Guitarist Sam Totman is the undisputed leader of DragonForce. He writes the songs, he produces the albums, he runs the show. That said, he's far from a dictator - rather, he's part of a very tight-knit team, each member of which is absolutely loyal to the others. It wasn't enough that new vocalist Marc Hudson be able to hit the high notes; he had to be someone the other five members of the group could call a friend, too. The fifth DragonForce studio album, and the first with Hudson on the mic, The Power Within, hits stores today. It's more concise, and at the same time more aggressive and more varied (yes, there's an acoustic song) than anything they've done before. It hits harder, comes at you faster, and shows more sides of the band than their entire previous discography. And we knew we had to find out from the man himself how it all came together. So we called him. We asked the questions we wanted answers to. And he provided them.
What was the first song written for this album?
The first song was “Cry Thunder,” actually. I basically started writing that as soon as we finished the last tour, I thought I’d better get started on some songs. So that was like two years ago now.
What was the last song written for the album?
The last one was “Give Me the Night.” The first one was written two years ago, and “Give Me the Night” was written like two months before we finished the record. So, a long span of time in between them.
The songs are a lot shorter and more concise this time. Was that your intention all along, or did it just happen that way?
No, definitely, I actually thought of that before we started, it was definitely something I wanted to do. Mainly because the world we live in now, it’s quite sad, but everybody’s got such a short attention span, nobody’ll listen to a seven-minute song anymore. And me too – I like long songs occasionally, but I can’t listen to a whole album of them. So I didn’t want to listen myself to another DragonForce album full of seven-minute-long songs. But at the same time, I didn’t want to lose anything that we’ve got. So what we tried to do was, if we’ve got a shorter song, there’s still just as much guitar in there, but the instrumental sections won’t be quite as long. We put it throughout the song instead – there’ll be a lot of guitar underneath the vocals, and like that. I see it with my friends; in the old days, you’d put a CD on and you couldn’t be bothered changing it, but now, everyone I see, all they do is flick through their songs on their MP3 player. I’ve gotten the impression that hardly anyone listens to an album straight through anymore, so it needs to be condensed down a bit, I think, and I’m the same way. I didn’t think I’d ever end up like that, but I’m finding that I’ll put a record on and listen to a few songs, then change to something else. So that’s why I decided the time has come to do shorter songs, basically. Saying that, there is at least one on there that’s six or seven minutes long [“Wings of Liberty,” 7:23]. We haven’t sold out or anything, if people are worried about that. It wasn’t done to be more commercial, it was just to condense it down, basically.
Do other bandmembers like Dave [Mackintosh, drums] and Vadim [Pruzhanov, keyboards] write their own parts, or do you demo everything with a drum machine and all?
Yeah, I write everything first on my own with a drum machine, so it’s fairly structured, and then he’ll do his own fills and such, obviously. And the chords are written, too, but Vadim’ll put his own keyboard melodies in, he’ll come up with those.
“Fallen World” is the fastest DragonForce song yet; was that a specific goal?
Yeah, the first thing I do, before I write any songs, is I’ll decide in my head on the tempo. Like for example on “Cry Thunder,” before I knew anything about how it was gonna go, I knew that it was gonna have that drumbeat. It was the same with “Fallen World,” I was like, let’s do a song at 220 bpm. Most of our fast songs are usually 200, so that was the first thing I thought of, was let’s do one at 220. We had one other song, a bonus track on Sonic Firestorm called “Cry of the Brave,” that was 215. So it wasn’t so much like, let’s be faster than ever before, because I could have done it at 250, but our music doesn’t work that way. You’ve got bands like Slayer who are up at like 230, but I’ve tried writing songs at that speed and it doesn’t really work, for some reason, with the vocal melodies and stuff, but 220 seemed to work quite well. But there was definitely a plan behind it, because it just gives it a bit of a different feel. It’s not hugely different, it’s only about 20 beats per minute faster, but it’s different from the rest of the fast songs.
And do you ever choose different scales or specific tunings for certain songs?
Well, the tunings usually depend on the vocal lines, to be honest. What I usually do is, I’ll write a song in any old key, whatever happens to be the first key I pick up the guitar in, and once the vocal lines and chords are done, I’ll adjust it to the singer’s vocal range. So some of the demos I did, I knew they weren’t anywhere close to the key they were gonna be in for Marc, and every singer’s got the parts of their range that suit certain melodies. So once I’ve written all the vocal lines, I’ll go to the chorus and think, okay, the chorus is obviously the most important bit, so I want that to be in the best part of his vocal range. So that’s your starting point, and then once you’ve got that, hopefully the rest of the vocal lines, the verses and stuff, will fit into place. But sometimes I’ll find, once I’ve put the chords in place, that the verse is up way too high, and I have to rethink it again a bit. So it’s all a matter of knowing your singer’s range and where he sounds good, and that’s pretty much the only thing that determines what key the song’s in. Quite often I’ve thought, this song would be quite nice if it was in D, but then the way the vocal line goes, you just can’t have it in D, it has to be in C or maybe E instead, up or down, whichever way it needs to go.
How has Marc changed the way the older songs are performed? Do you drop those down, or go up with them, anything like that?
