Interview: DragonForce Axe Master Herman Li Talks About New Approach On ‘Maximum Overload’

Power metal champions DragonForce are back with their latest album Maximum Overload, which further refines their style and introduces some new elements into the mix. I spoke with axe master Herman Li, as he told me about the new approach that the band took to recording this album, as well as his recent obsession with pinball. He also talked about his influences in the soundtracks of classic games, as well as his thoughts on modern gaming in general. Additionally, I also asked about that little Johnny Cash cover that follows at the end of the record…

Let’s get right into it. The new record is called Maximum Overload and almost sounds a bit reminiscent of your now iconic record Inhuman Rampage. What kind of album were you looking to make this time around? What did you want to do differently?

DragonForce - Maximum Overload

Well, with every album we make, there isn’t really any big plan or master idea behind it. We just write a bunch of songs that we think sound cool and enjoy playing! Of course they change a bit from the first demos to the final result, but yeah, that’s pretty much all there is to it. Of course, we don’t want to repeat the same ideas too much because there wouldn’t be much point in that; but we keep a lot of the main DragonForce things like the big choruses and fast guitars and fast songs in general. But there’s so many ways to write different choruses etc., that it’s not really a problem to find a new one! Having said that, there is definitely a lot of new stuff on this album that we haven’t tried before; mainly in the instrumental sections, but again that wasn’t planned carefully or anything. We just got a bunch of new ideas between the last record and now and that comes out in the songs, I guess!

Tell me about the writing and recording process for Maximum Overload. How long did the writing process for the record take, and where did you record it? What was the atmosphere like during those studio sessions and did you run into any issues during the writing or recording processes for your album?

The writing was actually a bit different for the first time since the band began, because on all of the other records, I would write most of the songs on my own apart from one or two on each record. So by the time we got to the last album (The Power Within) it began to take a very long time to be able come up with new stuff, so I teamed up with Fred the bass player this time, and we wrote all the songs together from the start which was actually pretty cool because in the past I was so attached to them and I didn’t want anyone to change anything at all. But because they were all a combined effort this time, when we got to the studio if anyone had ideas I was a bit more open to them, which was actually quite a nice change! Also having a producer for the first time (in the past we just produced the records ourselves) meant there was a lot less other work for us to do apart from the writing and playing. So yeah, compared to the last album the whole writing and recording process was actually a lot easier. Also we went to Sweden in a studio out in the middle of the countryside without even a shop for about ten miles nearby so that was kind of a nice change from what we normally do too!

As a guitarist, who would you say influenced you and made you want to start playing an instrument?

Well, I actually started playing guitar only because my parents said I had to play a sport or learn an instrument and I was pretty lazy, so I thought an instrument would be easier! So I didn’t actually particularly want to play at all… I did classical guitar (not sure why!) which I did enjoy a bit but I only really started to WANT to play when I got into metal music when I was about fifteen and then I guess I was just influenced by everything I was listening to at the time which was mostly Iron Maiden, Metallica and the usual stuff. I was really into a lot a thrash and death metal bands as well which all had a lot of great guitar players so I would sit at home and learn all those songs which I guess improved my playing and got me started!

As far as the band is concerned, what are some acts that you have looked to as inspiration? I’m actually hearing some Hammerfall on “Three Hammers” for example.

I think everything I have ever been into is probably some kind of inspiration to a bigger or smaller extent. The speed of our music I think mainly is because I used to love all the faster thrash and death songs so that’s why most of our songs are fast because I still really like that. I’m into loads of melodic hard rock bands, punk and pop punk so I guess our music is kind of a mixture of everything! But yeah, Hammerfall is definitely a great band and I love all that European power metal stuff and that’s definitely another influence for sure!

What was it like working with Matt Heafy of Trivium on the record? Do you think that you’ll do more collaboration like this in the future?

We met him ages ago, back in 2007 when we did a tour with Trivium and then again in 2012 because you always see the same bands at festivals and stuff like that, so we always kept in touch. We always thought they were a really cool band and they are all great musicians so we knew he would be able to do what we wanted pretty easily. The actual process was pretty simple though, we just sent him some songs and told him roughly what we wanted and he actually sent us even more ideas and stuff than we asked for. So that was pretty cool. He did a bunch of black and death metal style vocals which is something we have always had on previous albums but it was cool to have a real professional doing them. Then he did a few harmony vocals along with Marc’s lead vocal which turned out really cool too! We’ve never really had any guests from other bands before, but it’s definitely quite cool to hear someone’s voice that you know so well as part of one of your own songs, so I reckon we might well do that again!

As far as the lyrics on this record go, what is the focus? Where do you get your lyrical inspiration for songs like “The Sun Is Dead.”

I think with this record, it’s the first time that the lyrics are a bit more “obvious” as to what the song is about actually… In the past we tried to make them a bit more “poetic” (if that’s the right word) so that people kind of had to make up their own mind as to what the song was about, but with this album it is definitely more a case of, if you think the song is about THAT then it probably is!

We always write the lyrics after all the music is written, but something that we did this time which we’ve never done before was to have me and Fred listen to the music with our eyes closed, as we tried to think about what kind of images or story each song brought to mind. It sounds a bit hippie-ish, I know, but it actually kind of worked for us because for lots of the songs we actually came up with the same ideas, so that was kind of cool. As for “The Sun Is Dead” the music just somehow gave us this vision of an apocalyptic wasteland or something like that, so we tried to write some lyrics about that!

Your biggest hit would undoubtedly be “Through The Fire And The Flames” from the Inhuman Rampage record, due in part to the highly successful Guitar Hero series. But looking back on this song, do you think that it might have made the band a little bit of a flavor of the week? Did you honestly expect the song to blow up like that, when you first decided to include it with the game? How do you feel about playing it nowadays? It’s definitely your “Rock Me Like A Hurricane” though.

