street, dragging this really beat-down guitar along the ground, like he was walking a dog that he didn’t care about,” Li goes on to say. “He had loads of beers in one hand, and a guitar he didn’t care about in a soft case dragging on the floor in the other. I thought he was a bit of a loser, to be honest.”

However, in spite of, or perhaps because of, their differences, Li and Totman clicked musically—a connection that has only grown stronger over the years.

“From years of playing, we’re getting better and better,” Li says of his working relationship with Totman. “We’ve been playing a long time”¦ Most of the time, we pretty much know what the other is thinking.”
Dragonforce is currently loading up for one more trip to the United States in support of Ultra Beatdown, the band’s fourth album and follow up to the band’s breakthrough Inhuman Rampage, which featured “Through the Fire and Flames.” The final leg of the Ultra Beatdown tour will start right here in Sacramento on Sept. 15.

Do you have any rituals or exercises you perform during downtime to keep up your guitar chops?
I don’t believe there is downtime. There is always something you have to do for the band. It’s a full-time job. I’m trying to learn how to get some downtime these days and stop doing things and stop thinking about that. I’m just practicing like I used to: playing with a click, slowing down everything and speeding up slowly. I’m also practicing standing up, because I won’t be performing any of these songs sitting down. I have to stand up all day if I’m going to practice, because when you’re standing up, the whole angle changes.

I heard a recent interview with you where you said you improvise all your solos, but Sam writes his down. Over the years, how has the way he goes about his guitar playing affected the way you go about yours and vice versa?
I think the most influential guitar players for Sam and I are each other, because we work together on the songs so much and the guitar playing and the ideas how to do these solos and these leads and the production, we definitely inspire each other’s styles a lot. You can hear a lot of things that Sam’s doing that I do, and I do a lot of the stuff that he does. There’s no way to stop that. I guess it’s just a natural progression from working with each other for so long. We’ve done four albums now.

I read an older interview with you—about five years old or so—where you said the band wasn’t fond of recording. You said, “We consider it homework.” Has your opinion of recording changed? If so, how or why?
The recording is hard work. When we do an album, we’re in a total different zone. I think if you look at us while we’re recording, you don’t even recognize who we are—personality-wise. We’re really, really serious to make the best album possible. We wake up in the morning, start making the album and go to bed. That’s how serious we are when we’re making music. When we’re on the stage, we’re just having fun. We’re serious about making a great show, but it’s much more relaxed. When you’re recording an album, it’s set in stone, and you can’t really screw that one up.

The guitar work always seems front and center in Dragonforce songs, but I always found your lyrics and melodies are the things that keep me coming back to the songs. It’s what makes them memorable. Do you spend a lot of time on the lyrics? Is that vocalist ZP Theart’s territory or do you and Sam write the lyrics also? What kinds of things inspire your lyric writing?
We spend a lot of time on the lyrics and vocal melodies, more than anyone thinks. Everyone thinks we just sit there and play solos all day and slap a couple vocal lines and lyrics and that’s it. Actually, we spend more time on that than we do on the guitar. The guitar solos are the last thing to record on the album, believe it or not, and we spend months and months on these lyrics and vocals to make them as perfectly fitting as possible.

The subject on it is pretty much what happens around us. A lot people might think that the name Dragonforce means that it’s fantasy, but a lot of the stuff, maybe it’s not obvious in the writing, it’s not totally explicit, it’s hidden in there, but we write about what’s going around us and what’s going on in the world—today’s society.

The upcoming U.S. leg of your Ultra Beatdown tour is kicking off in Sacramento. Any reason for picking the city for your America launching point or did it just work out that way?
When we played there last year with Slipknot and Disturbed, we got a really amazing response. That was a great show. We hadn’t played Sacramento before as a headliner, so we thought “Let’s put that in to start the tour, get warmed up and have some fun out there.” Because the fans there were really partying the last time”¦I remember because I got it on tape. That’s why we picked Ventura for the next city. Our last tour, we covered some places we hadn’t played before and we covered one or two on this tour too, because this will be the last Ultra Beatdown tour in the United States, so Dragonforce probably won’t be back until the next album comes out, and that will probably be a whole year. So if you want to see Dragonforce live, this is the time.

You’ll be touring straight through to the December holidays, pretty much. What do you hope to do once the touring for this album is over?
Once the tour is over, it’s hard work again. We’d like to film a DVD, and if we do, I guess I’ll have to spend the time editing it, since I don’t really want to let anyone else do it [laughs]. No one knows the Dragonforce show better than me. I’ve been playing it all this time, and I know what everyone is doing on stage. I know where the camera should go, and when. Like I said, artistic control. Dragonforce won’t let someone else do it. Then I guess we should start writing some songs and start getting ready for the next album. That should take some time, obviously, so we’ll find out what’s going to happen when this tour’s over. Lovely.