You might recognize Herman Li as one of DragonForce’s founders and lead guitarists, or as the recipient of numerous awards hinting at the prowess he displays on his musical instrument of choice. You might also know him as the guitarist that churns out that furiously fast solo on “Through the Fire and Flames”—the track that is almost impossible to master when playing Guitar Hero. While all of these accomplishments are certainly true, Li is down-to-earth, having fun, and not letting success get to his head. He’s also a sushi enthusiast and is not afraid of braving the all-you-can-eat sushi bar on his own.
Before DragonForce hits Brooklyn’s Saint Vitus Bar in September,Music Existence was able to speak with Li via Skype about the band’s latest release—Killer Elite (review available here)—his take on the band’s success, their current tour (dates below), and of course, food.
ME: What made now the time to release Killer Elite?
Li: How do you say this? This “Best of” has laid together a bunch of obviously old songs and new songs. From touring this last album, we realized that new fans don’t actually know that much of the old stuff, and there have been fans coming to the show who don’t really what the new songs are about. This brings it [all] together [in one album] at the same time. [It] also enabled us to do a new set list on the current tour.
ME: How did you decide which tracks to include, and how to order them?
Li: I had a little playlist in my computer that I constantly kept updating and changing. Basically, you have your normal singles (the ones that were often in music videos). A lot of people know those songs and from touring each album, you kind of know which are the big songs even if they don’t have music videos. Then there are a few songs that we think are great, but that we haven’t actually played live yet. So it’s good to bring those in and play them live now finally.
ME: And the live songs?
Li: I picked the live songs at the end, and they were based on what fit in right with the studio songs that we picked. Those were taken from two live albums—the DVD and the live CD from six years ago.
ME: I read that you have a new album coming up in 2017. At this point, what can you say about the music on it?
Li: Right, so we went to the studio a while ago and started recording. We’re still quite a long way from finishing it, so it’s probably not the time for me to say what’s like or how different and whatnot, because I may become a liar. Things do change. Laughs. You can go, “Oh, he said that and he’s full of whatever.”
ME: DragonForce has definitely evolved over time in a way that still sounds like DragonForce but is also fresh. What would you say impacts this evolution?
Li: I guess it’s an obvious thing, but we’re always changing and trying to improve as much as possible in the band. So we’re always trying to learn things, get better at the guitar, or get better as a band. These things eventually brought more dynamics into the music and things that we hadn’t done before. So in the past three or four albums, every single song was fast except for the ballad. And now with the last two albums, we’ve definitely added more variety. It’s just the way we have changed. Our brains are thinking differently.
ME: Do you have a preferred type of song to play? Like do you prefer to play faster or slower songs? Is one more challenging than the other?
Li: Faster songs are more fun to play, but sometimes you get a better reaction from a slower song because they’re just easier to move to. That doesn’t mean—well, I always say—that people like those songs more. It’s just that we play non-danceable music.
ME: Something else I was wondering, all of your backgrounds seem to be pretty different. You have a nice blend of cultures, personalities, and influences. Has it been easy to mesh everyone together or have you ever hit some culture shock in working together?
Li: I’ve definitely come across things where I’ve said, “Oh, OK, I didn’t know—I guess Italian things like that.” It’s kind of normal, because the band first started off in London, and London is really as multicultural of a city as you can get. I can’t think of anywhere else in Europe with so many cultures. So from living here for so many years and starting a band here, we’ve been interacting with people from different places since the beginning. Of course, we’ve learned the smaller things later on about different cultures, but we laugh about how different it is. No one thinks we’re better because of where we’re from.
ME: Right, that’s probably one of the more important things.
Li: Yeah! That’s probably why we’re quite entertaining to watch onstage. We are so different personality-wise and culturally, so it can definitely come across from the way we interact.
ME: I was going to ask you, too, about your stage performances. Is there anything in particular you try to do to keep it fun versus just standing there? Is there a band that influenced your performance style?
Li: I don’t think there is a band that influenced me individually as a style. Everyone has some kind of image of what they think is cool and what they would rather do than not do. There is an influence into the personality. I like a lot of guitarists from the 80s. They were incredible guitar heroes. And back then, they were allowed to do crazy shows and have fun. [That feeling] seems a little bit lost with grunge music, and that serious attitude and tough guy image. You can’t really have fun with it. So DragonForce is definitely a fun thing. We’re not trying to be anything we’re not.
ME: Any favorite 80s bands?
Li: Favorite 80s band… I like a lot of those 80s rock stars, like Bon Jovi and Def Leppard. I don’t really have a favorite one, but I like those bands, like Danger Danger or your fun/silly 80s rock bands.
ME: What drove you to the guitar? I know I read in another interview that your other guitarist picked it as one of two options his parents gave him.
Li: Right, that’s Sam who was forced to either play music or do sports. Laughs. Luckily, that wasn’t me! I know he picked the instrument because it was easier. He could just sit down and do it. Me, I actually picked it up because I wanted to play it. I wanted to try some new hobbies.
ME: What pointed you toward playing power metal?
Li: I think it’s been a continuous evolution on every tour and every day. It’s hard to say. I never believe that things happen in this one moment. I’m not really an emotional person to think like that. I’m pretty logical. I’m pretty boring. Laughs.
ME: I also noticed that a lot of people attribute your guitar playing and then the band’s awards toward speed, although I wouldn’t necessarily say speed alone makes a great guitarist. What qualities would you say make someone good at what you do—or what advice do you have for other aspiring guitarists?
