November 26, 2014 Interview – Sam Totman & Herman Li of DragonForce
The Heavy Metal standard has long been lightening-fast guitar solos, aggressive vocals, and epic lyrical content. The UK’s DragonForce have proudly held that flag high since their blistering 2003 debut album Valley of the Damned. Laughing in the face of critics, the band helped bring the classic metal styling back to the mainstream now; producing four consecutively charted albums including 2014′s Maximum Overload. Dubbing themselves Extreme Power Metal, DragonForce take pride in their craft and show no signs of slowing down. Recently we sat down with founding guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman for a in-depth look at the history of the band, their love for Metal, staying true to who they are, and more.
CrypticRock.com – DragonForce has accomplished a great deal in a fifteen year career. You have released six strong studio albums, toured all over the world, and built a name as one of Power Metal’s elite bands. What has the ride been like for yourself and the band?
Herman Li – It has been interesting. A lot of people say we are the underdog. We play music that is not suppose to be big anywhere, with the guitar solos at the time. The guitar solos were not cool, somehow it is cool again.
Sam Totman – Yes, for me, I could not think of a more cool way to spend the last fifteen years. We really have had a total blast, went around the world and had a real cool time. We have made a lot of friends.
CrypticRock.com – It really has been an amazing ride. As you said, the form of music which DragonForce plays is not the most popular in the mainstream, it has come back in return years. The band’s sound is strong supported by the dual lead guitar work of both of you. Since you two have had the longest working relationship of any of the current members, how would you describe the chemistry you share as musicians and also as friends?
Herman Li – I do not know if we are actually friends (laughs). To be honest, Sam and I are so different in personalities that we actually never thought we would be in a band together for this long.
Sam Totman – We did not think we would be friends either. When we first met, we actually had nothing in common except for playing guitar. We liked the same music so we put up with each other (laughs). Obviously, now we have a lot in common since we have toured around the world and made albums together. As far as guitar playing goes, it is quite funny because we used to be so different. Now playing together for so long we have become a little more similar. I think we work well together since we do come from different backgrounds.
Herman Li – Yes, we possess different skills, so there is no one trending on each other when it comes to doing their part in the band.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, when working with someone long enough you are going to rub off on each other. Obviously you two complement each other well.
Herman Li – Yes, it is kind of funny, in the past before I met Sam, most guitarists only wanted to play rhythm guitar. They would let me play guitar solos, not because they like guitar solos, they just felt like they had to. They were not really on the same wavelength. Even though Sam and I are very different, from different backgrounds and completely different personalities, we do share the same common idea in terms of music of what we think is good and how it should be done. That is kind of how Dragonforce’s sound moves on to be, we had the same kind of ideas of what we thought was cool and was not cool.
CrypticRock.com – That makes perfect sense. As mentioned, you and Sam have been with the band since the inception. There have been some line-up changes over the years including the departure of ZP in 2010 and Marc Hudson taking over. Sustaining all the changes, do you feel the current line-up of Dragonforce has a strong bond that will have longevity?
Herman Li – Yes, it is pretty crazy. Sam and I started the band in the beginning. Our keyboardist has been in the band since the demo days. Our bassist has been in the band ten years. Right now we have been working together for a very long time. It is crazy how time passes, I just thought about it last month that Fred has been in the band for ten years. I thought he was only in the band for one or two years (laughs).
CrypticRock.com – (laughs). It is crazy how time flies by. Speaking of Marc Hudson, he did his first studio album as a member of Dragonforce on The Power Within (2012), two years later the band unleashes your sixth studio album titled Maximum Overload. What was the writing and recording process like for this record?
Sam Totman – The writing was the same as usual. We just go and write a bunch of songs that we think sounds good. We do not think about what the world wants to hear, we just do what we think is cool and makes us happy. In the past I would write most on my own, while some of the other guys might do two or three songs on the album, but I would end up doing most of them. That was kind of how it always was. This time around what was slightly different, Fred said, “Why don’t we try writing all the songs together.” We wrote the whole record together, for a start it made it a lot quicker. If I could not think of something for a middle part, same if he could not think of a chorus. We went and did a bunch of demos and ones which came to an acceptable level we went into the studio and started recording.
