Interview: Ville Valo of HIM

(this interview originally appeared in issue #37 of Modern Fix Magazine in 2003).


– by erin broadley

HIM has been best described by the press as “Depeche Mode meets Dimmu Borgir in a David Lynch movie,” though by now the band has coined the phrase “love metal” to summarize its sound which Valo explains as, “music that includes elements of pop, metal, goth, glam…it’s music inspired by the feelings you have before the first touch, before the first kiss.” Love metal is music that embraces emotion but also pours you a drink. It’s a love letter signed in blood but sealed with Jack Daniel’s, not with a kiss. It makes your heart ache but it also raises your eyebrow and makes your lip curl. It’s foreplay that skips the sex and goes straight for the post-coital cigarette. It’s watching your lover sleep only to realize that you can’t get Black Sabbath’s “Crazy Train” out from stuck in your mind. From their humble beginnings in Helsinki, Finland in 1995 to playing sold out gigs across Europe four critically acclaimed albums later, HIM has brought European rock romanticism a higher level of musicianship and an irresistibly charming attitude to match. Completed by Mige on bass, Linde on guitar, Gas on drums and Burton on keyboards, the band first garnered widespread attention for its impressive cover of Chris Issak’s “Wicked Game,” but have since built an expansive musical catalog that swaggers its way right on past the road sign that points to one-hit-wonders. HIM has rightly earned its legions of admirers, some of which include Ozzy Osbourne (who has invited the band on tour), pro-skater and Jackass star Bam Margera (who directed two of HIM’s music videos to date), and actress Juliette Lewis (who starred in one of those videos). European shores secure, HIM decided to bring its music stateside and re-released “Razorblade Romance” on Universal Records, finally making the album available in America whereas before it could only be bought as an import. Excited about HIM’s American debut, Ville Valo took a few hours out of his vacation time in Finland to talk about songwriting, art, and why he doesn’t think he’ll ever need a prescription for Prozac.

Let’s talk about your role as a songwriter and, with that, the ability to marry dream with reality – to marry melody with emotional significance. How do you see yourself within this framework?
Ville Valo: I’m kind of schizophrenic when it comes to music. I like all sorts, all shapes and all kinds. It’s like Gene Simmons with ladies, me with music. My parents used to listen to old melancholic Finnish folk music so that’s maybe where the sadness comes into my music. I also grew up with Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Johnny Cash and Cat Stevens – all those folky songwriters – and in my teen years I listened to heavy metal. With HIM I didn’t want to get rid of any of those influences but hopefully create a unique cocktail with all those elements in there. It’s really hard for me to separate the fantasy from the reality in the music because I live my life in the music that I write. I’m like a very sociable hermit.

Do you feel that, as a songwriter, there is a certain responsibility with words to bridge the gap between the abstract communication of music and more literal verbal communication?
I think it’s a bit different because I didn’t grow up in an English speaking family. I learned my English from television. Language is always very visual for me and very musical as well. I like to chew on words, like tobacco. I like to taste the words and I like how they look. I can’t do the same in Finnish. When I was a bit younger I tried to write in Finnish as well but when a language is so deep inside of you its hard to get rid of all the cliches. It’s easier to play around with the words when you’re not speaking them everyday. But the responsibility with words is definitely towards myself. It also depends on the [listener]. Some people claim that we’re Satanic and lead the youth into despair. Others claim it to be very cathartic that they can live through their bullshit through our music. That’s how music was for me. When I felt sad in the mornings I’d listen to Black Sabbath and all the aggression and melancholic aspects in the music helped me to get through it – to take those few steps into the kitchen and make myself a cup of coffee and go to school. Music for me is like cleaning up your psyche. There’s always going to be conversations about the responsibility of music or art in general but you never know what’s going to effect somebody. In Europe once, we had a big drama going on because some dude killed himself and when he was found he had our song “Join Me in Death” in his Walkman. Then again, I’ve had maybe a hundred letters from people saying that particular song really helped them out. Nowadays, if Romeo and Juliet were published it’d probably be banned. I’m not claiming that I’m William Shakespeare number two but still I think that there has to be the right to sing about whatever you want.

