Sam Totman and Herman Li of DragonForce

by Greg Prato

When listening to the intense metal of DragonForce, a question for many listeners would probably be: What is more important to this UK-based band, the songwriting or the guitar solos?

After taking in such technically-demanding tunes as "Through the Fire and Flames" and "The Game," it's understandable to assume speedy solos are at the top of the to-do list of DragonForce's guitarists, Sam Totman and Herman Li. But after the pair spoke to Songfacts around the release of their sixth studio effort, Maximum Overload, it has been confirmed that songwriting is of greater importance to this dynamic duo.

During the chat, Totman and Li discussed songwriting, explained which band inspired them to pursue harmony solos, and the stories behind several of their best-known headbangers.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's start by discussing Maximum Overload.

Sam Totman: Well, I guess when we do any album, we start off by writing the songs that we think sound good and that make us happy - I guess like anybody writes any song. And this one just carried on the same way. We write firstly for ourselves, definitely. But at the same time you don't want to repeat yourself too much. What we've done with it, like we do on most albums, the stuff that we really like, we keep.

The general feel of the band, that doesn't change too much: Fast guitar where we've got these big, catchy choruses. But we try to always incorporate new things. So we don't want to lose what we had, but we want to bring new things all the time, as well.

Songfacts: From what I understand, Trivium's Matt Heafy appears on the album.

Herman Li: Yes. At a certain stage when we were making this album, we realized we needed some help, a different kind of backing vocal. Because the album is diverse: we still have a choir, certain sections of the songs which are kind of heavier, but we needed a different kind of style on backing vocals for the songs "The Game," "Defenders" and "No More." We thought, "Hey, why don't we just ask Matt?"

Matt had been a friend of ours for quite a few years now, and he's got a great voice and so many diverse tones. It just came about that we decided, "Hey, why don't we just ask Matt if he'll do it?" And he did an amazing job. He did so many different voices, like death metal, black metal, pop, and thrashy metal - different backing vocals for these songs.

Songfacts: Let's discuss the album's lead-off single, "The Game."

Sam: It's like 240 BPM. Most of our older songs are around 220, some of them are 200, this is actually at 240. And it's got heavier-gauge string on the 7-string guitar, so it actually is heavier, technically, if people really care. [Laughing]

Herman: I guess you always talk about fast and heavy, so we can say we're definitely not lying.

Sam: The first thing we think of when writing anything is tempo. It's like a drumbeat, basically. We're like, "Okay, this is going to have this fast-style drumbeat."

We got the idea of trying something at that really fast tempo from all the thrash albums. We were listening to Sepultura and Slayer and we were like, "Oh, these guys are playing at, like, 240. I wonder if we could make a melodic song at that speed." So we thought, "Well, let's try it out." That came from those old albums Beneath the Remains, Reign in Blood, that kind of stuff. That was where the basis of it first started.

Songfacts: When it comes to guitar playing, figuring out which guitarist is going to play what line in the song, how does it work in DragonForce?

Sam: If I write a song, I'll write the guitar and think, "Okay, this song's going to have four guitar solos in the middle of it," for example. And then I'll think, "Okay, it's going to have one at the start, it's going to have one at the end or wherever it feels like there should be one." Then I write out the chord progressions for that.

We always have a day once all the songs are written when we'll sit there and divide up all the solos. We know pretty much where they're all going to go, and then we divide it up: the certain things that we know one guy is better at and will suit the section.

We tend to alternate, so normally it's a matter of, "Okay, you go first, I'll go second," or the other way around. First, we look at the style - that chord progression and what it's going over. And then we just think about how to make the best result.

Songfacts: In DragonForce, what would you say is more important, songwriting or the soloing?

Sam: Definitely the songwriting, for sure. But at the same time, everything counts. I always tell people I definitely spend a lot more time writing a song than writing guitar solos. Obviously, I still spend a lot of time on the guitar solos, but nothing close to the amount of time I spend actually getting the song right first - getting the vocal lines good and getting the structure in place. Guitar solos always come last. Not to say that they don't count, because of course they do. But a great guitar solo is nothing unless it's in a good song. To me, anyway.

Shredding solos have long been associated with heavy metal. But before the likes of Eddie Van Halen and Yngwie Malmsteen came along circa the late '70s/early '80s, guitar solos in metal seemed to be either blues-based (a la Jimmy Page) or harmony solos between two players (a la Thin Lizzy). But once the floodgates opened in the '80s, rapid-fire solos became the norm in metal and hit the mainstream (Steve Vai and Joe Satriani being the leaders of the pack). A record label (Shrapnel) even specialized in issuing recordings by such fleet-fingered players as Marty Friedman and Jason Becker in Cacophony, and Paul Gilbert in Racer X.
Songfacts: Who would you say are your favorite guitarists as far as influences and also modern-day guitarists?

Herman: My favorite guitar players are usually the solo artists, so Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, those kind of guys - instrumental guys - I really like. No one can argue with me that those guys are not inspirational or a big influence on the rock music and electric guitar of the last, I don't know how many years.

Sam: I never got into those guys so much, even though I think they're amazing players. But I didn't find the songs that catchy. I was more into the bands, mainly. Say, Iron Maiden, for example, I thought the songs were really great. But I also thought the guitar playing was cool, too. So those guys were definitely a big influence in the beginning.

But, there's so many guitar players out there that are really good. I was never a huge fan of Extreme, but I thought Nuno Bettencourt was really amazing. We went and saw him the other day, actually. We hadn't seen him play for a while, and were just really blown away. So I'll get influences from guys like that, though I might not necessarily listen to their albums all day long. But you can still appreciate them.