Li: I get asked this question quite a lot. Who’s the best guitar player? Who do you think is the best guitarist right now? And people always come up with names of different technical players. Speed definitely is only one small part of music or guitar playing. We get mentioned for it, because a lot of our songs are fast and we don’t have any choice but to play fast when we’re playing solos on a fast song. I think the inspiration and connection with people is probably what makes the guitar player important in the way of music, because it’s not like a sport where someone wins and someone loses. Music can be judged so many ways, and the players that inspire and influence people are the better players.
ME: Since you mentioned that you’re kind of analytical about things, how do you take it when you meet a fan and they’re like, “Oh, you’re so awesome,” and things like that?
Li: I don’t really believe a lot of the stuff people tell me, like “You’re so great,” “You’re so awesome,” and things like that. I don’t really believe any of it to be honest. I mean it’s nice to get that kind of mention and win awards, but I always look at it in my own way.
ME: Backtracking a bit, but when you brought DragonForce together, did you ever expect that the band would become well known, win awards, etc.?
Li: At the time, it was really just for fun. There was definitely no thinking about wanting to be cool, wanting to be a rock star, or wanting to play in a band and tour the world. I just find it crazy that people think that, because the percentage of success is pretty bad. It’s not as bad as the lottery, but it’s still pretty bad. Laughs. So DragonForce has just been about having fun, enjoying ourselves, and wanting to do some shows. Without the fun part, it’s kind of a bit pointless to think that you’re going to get anything else out of it.
ME: Would you say having fun is the secret to your success?
Li: Definitely, because you enjoy being there. Sometimes I hear musicians complaining, “Oh my god, the tour’s so hard. Oh my god, it’s so long.” I just think, “You know what? Shut up. You’re so lucky to be able to not have to wake up every day and go to work. You can work in your own time and do something you like.” Playing and writing music is not exactly a slave labor job. You don’t have a boss shouting at you or complaining.
ME: Your success has allowed you to tour a lot over all of these years in a lot of countries and a lot of places. How do you balance having a life in England versus traveling around the world?
Li: It’s not a bad thing to be able to go out and see the world, because you definitely learn things. You learn about how other people live and what’s happening around the world. It definitely changes you, hopefully for the better. But I think I’m actually really lucky to get out there and see something else. You realize what’s good about where you live and what’s bad about it. And I guess you realize how lucky we are to live where we’re living.
ME: Do you have a favorite place to play or visit?
Li: Obviously we like playing pretty much any show anywhere; there’s not really any place I don’t like. I think Indonesia is really one of the most fun places to play. Not only do they love the music so much, but a lot of these fans/people coming to the show are—how do you say—pretty poor. You get an extra feeling to really see them enjoy the show or to come all the way over to play. They really appreciate you being there.
ME: Do you travel when you’re touring, or do you more just move from show to show?
Li: It depends on the time and the schedule, so I’ve seen some really cool stuff and sometimes I just don’t even go out. Some of the guys went to see the Great Wall of China, for example. I actually didn’t go. Laughs. I did see the pyramids in Mexico and the Stone Forest—one of the wonders of the world in China. I’m not really a tourist kind of guy that likes to go sightseeing all the time, but I definitely like to see some places.
ME: How about the food?
Li: I like a lot of food, but the best way to answer this is that for me, there are certain cuisines that I cannot eat unless they are done properly. I just refuse to go out and pay for it. I cannot. I love Italian food, but I cannot eat bad Italian food. I just go, “Oh my god. This is such a rip off. You just put in some pasta and did it really badly.” And it seems like an epidemic these days in the world of serving bad Italian food outside Italy. Obviously, I’m not Italian so maybe I should shut up. Chinese food is another one. Growing up, you know, I’m from Hong Kong, so I wouldn’t say that I’m a food snob, but I cannot eat bad Chinese food. I’d just rather not. I can eat some bad other food, but not Chinese food. I can eat bad Japanese food, for example. I can handle that.
ME: Do they have good Chinese food where you live? I haven’t heard a ton of great things about food there.
Li: I know! England does get a bad rap or a stereotype of being just fish and chips and bad food. The pub food can have good stuff if you go to a good one. Obviously, there is a lot of bad pub food as well. I know Sam tried to teach me what’s the good version of pub food. I spent a lot of time in Southern California, though, and there are so many great choices for Asian food there—like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Thai. That’s probably the best place to experience those things … funny I should be talking with an American now.
ME: Southern California is one of my favorite places to visit, so I feel that.
Li: And you get nice weather! Every time I go there, I just feel like I’m getting fatter and fatter. I’m buying and eating all this stuff. Like, I would never buy like cookies and soft drinks and stuff like that here. In LA, I’m just on a rampage like I just got out of prison or something.
ME: I mean it’s hard to stop. At least, it’s hard to stop myself.
Li: OK, that’s good. You can relate to it. Laughs.
ME: I do. Trust me.
Li: I even go to all-you-can-eat sushi bars by myself. That’s how bad it is, you know. When I’m just bored, I go, “You know, I’m going to eat all-you-can-eat sushi, just by myself.” And I do that like all the time. Laughs.
ME: Do you ever get any looks doing that? I mean, exactly how much sushi are we talking about here? Laughs.
Li: Maybe when I have a problem getting out of the restaurant. Laughs. That probably looks a bit stupid, but I’m able to train myself that even when I go to do this all-you-can-eat food, I’m not going to completely stuff myself like it’s my last day on earth.
ME: I can’t think of a better note to end on, so my last question then is just if you had any last words.
Li: We are actually going to play in New York City in Brooklyn. We have two shows actually. One is sold out, so they’re adding another show and it would be for this tour. I actually remember the early days. The first time we came to the US and played in New York was an insane show, because we didn’t even release that third album yet and people knew everything about the songs. So this is kind of like going back and doing something special. We’ll be playing older songs that are featured on this compilation so hopefully we’ll see everybody there. If not, we’ll also be at ProgPower in Atlanta in September as well.