HERMAN LI On DRAGONFORCE's 'Through The Fire And Flames': 'That Song Definitely Keeps On Giving'

February 13, 2024

By David E. Gehlke

Power metal was virtually covered terrain when DRAGONFORCE came flying out of the gate in 2003 with their "Valley Of The Damned" debut. Yet, the multi-national band essentially took the style and all its strengths and weaknesses to the nth degree, with a particular emphasis on unceasing solo tradeoffs between guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman. Their disregard for restraint paid off in early 2006 with "Through The Fire And Flames", a cut that catapulted the band's career, then sent it into overdrive when the "Guitar Hero" video game series picked it up two years later. Now, 18 years and six additional studio albums after the fact, DRAGONFORCE — career speed bumps and all — is still going strong.

"Warp Speed Warriors" is the name of DRAGONFORCE's ninth and newest platter, which, as the title suggests, continues with the band's long-form runs of hyper-fast, extreme melodic power metal. Now self-managed and unafraid to lean into their love of video games, DRAGONFORCE is truly a band built for today's modern, virtual world. When BLABBERMOUTH.NET caught up with Li, he was basking in the glow of "Through The Fire And Flames'" inclusion in the "Despicable Me 4" movie trailer and planning an upcoming run of dates in support of DETHKLOK.

Blabbermouth: "Through The Fire And Flames" can be heard in the "Despicable Me 4" trailer. Did you know in advance they would be using it?

Herman: "When they asked me that a few months ago, you don't even know if it's going to go through. I get all these requests from movies about having DRAGONFORCE. I'll send them the song, then they submit it, and it goes through a million things, then I see a trailer, 'Oh. It's not on it.' I still wasn't sure this was going to happen. Then, on the NFL [Conference Championship] playoff day, Nita Strauss [ALICE COOPER] sent me a text, 'Congratulations for 'Despicable Me 4!'' I thought, 'Wow!' I couldn't believe it happened. It's a huge thing since it was on for both playoff games. It's great for us. I have no complaints about it, especially now that I have a kid. I guess I have to go to the premiere with my daughter. She will freak out."

Blabbermouth: They have to let you in for free, right?

Herman: "[Laughs] Well, they may say, 'You can probably afford to pay for the movie since we gave you some money.' [Laughs] It's great for me to show that DRAGONFORCE is still a force to be reckoned with, and guitar solos, if you're lucky, will live on and continue, especially in a world where all these people complain there are not enough guitar solos or guitar is not enough a popular style of music. I think guitar is doing pretty good if you ask me."

Blabbermouth: Did you catch Kirk Hammett's [METALLICA] comment recently where he said non-musicians wouldn't remember a good guitar solo? Do you buy into that?

Herman: "Yeah. But I remember him, and I remember Kirk's solos really well. A lot of people give him shit, but Kirk has had some of the most memorable guitar solos that I will still remember. I remember going to a BON JOVI concert — that was the biggest thing. That was probably the biggest guitar solo chant I've seen. It was in a stadium; people were chanting along to the 'Livin' On A Prayer' solo. People know the solos if you do them right or you're able to connect with the audience."

Blabbermouth: Is "Through The Fire And Flames" the gift that keeps on giving for DRAGONFORCE?

Herman: "That song definitely keeps on giving. I learned something from Ray Parker Jr. , who wrote the 'Ghostbusters' song. He's a super-nice guy, super-intelligent. I understand from him that it's his biggest song, even though he wrote many other great songs. He said to me, 'Some people call me a 'One-hit wonder'. I call it 'One-hit wonderful.'' [Laughs] It's the same thing. 'Through The Fire And Flames' is not different from most of our songs. This is our signature sound, so it's not like we wrote only one good song. It's not better or worse than the others, but it happened to be at the right place at the right time, and now it's part of a lot of people's memories. I can say positive memories. It brings positive memories of so many people playing the game ['Guitar Hero'] with their family or in college with their friends. So many people had a great time with that song. I'm happy to be contributing to absolute positivity in people's lives."

Blabbermouth: I don't want to assume, but I'm sure it's helped you in the financial department.

