Latest Release:Maximum Overload (3Wise Records)
Nobody does over the top technical wizardry and power metal shenanigans in a live show quite like UK band DragonForce. As regular visitors to Australia, it is not surprising to learn that another tour in support of their latest album beckons at some point. However, whilst their striving for both performance and recorded perfection has not changed, their approach is certainly evolving. Guitarist Sam Totman, one half of the guitar shredding duo completed by co-guitarist Herman Li, spoke to Loud on the eve of their new, jaw droppingly fast, album release.
A lot people probably know of DragonForce firstly from the Guitar Hero game.
Yeah, that brought us a bunch of new fans and it was kind of a funny thing. We were kind of well established before all of that came along and then it blew up even bigger just because of that one song on the game. I guess it exposed the music to a lot of people how had probably never heard it before and we sold a lot more records as a result so we can’t complain but at the same time it put a few people off. If I was a seventeen year old metal fan and then my younger sister starts playing Guitar Hero, I’d definitely say, ‘oh man, this sucks.’ We can’t really whinge as it was a good thing.
Putting it into context, the latest album, Maximum Overload, is quite different. It has piano and a cover of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ so it has some unexpected variety.
Oh yeah, exactly. We always try to change things around a bit on each album. We don’t want to stay the same but we don’t want to lose what we are known for either. We still have the big choruses and epic choirs and all the solos but on every album we have some new ideas like a piano section. We experiment more within the instrumental sections whilst we keep the basic songs as the same sort of stuff that people know but really, we mainly play songs that we enjoy so if other people like it, that’s bonus really.
How do you reckon Johnny Cash fans will react to covering a classic Cash song?
Ah, I don’t know, actually. If you don’t like our kind of music you probably won’t like our version of that song anyway because we basically turned it into one of our own songs. You can never know how people will react. Some people will think it is cool whereas some people will think it is a pile of shit. We liked it and thought it’d be pretty fun to do so we’ll see what happens, I guess.
Speaking of changing things around, did getting in a new producer of Jens Bogren and recording in Sweden, instead of using Karl Groom [Threshold] cause any concerns?
I didn’t even want to get a producer myself since we’ve produced all of the other ones pretty much half by ourselves and I’d like to think we did a decent job. But Herman [Li – guitarist] was saying, ‘oh no, we should change it around, we can’t do the same thing forever’, so we agreed but I was a bit worried that it would turn out worse. I learnt to trust him a bit and the good thing was that he had never produced a band like us before. If we had gone to someone that had worked with Hammerfall or Stratovarius, it would have been someone insisting on power metal. Since Jens hadn’t done that stuff, we got something new and quite cool but I don’t think it sounds like the other records he has produced either. It was a gamble working with someone new but at I like the end result and think it turned out really well.
It has a clear and crisp sound to it. How much of that is down to rehearsing material?
All the stuff is written before we go to the studio and we fine tune it a little bit whilst in there. Everything is pretty much planned out and even if we’re in the studio writing or changing a riff a little bit, it is all very precise. I guess we’ve always been perfectionists and by the time we got to doing the previous album [The Power Within], we were at a ridiculous level of getting everything perfect, playing every note of it a hundred times if we had to and it was so spot on. The one difference on this album, which has made life easier for us, is that Jens would tell us that parts we’d played were fine and to just leave it instead of thinking it could be played better. So in the end we had to just trust him that he wasn’t going to put anything sloppy on the record. It was just that our level of perfection had gotten ridiculous. In a way, that might give it a more live energy to the record.
How did you get trapped into that rut of over analysing things initially?
The main thing was because we were on our own time schedule to finish the records. We had as much time as we wanted to finish the guitars at Herman’s own studio in his house. So, there was really no time limit on how perfect we could make it. I’d play one bar a hundred times to make it right and so it took us forever to make an album. You can’t help it though so that is why it is good having someone else say, ‘no, that is good enough’ and it was quite refreshing, actually.
I read that some solos were recorded on Zoltan Bathory’s [Five Finger Death Punch – guitarist] yacht?
Yeah, that was pretty funny. He was sick of sitting in his studio and Herman knows him quite well since he is over there [America] quite a lot. I thought it was kind of a dumb idea but he said that because he was recording it somewhere new or even funny, it made him sort of happier on that day to come up with things. It was a bit of a gimmick but if it got the job done, then I guess that is cool. It didn’t change the solo that much but it was just the fact that he was happy and in the middle of the sea that made him a bit more enthusiast about it.