Absolutely. I think that sometimes people can be quick to label melancholy as negative. But like you said in regards to those letters you got, sometimes there can be something beautiful that comes out of those feelings. It’s denial to imply that the dark side of human emotion doesn’t exist.
Exactly. I was such a desperate, depressed prick when I started doing music when I was 12 or 13 years old and first fell in love with a girl and she fell in love with my best friend. [That’s when] I wrote my first song. Since then I’ve found that it’s a lot cheaper to write songs that to go to psychotherapy. I’m not into the drug-fueled medical system that’s going on in the world, where you go to a doctor and they always give you a pill. That’s just bullshit because nobody knows how the brain really functions. I don’t think that the human psyche works that way. I do loads of drugs because I’m an asthmatic. I have to do loads of cortisone just to be able to breathe. But if I’m depressed I’d rather talk to my friends and try to get rid of it by whatever means necessary but not [with drugs]. Maybe I’ve never been in such a bad state of mind that I’d need to go through all that. But maybe it will happen one day and then I’d say totally the opposite.

Continuing with songwriting, let’s talk about lyrical literalism versus posing questions and allowing the listener to arrive at his or her own conclusions. Do you think there is a danger in explaining too much?
It’s the same difference like between porn and eroticism. It’s a lot more interesting for the mind to be able to create its own stories. It’s great food for the imagination. It’s the same with lyrics – you have to give a bit but not too much, otherwise it kills all the magic. For me, with Black Sabbath or Jane’s Addiction, when I’ve heard some of the stories behind the songs it sort of took away the magic. I don’t know how it is with our stuff because our stuff is pretty personal. I’m such an egoistic bastard, you know, that I’m always writing about myself and my relationship towards the world (laughs).

It sounds like you would agree then that there can be a danger in explaining too much and that sometimes a great song is one that poses questions and leaves room for growth with the listener.
Exactly. It’s lovely to have conversations or fights about lyrics with your friends. It’s weird because nowadays it seems people aren’t into music to really try to discover the essence of lyrics or really feel them. There’s so much bullshit around – so many people just whining about driving under palm trees with their fancy Hummers and whining about how hard it is to live. That’s not real because it doesn’t touch anybody’s hearts. Only one percent of the world has fast cars and maybe two percent have silicone boobies. But everybody’s got a heart. Everybody’s got imagination. Everybody’s got good days and bad days. That’s what I’m writing about personally. That’s the only thing I know something about. [As far as] the writing process, I think it’s best when it just happens, almost subliminally. When you’re sort of surprised yourself that your hand has been writing things down on a piece of paper and you’re like, “What the fuck’s going on?” I don’t want to think of writing music as a mathematical process. For me, I pick up a guitar and have a good time playing it and writing a song. Hopefully it turns out to be a beautiful song that I’ll really like. And hopefully, after that, there are people who will like it and hopefully the process of getting that particular song on tape works in a way that everybody’s happy. That’s the whole thing. Then comes in the business side of it, marketing and that bullshit. It’s so complicated that I really don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to become a businessman. I consider myself maybe to be a musician but maybe like a sonic plumber. I plumb out all the bullshit from myself through the music. It’s like mantras or ohms. My songs are my mantras. That’s the only way I can forget about my existence and just be.


What is the songwriting process like for you?
It’s always a bit different. I usually come up with the music first, the melodies. I tend to have mood swings in a way that I can start a song as a ballad, have totally different lyrics and then all of a sudden within two weeks decide that it has to be an Iggy Pop and the Stooges rip off. Its always different because everyday you feel different. I’ve been writing music about 13-14 years now and I still don’t know what it’s all about. And I don’t want to know. It’s a weird thing and, like we were just talking about, it’s magical in a way. I don’t want to ruin it by being too analytical. The best way for me to express my emotions is through music, not through lyrics, because a single word can mean millions of different things to different people. Saying, “I love you” is such a different thing for so many people. For some people it’s a cool thing, for some it’s coy, for some it’s fantasy, for some it’s a grim reality. That’s the reason why I don’t like lyrics as much. I tend to think that the lyrics, in a way, just color up the music and tell its story. [The lyrics] just give a clue about the emotion that the music expresses.

Are you more concerned with the lyrical narrative or the sound of the words you’re singing ?
Both. I work hard at the lyrics and hopefully they’re good enough for some people. I really do take pride in both. I’m not making compromises. I’ve got a rhythm and a melody and that kind of helps me to pick out the right words. But I want to create stories as well. I really like strong language, verbally, so that’s one of the reasons I use religious terminology. I love the word “redemption.” I love that, as Russian writers once used to do, if I write about going to a grocery store and seeing a pretty lady, I make that tiny 15 seconds a heartbreaking moment. I like to exaggerate a lot. I must be a romantic or whatever but that’s what I like to do lyrically.