Herman Li – By changing the format of the way of the writing it actually added more influences and new ideas into the songs as well. When you are usually more skills of more members, we discovered more skilled of more members that we had not been able to use before.
CrypticRock.com – It seems like it was a great collaborate effort. It is good to have others to help because we all run into creative blocks when we are creating. That can possibly help you get over an obstacle.
Sam Totman – Yes exactly, it did work very well. I guess it depends, the first or second album I could write songs all day, because I had not done many before. Now you have the problem you do not want to repeat yourself. I find quite often now I will write a guitar lead and say hang on, that is a vocal line from another song. Doing it this way at this point in the time was cool for a change. I think that is what kind of sets this album as new and fresh without losing any of the old stuff we have always been known for.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, that is a great thing to have. As mentioned, this is the second album with Marc. There seems to be a new level of comfort with Marc and the rest of the band on this album. Many would feel a first record with a new vocalist is an introduction and the second record is really when a new level is reached with the band and fans. Do you feel like that has happened with Maximum Overload?
Sam Totman – Yes definitely. I really love The Power Within, I would not change a thing about it, but it definitely took a long time to get there; learning about what Marc can do and where his strengths were. Now we work with him so well and he feels like a real part of the band. I guess that is probably the same for fans, I am the same myself, I am a fan of music as well. It does take you a while to get used to a change and for you to feel like it is right, rather than something that is strange. The recording with Marc was so much easier; he was a great singer to start with, but did not have much experience. He has improved more than you can believe. I think fans feel pretty familiar with him now too. I think from all the feedback we have received, I think everyone is really happy about it.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, it has worked out well for the band. Going back to the beginning, you said Dragonforce’s music is not very mainstream anymore. Over the years, the band has really become well-known in America. Were you taken back by the overwhelming response from the North American audience?
Sam Totman – Yes, we never expected that. When we started the band, we did not have any plans for taking over the world, we just wanted to play music because it was fun. We wanted to go on tour, we knew it would be fun too. We never expected to start getting nominated for Grammy’s and get into charts, ending up in Top 20 years in America. We thought, “How did this happen with this kind of music, this is crazy,” we never expected that. The music world is funny, if we started five years earlier, maybe it would not have happened. If we started five years later, maybe it would not have happened. It is all about playing good music first. It is also about timing, what people are into, what trends are happening; there are so many different things. You just take what you get and we got pretty lucky I think. At the same time I think we make some good music and people like it so that is cool.
CrypticRock.com – Yes , you are absolutely right. The music and talent of Dragonforce is there. If the band came possibly five years earlier it may have never happened the way it did. You look back at the 1990s and early 2000’s with the Grunge and Nu-Metal scene, there was no guitar solos really. It is great to see guitar solos brought into the front with Metal.
Sam Totman – Yes, the funny thing was when we did start, we thought maybe we were a bit late. We followed this European Metal scene where there were bands more similar to us, we thought maybe we would be part of that.
Herman Li – They ended up hating us anyway (laughs), because we are too different from the European style. We are not traditional enough like a lot of the German bands.
Sam Totman – Yes, so the scene we thought we may have been part of, we thought we missed that boat. That scene could not understand us, we ended up getting popular in places like America and the UK where the traditional melodic Metal had never really been big. It was kind of weird, but definitely really cool.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, speaking of Metal, there seems to be so many subgenres of Metal now a days between Death Metal, Black Metal, Thrash Metal, and Power Metal. Do you find limitations in being classified as a Power Metal band or do you embrace that and take pride that Dragonforce is part of a new generation of strong Power Metal bands?
Herman Li – The thing is, some did not even consider us a Power Metal band when we came out. On the second album I got them to put a sticker that said “Extreme Power Metal,” just to silence people. I was so sick of hearing, after the first record came out, that we are not Power Metal and we do not follow the tradition. I like Power Metal, it is just sometimes in certain countries they like certain things the way they are used to; genres and labels are just the way they are. I think sometimes you have to put that in order for the Music business or the press so they can write about it otherwise people will not understand, you cannot just say Metal band. I think a lot of bands want to say they are a Metal band because they do not want to pigeonhole themselves in a scene because they are not the same as everyone else.