Some styles of shred guitar can sound tinny. How do you ensure there’s some punch to your sound when the solos kick in so that you don’t lose any power?
Well, I’m not really gear and sound guy. We’ve always had different roles in the band. I’ll do a lot of the writing and I would often turn to Herman and say, ‘you can sort out the sounds’ since I don’t know much about amplifiers. He’s really into that so we all have our own strengths. As far as the pedals and effects used are concerned, I mainly leave that up to the producer and the engineer. It seems to then turn out as it does.
You’ve got a new drummer on board with Gee Anzalone replacing Dave Mackintosh who left after playing on the latest album. Are you nervous about playing live with a new drummer at all?
We’ve got rehearsals for a month before we start touring. We tried him out a couple of times and because he is from Italy, it doesn’t take too long to fly over to England. He is an amazing drummer and we saw him playing a couple of years ago before we even knew that Dave was going to leave the band. We also saw a video of him on YouTube playing one of our fastest, most difficult songs. Fred [Frédéric Leclercq– bassist] and I were looking at drummers online one day and said to each other, ‘if we ever need a new drummer, we’ve got to get this guy’ and then Dave decided to leave so we checked if Gee was available. We are sad to see Dave go and we are still great friends with him but we were also really excited to have a chance to get Gee to join. It is kind of exciting and we’re looking to people seeing him play because he is really impressive.
Speaking of playing live, any chance of another tour to Australia?
We’ll definitely be there. The touring is getting planned currently. We’re doing the UK and Europe until just up to Christmas. I can’t say when we’ll get there exactly yet but we come down for every album so we’ll definitely be doing that and it’ll probably be announced in the next month or so. It’ll next year, probably sooner than later.
The album itself is getting a special edition release with bonus tracks. Can you elaborate on those tracks?
The thing with those bonus tracks is that we had so many ideas whilst doing this album. We actually wrote fourteen songs. It wasn’t like we wrote ten and then wrote four crappy bonus tracks. We actually wrote the full fourteen with the goal that would all be equally as good. The ones that ended up being bonus tracks simply didn’t quite fit with the running order of the album. If ten songs aren’t enough, people can get the special edition. There is one ballad on the special edition that I think is pretty cool which didn’t quite make sense for planning the album out so it became a bonus song. I’m sounding like a salesman now saying, ‘these are all top quality songs’ [in faux sales voice].
What is the most cohesive album of the back catalogue for you?
To be honest, apart from with the very first album [Valley of the Damned] where we didn’t really know what we were doing quite so much and there are things about it I’d change, I wouldn’t change any of the albums. We were kind of lucky and it would be a bummer to look back on albums wanting to change things. I can honestly say we have gotten better over the years but I think all the albums turned out showing where we were as band at the time.
How about with particular songs? Anything that was a winner right from the start?
Yeah, that does change because sometimes demos don’t always turn out as expected or how you’d thought it would sound. Other ones will be a surprise. For example, our most well known song ‘Through the Fire and Flames’ I remember that at the demo stage it was just called ‘Song Three’ and we didn’t even think it was particularly great. That was an unexpected one that turned out much better than what I thought it would. On the new record, I really like the song ‘Three Hammers’.
The ‘Three Hammers’ song is interesting how it changes styles from a power ballad to thrash metal.
The idea of that song stems from ‘Cry of Thunder’ on the previous record. It had that kind of slower and not typically fast stuff. That worked really well live because playing really fast stuff at festivals can get kind of lost or blown around by the wind. So, we tried an epic slower some which worked. So we thought we should do another one like that. It turned out really well with a new producer as the choirs made it sound really big. When we were writing it, we decided to put a thrash section in the middle to make it less typical power metal or whatever you call it. The obvious thing to do would have been to keep doing the same drumbeat, play a couple of leads and then go back to the chorus. We decided to do something weird. I don’t know what the fans of the kind of music will think but I guess we will find out.
How would you say your style has changed in say the last decade or more?
I think the best thing about it is that we haven’t changed that much. I think we’ve improved it and we’ve just gotten better at our instruments and at working with new ideas. I’m not a fan of a band changing too much which is why I think Slayer is really cool because they’ve stuck to what they do and they still put out good music. So I guess that is what I think is good about DragonForce in that we haven’t lost the thing that people liked in the first place and we’re still trying to bring new things to it as well, if that makes sense.