17 years later, they’re still one of most powerful (and fastest) metal bands London has ever produced.
Formed by lead guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman in 1999, the band’s history intersects with New Zealand group Demoniac, which included both members as well as DragonForce‘s first drummer Matej Setinc. The demo for 2003’s debut album Valley of the Damned put the group on the map early as one of the UK’s most prominent metal bands, and this was built from the ground up as they self-produced their first four albums – with a little help.
Devastatingly fast riffage, searing vocals and an insane live energy still flows strong, culminating in seventh album Reaching Into Infinity. I sat down with Li ahead of their Australian tour next month to chat about the record, forgetting about the world during his school days with a Megadeth classic, and why being a perfectionist both rocks and sucks.
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All the way in sunny LA, Li was stoked to be able to see his London-born Aussie mates and DragonForce fans again during their upcoming tour – the first headline run since 2009.
“We always have a great relationship with the people and fans. We’ve been back for Soundwave twice, but it’s nothing like doing your own headline shows where you’ve got friends coming, and you can have a chat and little party after. It’s always good, man.”
The six-piece have pushed the boundaries yet again on Reaching Into Infinity, with the majority recorded at Fascination Street studios in Örebro, Sweden alongside the formidable Jens Bogren [Opeth, The Devin Townsend Project].
After I invited him to delve into just how much they played around with sonics on the record, Li helpfully reframed the conversation, asserting, “I don’t view it as an experiment. If we’re doing something, we’re always evolving and adding more elements to it. I think as long as we keep our signature sound, we can do whatever we want (chuckles).”
“At the beginning, we didn’t want to let people have creative control over it because we were trying to develop our sound. Now because we’re established and people know what DragonForce is about, we’re able to let it go a little bit. Also… how do I say it? When you’re a little bit older, you’re stronger in arguments and know what you want. When I was younger, I was worried that I was going to be easily manipulated because I knew less about the whole thing.”
A key part of that sound now is drummer Gee Anzalone, who replaced long-time member Dave Mackintosh in 2014. The album is the first to feature Anzalone, and the guitarist’s enthusiasm shot up as he considered how involved the drummer’s been on and off the road.
“Sometimes when you have a lineup change, at least for us I know people go, ‘Oh hey!’ But it’s also refreshing to play with someone different. Imagine you only get to play with the same musicians for the rest of your life. You guys can gel and get together, but you’re also learning when you play with someone else.”
“So when we did the new songs, Gee actually got the demos without any drums, so he got to express himself and work it out because we felt he integrated with the band so quickly. He was basically friends with some of us, we already met him before in Italy at festivals. Even Dave met him.”
“I find it fun to have people from different cultures in the band, because you can see they’ve got some jokes and things… We learn about Italian culture, and some of the crazy stuff in Italy that we hear about. So we all have stories to share that aren’t the same.”
Something drawing me to Reaching Into Infinity was its overall theme of being able to escape the downs of everyday life through music’s timelessness.
That release from being in DragonForce has certainly been therapeutic for Li, who exclaimed, “Yeah! Because I’m doing music all the time, it’s definitely taking me away from thinking about the crazy stuff that’s happening in this world. Music really creates the atmosphere in a movie… You can just put your headphones on if you’re on a bus or train and get away from the horribleness that you’re in.”
There was some hesitation when I asked him to reflect on the piece of music that did just that, as he scrolled through artists in his mind. It wasn’t too long before one came to mind.
“I remember I used to listen to Megadeth’s Rust In Peace [fourth album, 1990] on the bus going to school, and by the time I got there, it would reach ‘Tornado of Souls’ and I just forgot about the whole journey. I was just like, ‘Oh it’s Tornado of Souls’, you’re almost there… I’ve heard DragonForce is great for cleaning the house. You clean it really fast and before the album’s over (laughs).”
Apart from Megadeth and Metallica, the mainstay artists for Li are New York-born guitarist Steve Vai and instrumental powerhouse Joe Satriani. Thinking about those two before delving further into his favourites, the musician mused, “They make me go ‘Wow’ every time I see them live or listen to a new album.”
“I saw Dream Theater recently for the Image and Words tour. That was really cool because it was the 25th anniversary. I also saw them a year before for The Astonishing tour which was amazing, because you could see it wasn’t just about the technicality of the playing, but the whole production. That was probably the best I’ve seen them play.”
Our nostalgic talk shifted back to DragonForce with reflections on sophomore record Sonic Firestorm (2004), marking the era that Li quit his day job and threw himself into the band. Here he remarked, “That’s probably my favourite album, and not because it’s the best technically or production-wise.”
“I love the songs equally in terms of all our albums, but there was a special feeling when we finished Sonic Firestorm, like we’d done something that no other band has done before. I remember actually recording the album. I woke up at like 5 in the morning to do the solo for ‘Fields of Despair’, and then went to work afterwards at 8 or something,” he chuckled.
One thing about the 40-year-old’s personality that feeds into how he writes music is loving to fix things himself, whether it be one of his guitars or a car. He laughed as he confessed, “Yeah it makes life pretty difficult, you just want to get everything perfect.”
“I’ll tell you something funny. I was at a car dealership arguing over $500 last weekend. It was a principle thing. I said, ‘I am not paying for this garbage car tracker. I’m not buying a Ferrari but a normal person car, why do I have to pay $1000?’. He was like, ‘Okay we’ll split it to $500’ and I went, ‘No. I’m not paying a penny for it’. I’m that crazy. So that’s why I like to fix things myself, because at least I know I’ve done a good job.”
In terms of how being a perfectionist has bled into the studio, Li remembered, “We were crazier at the beginning. We were just obsessed with playing everything perfectly, note-to-note.”
“On the new album, we learnt to relax and view each part for what it needs. Sometimes it’s better when it’s not ‘too perfect’, and has a loose feel. There are lots of things you call mistakes in other music, but that’s not the case in metal.”
Cementing the seamless dynamic the sextet currently have is Li and Totman’s enduring bond. Contemplating this, the musician remarked, “Sam as a personality is completely opposite to me.”
“So he’s way more relaxed, and sometimes when you meet someone you do it in the middle. I guess I understood and learnt the art of drinking from him, something very useful of course (chuckles). We inspire each other in the playing, because we play so differently.”
“It’s scary, I can’t believe I’ve been in the band with that guy for that long. The first time I met him, I thought, ‘Oh my god, who’s this loser, this nerd?’” Li finished, laughing.
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Gear up for a blistering run faster than ever before when DragonForce bring Reaching Into Infinity here in June. If you can’t make it, feel the speed with your copy of the album here.