KILL SCREEN 030: Herman Li of DRAGONFORCE Bestows His Power to Decibel’s Nerdiest Column

Photo by Travis Shinn

You know the song. Hell, just by reading that previous sentence, you likely have its unmistakable intro playing in your head this very moment. Having been covered on practically every traditional and experimental instrument by people of all ages, races, and genders around the world, “Through the Fire and Flames” by power metal champions DragonForce is quite possibly one of the most recognizable metal songs ever. But before YouTube, Twitch and TikTok became the vectors for people to take their shot at reimagining its lightning fast solos and sky-high melodies, the gaming community—both its casual and hardcore camps—were strumming along to power metal’s oncoming resurgence with click-y plastic guitars thanks to 2007’s rhythm juggernaut Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (which also featured Decibel’s branding, for those true fans out there). Players could only experience the song after completing the game’s career mode, and the eye-watering difficulty of its expert level difficulty setting proved a challenge few were talented enough to face, but many were eager to witness. The challenge associated with the track turned it into a staple for dozens of future rhythm games, its ubiquity evidenced by its use in a recent Despicable Me 4 trailer, making it a benchmark for aspiring pro-level players.

It’s been over 16 years since the release of Neversoft’s magnum opus and though many of our plastic guitars are collecting dust in some forgotten corner of our living spaces, DragonForce and founding member Herman Li are still going strong. With their upcoming ninth full-length record Warp Speed Warriors due to be released on March 15 via new label home Napalm Records, the international power metal quintet have fully embraced and absorbed their love of interactive media. The band’s elaborate stage show includes oversized arcade cabinets, their videos come packed with retro console references and entire songs are devoted to some of gaming’s most popular titles. Video games part of what gives the band their—well—power, and that power comes from a place of true love. It was inevitable that the co-nerds of this column would seek out Li—one of gaming’s earliest and most visible flag bearers within the metal community, and vice versa—to discuss his past, present and future XP in digital entertainment.

What? Kill Screen is evolving! It is with much pride and excitement that we are expanding beyond the virtual realm and stepping into analog media as a monthly column in Decibel Magazine! Don’t worry, nerds—the majority of Kill Screen’s content will remain free-to-play, but now monthly subscribers will be treated to an exclusive bit of DLC only available in print. Our first entry (dB234/April 2024) sees Li explaining why the video game industry needs metal—and vice versa. If you don’t want to miss any of the action (or role-playing, or horror, or…), be sure to sign up for a Decibel subscription. Thanks for playing and we’ll see you in the next level!

What was your first gaming experience?
My first gaming experience was the Nintendo [Game & Watch], which is a tiny, little device that is portable. It’s got a fold-out kind of [kickstand], and you put it on the desk. We’re talking about the ’80s, right? I was probably four years old, five years old. My memories are pretty blurry down there, but that is definitely the first gaming experience I remember. I had the single-screen one and my cousins had the Donkey Kong orange fold-out one. It folds out and you can go up the screen and you go, Holy shit, this is amazing! It doesn’t even have pixels. It’s just one character [that] lights up to the next character that goes up and down. It’s an early Nintendo little game. Just one game that you catch a ball or something like that.

At what point did you realize that video games were an important part of your life, that it’s part of your identity?
I knew it was part of my identity when people were making fun of me in school, I guess. They basically were doing my accent, making fun of me, talking about video games. Because back then, playing video games wasn’t cool. And when I went to a school back in London at that point, I actually couldn’t speak English yet. My fluent languages were Cantonese and French. So for them, they were just making fun of my accent while [talking about] whatever video game I was talking about. I was probably about 12, 13 years old then. It’s like, Okay, well, I guess I’m different here.

That’s a brutal memory.
Yeah, you know, funny enough, just while we talk about brutal memories, I said that to my wife the other day: My childhood is mostly made of brutal memories only. And the other one I remember really well from my early days was when my dad threw the Atari 2600 game console out of the house. I still remember this.

Why did he do that?
I guess me and my sister were playing it a lot. And, you know, the old boomer generation, anything that’s different, it’s like drugs or some kind of something like that. Parents, right? I don’t know if you guys are parents or not, but first they want something to shut the kids up. It’s like, Don’t bother me, thank fuck for that. And then once they get into it, they don’t understand it. It’s like, Oh, fuck this. We’re going to throw this away. So I remember that traumatic memory still now.