Well, obviously, when we chose him, we had to get someone that could do the older songs, and he’s doing really amazing. We knew he could do them anyway, before we picked him, otherwise he wouldn’t have been much use to us [laughs]. But actually, he’s really good. We used to tune down to E flat with ZP [Theart] in the band, just to make it a bit easier for him, and now with Marc we’ve gone back to the proper tuning in E, so it’s actually improved the live show, if anything. He’s got a really amazing range, so as far as writing, it’s been like a breath of fresh air. I quite often write a song and think, OK, I’d like it to be down here and go right up to here in parts, but obviously not every singer can sing everything that you’d like them to. But with Marc on this new record, there’s definitely a wider range of vocals which, as far as writing, has made it quite cool. We can actually go there now, where maybe in the past I might not have been able to go so high or so low, or something like that. There’s definitely a lot more variety, for sure.
Tell me a little about the acoustic version of “Seasons” that’s on this record.
It was supposed to be a bonus track for the Japanese version or something, so we didn’t really think anything of it. We were like, let’s do an acoustic version, because we didn’t have time to write another whole song. So it was either gonna be that or “Cry Thunder” – we were thinking about doing an acoustic version of “Cry Thunder” first, actually. We thought we could do some kind of folky, sitting-around-the-campfire type of thing, which I think would have been cool, too. But it ended up being “Seasons,” and when we recorded it, we thought, “Oh, this is actually pretty cool,” so let’s put it on the record. Cause it shows that we’re not all about playing a million miles an hour; we’ve got a sensitive side. [laughs] So yeah, it wasn’t supposed to be anything amazing, to be honest, but it turned out really cool.
Who were your early influences as a guitarist, and how do you think your playing and Herman Li’s complement each other?
Well, when I started out, I started playing classical guitar, actually, because I had to. My mum and dad said, you have to play sports or do an instrument, and I was too lazy to play sports, so…I didn’t actually want to play the guitar, but I had to. When I got into rock, I listened to Iron Maiden, obviously, like pretty much everyone else who’s into metal. I used to learn loads of Metallica solos out of their songbooks, and actually, one of my main favorite players was the guy from Death, Chuck [Schuldiner]. I used to learn loads and loads of solos off the Spiritual Healing album, actually. I knew most of those, just from sitting and working them out off of tapes. So I never do any really wacky scales, I just stick to pentatonic and major and minor, cause I just think they sound better. When someone else is doing weird scales, I think, Oh, that’s kind of cool, but I can’t bring myself to – I know some other ones, but whenever I’m writing lead lines for myself, I just can’t bring myself to do notes that aren’t on the major, minor or pentatonic scales. I just think they’re not very catchy. And that’s definitely one difference between mine and Herman’s playing. The funny thing is, over the years, like one of my friends said the other day, “When you first started, on the first record, you could tell you and Herman were miles apart.” But over the years, he’s gotten some influence from me and I’ve gotten some from him, and now our playing is actually a lot closer together, which I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not, but it’s kind of funny that that’s what’s happened.
The band is very self-contained—you design your own art and merch, you produce the records yourselves…was that always your vision for the group?
Yeah. I suppose you get some bands that have relied on outside help from the start, so I guess to them that’s normal, but because we never did that, and since when we first started we didn’t have any big ambitions to become really popular or make a living out of it, we just wanted to do it for fun, so it wasn’t like, “We’re gonna start this band and it’s gonna be really big, so let’s get a producer to make us better.” We just had to learn it all ourselves, cause we didn’t have any huge ambition. We just sort of wanted to do it cause we thought the music was catchy. So I might be wrong, but I kind of imagine that if you’ve just started a band and you start getting producers and stuff, you’ve either got a label behind you that are gonna push this, or you’ve got really high ambitions yourself. So we just always did it on our own, and by the time we got half decent at playing what we could play, we were like, “We don’t want any producer now, cause we’re quite happy with how we’re doing it.” Even now, we still haven’t had a producer on the last record, because I think if anything it would make it worse. That sounds a bit big-headed, but I think it sounds pretty good as it is.
How many new songs will be in the live set on your upcoming tour?
I think there’s five. Which seems like a lot, and we were kind of worried – like, I go to gigs and I don’t really want to hear new songs, but this time around the songs are a bit shorter, so it’s not like they’re not gonna have enough old ones. Even with five new songs, there’s loads of old stuff, so I don’t think anyone’s gonna be like – we’re not doing a “play your whole new album” routine, which I’ve never been a fan of. I think it’s a pretty cool set, and obviously with Marc just having joined the band, we’re really excited about the new record and all the songs with his voice, so we don’t really want to come out and just play two new ones. We used to be at rehearsal like, “Oh, here we go, same old shit,” but it’s really quite refreshing and we’re all happy to do rehearsal, it’s fun, which is sort of a new thing. If we’re happy about it, I reckon people who come to the show should be happy, too.
The Power Within is available right now; if you get it on CD from our webstore, you get an autographed poster; if you get it on iTunes, you get three bonus tracks! You can also get it at your local Hot Topic or Best Buy! The choice is yours!
The band's North American tour launches April 21 at the New England Metal & Hardcore Fest; click here to find a show near you!