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Musikmesse Presents: Herman Li (DragonForce)

Dragonforce gitarist Herman Li zette zichzelf in twee klappen op de kaart. Eerst was er al dat overweldigende eerste album, maar even daarna werd het nummer ‘Through The Fire And The Flame’ gebruikt in Guitar Hero, waarbij je het allerhoogste niveau gehaald moest hebben om met hem mee te mogen spelen. Sinds die tijd wordt hij erkend als één van de meest sensationele gitaristen ter wereld. Met zijn E-GEN signature Ibanez, zijn goed verzorgde kledingstijl en zijn krankzinnige gedrag op het podium is hij altijd een feest om te aanschouwen. Dat inspireerde de organisatie van Frankfurt Musikmesse, gehouden van 5 tot en met 8 april, om hem uit te nodigen voor een demonstratie in de “Blood Sweat And Tears Box”, waar hij tijdens dit interview ook opmerkelijk goed over ingelezen blijkt te zijn. Een perfectionist, die niets aan het toeval overlaat en die bovendien een nieuw album uit gaat brengen, die we dus graag over deze twee feiten wilden spreken. We beginnen met het album.

Door: Ramon | Archiveer onder heavy / power metal

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band imageWelcome to Lords of Metal, the reason I interview you is because of your contribution to Frankfurt Musikmesse and your new album. Let us start with that. What can the fans expect from the new album, in terms of novelties?
You know, it is a continuous evolution of the band. Obviously, I play in the band, so I heard the new material loads of times. The most reflections I’ve gotten on it is that it is a new definition of the band, in terms of variety. But that is coming from other people, everybody should listen for themselves and not my biased opinion. We have moved on and added more elements to it. And don’t worry, Dragonforce still sounds like Dragonforce at the same time.

Well, maybe you are biased, but on the other hand you are the one closest to the fire, so your opinion too is valuable to me. Does the title ‘REACHING INTO INFINITY’ mean it should immortalize the position of the band in the book of heavy metal?
Not really, it is really about the music and the way we see music, especially when we play. Metal music itself can be infinite, it can reach so many ways, to so many different people. You can listen to music and kind of forget where you are, you know? The album cover is actually translated into the escapism, how music can provide a getaway from the crazy world we live in. Sometimes you just want to pop your head in, listen to music and forget about all of this for a while. You can either run into a gym, or on the bus and listen to music, you know.

Do you always try to make music that is appealing for people that have never heard Dragonforce before, or do you bear the image existing fans have of you in mid a bit?
No, we don’t keep anyone in mind, to be honest. We don’t write music for imaginary people, that we think would exist or maybe will exist later. We just try to make the best album possible and see who likes it, who share the same, similar minds as us, when it comes to music taste. We make music we want to hear.

From a small distance, there seems little room left for growth in your playing and in your band. What is the biggest challenge for you nowadays as a musician and a composer?
I think the challenge is to… I don’t know if you would call it a challenge, but I enjoy the challenges (laughs). The challenge is always to learn the new stuff. Not just in playing the guitar, but everything about being in the band, being a professional musician, doing better and more exciting shows, understanding your own light shows, how to make it better, how to make your band sounds better on stage for the audience. Everything is a challenge, it is a continuous evolution in improving yourself, the more shows you do, the more you play, the more you learn, as a musician and as a band. Everybody has to have his face in the same direction, though

Yes they have to, but you as a band leader can sort of decide the direction you will go ultimately, right?
Well, you know, I think the sound of Dragonforce is a very strongly crafted over the years, put together in a way that all in the band understand that, like “that is the direction”. I believe there is always still room for adding more things to it, though.

Isn’t it also a challenge to not get carried away in the music in a way that nobody can relate to it anymore?
Maybe, maybe not. The good thing is that we write more than one song on one album. So you can do different things an balance it on the songs on the album. If you have a ten minute song, you are not going to make another two songs of ten minutes.

How many songs did not make it on the album, then?
Every song we write makes it to the album, otherwise the song just doesn’t exist (laughs)

Brilliant! So you work on it until you like it, or else you throw it away?
Yeah, there is no point in making a crap song and the be recording it. There’s a lot of effort in recording a Dragonforce song, with all the instruments. So if we like a song, but don’t really like the chorus, we just re-write the chorus until we do. At least in my mind we don’t record bad songs (laughs).

When you first came in with ‘Valley Of The Damned’ you sort of shocked the world and you were the talk of the town. Later on, you got exposed AGAIN massively thanks to video games, such as Guitar Hero. How important have they been for the awareness of the band, you think?
The video games have brought us a lot of haters, lovers, fans that stayed, fans that left and also money (laughs), popularity and we got more known. It brings out everything with a double edged sword. We did not make the game Guitar Hero, the song was written two years earlier, so we were not in control of the situation. When it exploded out of our control, we could not do anything about it and just embrace whatever madness it created for us, yes.

I just found out you are in fact a Dragon Of Fire in Chinese astrology. Is that why you insisted on having that in your band name, apart from the Hong Kong background?
At first we just thought the name sounded cool.