What have you been playing lately, if anything? I know that you’re a very busy guy.
I’ve been playing the Nintendo Switch, actually. I’ve been playing [Ghosts ’n Goblins Resurrection]. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with that on the Nintendo arcade. It’s fucking hard. I mean, that game is so fucking hard. And I am good at games, and so is [guitarist] Sam [Totman]. He can go to the arcade and finish Ghouls ’n Ghosts with one credit. Like, go through all the levels. And he couldn’t. He finished it on the hardest [difficulty]. It was Legend, I think was the old-school level [of difficulty]. You get hit once and then once more, you’re dead. I started that way and I had to back down in the end. I couldn’t believe how hard they made that game. It’s almost like they don’t want to sell that game. They were sticking to the rules of, This is a real game. This is not for people that give up easily.

Do you have a fondness for that kind of NES difficulty?
Yeah, you know, I find games a bit too easy these days, in a certain way. No game is easy—you play [a] first-person [shooter] online, someone’s going to kick your ass. But a lot of the solo mission games, you don’t die very often. I like some of the old games, old-school challenge. I love bullet hell games. And I love bullet hell games where you don’t get to come back when you’re dead where you left off. You gotta go back to the beginning and think of what to do. It’s like, “Here’s a puzzle. It happens every time this way. Can you solve it?”

Do you see any parallel between that and learning an instrument? Obviously you’re not exactly playing at the slowest BPMs. Do you think the two have any correlation?
You know, the “no giving up” attitude definitely helped me practice guitar because the guitar is easy to start, but then it gets harder and harder. And as you get older, it becomes even harder to maintain that level. And you need to have that “no giving up” attitude to be in the band and playing the music we do. Because when we started DragonForce, we were so uncool. Again, people [were] making fun of us playing guitar solos and singing about high melodic stuff. It seems like everything we do, there has to be some kind of obstacle. It’s never easy for us for some reason. [Laughs]

On that point, you kind of embraced video game culture very early on in DragonForce’s career. It’s been part of the core aesthetic of the band for two decades now. Was there any point at which that association was seen as a deterrent?
When the third album came out, Inhuman Rampage, with “Through the Fire and Flames,” the amount of insults we received was pretty extreme, that people were calling us nerd metal, nerds and stuff like that. And I remember on our own DragonForce forum, on our own website, when that album came out, some fans just said, “This is the worst album I ever heard from DragonForce. This is terrible. Why are there all these stupid video game sounds they’re doing on the guitar?” Actually, they said keyboard. They didn’t know I actually made it on the guitar. They were just fucking losing their mind, our own fans. And then it’s like, “Well, haven’t you heard the video game influence in the first two albums? We just took it to another step.” And obviously, it didn’t bother me, either. Eh, whatever. This is metal.

People even coined the term “Nintendo metal” because of the sounds that you were making. Did that ever get under your skin, or did you kind of take that as a point of pride? You’re emulating these sounds so well on your guitar that people thought that it was keyboards.
It didn’t bother me. I thought it was pretty cool. We came up with something that was different at that time. And it stood out, right? You really kind of divided the crowd here. I mean, it’s kind of strange because of how big the video games industry even was at that point, that people and a lot of metal fans played video games. Some people just couldn’t put the two together, that it’s okay, that we’re inspired beyond just power metal, thrash metal, death metal. We actually listened to that kind of music that it incorporated. So, we never even thought about it. We just did what we thought sounded cool in our mind. And we always enjoyed the gaming music back then.

Video games have been very crucial to not only your sound, but also your visual aesthetic. You bring out arcade cabinets, and a lot of your videos have incorporated either arcades or video game imagery. “Heart Demolition” was basically a love letter to the Sega Genesis. Why have they become part of the DragonForce DNA? Why not just pull from general fantasy or general retro-futuristic kinds of storytelling?
We’re kind of introverts. We don’t really like to talk about ourselves that much. We do the music, but there’s still a limit, right? I actually didn’t do Instagram, I really didn’t do Facebook at all. I just didn’t care about publicizing my life. And in 2018, I thought, Fuck it. I’m going to do what I want to do. I’m going to stream on Twitch, play video games, play guitar, do social media and stuff. And we’re just going to be who we are to the max.

So it’s like, “What are we going to do for our shows? What do we like?” Video games. “What’s cool?” Well, some ’80s videos, they do guitar solos on their sports car. Well, fuck it—we’re going to do an arcade machine, but bigger than anyone else’s arcade machine, and just add to it and just be ourselves and not worried about what people think about us. We never worry about what people think about us musically, but we’re not the loudest people in the party. If we go to one, we’re pretty nerdy. [Laughs]

“Some ’80s videos, they do guitar solos on their sports car. Well, fuck it—we’re going to do an arcade machine, but bigger than anyone else’s arcade machine, and just add to it and just be ourselves and not worried about what people think about us.”

