Written by Lucas P. Jones
In 1999, two guitarists, Herman Li and Sam Totman, came together to form a band named DragonHeart. After fifteen years, various line-up adjustments and one name change, DragonForce has become one of the most well-known power metal bands in the world.
In 2003 they were signed to Noise Records and released their first album, Valley of the Damned. They very quickly went on to establish themselves as rising stars in the power metal genre. Their insanely fast, yet melodic guitar solos, matched with furious drumming and powerful vocals were a recipe for success, spawning two more albums in a few short stretch of time; Sonic Firestorm in 2004, and Inhuman Rampage in 2006. While they were already quite successful, the inclusion of their song “Through the Fire and Flames” as the final track in Guitar Hero 3 made them a household name. (Authors Note: I still have not beaten the GH3 version of this track. It haunts my dreams.)
Their latest effort, Maximum Overload, was released on August 19th. I was given the opportunity to speak with guitar player Sam Totman, one of the founding members of the band. We spoke about how he first picked up the guitar, the founding of the band, the most recent album, and most importantly, who might win should we ever dare to pit him against fellow DragonForce shredder, Herman Li.
When did you first pick up the guitar? Were you self-taught?
Sam Totman: Well, it’s kind of funny, I actually didn’t want to play it. My parents said to me, you got to play sports or learn an instrument when I was ten years old or something, and I wasn’t too into sports, so I decided to play an instrument. I don’t know why I chose to play guitar to be honest, but I was learning classical guitar. My dad was very musical, and I started doing that when I was ten, and I didn’t dislike it, but I would rather have not done it. I would have rather play video games instead of going to guitar lessons. When I got into metal music when I was about fifteen, then I was like, “Oh cool, now I can actually play stuff I like.” It was cool to have a head start, I didn’t have to start from nothing. I started listening to Iron Maiden and I wanted to play that, and I already knew my way around the fretboard of the guitar, and even though I was doing classical, it still made life a little easier. So that’s kind of how I got started. And after I got into metal music, I just started learning everything I listened to, I wanted to play it all.
How did you parents feel about your switch from classical to heavy metal guitar?
ST: I carried on doing classical until I left school, and I even went to music college for it, just because I didn’t really pass any other exams, they said, “Go to music college because you can’t do anything else.” (Laughs) So I carried on playing classical until I was like 19 or something. But I really didn’t enjoy it much, and I didn’t enjoy music college much, because you had to learn a lot of classical music on not just the guitar. I had to learn piano and I was pretty useless at that. They knew I was into metal anyway, so they didn’t really care. But I guess they were happy because I was playing music and I was enjoying it.
How did DragonForce get its start? How did the band come together?
ST: Well it was me and Herman, we were in a different band. I had a black metal band, and the reason I met Herman is because we wanted him to join that band, so I met him from that. And then we said, “Let’s start like a kind of melodic band.” So I went and wrote some songs, some of the songs on our first album, and we just got some other guys together. So it was really just me and Herman who started it. And we found the singer, he was in the rehearsal room, on the wall, [as in] when people put ads on the rehearsal room walls. We found our old singer that way. And the other guys, we just kind of knew them, they were friends and stuff. That was the original line-up, but it’s different now anyway. But that was how it started.
Did the inclusion of “Through the Fire and Flames” in Guitar Hero 3 have any effect on your popularity as a band?
ST: We definitely sold more records because of it, which was pretty cool. We got a bunch of new fans, who might not have heard of us in the first place. But we were already kind of really established before that came along. So I don’t know, I think we just got a bunch of new fans because of it. A lot of them weren’t real huge metal fans. It’s ike when you get a single in the commercial world, you get a lot of people who only like that song. Not everyone who liked the song went out and bought the album, that’s for sure. That’s kind of normal, not everyone is into metal, so that’s fair.
Moving towards the newest album, Maximum Overload, the guitars sound much heavier. How did you achieve that?
ST: We did do quite a lot of songs with seven strings [seven string guitars have an extra string, giving them a lower range of notes], but we always had a little bit on the other albums as well. We definitely used it a bit more on this album. The production may have also helped it sound a bit heavier. The new producer we have, that’s just his sound really. Probably a combination of both of those things.
Both you and Herman are known for your incredible technical skill, but also for some unique sounds that make it into a few of your tracks. Specifically, a section of “Extraction Zone” has a chip-tune, 8-bit sounding breakdown. How do these sounds get created?