Dragonheart it was initially, right?
Yeah, and then Dragonforce, and it actually sounded more crude and harsh, more powerful (laughs). It is just that, not specifically because I’m born in the year of the dragon, or anything like that. But now that you mention it, we have a dragon on the album cover now for the first time. There is a dragon on the cover of the DVD/Blu Ray we did a couple of years ago, but this is the first time on an album.

Do you consider yourself a citizen of the world nowadays, actually?
Yeah, definitely not your average guy from Hong Kong. I have learnt from so many cultures in Europa, in Asia. I learnt good things and bad things from around the world, I’d say (laughs). I think the world shaped me as a character. It is definitely a multi-cultural learning.

Is there an overall theme to the album, in terms of lyrics, or settings, or moods, stuff like that?
No, every song has its own lyrical theme. There is not one general thing for everything. Some are more happy, some are more fantasy, some are more story-based. The ten minute song is inspired on a story, but I am not going to say what story and give the game away. Hahaha, I actually can’t remember the name of the story, Mark knows.

You will be doing the Messe show in April before the album comes out, which is in May, but you have already begun touring and promoting it, right?
Yes. We will play songs of the new album before it comes out. So people hear those songs before it comes out. We are only going to play the songs people have heard through music videos, lyric videos, prior to the release. But I am not going to tell you yet which ones we will be playing exactly. Everybody wants that scoop, but the fans will get that scoop.

I would like to shift to Messe from here on. But good luck with the promotion of the album, from what I heard it will be worth our pennies. At Messe, you will be a special guest alongside Jen Majura (also Ibanez) of Evanescence, Jeff Waters of Annihilator and Steve Stevens of Billy Idol. Will you be looking at these shows too?
I haven’t seen the schedule, but Jen put the artist list through to me a couple of weeks ago. I was happy with it. I haven’t been to Musikmesse for almost ten years, it is actually the first time I’m free to do it. I have a freeze slot in that month. We have this “blood sweat and tears box” and we are going to be in there, sweating right in the people’s faces, playing.

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Do blow us away. How much different is it to play fairs, compared to other shows, in terms of interaction with the fans?
Yeah, the attention is on you, there is no one else with you one stage to take the attention away. So if you mess up, the attention is on you too, if you do something cool, they look at you only. When it comes to doing these things, I like to do the exact same things I do in a live show, kicking the guitar in the air, catching it, all that stuff.

Remind me to bring along a pool then!
Yes, if you bring along a pool, I probably end up using that too. That’s how it goes (laughs). We try to replicate something of the show and you get to see it up close and personal in the box.

This is not on my question list, but I remember I recently read this insane comment about you, there are people questioning if you are actually real in your playing, speeding things up or using backing tracks. How is that for a compliment?
I will be doing it. I read a few things like this online, also that someone off stage was playing it for me, because they thought it was too perfect. And I was watching the video above that comment and I caught myself making quite some mistakes (laughs). So whatever it was they were listening to, I don’t know, I didn’t think it was perfect at all, hahaha.

Are you that much of a perfectionist?
I don’t even know if other people notice it, but I always here when I make a mistake. If you push a little too hard, or when you are out of tune a little bit… but the difference is we are actually jumping and running around, so I don’t call those little imperfections mistakes.

Yes, it is all part of the game, right?
It is part of the show, if it sounds perfect, while you are running around, you are really super-human.

You come close, but stay human. Have you got any idea of what you will be playing at Messe and will there be stuff that people maybe are not that much used to from you?
I am not sure, I haven’t figured it out. I am considering doing a song that is not a Dragonforce song, but I do play on it. It is the only song I have ever been on that is not a Dragonforce song. What do you think, should I do it, or just Dragonforce songs?

I like Dragonforce better than Babymetal.
It may be the Babymetal song, but I would have to check with them first (laughs).

I have a hate-love relationship with them myself, when I think of it I think it is too conceptual, but when I listen, I must admit it is actually quite something, do you understand what I mean?
Yeah, but sometimes you have to listen to the music with your eyes closed and not see what people look like. It is actually better, because you are judging the music for the music, without all of the bullshit that comes with the music business.

I get that, so true. You will of course be sporting your signature Ibanez guitar in Frankfurt at the Messe, but how important do you think it is for brands to be at fairs like Musikmesse?
It is interesting. I heard people say that internet dominates it all now. But you can’t touch anything. A lot of the shops don’t stock the high-end guitars now, so the only way you can see what these high-end guitars are like is actually go to these events and touch it. The shops are not to order them if you are not going to buy it. So that is what it is really good for, to see what Steve Vai plays etcetera, really feel what the instrument is.

What do you think is the main purpose of Frankfurt Musikmesse?
I have only been there once, but these fairs in America is a place for musicians to come to and get drunk, while others are doing business. Musikmesse doesn’t have that status of people behaving like rock stars, it is more focused on the companies. And like the last question, fans can actually experience the brands. I am a low-risk guy, in a way that I want to touch and play a guitar first before I am going to buy it. Some people would buy a car without test driving it, I would never do that. And since Frankfurt is open to the public, Los Angeles is not, you can do that there.