Yeah definitely, but I don’t know whether or not that’s a bad thing. I mean, I guess you could say we became the flavor of the week in “mainstream” society but it did mean we sold a shitload more records, which we wouldn’t have done otherwise, so you can’t complain! The only thing that was slightly annoying was that a lot of people thought we were only popular because of that game and would say, “Oh, that Guitar Hero band” but before that even came along we had already done sold-out tours across the US and Europe and played almost everywhere else in the world and had already done pretty well for ourselves! We still get a bit of that, but I think it’s actually pretty dumb because almost every other metal band I can think of has been on Guitar Hero as well, and Metallica even have their own special edition of it! But yeah, it was still cool to have a song like that become so popular in the mainstream society because the style of music we play is definitely NOT normally popular (laughs), although I find that kind of weird too, because it’s actually quite melodic and listenable. Twenty years ago when I was at school, death metal was about as underground and unpopular as you could get; but now you have lots of these modern death metal bands getting in the top twenty charts these days, so It’s a funny old world! But yeah, none of us in the band really consider that song to be any better than any of the others but if people wanna hear it, then I guess we`ll keep playing it!

What can fans expect with the five bonus tracks and the DVD on the special edition version of the record? Why weren’t these tracks put on the original pressing? Did you not think they were as good as some of the other cuts on the disc?

Well actually we just had so many ideas while we were writing this album that we just kind of ended up with that many songs! And we definitely didn’t write them to be bonus tracks, we just wrote them all to be equally as good as each other (although I’m sure not everyone will agree) so yeah, the bonus tracks are definitely not shitty or anything. It was more a case of trying to get the best running order of songs for the main album and the bonus tracks just didn’t seem to fit quite as well, but on their own I think they are all still really great songs!

I’m sure that you’ve done some wonderful tours in the past few years, but which of those might you say are your most memorable? On the other hand, what are some of the worst or most unfortunate experiences that you’ve had on the road? Additionally, what do you guys do for fun while on the road?

I think our first US tour was really amazing because there was such a buzz going before we even got there that every place we played was sold out! Everyone was just going totally crazy because I guess they had never really seen anything like us before, so that was a really cool time! Of course the shows were smaller back then but the energy was something you really can’t even describe! It’s always cool to play bigger and bigger places and think “Oh wow, people actually like us” but you can never beat that kind of first time feeling in a new place. I think the only bad experiences are usually when gear goes wrong or if someone is sick or something, because you feel like you’re not being fair to the audience that paid to come and see you, so it sucks when that happens; but we try our best to avoid it. For fun on the road we pretty much either sit around playing video games, getting drunk, sightseeing or trying to chat up birds. There are probably a few other things but those are the main ones (Laughs).

What do you guys do when you’re not playing in DragonForce? What are some things that you might recommend?

I guess everyone is a bit different but I don’t think anyone has any weird hobby or something that’s worth mentioning (chuckles) so it’s just the usual stuff like anyone else in the world. You know, drinking and partying, stuff like that. I’m actually really big into pinball at the moment, so I bought a couple of machines recently and I’m trying to get good enough to go to some competitions, but I don’t know if that will ever happen.

It’s obvious that some of your compositions have much to do with the classic era of video games. So what games from that classic (16-32 bit) era would you say are some of your personal favorite? Have there been any video game compositions that you could cite as direct inspiration to the DragonForce sound? Also, what do you guys think of modern gaming?

I actually used to record video game songs from mine or my friends’ computers onto cassette tapes and listen to them on my Walkman (showing a bit of age there, laughs). Some of my favorites were The Last Ninja and Last Ninja 2 (C64) Psychic 5 (arcade game) Bravestarr (Amstrad CPC) Ramparts (Amstrad cpc) … The last two were shit games, but the music was so good that I used to load them up just to listen to them! (Laughs)

There are definitely some pretty cool modern games out there. I really like stuff like StarCraft and Company Of Heroes is cool too. But I really hate it that a lot of games are just too easy and tell you where to go and stuff. I think it’s really stupid that when I just start playing something, it says “Why don’t you try that?” because I waited around for more than ten seconds on a level. After seeing that, I actually don’t even wanna continue playing it anymore. But I guess some people prefer it like that, so what can you do? (Laughs) I think that’s part of the reason I’m more into pinball now, because you can’t really cheat or look up the answers on the internet! I suppose it depends on what generation you’re from though. I still think that late 80s platform games are the best and nothing will change my mind!

Finally, there’s an interesting cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” at the very end of the disc, which is a beloved slice of classic country. Tell me a little about why you decided to cover this song and if you’ll be covering any other songs in the future.

One of the reasons we never did a cover in the past is that I had so many albums in my collection where bands I liked would do a cover for a B-Side or bonus track or something and 90% of the time they just play it pretty much in exactly the same tempo, with no real changes and I was like, “Well, what was the point of that?” I would listen to it once and go, “Ok it didn’t suck but it’s not better or any different than the original.” So we wanted to do a song that people could enjoy if they like DragonForce, even if they didn’t know or like the original. It just kind of came by accident to choose that song though. I was watching TV one day and it came on, but even though it’s a totally different style of music in terms of chord progression and in the tempo of the vocal lines, I could hear and instantly imagine in my head that it would work well as a super fast power metal song. Even though there have been a few covers of that song done over the years, I didn’t really care because there’s definitely been none that sound like this one! (Laughs) But it was pretty fun to do (and much easier than writing your own song) so maybe we`ll do it again one day!

Thanks for answering my questions, and best of luck on this album and with your tours! Hope to have some more questions for you around the date of the next album! – Eric

Pick up a copy of Maximum Overload here: iTunes | Physical

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