You’ve been streaming consistently on Twitch, you’ve done incredibly well on YouTube, but you’re very focused on guitar playing. You do some gaming, but it’s not as much of the content that you do. Is there any nervousness that comes with playing a video game in front of an audience? Is it more nerve-wracking to stream yourself playing a game on Twitch than it is being in front of thousands of fans and playing guitar at a show?
Well, actually, the hardest way to play the guitar is actually on Twitch in front of a small amount of people that you can’t see. It’s recorded—they can clip it if you fuck up. You are there, you’re just on your own. There’s nothing to distract you [or] distract them from what you’re doing. And it was a great learning experience doing that. When I first started doing Twitch, I would delete anything I played because I can’t look back. I go, This is not really good, this is eh, this is not perfect. I used to delete the VOD of me playing. And then slowly I kind of got used to it and understood it. It’s really a skill to be able to perform for a video being recorded and for a live stream. They’re kind of two different things. And I got better at that. I was very self-conscious about that.

And then people wanted to see the music stuff, of course, because there are a lot of video gamers on Twitch and not many people doing guitars. So, I carry on doing that and a lot of music content, from fixing the guitar—pulling it apart, putting it together—to just playing DragonForce songs or improvising, having a lot of guests during the pandemic. That was pretty wild, how much live jamming we did. I learned a lot from the “gaming” platform. And the reason I did Twitch was because I felt more comfortable here on Twitch than on Instagram where I have to take a really cool, good-looking photo of me and filter the fuck out of it to make sure the algorithm will take me in and spread it. It’s so lame.

It’s a whole world that we will never understand, social media. We’re fairly happy living under this rock. We’ll keep doing that.
I would love to live as a nobody in a certain way, but at the same time, it’s my job. I want people to hear the music. So it became like, You know what? I’ll find something that I actually can do that I like doing.

You mentioned Nintendo Switch. Does the Switch come out with you on tour?
I’m playing the Switch because I have a four-year-old daughter. Nintendo games are much more fitting for kids and I don’t want her to be growing up with parents that say, “You can’t play games.” I’ll learn to control that child, the screaming and stuff like that—I can do it. I do have two gaming laptop PCs, so I don’t really take the Switch out at the moment. I just leave it at home. But I like some of the games that are on the Switch, so it’s good.

Are you able to get any time on the gaming laptops when you’re out on the road?
Yeah, I have a little tray and I put it in the bunk so it doesn’t overheat and I would bring a controller and just play some games in the bunk sometimes if I don’t want to deal with all the partying. It’s kind of uncool—there’s people partying, getting drunk, downstairs in the bus, and I’m playing video games by myself in my bunk. [Laughs]

What’s the go-to title for avoiding the party?
I love the arcade games and stuff like that, but on the last tour, I was playing Cyberpunk [2077], just doing a little bit of that, getting away from the party. I’ve done enough parties. Trust me: Anyone that thinks Herman hasn’t done any parties, I’ve done enough in my career. I just want to do something without talking to someone for a while. [Laughs]

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that your guitar playing is very influenced by Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Tony McAlpine. Are there any game composers [or] chiptune composers that have influenced your songwriting in any capacity?
I wouldn’t say any particular composer in the video games. To be honest, I haven’t paid attention who wrote the song, but the best music for me, the most tuneful ones, are the ones on the 8-bit and 16-bit machines. When it became orchestrated [and] you have full samples, when CDs started [playing] games, there’s less imagination than the “blip-blop-blop” melodies. To do “blip-blop-blop” good good songs, you have to have great melodies because you have so little sound to play with. I’m not saying that stuff [that came] after is not good, but for me, my favorite is that era, because those games were super hard as well, so you hear those songs again and again. You don’t just hear it once and you move on. It’s like, Oh, fuck, here I go again. So it can’t suck because you’re playing those levels repeatedly.

I think you’re absolutely correct—the limitation of those really breeds that kind of innovation. Obviously it’s a different set of circumstances because you’re playing a completely different instrument, but do you ever impose any of those kinds of restrictions when you’re coming up with a new DragonForce tune?
I mean, we’re restricted to the guitar, to what it is. In our approach, it’s kind of the same way. The melody’s got to be catchy so you can hear it again and again, but also the first time you hear it, you already feel it. Subconsciously, we ended up writing guitars that way so it is melodic. And then the little weird noises, even if you have one melody, it comes back again later, played differently, but the same melody, to make it more interesting at the same time. We try to break out of that, too, so it’s not a copy and paste job. That’s the weakness in a lot of that electronic music—copy and paste. It just sounds the same again and again and again.