If we would run out of topics, the entire interview could have been about cars for you, right?
Yes, absolutely!

Well, maybe another time. Do you think the “Blood, Sweat and Tears” box concept where you will be playing is appealing, opposed to a booth clinic?
I wouldn’t actually do the booth clinic if they asked me. There are just so many guitar players at conventions playing together that it becomes noise pollution. There is no point if you can’t hear anything. That is just me, my opinion. I did it once, In India, because the venue was flooded. Everything was broken because of the rain. And they said they would cancel it, but I just said “find me an amp, find me a table to stand on and I will playing standing on top of the table”. But that was different, it was crazy and fun, I was jumping from table to table with the wireless system on. Jumping on the sofas, jumping on the coach, on anything (laughs). But this new box concept is new for everyone, so we will find out what it is like.

Like I said, you are a famous Ibanez artist, but do you take time to look at other stuff too at fairs like Messe? Maybe effects, or amps, or stuff like that?
Errrr, I probably am going to say hi to a couple of friends around. The problem is that time goes by really quick. A ten minute trip easily become 30-40 minutes because of all the fans in the area. I can’t just walk from one place to another very easily. Not that I am Jon Bon Jovi or anything, but there are just not many tiny Asian guys with long hair walking around, so.

What does “EGEN” or “E-GEN” mean, actually?
It stands for “Electric Guitar For A New Generation”.

Everything on your guitar is custom, but you really made a point out of the bridge, didn’t you?
Yeah, I just try to create something that doesn’t break on tour. I don’t want to bring ten guitars on tour and break things all of the time. I have crowd-surfed, stage dived, people have seen me play under water with it. I would not recommend it, but you can do it, hahaha. I dropped my guitar time after time. So it is definitely tested during the creation of prototype, during the ‘Human Rampage’ tour.

A guitarist with your prowess and lust for adventure, it surprises me that your main axe has always been a six string, although there are seven strings for you available, or am I wrong?.
Yes, six strings have always been my main guitars, I have played some seven strings, it’s not my main thing. More Dragonforce songs are with six strings than with seven. We like standard tuning sound, to the pitch we hear, the key that we like to hit.

At the level you play now, who still inspire you?
I am still inspired by all the guys I’ve listened to for years. And if new bands or new albums come out, I always look out. I am looking forward to seeing Dream Theater, on the ‘Images And Words’ tour. It’s a re-tour, or I don’t know how you call it. I saw their ‘Astonishing’ tour, I thought that was the best tour I saw from them. I saw Steve Vai recently on the ‘Passion and Warfare’ re-tour. Is that a word, re-tour (laughs)? I like those shows, but I also like the newer albums. I saw Symphony X last year back at Wacken, that was fun.

We will be thinking of a proper word to replace “re-tour”, maybe.
Yeah, what do you call it, anniversary tours?

I guess that works. Are there any new stars you are keeping an eye on?
I don’t know what’s a star. I get caught in these things, but let me see, I’ve been listening to Circus Maximus recently on the plain coming over. I like all this melodic rock stuff, AOR, or whatever you call it.

What would be your most valuable advice to give to younger guitarists?
Always enjoy what you are playing. There is nothing more to it than that. You should play what you enjoy.

How many guitars do you currently own?
More than a hundred. I lost count, but last time I counted it was about one hundred and it is more now. Maybe I should get rid of some, give it away to people who need it, or need the money. Something like that.

What is still left on your bucket list as an artist?
I think on top of my list is improving what I am already doing. I kind of understand why people are looking for new hobbies and seek for new challenges and learn new things. That in itself, learning new stuff. I wish I knew what I know when the band first started, I would have put even more into it, but that is just reality.

How many hours do you play to stay in shape?
I have a lot of breaks. Sometimes I don’t play for a few weeks, depending on what I am doing. If I am working on an album, or focusing on putting a tour together, I sometimes put it on the side for a while.

What is you career’s highlight?
For myself personally, is ten years ago, ten years and probably a month and a half ago, when I got to play with Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Paul Gilbert, Tony Macalpine, some of my favourite guitar players. I got invited to play with them. They flew me out to Los Angeles back then, to play at this Steve Vai party, to play with these guys. That was an AMAZING thing for me back then.

That sure was an acknowledgement, wasn’t it?
Yeah, it is still now. I’ve played with Steve a few times since and I am always, well not always as nervous, but there is always something about it, because it is so cool.

Last Messe question: do you think you will schedule moments after the show for the audience?
It depends on the show. I believe we are working on something, but I can’t tell you right now, I hope we can.

I give you the honour to close the interview down for both our metal audience and the visitors of Musikmesse
Yes thank you, I got one more interview coming up for Lords of Metal and… Oh wait, you are from?...

I am from Lords of Metal, yes
Oh I am sorry, I lost my mind in this busy schedule.

That is okay, I AM now talking to Alexi Laiho of Children Of Bodom, aren’t I?

Yep, sounds like him!
I met him loads of time, but I never had a conversation with him. Thanks for your time and hope to see everyone out on tour and at Musikmesse. All the best, take care.

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