DRAGONFORCE - "We Don't See Anything Wrong With Listening To Us"
August 20, 2014, a year ago
Mention UK-based power metal speedsters DragonForce in group conversation and somebody is bound to shriek or mumble "Guitar Hero" depending on their feelings towards the band's unique brand of metal. It's almost a bad cliché at this point, as some folks routinely bash DragonForce for "Through The Fire And Flames" becoming a video game hit that ultimately made them a big deal around the world. They've released three albums since Inhuman Rampage (2006) gave us their chart-approved hit, the latest being Maximum Overload featuring not-so-new vocalist Marc Hudson. It's unlikely fans will be disappointed with the album, but the diehards should be prepared a few sonic changes going in. Maximum Overload ranks as DragonForce's heaviest album to date, all at the frenzied yet capable hands of guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman.
BraveWords: You guys have been magnets for criticism from day one because you dared to be different - what some people consider obnoxious - by going completely over-the-top. Taking a classic song ("Ring Of Fire") from a legend like Johnny Cash and re-working it the way you have on Maximum Overload, you're throwing yourselves to the wolves to a degree. Some people love it, other people hate you for it. Big, seething hate.
Li: "I think after Guitar Hero things can't get any worse when it comes to insults (laughs). We can handle anything now."
BraveWords: So that Guitar Hero stigma still follows you around?
Li: "Sometimes one of us meets a girl in a bar and the only reason she might know of us is because of Guitar Hero, which is kind of cool (laughs). But we hear it all the time: 'DragonForce? They're that shitty band from Guitar Hero...' We also hear good things from that too, though, because people got into the band thanks to the game. We have a weird sense of humour anyway, so it's all cool with us."
BraveWords: Maximum Overload is heavier than expected for a DragonForce album, and it's the first time you worked with an outside producer. Jens Bogren has worked with Soilwork, Devin Townsend, Amon Amarth and Symphony X. How much of an influence did he have on the heavier direction?
Totman: "All the songs were written before we went to Jens. He didn't really push the songs in that way."
Li. "The mix on this album is different from the previous album. His production really worked to get the right guitar tones for these songs. He has a really good ear. The musical direction, we just wanted to be more diverse and added more and more influences, putting our own twist on them...."
Totman: "...And without losing the elements we had before. We still really like playing fast songs, but we want to try and do other things now because we've made so many records full of fast songs."
BraveWords: At some point you have to re-invent yourself to a certain degree, otherwise people are going to start saying "We don't need this band anymore, they have nothing new to say."
Totman: "Exactly. At the end of the day we're still playing the music we like, and that's really what it comes down to. I still like playing songs at 200 bpm, and there are still three or four of those on Maximum Overload because I still really like that style. We don't want people to get the idea that we've slowed down and put out something like Metallica's Black album or something, because it's definitely not that at all. There are still more fast songs than slow songs, for sure."
Li: "When Ultra Beatdown came out (in 2008), for me even now it's still the most over-the-top record. We made that album in that style, but we don't want to try and copy it. I think we had to go in a different direction."
BraveWords: Was there a lot of discussion involved as far as changing things up in the band's sound, or did you more or less just end up with a different animal?
Totman: "In the past I would just go away and write six or seven songs, and they were usually all fast, and then the other guys would write two or three. That would be the bulk of it because I'd do what I felt like. Before we even started Maximum Overload we actually decided we'd have four songs at 200 bpm, one mid-tempo song and so on, just to lay out the structure even though we didn't know what they were going to sound like. That's the cool thing about making music; you never know what the result is going to be until you're at the end."
BraveWords: It's one thing to write this kind of music, but I don't believe a producer of Jens Bogren's caliber is going to keep his mouth shut if he thinks something would work better on a song. Did he have that kind of input?
Totman: "Definitely. When we first sent him the demos he did pull them apart here and there. Just because I'm used to been in control for so long, it doesn't mean I'm going to say 'Nope, sorry mate, we're not doing that.' There were a few times where we actually said that Jens' ideas were better that what we'd come up with. In the end we both agreed there are some ideas you can let go of, and others you can't. And that's from both points of view. For example, on the chorus of 'The Game' that goes into what Jens calls the 'happy part,' Jens thought it was stupid. He felt it would be enough to just have the first section, but I told him that it wasn't a DragonForce chorus without the happy bit. But, there were other songs where I let certain things go because he felt he had a better idea, even though I would have preferred things my way. If you can't do that sort of thing there's no point in going out and getting yourself a producer."
BraveWords: Your attitude towards the upcoming tour with Epica is an echo of your attitude towards the album production. Very open-minded. On paper the tour looks ridiculous but it could work out really well.
Li: "We don't usually tour with band that sound similar to us, at least we try not to. We've been out with Turisas, Sabaton and Slipknot, so we always try to change things up. We thought it would be interesting to go out a play with Epica, make some new fans. I've never understood these shows where you've got five bands all going 'RAAAAAHHHH!!' I understand it's a scene thing, but musically for us it's not challenging to go out with bands that sound similar to us. We don't see anything wrong with listening to us. We're cool people, we have a laugh, we're not boring, it's not a bad thing to know us (laughs)."
BraveWords: This is Marc Hudson's second record with you. Did he have more creative input this time instead of just coming in and singing songs that were already finished?
Totman: "You've pretty much got it. The last album (The Power Within) was more difficult because we didn't even know what key the songs needed to be in for his voice. We didn't know what his best range was yet. It was much easier on Maximum Overload. Marc didn't actually write songs, although he did hel out with some lyrics on 'The Game'. He wasn't so involved with the music, but because he had the experience of the last album it definitely made recording so much easier. He did add some small details to the songs with his vocals when we were recording."
Li: "We worked with Marc all through the pre-production for Maximum Overload, so it wasn't like he had nothing to say about the songs. One of the ways he improved between the last album and this one is we let him do a lot of recording at home, and most of the stuff he sent us was awesome. We actually didn't expect to give a singer the freedom to record himself without us around moaning and saying 'You should do this and that...' This is only his second album with us, so that happened really quickly."
BraveWords: So, who's the better guitar player, Sam or Herman?
Totman: "Me, obviously (laughs)."
Li: "There are so many aspects of playing guitar and we're both good at different things, which is how we divide the parts."
Totman: "For example, Herman is better at doing the dive-bombs and all the crazy stuff, so if there's a part on a song that calls for something like that, I'd rather that he does it."
BraveWords: That's where I was going. You're both prolific songwriters and talented players, and you obviously leave your egos at the door, but what's the breakdown for songwriting?
Totman: "It's for the good of the song, really. There's no sort of competition between us. Even in the beginning we didn't think that way; we decided one of us would sound better on the first part of a solo, the other on the second part, and so on. We've always been concerned about what sounds best for the listener rather that our own egos."
BraveWords: It's interesting that DragonForce has been around this long, and there aren't really any copycat bands out there...
Li: "I guess DragonForce isn't something that you can copy so quickly or so easily. There are a lot more elements in this kind of stuff compared to traditional metal or black metal. There have been a few bands that have come out and sort of sounded similar, but it's weird when I hear that we've influenced other bands. Now I meet people from known bands and they tell me they got into Valley Of The Damned (2003) when they were teenagers."
Totman: "A few years ago I was thinking that some young guys are going to come along, play the same stuff we're doing and get much bigger than us. It seems that we've acually influenced people to go off and put something from us into their own sound, which is very cool."
Li: "Maybe people who listen to DragonForce are quite clever. They go and develop their own style without becoming a copycat."