Herman: "Absolutely. It has helped us carry on. I know some diehard fans hate it, but I'll tell this to the diehard fans who are haters: I know how you are feeling, but trust me, 'Through The Fire And Flames' has helped us create more albums and do better tours so they can keep enjoying us. So many talented musicians are unable to carry on because they don't have the funds to keep creating. That helps us create music freely and continuously. The song is not even on the radio. Even the edited version was too long for radio. We didn't sell out or make some kind of cover to get famous. It's pure DRAGONFORCE. I'm very happy about it. Not only is it a video game challenge, it's a challenge that people cover on TikTok and YouTube. It's made a lot of people known. It's giving to me but giving to them. You can see a lot of people get millions of views for a DRAGONFORCE cover."

Blabbermouth: You've always had a futuristic bent to your music, but with AI and other advancements in technology, do you feel like the future has caught up to DRAGONFORCE?

Herman: "Luckily, we've continuously evolved. Every DRAGONFORCE album has more elements than the previous one. We've gotten more dynamic. At the beginning, we said we'd never play a mid-tempo song. Now, we do those songs and slower songs with more dynamics. I would say I like to compare us to…I wouldn't say a computer since it updates, and you'd never use an old computer. We're like a cool sports car that some people buy the new one with new tech, but some people keep the old one because they are what they were at the time. You can listen to our first album, which is not as polished, and the playing is not as good, but there's character. The new one has more dynamics, but I won't say it's better. Eight songs at 200 BPMs is sometimes better for some people."

Blabbermouth: Do you draw the line where technology plays too much of a role?

Herman: "We have a profession that AI cannot replace, just like doctors and lawyers. Some things need to be done with your hands. I feel like AI is cool, but damn, they make so many mistakes, and they lie all the time. They make stuff up. You'd think they've learned something, but instead, they lie. Can't you tell I've played around with it already? [Laughs] I feel this is an AI phase, but people are probably going to get over it when the results aren't what they are promised to be."

Blabbermouth: This is the longest you've gone between studio albums. Was it intentional?

Herman: "We were busy the whole time. DRAGONFORCE now, we just don't create music. I'm a content creator doing Twitch and YouTube, which is fun. It's good to not just concentrate on albums. I don't have to do just Twitch and YouTube content because I do it for fun, or I'd stop doing it for a month. I don't want to be a slave to the algorithm. We've been busy all the time. It just takes that long to make an album. We don't want to just make an album. Like I said, 'Through The Fire And Flames' lets us keep creating. With a song like that, I don't have to rush to make another album. It's not like I need money to go out. Let's make an album that is good and that we love instead of being in a hamster wheel of making an album every two years and selling merchandise. It didn't become fun. You have to know the music business in order to survive. At some point, you have to draw the line where the creativity part can't be blurred. Luckily, in 2018, we got rid of external managers. Now, there's no pressure. There's not a percentage in their pocket that tells us to do this and that. We can make important decisions for our personal lives. If we don't feel good outside of the band, we can't create, so we don't do it. The mental part of it is important. We're in the best mental state ever."

Blabbermouth: Are you saying that you felt required to release albums at a certain time?

Herman: "I think the albums all the way to 'Ultra Beatdown', the creativity was just flying out. There wasn't a problem creating. When it comes to 'The Power Within', we had a singer change [Marc Hudson replaced ZP Theart], so there was a bump. Then the economy changed, there was a change of singers, and I think it's a great album; then Roadrunner was bought by Warner Music. It wasn't the album that people heard. Then, later on, I felt like we had to get those other albums out a little bit early. The songwriting process changed a little bit. I don't mean it in a bad way, but it changed. For example, we went to Japan too many times in one tour, which was three times. That was a little too much. There were little things that weren't perfect. We thought we should concentrate on something else. There was definitely pressure when that album ['The Power Within'] didn't do as well as the previous one. I'm not going to bullshit you and say, 'Every album is awesome. Everyone is fucking loving it.' We had our ups and downs. When you're that known, you have to have a fall. I think all musicians have to be ready for that fall that will happen; then it will equalize. I think we've gone through that process. We came out of it happier than ever. You can't just have great times. You will get some bad times."