There's so many great people out there. I really like Chuck [Schuldiner] from Death and James Murphy on that Spiritual Healing album. I thought they played really well together. There's just too many to list off, really.

Songfacts: As far as practicing, do either of you follow a strict guitar routine every day?

Herman: I don't have a routine every day. Of course, I have to practice in order to play these songs. People always ask me, "What do you practice?" And for me, it's "What is the next challenge?" I have to determine what kind of practice I have to do. So if the album's coming out in a month and I have a tour after that, what I practice is being able to play all the songs standing up easily without even thinking about it. That's what I'm working on right now. Once I know the songs, I might work on music theories and different kind of techniques and learn a new way of playing the guitar or something like that.

Sam: I don't have a really specific routine where I sit down and practice. Like Herman said, learning the songs that we've played on the record, that's already a challenge. Because it's one thing to play in the studio, but to be able to stand up and play it and not have to think about it, that definitely takes a whole bunch more practicing as well. So that's kind of what we're doing.

Songfacts: What would you say was the most difficult DragonForce song to play from a guitar perspective?

Herman: Let's say we go back 10 years ago to our second album [Sonic Firestorm, 2004]. We thought some of these songs were really difficult to play. Now we think they're easier songs to play. We don't even have to think about it. So it changes as times go, because we get better, and we're still getting better on the guitar.

The one that would be hardest is usually the last song we play on stage, because you've already played for an hour and a half, so your fingers are just shredding down any notes. You do get tired - there's certain stamina. And if you've been running and jumping around like us onstage, you have to be on the ball for the last song.

Sam: Another thing that's quite challenging, a lot of our guitar solos are harmonized. So if I play guitars on the record, I'll play a harmony or all of it, and Herman will do the same. So when we go to play them live, we've usually got to learn each other's techniques. That can definitely be difficult, because everyone's got things that are easier for them, but not so easy for other people. So that's another thing that helps you get better, actually, because Herman might learn some new licks and then I've got to learn them as well to play the harmony.

Songfacts: You just mentioned harmonies when it comes to guitar. Who would you say were also some of your influences as far as guitar harmonies? Iron Maiden?

Sam: For sure. That was the first band I got into that did that. That was what taught me how to put that into my own songs, definitely. Just because that was one of the first bands I started liking and they just happened to do that a lot. So that was how I realized, "This sounds cool." I'd get with my friends and we'd play all their songs. So that taught me without realizing it about harmony stuff.

Songfacts: What about Thin Lizzy and their guitar harmonies?

Sam: Yeah, they've got some cool stuff, definitely. I never got that into them, actually. But I know they have got some cool things, definitely.

Songfacts: Let's discuss the song "Through the Fire and Flames."

Herman: Long time, we're going back. We finished recording that song in 2005, September. Because I remember we had one more tour to do for the previous album. We had to finish the album before that tour kicked off.

Sam: And the funny thing is, when we finished that we didn't think, "Oh, this is going to be some big, popular song." Now it's a really well-known song, but when we finished that, we didn't think it was anything special. We kind of liked it. I guess we must have liked it the best on the album, that's why we put it first. But we didn't think, "Oh, wow, we've got some amazing hit here" or anything. We were just like, "Oh, it's another song like any." And I still don't think it's better than any of our other stuff.

Herman: But it's probably our most well-known song in the US.

Songfacts: What about the song "Heroes of Our Time"?

Sam: That was the album after Inhuman Rampage, and we said, "Alright, we've got to top everything we did on Rampage." That was the goal. So we actually said, "The first song on the album we've got to just go really extreme."

It's pretty over-the-top, especially the intro. We put everything we had onto the intro. No lie. Because we thought, "We've got to outdo 'Through the Fire and Flames.'" Not just that song, but all the ones on the first album.

Herman: That's a crazy song - the speeds, the solos - we were kind of surprised when it got a Grammy nomination, because we didn't expect that kind of music, so over-the-top, would fit into that kind of thing. So we were surprised when that whole Grammy thing happened.

Songfacts: What about the song "The Flame of Youth"?

Herman: Wow. "The Flame of Youth." I've got a funny story to say on that. We haven't played that song often.
DragonForce has had two lead singers. From 1999-2010, ZP Theart was the man behind the mic (appearing on the band's two most popular releases, 2006's Inhuman Rampage and 2008's Ultra Beatdown), before Marc Hudson took over in 2011. Since leaving DragonForce, ZP has formed his own band, I Am I.
Sam: We wanted to play it once.

Herman: We played it a few times. I think the first time we played it, it was in the middle of a tour. So we hadn't been playing it at every single show. We thought, "Let's play it," it was in Manchester in England.

Sam: It was in a big arena.

Herman: It was in a massive arena. And we had to start the song again, because we totally screwed it up! We screwed it up at the beginning. We just said, "Let's stop, let's do this again." And it was fine. [Laughing]

Sam: A lot of our songs will be a kind of follow-the-dots type of thing. It'll be G, C, B, E - this kind of thing. And that's how it ended up. Because we always adjust the key of a song to fit the singer's best vocal range. So you might write a song in one key, and then I'll write the vocal line, say, on the guitar. And then once you get the guy singing it, you realize you've got to change. And that song ended up in a really weird key. I don't even remember what it is. But it was one of those ones where my fingers were just going wherever they wanted to go. [Laughs] It's just what happened.

January 23, 2015. Get more at dragonforce.com.
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