It’s been nearly a decade since I first discovered HIM, the gloomy Finnish hard rock band whose brooding, chain smoking lead singer Ville Valo derived much of his lyrical inspiration from poet Charles Baudelaire and author Edgar Allen Poe. I quickly fell in love with their dark, dramatic sound and over-the-edge romantic sentiments, particularly tracks like “Join Me (In Death)” and “Right Here In My Arms,” a sinister song about unhealthy obsession. It was April 2000, and I was traveling around Germany at the time, digging into the heavy metal scene for Billboard, Metal Edge and KNAC. HIM were touring there, although I kept missing them by being in different cities than they were at different times. They were the darlings of the German rock scene at the time, with their second album Razorblade Romance having sold over 600,000 copies there (making it double platinum in Deutschland). The group would finally make a splash in America in 2005 with the half-million selling Dark Light and have since solidified a viable career here.
On the eve of the release of their new album Screamworks: Love In Theory and Practice, I chatted with Valo for a cover story in the recent Aquarian Weekly. I conducted the interview via cell phone on a train (the wonders of modern technology), and we had an enlightening 25-minute chat, from which I got enough for that story and this ADD entry. Whereas the Aquarian piece focuses on the lyrical end of the new album, the singer’s sobriety and his love life, the story below deals with his approach to songwriting, rock ‘n’ roll’s lost edge and why bands should go on strike.
HIM has an established style with specific elements that resonate with your fans. How hard is it for you to reinvent yourself on every album?
To be honest with you, I don’t think that it is a conscious decision of trying to change. I think every two years, whenever I start working on a new album, I write from a different perspective. You have a different angle towards the same things because of all of the mistakes you’ve made and the lessons learned. I think it happens very naturally and very organically. It’s not like we did this kind of an album and now we need to make this kind of album. You never really know until you’re done how an album’s going to sound, so there’s no way of trying to think about it too much before it actually has happened because that easily kills the buzz and the magic that happens in the studio. It’s easy to lock into your framework. It’s good to have an overall idea of what the album might sound like, but then again just let it go.
How do you recharge between albums?
I don’t recharge. I just keep on writing. I never stop. Usually when we end touring it’s always a big relief because touring is physically quite demanding. You’re trying to stay healthy while traveling in a bus. It’s a pretty busy and weird existence, so when I come back home I sleep for a bit, then all of a sudden there are a gazillion new songs to write and a few new ideas. It always happens very naturally. I always carry an acoustic guitar with me, so I keep on writing on tour as well, but it’s tough to get anything finished because you have so little time.
You’ve recorded with Cradle Of Filth, 69 Eyes, Apocalyptica and did the “Summer Wine” cover with Natalia Avalon in Europe. Are there any recent guest appearances that you’ve done that people don’t know about?
I’ve done a bunch in the last couple of years. A lot of that stuff is based on knowing somebody in the band or them being old friends, and just yodeling something or doing backing vocals or whatever. There was a big difference with Cradle because they wanted the lead section on that song [“Byronic Man”]. During New Year’s, I was singing some backing vocals for the new Anathema record. I don’t know whether it’s going to make it to the album. I made these huge, choir-like things. I told them, “Use whatever you want, if you want it and if it makes the song better. If it doesn’t, just kill them.” I don’t mind. I love the song, and they have been a great influence. Stuff like that. It’s nice when it happens naturally and when there’s friendship involved. It just seems to be that a thing or two happens every year, so I don’t really have to go looking for it.
So after all of these years, what do you think your fans would be surprised to learn about you?
Maybe that I’m rather boring and pretty quiet most of the time. I don’t know what our fans or the hearts and minds of people think. I just don’t have a clue. If they have some illusions, I think the more rumors about a band the better. Your band can create an illusion, and it’s like reading a good book. You let your imagination do the work, as opposed to a bad movie version revealing everything.
I found a YouTube video some fans made upon meeting you at their motel. Do you find it disarming that your life can be broadcast all across the globe, and the things you don’t even remember end up online? Is it kind of strange?
Yeah, but I don’t think about it. It’s also very strange when you play a gig nowadays since you can’t smoke any more. People hold up their cell phones as their lighters, and a lot of people don’t even party on the way to the gig because they’re shooting everything on their iPhone. It’s weird that they buy the tickets for the gig of a band that they might like, and then they actually spend the whole evening shooting crappy quality video to put be able to put that on YouTube.
Do you think that rock ‘n roll has lost its edge that way?
I think the fans have lost their edge. [laughs] I think that rock ‘n roll is like stars in cinema. They’re dead for ten years, and then they come back again. There’s this resurrection type of thing going on. There are a few big, good rock acts, but there’s nothing super, super new and exciting that I would’ve heard, so I think it will be time soon. There will be something like a new Marilyn Manson happening, like a phenomenon. There has to be.
How has HIM been affected by the downloading problem and coping with the fact that albums have not been selling so well?
Somebody told me that nowadays selling 100,000 records over in the U.S. is the same as selling 1,000,000 records in the Eighties. So I guess we’re just poor. But then again, it’s a good thing in a way because these days it is not the wisest decision to want to become a musician so you can become rich. Maybe it takes a lot of posers out, and those posers can go somewhere else in search of the monetary goods. Fast cars and all that stuff. I think a lot of people who really want to do music for the sake of music, they are in it. They don’t have a choice anyway. But the only problem I see there is the fact that nowadays all bands are touring a lot, and touring is going down. All the bands are touring because the albums are not selling, and so bands are not really making a living out of it, which means that if the trend continues then a lot of bands should go on strike. I say let’s have the whole world tour free for a year and see if it changes anything. It’s a silly idea because that’s how we make our living, so it would be commercial suicide, but just as a hypothetical thought or theoretical idea it’s interesting because I don’t think that music is so expensive now. Especially the fact you don’t have to buy a whole album. Now you can finally buy one or two songs off of an album. I know that the economy is crazy all over the world, but $.99 for a song that can be an essential soundtrack to or an important event in your life…it’s kind of sad that people use poor quality MP3s on 128 kilobits per second to have that as the soundtrack.
It’s like a lesser quality soundtrack to life. But at the end of the day everything is binary when it comes to music. We record everything on super hi-fi whatever on Pro Tools, and then it is compressed to 16 bits per CD and even lower for MP3s. Whether it be Black Sabbath or HIM or Christina Aguilera, it’s just ones and zeros. It’s kind of weird. But I do think that it would be nice if people would appreciate music more, that they don’t download a ton of stuff and just throw it away. It’s like a kid locked in a candy store where he can actually eat everything as opposed to looking at stuff. It easily kills the buzz. A bit older fellows like me can remember the days when we had a date when an album was coming out, and we waited at the door when the shop was opening up to be able to get a copy of that album. That kind of excitement is more or less gone, but then you can spread the word like wildfire through MySpace [and other sites]. I’m a bit too old-school for that, but I do understand its value and its humongous impact. But I wouldn’t
mind being richer.
To check out many of Valo’s guest appearances and collaborations, click here.