Interview with guitarist Herman Li | By Angela Kinzie

DragonForce’s eighth studio album, Extreme Power Metal, is due out Sept. 27 via Metal Blade Records. “People were complaining that we played too fast for a power metal band, so it’s like, ‘Well, let’s just stop these people complaining, because it’s not power metal, it’s extreme power metal!’” founding guitarist Herman Li explains in his easy, joking manner. “All bands need their own label; they think they’re unique and all that stuff, so—guilty.”

On defining the London band’s style, Li adds, “Some people call it ‘Nintendo Metal,’ some people call it ‘Journey-meets-Slayer’—I don’t really mind either way. It doesn’t really matter, but it’s kind of funny, because in the old days, you’d read a review in a magazine and the magazine would tell you what kind of music it is, but now, with streaming, it’s totally pointless for me to say what it is. […] It doesn’t mean anything anyway, because people would rather say whatever they want to think it is. The reason I say ‘extreme power metal’ is because it goes with the ridiculous style of the artwork. It’s a little bit of a throwback to the old days with bands and movies and these kinds of big titles.”

Celebrated as the fastest band in the world, DragonForce were formed in 1999 by Li and fellow guitarist Sam Totman. Over the 20 years since, the two have remained the only constant members, as DragonForce have seen multiple line-up changes, the latest being the exit of longtime keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov in 2018.

Keyboardist Coen Janssen was recruited for Extreme Power Metal. “Coen is from the band Epica,” Li shares. “They’re kind of like a classical, symphonic band. We worked with him very closely to bring the DragonForce sound and also his style into it. So, it’s still DragonForce keyboarding—you know, the video game sound. We have a bit more of a retro, synthwave [sound] in it as well, along with the big orchestra stuff.”

When asked about influences, Li lists “the best of rock and heavy metal mixed together, from ’80s hard rock to extreme metal, death metal, thrash metal, video game music from the retro era. We have kind of a poppy chorus feel as well, so we like songs that are catchy, that you can sing along to in the shower.”

“We tried to have more fun on this album, like we used to,” Li explains, “not just in terms of music but even recording the album. We recorded it with the fans, livestreaming the actual process of making the album—to make it different. So, all the parts that are on the album, people have actually heard, because we recorded it live on Twitch.”

“People actually saw me recording multiple versions of the guitar parts on the album,” he adds, “and then, I asked them, ‘Hey, which parts do you think sound better?’ and they’d give me feedback at the same time. Even writing lyrics. We were writing lyrics, and the fans were involved. […] We were doing it for literally six months I think, captured online, in front of the fans.”

“At the same time, [fans] saw the reality,” Li continues. “Sometimes, I have a good day, and sometimes, I have a bad day. On some sessions, I spent—I don’t know, like, eight hours, and nothing good came out. I just keep playing and playing and playing, trying to come up with something. Then, sometimes, you’re just killing it.”

In the band’s press materials, Li described Extreme Power Metal by saying, “This album again combines the best of DragonForce in an even bigger, more epic way than we have ever done before.” Contributing to this, is their cover of “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion. “DragonForce is all about big choruses,” Li reiterates. “That uplifting feeling, that majestic feeling—that song’s got a massive chorus, and we thought, ‘Hey, let’s do the DragonForce treatment and see what it’s like.’ I know some people have covered that before us, but no one has covered it like us. I swear!”

The platinum-selling “Through the Fire and Flames” from the band’s 2006 album, Inhuman Rampage, gained DragonForce international notoriety after being featured on “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.” “I mean, I play the guitar, so I don’t need to play ‘Guitar Hero,’” Li answers when asked if he can play the song in-game, “but I have played the first one on PlayStation 2, and the second one. Obviously, I’ve played the third one, because, you know, I got cocky when the game came out,” he laughs.

“No, it’s actually easier to play it on my guitar than on those plastic controllers,” he continues with a humorous air. “I think it’s fun, and if I play it—the first time I was playing, like, Eric Johnson’s ‘Cliffs of Dover,’ something I don’t play on guitar.”

A self-taught guitarist, Li explains, “I just learned from watching videos, live videos and instructional videos, [and] really just whatever books my friends had in school back then. I think that’s really defined a lot of the modern guitar players now on YouTube who are self-taught as well. Back then, there wasn’t as much material, and you really had to find it—and pay for it.”

“Pay for it may be the right words,” he laughs. “Now, you’ve got free material everywhere.”

“The first few years, I’d say I was [practicing] probably nine hours a day,” Li continues. “I don’t know, was there that many hours for me to do it? Before I’d go to school, lunch time, after school, before bed, that kind of thing. [That was] only the first three years, and then, it cooled down a little bit. Throughout my life, I learn different things and practice different things, in terms of guitars and music in general. So, now, I’m learning different things. I still practice, and I actually do a lot of those practices online on my livestream as well, so fans can see how I practice for a show. I try to [pass along] some knowledge but try to show people how I see things and maybe help them or inspire them to play.”

“I show people how I run around and play at the same time, how I jump and play at the same time, how I practice talking to the audience and playing at the same time,” he relates. “I do all kinds of weird things. The usual is just, ‘Here’s a scale.’ No one really practices jogging and playing at the same time or running in a circle. I’m just showing a different side. Like, if you can do that, trust me, you’ll play better, because standing still is actually much easier.”

Li pauses, then laughs. “I’m weird, I know.”

Purchase Extreme Power Metal here

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