Blabbermouth: You made a quip earlier about not wanting to write mid-tempo songs during the early days of the band. "Kingdom Of Steel" from the new album is one of the better songs you've done in that vein.

Herman: "We just love an epic ballad. We write them on every album. Some we like more, some we like a bit less. I believe the fans will like this one. The last album, the big slow song, was 'The Last Dragonborn', which I didn't know would be so big for the fans. We're having fun doing what we want to do. Funny enough, 'Kingdom Of Steel' is the song with the least amount of guitar playing in our entire catalog. I've played enough notes on the album. There's plenty of fast songs, too. [Laughs]"

Blabbermouth: Do you see that as a sign that Marc is capable of carrying a song without you and Sam having to do the heavy lifting?

Herman: "Yeah, and Marc has now made more albums than ZP. This is our ninth album, but we've now made more studio albums with Marc. The way we record the album is that he gets to record in his home studio. He's more relaxed. There's no one looking at him or complaining or telling him what to sing. He's self-conscious about knowing what should be good. We let him do his thing, and we listen and give some notes on what to improve."

Blabbermouth: Who is more anal about vocals: You or Sam?

Herman: "We both are, but in different details. Sam usually does the first pass; then I do the last pass. I'll go, 'It maybe needs to be fixed.' Or, I'll tell the producer that I like the other mix. I'm the detail guy. I can't do the first pass; otherwise, I'll never be able to sleep. [Laughs]"

Blabbermouth: Is the "Warp Speed Warriors" title as unapologetic as it sounds? Are you now entirely leaning into what DRAGONFORCE is?

Herman: "On this album, the themes of the music we picked because there's a personal reason. We're not scared to show who we are. We wrote about 'Zelda'; we're big nerds—we love video games. No one will judge us. Before, the themes were hidden, so no one could really tell. But I think since the last album, we started to be self-managed, and it became a family business. When you can control the business, you control the music and art. As much as we wrote music for ourselves in the past, there was always another level to create more freedom when you're in control of everything. You see everything. There's the Taylor Swift cover ['Wildest Dreams']. There's a reason we did it. It happened because I had listened to Taylor Swift for the last four years. My daughter was born, and I wanted to get her into music to get her to stop crying. We watched a lot of Taylor Swift on YouTube."

Blabbermouth: Are you a "Swiftie"?

Herman: "I am now! I'm sure a lot of parents can relate to that. If it's not Taylor Swift, it's Disney movies. There was a time when she wanted to hear BLACK SABBATH all the time. That was my life for the last four years. I said to Sam, 'I think we should do 'Wildest Dreams'. I think we can make it cool in the DRAGONFORCE way.'"

Blabbermouth: Can we go back to the management thing? Are you saying there was pressure not to let you lean into video games and keep DRAGONFORCE more serious?

Herman: "Yes. We still did it, but not at the same level we do now. Now, it's 'Fuck everyone. We'll do whatever we want.' We're out of control. I'm holding the checkbook, you know what I mean? [Laughs]"

Blabbermouth: Video games feel like the ideal pairing with DRAGONFORCE.

Herman: "Yeah, and it's something we've been into since the beginning. Now, it's like, 'We got rid of the [Baby] Boomers. Let's fucking party.'"

Blabbermouth: We're rapidly approaching the 20-year mark of when you blew up with "Inhuman Rampage". Those were wild times — what do you remember most?

Herman: "I don't regret having fun on tour. I can tell you it was a great time, and I had a lot of fun touring the world. We had lots of great parties. I don't want to be looking back and regretting something, although I know a lot of bands who are super-good. They didn't have fun when they started, and they still don't. That's fine. That's their vibe, but I wanted to experience many different things. It was like, 'We made the albums. It's time to go and party.' We're now older, but we still have fun differently. We have fun creating the stage show. With DRAGONFORCE, I was telling the record label: 'You want me to do press on tour? I'll do some, but I don't have much time.' I'm involved from when I wake up until the show. Sam and I are looking at the props, the screens — we're part of the crew. I want to create this visual where fans come and have fun. Our focus has shifted to different things."

Photo credit: Travis Shinn

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