DragonForce’s Herman Li on ‘Maximum Overload,’ Covering Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ + More
Dragonforce's Herman Li is an absolute wizard when wielding an axe, and for more than a decade, he's led Dragonforce to become one of power metal's most celebrated acts. 'Maximum Overload,' album No. 6 for Dragonforce, is another addictive piece of the band's chronology, and we recently caught up with Herman Li to talk all about it.
In this interview, Li speaks about 'Maximum Overload' being Dragonforce's heaviest album yet, working with Trivium's Matt Heafy, the departure of drummer Dave Mackintosh, recording the fastest Dragonforce song to date and much more. Check it out below!
'Maximum Overload' is the new album and I found it to be surprising heavy with a lot of thrash elements in there. Do you think fans are going to be surprised with the album's overall sound?
I don't think they'll be surprised when they hear the whole album. I guess [we're] expanding a little bit on what we touched on before.
Trivium's Matt Heafy came in to do some guttural vocals on various tracks. How did that decision get made to bring him in for not just one song, but a few?
We started doing those kind of vocals on our 'Inhuman Rampage' album. That "rahr" stuff, that was on 'Operation Ground and Pound' and others. It wasn't on 'Through the Fire and the Flames,' but it was on quite a few other songs on there. I guess in the past we just did it ourselves, but when we heard these songs when we recorded the album, we just thought we needed a different kind of edge of backing vocals; some black metal vocals, death metal vocals and we just kind of thought, Matt, because he can do so many different voices so we just asked him. He played with us, we toured together quite a number of times and Matt and I, we both share the same love for martial arts and jiu-jitsu.
There are more than 20 minutes of bonus tracks on 'Maximum Overload.' Why did you decide to keep the album at 10 songs and not release the rest of the tracks as part of that nucleus?
We initially listened to the songs and we just decided what flows well with what from the beginning to the end, to make it perfect. So a lot of the bonus songs, to be honest, I think they are all as good as the ones on the album. They're different styles, some of them didn't fit in, like 'Power and Glory.' That song is very similar to 'Three Hammers,' that kind of epic, fantasy-ish kind of way. So we thought, well, it kind of doesn't fit in anymore because it sounded too similar to that song.
So there wasn't a thought of maybe holding onto that extra material for your next album?
Yeah, because it's kind of a snapshot of your life at this time. If you keep it for another two years, they kind of don't represent the band anymore. It's kind of represents now.
This is most likely the final album with Dave Mackintosh on drums. Was his departure something you knew would happen during the recording process?
I mean, we talked about it with Dave for a while because we're good friends. I'm always straight with him, I'm pretty blunt and clear with things and I'd always say stuff to him in a true way. He's been thinking about it for a while and he wasn't gonna leave the band and leave us in a bad situation, so it worked out really well with a smooth transition. Dave just didn't want to tour as much, Dave always wanted to do music. He's going to go do progressive stuff. It was a really smooth change.
It's good to hear that you split amicably. This is your second album with Marc Hudson on vocals. Could you compare how his presence fits into 'Maximum Overload' compared to the 'The Power Within'?
'The Power Within' was a really difficult album to make. I think everything about it was difficult. The touring was difficult, the timing wasn't right, the release timing wasn't right. Roadrunner was getting taken over by Warner in that time period. The album, why it was difficult was because Marc never had done an album before. He had to go to a really high level in a really short amount of time, so it took longer to make that album than we thought it was going to be.
This one was so easy, to be honest. With the last album we were there every single step. This time, [Marc] had the freedom to do it at home. He's got a recording studio at his house and he was able to do it by himself so we could hear what he could do and express it his own way -- time spent by himself to get into the zone and do the songs. It was really easy, this album. It was the easiest Dragonforce album I've ever made. In every single department.
So 'Maximum Overload' didn't suffer from members recording in separate places? Sometimes that can really hurt other bands' albums.
No, the way it worked was starting at home for a little bit and trying things out to experiment and get to know the songs well. But in the end, a lot of the recording was still done with someone recording together to get the correct feedback and direction. We also demoed the songs out on the album before we recorded, so he sang every single song already prior to recording.
Looking back at 'The Power Within,' thinking about how the time wasn't right and the effect of Warner taking over Roadrunner, are you happy with that album?
I really like the album. I'm happy with the album, but it came out at the wrong time. It took too long. Things just weren't falling into place like we tried to make it happen. The touring schedule was kind of messed up at the same time. I actually had months off between tours and I'd never had that before in my life. I was used to one week off, two weeks off -- max in the touring period. We didn't tour as much as we were supposed to have just because if you got a label, for example, with that many changes happening and people changing positions, you can't really book a tour because it's such a high risk. It was a bit out of sync. Fans ask, why didn't we do more tours? The problem is, we couldn't. It just wasn't going to work out. On this album, everything is really falling into place and I'm really excited about how it's going.
Are you the kind of person that when you take long period of time off of the road, a few months between touring cycles, is that a difficult period for you?
Something is wrong if you're not busy. Something is not right. I do enjoy my time off, it's almost great to sit around at home for a few months not working, but that's not really healthy. You've got to go and play for the fans, go and support the album. Playing shows is what we do.
I remember hearing that 'Fallen World' from the last album was the fastest Dragonforce song to date, but I read online that 'The Game' was faster.
'The Game' is officially the fastest song by Dragonforce now, and the heaviest. Mathematically, scientifically, BPM, the notes we use on the 7-string and how often, it became the fastest and heaviest. So that's true. We weren't trying to be heavy or trying to be fast on purpose, it just happened that way. That song, people don't believe it, but it's kind of inspired by more bands like Sepultura and old Slayer; that really fast thrash drumbeat. We try to keep it melodic at an even faster speed.
'The Ring of Fire' cover, I really enjoy that. Partially because if you take out the lyrics, it's like the song is almost unrecognizable. Was it important for you to, instrumentally, get far away from the original song?
The idea was if we'd ever do a cover, it has to sound like a Dragonforce song. It can't be just an original with electric guitar, or if we cover Metallica or Iron Maiden it'd just sound like a metal song. It just had to have the elements, somehow in 'Ring of Fire' I could hear the song in some kind of original Dragonforce style. That's how it came about, we were just knocking the idea around to do a cover just for a change. From our own personal lives, we all like cover songs that don't sound like the original and had their own take on it.
Thanks to Herman Li for taking some time to chat with us. Dragonforce's new album, 'Maximum Overload,' is now available! To grab a copy, click here.