As two of the fastest guitar players on the planet, DragonForce's Herman Li and Sam Totman are challenged to create new riffs that not only continue to drop fans' jaws to the floor upon each listen, but also expand the guitarists' creative minds without replicating what they've already done.
On sixth album Maximum Overload, which comes out Aug. 19, they do just that. While Li (pictured from left) along with keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov, vocalist Marc Hudson, Totman, bassist Frederic Leclercq and new drummer Gee Anzalone (who replaces Dave Mackintosh, who played on the album) have made a record filled with their trademark of ear-splitting and head-shaking skill, the CD also branches out. For one, it includes the band's first cover song: Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." For another, Li created some of his new solos in an unlikely place -- aboard the yacht of his friend, Five Finger Death Punch guitarist Zoltan Bathory.
The album is the second with Hudson on the mic after he took over for the departing ZP Theart. As evidenced by first track and video "The Game" (click photo above), Maximum Overload wastes little time making you realize that you better buckle up and strap yourself in for a ride that covers 10 blistering tracks and five bonus tunes. But perhaps moreso than any DragonForce effort since 2003 debut Valley of the Damned, the new disc also incorporates plenty of sing-along melodies and diversity.
The SAMME was expecting to interview Li one-on-one last week. But when Li phoned in from London, he was accompanied by Totman, as the band's co-founders doubled the pleasure of hearing them unleash their thoughts on DragonForce, fellow shredders and more:
SAMME: Congratulations on the new album, Maximum Overload. I only got it about four days ago, but it's fantastic, and I know you guys must be excited about it. I will get to that shortly, but first I have to get out of the way, for both of you -- how in the world do you guys do what you do?
HERMAN: Many hours of practice! Unfortunately, I can't give you a really cool answer. We practice as we started making this music. There's no cool answer for that one (laughs).
SAMME: I believe the last time we saw Dragonforce in San Antonio was the first Mayhem Fest in 2008, so it's been a long time. I know the band is booked in Europe through February and you haven't announced American dates yet, but how would you compare playing in America to other places, including your native UK?
SAM: I mean, we have an amazing time touring in the U.S. We've done so many tours in the U.S.; the Mayhem tour was awesome. Unfortunately for the last album, we didn't do enough touring in the United States, which was a bummer. But on this album, because we did start touring in the U.S. the last two albums, this time we're going to start in Europe, because all the fans in Europe have been complaining the last few years saying, "How come you always leave us last?" But we actually, we talked today, we're still working on a U.S. tour that will kick off early in the new year after the European tour. We're working with another great band to tour the U.S. Hopefully we'll get to you.
SAMME: As far as the album goes, right now "Three Hammers" is my favorite track, which kind of surprised myself because most of it is mid-tempo and melodic. It's not one of the faster songs on there. Any story behind that one?
SAM: Yeah, actually, that's funny, that's kinda my favorite song too, so there you go. I'm glad to hear someone else likes it. That actually started off with my friend, who's like an alcoholic (laughs). He was drinking this bottle of Shiner called Three Hammers, and we were sitting there, and we were like, "Oh, three hammers, man. It sounds like a Manowar song." We started getting drunk and were like, "Oh, three hammers high in the sky." I grabbed my guitar. We just made out the chorus right there and then, kind of a rough version of it. And then the next day when I was sober, it just took off. Yeah, that's so funny how it started off.
SAMME: Herman, what about you? What's your favorite song so far?
HERMAN: I don't really have a favorite. I'm one of those guys. Sometimes my favorite is "The Sun Is Dead," and sometimes my favorite is "Tomorrow's Kings." It depends on the day.
SAMME: When you guys create songs, do you try and strike a balance between an emphasis on speed and trying to show that DragonForce is more than a speed band?
SAM: Yeah, I mean, the first hint of it is we just kind of play what we like, really. The only reason all the other albums were pretty much 99 percent fast songs is just because that's what we really like to do. We didn't even really want to play a slow song 'cause we were just like, "Oh, man, this is so cool. We just want to play fast ones." Now it's definitely more variety -- not saying we've gone slow; it's still probably 70 percent fast, I'd say -- but yeah, we just kind of realized after four or five albums that, the fast stuff, it's kind of fun now to try some other things. It's really just a matter of playing what we like. There just happens to be more mid-tempo ones like "Three Hammers" or "Cry Thunder" or something. We kind of enjoy doing that now. Before we started the album, we did kind of pre-plan a little bit. We said, "OK, let's do, like, five power songs, one mid-tempo, one ballad." We kind of did decide that so that it would force us to have a bit of variety and make it more fun to do.
SAMME: Herman, how challenging is it, the more you make new music, to avoid coming up with riffs that sound too similar to what you've already done in the past?
HERMAN: It definitely challenges us the more albums you make and the more solos you do, also. It's harder to make up new ideas. You don't want to repeat yourself. Obviously, you have your own style, but there's gotta be new twists on it sometimes. On this album particularly, I wanted every solo -- I forced myself that I have to learn something new. So that was my way to kind of break out and change up.
SAMME: Herman, tell me about creating new solos aboard Zoltan's yacht. How did that come about?
HERMAN: (Laughs) That was kind of funny, actually. I had a few solos to finish while I was in Los Angeles, and I went back and forth. I met with Zoltan because he's a friend of mine. He said, "Come hang out on my yacht." And while I was there, I thought, "You know what, I should ask him: do you think it's queer if I come and record, just for a change, instead of sitting in a room and doing solos?" And he thought, "Yeah, great." So I thought I would just do some solos in the marina. But his idea was, "You know what, we're not going to make it easy for you. We're going to take the yacht out, and you only get to do a solo while the yacht is out, and you've gotta stand up." I couldn't even stand still because the waves were pretty brutal that day.
