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Interview: DragonForce

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Dragonforce

For 99% of people, the period between the months of June and August is known as “summertime”.

But for metalheads, it is instead “festival time”.

All over the UK and Europe, rock n roll fans relish this magical quarter of the year, as it brings forth endless opportunity for them to see all of their favourite bands in the same place over the course of three or four days.

And in 2016, there are no bigger festival veterans than those in DragonForce, the pioneering power metal six-piece from London.

The band has spent the entire summer traversing Europe, playing to thousands of fans a night in open air and on muddy ground.

“I think, as a performer, a festival is more stressful a lot of the time,” says DragonForce’s founder and lead guitarist Herman Li.

“Just because of timing; we’ve got to get it done [and] do the show quick. But other than that, I do like playing festivals. It’s a cool thing to have your friends here.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to see my friends,” he laughs, sitting beside the press tent of Catton Park’s Bloodstock Festival.

And this year, DragonForce has had some help in their conquest of Europe; Norwegian vocalist and YouTube star Per “PelleK” Åsly has been joining the band on-stage to sing as they close their shows.

“It was great,” Li recalls.

“He auditioned for DragonForce once. He didn’t get the job, but we kept in-touch. He’s a cool guy, I really have a good time hanging out with him. He did it with, pretty much, no practice and no rehearsal. He just came in and helped us out. It was a fun experience, and thanks to him for coming in, stepping up and helping us out.”

PelleK is one of a handful of musicians that DragonForce has collaborated with over the past couple of years.

In 2014, Trivium front-man Matt Heafy contributed backing vocals on the band’s Maximum Overload album and last year, Herman and fellow guitarist Sam Totman appeared on the track ‘Road of Resistance’ by Japanese idols Babymetal.

“Babymetal is the only outside artist that we have worked with, with Matt Heafy obviously doing the backing vocals on the albums; they’ve both been great. We haven’t had any bad experience, but I’m pretty picky to be honest. We don’t really play on many albums, but the Babymetal experience was great, and Matt Heafy sent me these fucking incredible backing vocals. They sounded really cool!

[Babymetal] contacted us a couple months before [their 2015 debut album] actually came out. And I knew of them before because we tour a lot in Japan and we know about the scene out there, so they just asked and said ‘We’d love to have you playing the guitars on this song. But there’s no title yet,’ and I said ‘Yeah, hey, I know what you guys do. It’s different, it’s original, it’ll be fun.’

“It’s the kind of fun thing that DragonForce usually do. It was great; I enjoyed working with them, recording and also playing with them that one time at the [2015] Golden Gods.”

DragonForce has always maintained a very close relationship with Babymetal’s homeland of Japan, something which has come about because, in Li’s opinion, “they’re not really trend followers”:

“Japan has liked us since the first album [2003’s Valley of the Damned]. They like a certain kind of music, which is melodic and technical; they love catchy songs and that works really well for us.

“They’re not going to listen to one thing and then the next year say ‘No, I don’t like it, I like something else.’ They like what they like and they listen to it. They don’t follow fashion and trends in music, and that changes a lot in other countries.

“Some bands, one day they’ll get ‘I love this band,’ and the next ‘No, I hate this band.’ A lot of people can be trend-following, and Japan isn’t really. They really appreciate the music for what it is; not just image and all of that other stuff.”

Meanwhile, DragonForce became “trendy” in the Western world in 2006, when they released their notorious single (and enemy of Guitar Hero III players everywhere) ‘Through the Fire and Flames’. And despite the track now being DragonForce’s signature song, Herman states that he never thought it would be a big hit.

“On [‘Through the Fire and Flames’’ parent album]Inhuman Rampage, I actually thought ‘My Spirit Will Go On’, from the previous album [2004’s Sonic Firestorm], is a better song. I thought ‘Fury of the Storm’ was better too. But it had that energy that I guess people liked at that time. But for us, every song is as good as possible. That’s what we do.”

The track is a notoriously intricate one, clocking in at over seven minutes long and jam-packed full of insanely fast shredding and technical soloing. And naturally, such precision took a long time to write and perfect.

“I think it took us about six months to record Inhuman Rampage,” Herman explains, “so you can say it took us six months to finalise [‘Through the Fire…’].

“It’s got all these weird things like Pac-Man noises from the guitar [and] a guitar string breaking at the end of the song. The string actually breaks and we recorded it. We said ‘Yeah, let’s just leave it like that. It sounds a lot cooler.’ It was my guitar; I think I brought one guitar just to make weird noises with it during the solo, and one [string] just snapped.

“What’s the chance of you playing that whammy bar trick and having it break at that perfect time? It felt unique in this way, so we just kept it. There are all these little things in DragonForce albums that people don’t know, and when I tell them they go ‘Whoa, really?!’”

But it wasn’t until ‘Through the Fire and Flames’ was featured on the 2007 video-game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock that the song really began to become a metal mainstay.

In regards to getting the song onto the game, Li simply says that “they just asked us.”

“They said ‘People have been asking for a DragonForce song in Guitar Hero and we’re making number three, so can we use the song “Through the Fire and Flames”?’ And it had been out for months, so we said ‘OK, sure.’ That was it, and then the whole thing took off.”

The band’s presence in the video-gaming world as well as the Pac-Man-inspired sound of tracks like ‘Through the Fire and Flames’ has led some fans to distinguish DragonForce as ‘Nintendo metal’, a label which the band seems to be indifferent towards.

“We don’t really care. All of the labels, just for me, are kinda funny. It doesn’t matter; at the end of the day, we play metal. We have influences from thrash metal, death metal, prog metal, power metal and even video-game music. I like the old 8-bit music on Nintendo and the Sega Mega Drive.”

And ten years after ‘Through the Fire and Flames’ was first unleashed upon the world, DragonForce are still reaping the rewards of success as they lay down the groundwork for their upcoming, seventh studio album.

“Right now we’re in the studio and we should have the album next year.

“I’ve got plenty of guitar solos to shred so we are far from finished. There’s a lot of moments where it’s like ‘Oh this is hard work! I have to remember how to play this after recording it?!’

“I actually have all these books out – guitar books – from when I first started playing the guitar. I study when I do recording. I say ‘OK, I’m gonna watch some videos, I’m gonna read some books on guitar playing and try to improve myself and just find new ways of getting better.’”

The as-yet-untitled DragonForce album will be hitting shelves in 2017 and by the sounds of things, it’s going to be fast enough to rip your face off.

DragonForce’s latest album, Maximum Overload, is available physically and digitally now via earMUSIC. Their new compilation, Killer Elite: The Hits, the Highs, the Vids, is also available physically and digitally via Spinefarm Records.

DragonForce’s seventh album will be released via earMUSIC in 2017.

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