DragonForce has written songs about Castlevania, StarCraft, Legend of Zelda, Elder Scrolls. Are there any games that you would have liked to write a song about or would like to write a song about that maybe wouldn’t fit the sound or the look of DragonForce?
It’s kind of weird, actually. Every time we get asked by a game company to do something related to video games—we did the Beat Saber thing [“Power of the Saber Blade”], I did the thing for World of Warcraft [“Arthas, My Son”], it was a cover—they want it to sound like DragonForce. It’s like, “We want it to sound like DragonForce. We don’t want you to do someone else, we want you to do you with that.” And me personally, too, I don’t want to do someone else—then it just becomes unoriginal. There’s so many other gaming composers out there that’s going to make that. You can say every song sounds the same—we’ll put that into that, too, you know. If we’re going to do it, it’s going to have our trademark sound. I actually can’t allow myself to not do that.

You mentioned the Beat Saber song. How did this come about?
I actually went up to one of the gaming conferences up in San Francisco. That was just before the pandemic, and I actually went to talk to the Beat Saber guy, the guy who owns the game or made the game, and also AUIDCA—Harmonix—I went up to them. I knew they had a rhythm game coming out, and they’re both VR, funnily enough. I got meetings with them to try to get DragonForce into these games because, myself, I think it’s a cool thing to do. And our fans, our audiences there, they appreciate it being there. So, each time we made it, we made it a harder song for each of the games. So we’re kind of pretty evil, when you think about it.

It’s pretty fair to say that “Through the Fire and Flames” is probably one of the most—if not the most—recognizable song off of the Guitar Hero 3 soundtrack and it’s universally understood within the gaming community to be this kind of anthem for difficulty. What is it about that song in particular that you feel has made it stand the test of time? Not to the detriment of any of the other songs on the soundtrack, but what made that one stand out so much in comparison to the others?
I believe it’s the challenge. We talk about games being too easy sometimes? That was hard even in easy. When you finish the game, it just blew your mind. I played it, too, and it’s like, Shit, what the fuck did this guy do, you know? [Laughs] And it really worked. It was such a fun game and so many people had incredible memories—from being a kid playing with their family to playing with their friends in college. For that song, it holds so many amazing memories for people, which helped the success of this song. Even up to now, it’s still heavily played. I saw a video on YouTube the other day—someone made a compilation of 40 games that have “Through the Fire and Flames” in it, and they put it together and cut it up from the game itself. They created the song again fully, but from each game section. A lot of time spent on that video to cut each part of that song from that game and then put it together. There’s people still making content, but it’s still being covered a lot on different instruments and all that. Anyone want to make fun of me for being a one hit wonder? I say it’s fucking great, you know? Thank you!

You must have had so many people tell you stories about that song or playing the game in yesteryear. No doubt some people have said, “I got into the band because of that song.” Do you find that an interesting way to hear new music, or is it no different than hearing it on the radio or being exposed to it in somebody’s car or from a friend or whatever?
I think it’s great because at that point when they asked me about playing on Guitar Hero 3, I had already played 1 and 2 on the PlayStation 2. I knew exactly what that was, and I thought it would make a difference. I didn’t know what they were going to do with the song, if it was going to be a harder song or not. But that harder song made people listen to it again and again and again and again that it became such a huge thing. The views on it, it’s just insane, even up to now. You’ve got a million something views per month. And I have heard so many stories—it’s kind of heartbreaking—“I used to play my dad, and he passed away. When I hear the song…” I also met parents that played that song to their son, it was the only thing that kept him well when he was sick. I’m sad thinking about it, but I heard a lot of stories. Just to talk about the kid that unfortunately passed away, he had some kind of sickness, some kind of disease, and the only thing that would keep him from having problems and issues was listening to that song and playing that game. Every time his mind was on it, he stopped having seizures and stuff like that. I met his parents a couple years ago on a tour.