After listening to Razorblade Romance, I came away feeling it was a sweet yet sad love letter directed towards what I see these days as people’s tendency to replace honesty of the heart with cynicism. In working a lot with themes that convey a certain longing, do you ever find it difficult to break through that collective cynicism?
Not really because I just do what I do. I consider our music to have loads of humorous sides to it as well, especially the lyrics. I take my work seriously but I don’t take myself seriously. Whenever I wake up in the morning and look into the mirror, I usually laugh. It’s the same with my lyrics. I don’t want them to be too overwhelming, too big or too romantic. There has to be some humorous little wink of an eye so that even if your heart’s completely breaking and you’re feeling like a little slug that somebody wants to crush under his or her feet, that you can still just laugh about it. But I know what you mean about the cynicism going around in the world. It’s terrible. I think that people are either too honest or too cynical. I think to be a functional human being you have to be something in-between. I’m a bit of a wanker, you know. I’ve been kicked in the balls way too many times but I’m not writing about that. It’s about the cathartic element, the purification through music and through lyrics – that’s how I see rock music at its best. There are loads of musicians who have brilliant lyrics but where’s the music? Then there are loads of great bands that are musically ingenious but [have] no lyrical substance at all. Very few people can put them both together. And I’m not claiming that I’m doing that but I’m trying and hopefully one day, with a song or two, I will be able to have a perfect marriage of those two things. I listen to shitty music too though, silly pop music. Not all music has to be brilliant in every way. There are a few bands though, like Faith No More with Mike Patton who did Angel Dust, which is one of my favorite albums. It’s the album I learned how to sing with. I would skip school and put that on full blast from the stereos at my parents’ place and sing to it. When an album like that comes out and you buy it from a record store, put it on and you’re blown away – that really gives me the energy to go on because I [also] consider myself a fan. I’m not reinventing the wheel. And loads of people think they are.


I understand that in addition to music you paint as well. How did that start for you?
When I was younger I went to art school but then had to make a decision between graphic arts and music. I was pretty good but I just didn’t have the time. I’m really happy that with music there are so many visual things going on when talking about the album sleeve artwork or creating videos. It’s great that you can do so many things at the same time. That’s what I like about music – that it’s not just about me having an acoustic guitar on my lap. There’s always a good reason to throw that acoustic guitar away for a few moments and think about something else.

Music can bring together so many different artistic forms.
Yeah, there are good examples like Marilyn Manson who’s done it all. I don’t particularly like any of his art but I’m glad that he’s been able to paint and all that. It just doesn’t personally touch my heart.

He had a gallery opening in Los Angeles awhile back and I remember driving by and seeing people lined up for blocks to get in. I couldn’t help but ask myself whether or not all those people would still be lined up if he weren’t Marilyn Manson.
Well it’s sort of great and it’s what I’ve always said about Miles Davis. He used to prove himself as a superior jazz musician doing all the classic jazz albums. Then when he was on top of the world with loads of money he was just able to shoot up heroin and create the shittiest free jazz albums in the world (laughs). That’s beautiful. That’s what we all crave – to be on top of our hills and just pee on everybody (laughs). It seems to be the same case with Marilyn to a certain extent that he had to prove himself commercially first and now people are interested in whatever he does. That’s cool in a way because it’s not easy. Poets and painters may claim that that’s bullshit but who the fuck cares. Marilyn had that two-mile queue, had all the interest and sold most of his work. What’s good and what’s bad art? Art is also about a person’s character and that they’ve created something you can have. You don’t want to have it because of what it is; you want to have it because of who it’s from, with some people. Salvador Dali for example, I don’t like his work at all. It’s technically good but what I am really into when talking about Dali, is his own life. He is a piece of art. He was such a controversial personality that if I had a print of one of his works on my wall – thank god I don’t by the way – but if I did, when I’d look at it I’d remember that mustache, that crazy look and everything I’ve heard or read about him. That’s how I see music and art. A song can be like a page in a diary. It’s like a time machine. I can always go back to that moment and in a way, re-live that sentiment.

Do you see certain parallels between music and painting?
To be honest with you, I haven’t thought about it too much because I usually hate painters. I love photography but I don’t like other visual art so much. For me, music is a lot better [than painting] in that music is painting I do sonically. The frame is the cheap plastic CD and the whole essence of it is in a piece of plastic that you play and then there’s 50 minutes of painting. I think art is there to fuck up your senses. A sculpture or a painting can be really musical and a song can be very visual. I don’t separate those things because music for me is always visual. Books are really visual as well. I think that most books are more interesting than paintings.