SAMME: Well, speaking of that, I'm sure you guys have heard of the 70000 Tons of Metal cruise, and all these rock cruises are popping up, particularly here in America. Have you been invited to perform in the future on any of them?
HERMAN: We did 70000 Tons of Metal, not the recent one but the one before (2013).
SAMME: Ohhh. I was on the first two (2011 and 2012) and missed the last two.
HERMAN: So that was really fun. You get one set indoors, and you've got one show outdoors. So when we did the outdoor show, for the last song, we went into the pool and the jacuzzi, and we were still playing the song live. I was in the jacuzzi playing solos, and there was just screaming in my ears and everything. It was really insane. And at the end, I thought, "You know what? Screw this." I managed to jump in -- the guitar and everything -- into the jacuzzi, everything, under water, and finished off the song. I broke all the wire systems, but hey, it was fun.
SAMME: Sam, tell me about the Johnny Cash cover. I know that breaks new ground for you guys. How does a band like you cover a country legend and still do the song justice or keep true to the original?
SAM: I think it's just a matter of like, people probably hear that song and go, "Oh, man, that song is so different." Which, obviously, it is. But when I listen to songs, I can kind of hear some similarities. When I heard that Johnny Cash song -- although I've heard it for years, obviously -- but I kind of listened to the melody line and the chords of the chorus, especially, and I could hear that as a power metal song, in DragonForce style. I can hear pop songs on the radio and think the same thing. So to me, it doesn't seem that strange. So when I hear that, I just kind of go on the computer and put down a fast drum beat and play the chords. It all came together in probably 10, 15 minutes. We'd never done a cover before, so everyone thought it was like a bonus track or something. So yeah, we thought, "Let's do a song that people can enjoy, even if they don't know or like the original." So that was our thought to doing it. To hear an old song like that and matching up backing vocals and everything was pretty fun.
SAMME: I know this is probably a common question for both of you, but how do you split up your solos? Is it just a matter of, "Hey, if I'm the guy who writes it, I'm keeping it?" Or do you share things back and forth?
SAM: No, it's more like, what we'll do, let's say I'll write a song and write out the instrumental section, the chords and everything, kind of knowing that there's going to be more guitar solos in that section. And then when all the songs are written, we look at them all and see how many solos there are in which songs. And then we go, "Well, that will probably suit your playing more live." We kind of look at it according to what will suit the person. If there's more guitar solos in a row, what we'll do is take the songs, say, four or five fast songs on the album, and they all have four guitar solos each. I'll play the first one on two of them and have him play the first one on the other two and kind of alternate from there. So we basically balance it out.
SAMME: Marc has been singing in the band for a couple years now. Herman, what does he bring to the table that you possibly never had with ZP?
HERMAN: Marc is a very different style of a singer (from) ZP. I would say ZP is more hard rock, and Marc is more metal. So I think with his range and his voice, we get to approach music in a different way that we haven't done before. We're able to add more different styles. He has a really wide range and can do some crazy screams and shoot kind of low as well in certain songs, like "Symphony of the Night" on the new album. That's really melodic. We work with him really well. If we sit down and go through the songs, he never complains if we say, "Maybe you should sing it again." We have a really good working relationship with Marc, and that's also why I think this album was so easy to make.
SAMME: For both of you, when people think of the fastest shredders, I would think the five guys that come to mind are, naturally, both of you along with Yngwie, Michael Angelo Batio and Chris Impellitteri. What do you think of those guys, and how do the two of you stand stylistically on your own from them?
SAM: The funny thing is I've always been such a big fan of the guitar hero shredder guys. I did like the band Nitro a lot with Michael Angelo. I was into Steve Vai. Obviously, they're all extremely amazing players, and I could never imagine to be as good as Steve Vai or something. I think what those guys do is really, really cool. For me, I need a good, catchy song as well instead of just guitar playing, so that was why the only one I really got into was Michael Angelo because of the first Nitro album, which I really liked.
HERMAN: When you got to Yngwie and you got to Michael Angelo, then you said Chris Impellitteri (laughs). A lot of people don't know about Chris Impellitteri. I listen to all those guys. I've got all the Impellitteri albums, the Michael Angelo albums -- No Boundaries, the Nitro stuff -- and all the Yngwie stuff. I grew up learning playing all those guys' music. It was cool. I actually recently met Chris Impellitteri, outside a recording studio, and he actually recognized me first. I thought that was cool. I've met Michael Angelo; he's a really cool guy too. I've got full respect for those guys. I've leaned from those videos they were making, instructional videos. It's some really cool stuff.
SAMME: Well, I wish you guys were here in San Antonio tomorrow because Michael will be here doing a guitar clinic, and I'll be covering that.
HERMAN: Really? Give him my regards, please.
SAMME: I will (click here)
SAM: Tell him we say hi. We love that Nitro album.
SAMME: I will definitely do that.
SAMME: Since you're known for incorporating video-game sounds into your solos, tell me, which video game are you most skilled at?
SAM: Right now, I'm playing a game called Sprocket, actually, which I'd like to think I'm quite good at.
HERMAN: I'm pretty good at shoot-em-ups. Old arcade shoot-em-ups. I want to beat the game on one credit or one life when I get to Japan in October to play in the arcade.
SAMME: Guys, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for calling in. I wish you the best of luck on tour and with the album. I know it might be a few months down the road, but we hope to see you in Austin or San Antonio, and thanks again.
HERMAN: Yeah, thank you for that.
SAM: Thanks, Jay! It was awesome talking to you, man! It was really cool, and we hope to be back!
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