Radio stations in video games are now featuring songs from actual bands. Cyberpunk is a really great example. You saw songs from Tomb Mold, Converge, HEALTH. You obviously have a lot of experience with getting your music within games and we’ve constantly heard from bands that we’ve spoken to that their dream is to get their song in a video game. What advice, if any, could you give to somebody who’s interested in pursuing that route?
Well, I can tell you, if you want it in a video game, you’ve got to go and get it yourself. You have to go out and go do it. Like I said to you earlier, I went and I met with those guys from the game company to show them I’m one of them. I’m not doing it for the money and the fame. I want it in the game because I like the game. I know what you guys are on about. You have got to go and do it. Don’t get your manager to do it—do it yourself. You’re the gamer. If you really want to do it, talk to them. Talk to people because you end up finding out there are a lot of people that work in this game company that have the same interests as you. They love metal. They love the same stuff. It’s just that a lot of the time, they don’t know who’s available, who is there, what to license.

We’re now seeing bands openly embracing video games as an influence for their music, their lyric writing, any number of things. Dark Souls is a huge influence on metal these days. Whether explicit or implicit, does this acknowledgement of video games in the underground metal scene feel like validation for you as being such an early adopter of video game culture?
Yeah, it definitely feels good to be one of the first to be doing it, and involved that heavily and have those those sounds in the song. But at the same time, you can only be yourself, right? You can’t pretend you like video games to get in the scene and hope that you get heard. We were just being who we are. And that’s the thing about playing metal. We’re not actors—we suck at that. So, we can only be ourselves. And if you get to do music and metal as a career, there’s no way I’ll do something I don’t want to do. I don’t want to destroy my hobby by doing something I actually don’t want to do. You’ve got to be authentic at the same time. That’s why I didn’t do Facebook. I didn’t do all this posting of myself and what I was eating during those years. I thought it was so lame. I don’t mean to say people are assholes. But at that time, I felt like, God, people just bragging. I don’t want to look like a braggart. Like I said, I’m a nerd. The last thing I want is people thinking I’m a fucking braggart. But now it’s accepted. So, I’m like a boomer—I’m coming in a bit later. [Laughs]

Now that your next album, Warp Speed Warriors, is on the verge of coming out in a month and a half or so, what’s the game that you’re going to play to unwind and take a sigh of relief now that the work is done?
I think I’m going to get a Steam Deck to go on tour. I borrowed one a couple of tours ago and I didn’t have time to play it much. I played a little bit on the bus. I think I’m finally going to get one again. I got a Raspberry Pi for Christmas—that’s how nerdy I am. I guess I need a Steam Deck. I’m going to get back into VR sim racing. I haven’t done it for a while, the stuff is sitting in my garage. I’ll bring it back in and have some fun. You know, it’s another one of those challenging things, man. It’s so hard. People are so good online.

Is that the parallel to Warp Speed Warriors—because sim racing is warp speed?
Everything I like to do is fast for some reason. I love sports cars. I like to drive fast on the track, I like to drive fast even when I shouldn’t, play fast, you know, everything. I’m always kind of on the edge of danger. So, Warp Speed Warriors, we just wanted a cool name. There’s something in me that I cannot do: Have an unoriginal album title. I really don’t want a one-word one that you Google and so many bands have done it. I thought, You gotta do three words. It’ll make something more original that someone hasn’t used yet as an album title. Warp Speed Warriors became the closest one.

If there is a game that you could recommend to our readership, what would be your deep cut for them?
Jagged Alliance on the PC. They just had their third one out. It’s a turn based strategy game. I remember playing that game and finishing it a few times on the PC. I’m talking about Pentium 66, so what year are we talking about? Mid-’90s? They just had a new one come out and I know I want to play it, but also don’t want to lose my life. It was just a lot really fun. Most games now are real-time—you’ve got to be fast. That one, you can just relax and enjoy the game without having to be rushed. It’s a cool game. The original game really got great reviews, and the second one too. And then now the third one came out.

I was on Steam during Christmas to see what games I wanted to get while the [winter] sale was happening. And I was going, Well, I can buy all these games, but I probably only have time to play one. So I ended up buying zero. [Laughs] I ended up looking at, “What is Steam Deck compatible?”

Those Steam sales are dangerous. Same thing with the Nintendo ones, too. It’s like, Oh, it’s only $10? I need this. I gotta get this.
I know, and then you don’t have time to play it. So this year, I didn’t do it. But every year I’m buying games. When am I going to play? Twitch became like, You know what? At least I’m connecting with fans and playing video games. It’s a good thing, Twitch. You let me do that.

Warp Speed Warriors is available March 15, 2024 via Napalm Records and can be pre-ordered here.
Follow Herman on Twitch here.
Follow DragonForce on Bandcamp, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok.

Sign Up for the Kill Screen Newsletter

Get the latest in Kill Screen interviews, videos and contests delivered right to your inbox with zero latency!

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.