The interesting thing about books and music, as opposed to painting, is that they’re so cerebral – they exist visually only in your head, as opposed to visually in front of your eyes.
Exactly. I love that there are so many different views on all that. Like, what’s the percentage of [people who appreciate] the visuality of music? And I’m not talking about cover art; I’m talking about the actual music. It’s always interesting. With books, some people only read the words black on white and some people paint pictures in their heads. It doesn’t really matter though because it’s not a competition. And thank god it’s not a competition because no one can really know how beautiful the pictures are in your head.

The other day I read an interview with Brian Molko of Placebo where he talked about what he saw as the difference between art and entertainment, mainly being that entertainment is there to distract you. Do you see music as a form of escapism or more as something to communicate a particular realism?
For me it’s just getting out of yourself, looking at yourself and looking at what the world is really about – to try to not be so chained into the piece of flesh that the human being is. It’s like escapism to come back. I don’t know what our music does for people. As a songwriter, I haven’t talked to so many people about it. I don’t know whether it is escapism to just get away for a second. That’s what I consider entertainment to be about – to forget about your existence for a second and to enjoy it. Good music for me is not forgetting who you are. It’s not forgetting what sort of situation you’re in. It’s not necessarily even giving you any hope or understanding. It’s just giving you a bit of relief. Maybe it’s like turning back the hands of time for a second to think about the decisions you’ve made and the decisions you’re going to make in the future. When I fall in love with a song, there’s no time. That’s what good music does. It’s having your intellect working at the same time as your heart, on the same level, with both of them understanding each other. It can be really sensual. Rage Against the Machine was a great example of that. They were really conscious and had loads of things to say but still their musical vibe was so strong that both were on the same level. It’s that balance.

And when music doesn’t have that balance?
I don’t really consider that to be the band’s fault. I think that there are too many people who started doing music just to get somewhere else, to use music as a ladder to have wealth or credibility. And that’s not a good reason to do music. You should do music because you love music and you want to do just music for the sake of it. Record companies follow trends because they are there to create money. But we as musicians don’t have to follow their rules. We can do whatever we want. Of course it’d be really nice if I someday bought my own apartment. But if not I’d rather be sleeping under a bridge doing what I do and having a good time while doing it. I don’t believe that musicality has anything to do with commercial mathematics. You can’t just calculate it because that’s like selling your soul to the devil, and I’m not talking about the good, old-fashioned rock and roll devil. I’m talking about the real evil that lies in the industry and the whole situation nowadays, especially with popular music. It’s complicated but I’m not blaming anybody. I feel that there seem to be very few defenders of the faith left doing it because they really love music and that’s the only way they can express themselves. It’s a cruel world nowadays but its cool that there are wankers around as well because that always makes you question what you are here for. One of my musical gods has always been Neil Young because he’s never done what people expect from him. He’s done shitty albums, he’s done good albums. But he’s still here, still popular and can still touch many people’s hearts and do beautiful music whenever he feels like it. He’s one that gives me strength.

Lets talk about HIM and how the band dynamic functions both live and in the studio. Do you have a preference?
You can’t really compare because it’s more of a drum circle, ritualistic thing when you play a gig. There’s the natural drug, adrenaline, which goes through your body. I didn’t like performing live for years. I didn’t feel comfortable and was always kind of anxious to get off the stage. But nowadays it feels better. Originally I used to play different instruments – bass guitar, drums, guitar and a bit of keyboards. This is the first band I’ve sung in and that’s the reason it took like 6 years and 400 gigs for me to get rid of the cigarette in one hand and the bottle of beer or red wine in the other. I was just so nervous I didn’t know what to do with my hands. Performing live is still pretty difficult for me but I’m a good actor.