ST: Everything that happens is just because we think it sounds good. That particular section started off on just guitar that was actually Fred (Leclercq) the bass player, he wrote that on the guitar, it was a nice chilling out kind of thing. But we couldn’t really decide what to do with it until the lead guitars come in, then obviously it’s standard guitar soloing. But before that we just had this nice acoustic guitar strumming stuff. What can we do over that? We don’t want to have solos over that, so our producer came up with the idea of us putting an 8-bit loop on it, off of a keyboard sample. Then after that we said, well, we haven’t done the video game noises that we were kind of known for, we didn’t do many on last album at all. So we decided to bring a lot of stuff back, and put it all in the same song.
Does that 8-bit sound come from a lot of video game influence? Is that why you often gravitate towards that?
ST: Yeah, that’s what we grew up on, because we’re…old. I shouldn’t say that, but I just love that sound because that’s what I grew up playing. Even when I was young, I used to record games on to a cassette so I could walk around and listen to the music on my Walkman. Even though I was playing the game, I still wanted to hear the music, because it was really cool. I would go around to my friends’ houses who had different games and record their music, and I would learn a lot of them on my guitar. Playing these songs would be part of the fun, I’d be learning Metallica and stuff, and then I would play a song from a game I was into. It’s a case of, you make a noise on the guitar that is a mistake, but you say ‘Oh man that sounds cool, let’s keep that.’ We just play what’s fun.
Yeah, it’s cool to hear those throwback sounds. That’s the stuff I grew up on, so it always puts a smile on my face to hear that kind of stuff.
ST: Yeah exactly. I love it, it’s always been really cool
The last song on the album is a surprising cover, it’s a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”. How did that idea come about?
ST: Well, it was kind of two things. The first thing is, we never did a cover in the past. A lot of the albums I had in my collection, they always had a bonus track or a B-side that was a cover, and they seemed like 90% of them played the song exactly the same, same tempo and everything. And that’s fine, but as a fan, I never wanted to listen to that more than once or twice just to check it out. So we thought, if we are going to do a cover, we want people to enjoy it as much of the rest of the album, even though it’s not written by DragonForce. So that was kind of the idea. The reason it happened to be that song, it happened by accident. I was watching TV and that came on. I heard the chorus, and I was looking for a cover anyway to do. But when I heard the chorus, I was like, oh man that could actually work. Even though it’s a different style of music, when I heard the vocal line, and the chords behind it, and even the lyrics kind of suit us. We have a lot of songs with “fire” in the title anyway. And I just thought that it could work as a fast DragonForce song. The bridge, verses, and intro I had to put into a minor key so that they could play like a typical DragonForce song, which starts off minor, then gets happier in the chorus. But the whole thing came together very quickly. Put down the chords, put a fast drum beat behind it, and the whole thing came together in about 15 minutes. That was the main idea, we really wanted to do a cover that people could enjoy even if they didn’t like or know the original. We didn’t want it to be on the bonus tracks for that reason.
You guys are known for your extremely fast, yet melodic solos. How do you and Herman write the solos? Do you write them in software and learn them, or does it come off of the cuff?
ST:We don’t write them in software, we do work them out on guitar. I just work them out really slowly. I’ll do a bar of this, then a bar of a melodic passage, then some tapping, and it’s quite mathematical. I sort of take each bar as I come to it, and I’ll write it with pro tools. When I’m happy with the bars, I’ll kind of learn the whole thing from start to finish so I can play it all in one go from start to finish. And that’s what goes onto the album. With Herman, he won’t improvise on the album. But he’ll sit there and play a bunch of improvisation, then decide which one is the best. So we are quite different in how we play them.
So what’s next for DragonForce? Where will your tour dates be for the Maximum Overload tour?
ST: We will be over in the states for sure. The UK and Europe will take us up to Christmas. We always come to the states at least twice for each album. We are just kind of doing UK and Europe first, because we always do the states first and Europe gets, well not pissed off, but they say, oh man why do you guys always go there first? So we figured we’d do them first, just to keep everyone happy. I think we will be over in the states next year, as early as January actually. We are planning a tour at the moment with another really cool band. I don’t want to say anything in case things change, but as it’s being organized now, it’s a really cool package.
Last question. In a no holds barred, gloves off, guitar solo competition between you and Herman, who comes out on top?
ST: Well, me of course (Laughs). I have to say, I really think we are quite different. It isn’t really a competition, although it kind of is with the way we structure the solos, one right after another. So I think it’s more a matter of what you prefer, but I think I’m much better (laughs). But we definitely have very different styles, but over the years it’s funny how we have become more similar over the years. A lot of our solos are harmonized, so I have to learn something that he has written, and he has to learn something that I’ve written, and that was something we talked about the other day. That we are starting to turn into the same player a lot of the time. But there is loads of stuff that he can do that I can’t, stuff I can do that he can’t. But we’ve never really thought of it as a competition; it’s always just been what’s best for the album, rather than, oh I’ll do this and yours will be shit after that. If people want to think it’s a competition, they can I guess.