Sam Totman – Like you said, there are many different types of Metal. When I am going out to by a record, I do want to know well that is Black Metal or that is Metalcore. I still want to know what it is, to say we are just a Metal band, that is a little vague. Extreme Power Metal it is (laughs).
CrypticRock.com – That works (laughs). That is great that the band embraces that. What are some of your musical influences?
Sam Totman – The main things I like are Metal, Death Metal, Thrash Metal, Black Metal, Punk, Pop Punk, Pop music a bit, a little bit Country Western, not much at all but a bit. That is pretty much it, all my influences come from somewhere in those genres. Also video game music. I do not listen to Classical or Jazz at all. I do not like Rap. All the genres I said I like came from those places.
Herman Li – I listen to Thrash Metal and Death Metal, not in the same amounts as Sam. I love guitar instrumental music. I love Melodic Hard Rock and Progressive Metal. Those are the genres I like the most.
CrypticRock.com – It seems like you both have a broad range of tastes. Tastes in music always rub off somehow in the music you create as well.
Sam Totman – Definitely, that is what I would say when people ask what are my influences. I will tell them well everything I listen to went in my head, got mashed up, and came out in a different form.
Herman Li – Yes, when people ask us what kind of music Dragonforce plays, if they do not understand what Extreme Power Metal means, I usually say it means it is the best of all kinds of Rock and Metal mixed together as one. We think singing is better than growling. I think the best guitar playing on the one on the instrumental albums, like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. We are more influenced from that and that kind of style.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, that shows from album to album. My last question for you is pertaining to movies. CrypticRock.com covers music and Horror films. If you are a fan of Horror films, what are some of your favorite Horror films?
Sam Totman – I am not too much a fan of Horror films, I am too much of a chicken (laughs). I do not like watching them on my own because it is too scary, then I do not like them with other people, because it is not scary at all. It is getting the right balance. I did go see The Woman in Black (2012), and I liked that. I am not the biggest fan though. I just do not like the feeling of being scared. I do not find that to be an enjoyable experience, some people do, but it just bumps me out. It is pretty pathetic (laughs).
Herman Li – Our bassist is the big Horror movie fan. Only a few months ago, I started watching the Hellraiser films.
CrypticRock.com – That is ok, Horror films are not for everyone. Do you have a favorite genre?
Sam Totman – I like War films, I am interested in History at the moment. I have watched a lot of War films in the last few years.
Herman Li – My favorite film is Aliens (1986), that is my favorite by far. I am big into Sci-Fi. It is scary, I saw the first one when I was a kid. I am still scared from the scenes in The Exorcist (1973). I am still scared going up to my attic these days because of that movie. That scene with the attic and the music scared me.
Sam Totman – When I was ten years old, I would watch Horror movies with my friend and I would be really scared. I did not even realize they were silly Horror movies. I remember one called Evil Laugh (1988). I was really scared when I was young, but I had not seen it in so many years, I recently checked it out again and was not even scary. I guess when you are younger anything is scarier.
04/27: Baltimore, MD @ Soundstage
04/28: Philadelphia, PA @ The Trocadero
04/29: New York, NY @ Webster Hall
05/01: Worcester, MA @ The Palladium
05/02: Montreal, QC @ Metropolis
05/03: Toronto, ON @ Phoenix Concert Theater
05/05: Columbus, OH @ Newport Music Hall
05/06: Joliet, IL @ Mojoes
05/07: Minneapolis, MN @ Mill City Nights
05/09: Winnipeg, MB @ Garrick Centre
05/10: Saskatoon, SK @ Louis Pub
05/11: Calgary, AB @ MacEwan Hall Ballroom
05/12: Edmonton, AB @ Union Hall
05/14: San Francisco, CA @ The Grand Ballroom at the Regency
05/15: Anaheim, CA @ The Grove
05/16: Tempe, AZ @ Marquee Theater
05/18: Denver, CO @ Ogden Theater
05/20: Austin, TX @ Emos
05/21: Birmingham, AL @ Iron City Live
05/22: New Orleans, LA @ New Orleans Civic Theatre
05/23: Lake Buena Vista, FL @ House of Blues (Orlando)
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