Why so difficult?
It’s really weird to be put on a pedestal with thousands of people clapping their hands to the song you wrote like a year and a half ago sitting on your bed wearing your underwear because you felt so fucking bad. It’s a thing my brain doesn’t compute to a certain extent but I’m getting used to it. I hate being in the studio because it’s so boring. It wears you out so easily when a good song just happens – you’re sitting back at home creating the skeleton, then at the rehearsal place you’re putting on the organs and in the studio your putting on the skin, all the final touches. Then you’re like, “Wow, did this really come somewhere from my heart?” That’s great. Creating is always wonderful but its like a never-ending story because when you take that song, put it in your live set and you play it like 400-500 times, it changes a lot. A song is an ever-growing process. It’s never finished, which is a bad thing in a way. It’s not like a painting that when you finish it, it’s finished and then you just don’t touch it. A song keeps on going which is pretty scary. I was laughing my ass off when we played this one festival in Europe. There were like 60,000 people and [we were playing] our song “Join Me in Death” which is this Romeo and Juliet sort of song. I was in a really bad relationship and asking myself whether I was in love enough to be letting it all go just for that particular person. It’s not about suicide, that song. It’s about giving it all away.

Like a figurative death.
Yeah, exactly. But seeing thousands of people at the festival shouting [the lyric] “This life ain’t worth living”…I was like, “For fuck’s sake!” (Laughs) It’s just mad because I just wrote that song to get that shit out of my system and all of a sudden it became a huge hit here in Europe. Eleven-year-old little German kiddies were singing, “This life ain’t worth living.” It’s pretty weird.

That must have been a surreal moment.
I can tell you it was! And it still is. That’s where the fun comes in and you just have to laugh. For fuck’s sake, I was listening to Ozzy Osbourne back in ’86 and now I’m here and there’s thousands of people singing along to my lyrics which 90 percent of those people probably don’t have the slightest idea what they mean.

Do you think its necessary for your audience to know what your lyrics mean?
There’s a fine line. When you’re saying, “This life ain’t worth living” I think that you should at least know what that one line means. I’ve never told the exact meanings of my songs because what I write about is so personal I just try to hide it behind different masks. I can say that I was in a shitty mood or bad situation in my life but that’s one of the reasons there is a thing called art or music…just to get rid of all that excrement.

How do you maintain your calm on stage when there are 60,000 people shouting back your lyrics?
Adrenaline is a wonderful thing. And maybe 2 beers before the gig (laughs). It’s a weird situation because I never thought I was going to find myself standing on stage with so many people [in the audience]. But so far I’m enjoying every moment. It feels like one day I’m going to wake up in a room and find out that its all been an LSD experiment in the Finnish military.

When it comes to the business aspect of things, what finally led to signing with Universal Records and making the transition over to America?
Originally we signed to BMG here in Europe but for some reason BMG America was never interested in what we did. It took a long time to get a deal and now that it’s happened, I’m pretty happy. I’ve been laughing to myself that we’ve rehearsed for America in Europe for the past five years so I think we’re ready. We’ve had loads of practice so we’re feeling pretty good about it. The world is such a big place that I’m really proud of our band taking these little baby steps. I can’t ask for more. I’ve had so much already. Of course, I’m going to be disappointed if we’re not the first band on the moon or if I’m not going to be able to sleep in the same oxygen tent with Michael Jackson and Bubbles the monkey (laughs).

You don’t want your own Neverland?
(Laughs) Not really. I’ve never liked kids so much and I’m allergic to monkeys so no, I don’t want a mansion where nobody can see me. I want to be out walking around saying hello to people. I’m really happy to have been able to support myself and rent an apartment and pay my own bills for the past couple of years. And I’m happy that four of my old school mates and friends are still in the band and that we can laugh, play cards on the tour bus and not mention the word money. We’re all just big fans and lovers of music. That’s beautiful. We’ve had bad moments with the band as well but that’s how it always is with people you love. It’s natural. But at this particular moment we’re in really good shape and feeling good about the future. We’re going to take off some time early next year so that hopefully if everything works out we’d be able to come over to play a few gigs. It’d be great for the mentality of the band because we’ve been touring in Europe for such a long time that it’d be a good kick in the ass to meet new people, see new clubs and sweat like hell to get the audience on our side. It’d be one dream fulfilled, one mission accomplished, just to get over. It doesn’t really matter whether there’s only 15 people in the audience.

It could be a great 15 people.
Exactly. That’s what I’m really proud of, that’s how it’s always been for us. For example, the first time we played in England there were maybe 18 people and a dog. And we just had a great time because we were there. Then the next time around there was like 200 hundred people and the next time there was even more. We’re just proud that we’ve been doing so much touring even though there are some record companies that say, “Don’t come over here and tour.” We’ve been like, “Fuck off, we’ll tour wherever we want to.” It’s really rewarding when you can pick the fruit of your work straight from the tree, as we say here in Europe, and when you see the whole thing grow right before your own eyes.