HIM’s Ville Valo On Tape

Rocking the world for two decades, Ville Valo of Finland’s HIM talks with Pollstar about the band’s new album, the group’s early days taking “baby steps” and why he blames everything on Chris Isaak.

Currently on a brief tour of the U.S., HIM released its new album, Tears On Tape, earlier this week on Razor & Tie Records.

During the interview, Valo compared the shows on the two-week excursion to “record release parties.” He said the band would return later this year for a more extensive journey through North America and that details were still being worked out.

(Editor’s note: HIM has canceled its May tour due to Valo being diagnosed with severe asthma with presumptive pneumonia.  HIM will play North America on the Rock Allegiance tour with Volbeat, All That Remains and Airbourne beginning in late summer)

Pollstar spoke with Valo while he was having a day off in Cologne, Germany, and, by his own account, was feeling “pretty mellow.”  Describing the band’s history from the early days right up to the present, Valo talked about his own favorite bands, why visual aspects are as important as the music, and why rock is an art form best appreciated after the sun goes down.

Photo: Paul Harries

What makes the new album different from past albums?

I think that throughout the past 20 years we’ve been together, the band does have an identity which I’m really proud of.  So it does sound like HIM.  If you heard something we’ve done in the past you will recognize the band.  I think it’s a bit more like a hats off to our roots … There’s a lot of Black Sabbath and Type O Negative influence.  On the other hand, I wanted to put my more woozy, wimpy influences there as well – Roy Orbison … the classic singer/songwriters. 

We’re not just a rock band or a metal band.  We do have that tendency to have the sentimental side going on as well.  I wanted it to be 50/50 … somewhere between balls and the heart. Navel comes pretty close.

Regarding the band’s 20-plus years of history: Turning back the clock, what was your perception of the global music industry during the band’s early years?

At that time, coming from such a tiny little country we never did fanaticize about any kind of international success on any level.  I started playing music when I was about 8 years old.  I was a huge fan of Kiss and Iron Maiden, the usual stuff back in the mid-1980s.  I just wanted to be part of it.  I just wanted to play music that made me forget about the realities of everyday life for the duration of the song.  That’s the reason why we started playing.

It starts off as we’re trying to get a band together.  Which means you have to get enough players in a band.  And you have to play your first song in a rehearsal place.  Get your instruments together … taking little baby steps.  We didn’t have any grand plan of taking over, not doing anything global in mind.  The only kind of cult success that was internationally well known and very influential in other bands was Hanoi Rocks back in the mid ’80s.

We definitely didn’t have any high hopes.  We just wanted to have a band, drink a beer and play a gig.  Many beers and many gigs later, here we are.

Were there any singular moments in HIM’s history that you consider to be game changers?

You know, again, I gotta mention those baby steps.  I think it was a day-by-day, a song-by-song type of thing.  One really important thing for the sound of the band was that I’m a huge fan of David Lynch and his movies.  I saw “Wild At Heart.”  On that movie they used Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” which became one of my favorite songs.

That was way before the Internet, MP3s and all that.  So I went to the local library and put my name on the list to get the vinyl soundtrack for the album.  Then, when I got it a month later or so, I was killing music by home-taping it.  I recorded that song and then me and the guitar player, Linde [Mikko Lindström] learned it.  We weren’t that good at that time, so I think we kind of mis-learned and misheard the lyrics and the guitar licks and all that stuff.

But through that song we kind of found the balance between the melancholy and the sentimental aspect … and bit more of the hard-hitting metal edge.  So if you don’t like HIM, blame it all on Chris Isaak. We’re not taking any responsibility.

Your mention of watching David Lynch movies – is there a visual element involved when creating music?  That is, are you seeing or thinking of images when creating?

When you close your eyes and listen to our music, you see something.  The stories behind the songs and the melodies are not too underlined, it’s not too … two dimensional.  What it means to me personally is just the fact that if music, like good literature, enables the imagination to run wild, then you’ve succeeded.

A lot of music, and literature too, is like McDonald’s.  You get exactly what you want and you shit it out. It doesn’t really leave you with anything.

And both are good.  You got to remember, a lot times people talk about the ’70s [being] a great decade for music. But obviously there was a lot of pop stuff as well that worked like McDonald’s.  It went in and it went out and nobody remembers it anymore.  It wasn’t just Zeppelin.  It wasn’t just Black Sabbath.  There was a lot of stuff going on.  It’s one of those things, I think both of those things are still around. It’s like Ewoks.  We love to hate them.

Getting into music at a young age; at that time were you attracted to bands that invoked mental images?

Yeah, that’s probably the reason I got into rock and hard rock.  The visual aspect was important. …  Rock fans, we’re really loyal people.  We follow bands and we want to know everything about the bands.  That’s the difference between the pop world or even the folk world, the alternative rock world or whatever.  When you’re a metal head, more or less, you want to extract every bit of information you can from each and every individual.

I remember I had this scrapbook of Iron Maiden with everybody’s birth dates, their wives names and ex-wives names.  I was a walking encyclopedia of Iron Maiden back in the day.

How many times did you see Iron Maiden while growing up?

When I was a kid, back in the 1980s a lot of bands didn’t come to our country at all.  Maybe that was one of the reasons that made our imaginations run even wilder.  The first gig I saw was in 1986.  That was the first gig I ever went to.

I grew up a bit out of the metal scene for a while and went into more Jane’s Addiction and Bad Brains and all that sort of stuff.  Kind of like trying to expand my musical palette.

Being a band from a European country, when you began touring, it meant you had to play, not just several cities, but several countries.  How did you balance the cost of playing internationally with making a profit during the early years?

Well, Finland isn’t that far.  At the end of the day we had really, really good quality T-shirts [laughs].

It is a balancing act. And it’s really tough for a band, especially to come to America these days.  The taxation and whatever is ridiculous in some countries.  It didn’t make anybody rich but it’s fun. And we can live off of it. We do have roofs on top of our heads and bread on the tables. We’ve been doing this for the past 13 years or so, which is really rare.

Does the band have touring and the costs associated with it down to a science?

We’ve had it down to a science of understanding that music and business should be separated.  It’s way better for the musicians to concentrate on the music.  There’s probably a couple of characters in the industry, namely Mick Jagger and Gene Simmons who can do both.  Then again we can start to speculate whether it’s art or profit.  I think it’s important to try to find a place – a little tiny bubble – where we coexist and just work on the music and then have a good manager and good people sorting out the boring numbers, so to speak.

Along the same lines, when you come to the U.S., it’s a rather brief tour.  Do you see that more as a chance to play some dates to promote the album?

It’s been a while since we toured.  I consider them to be like record release parties. We’re saying, “Hi.  Here we are.  There’s an album coming out.”  We’re really lucky that nearly all of the gigs have sold out and they sold out pretty quickly.  They did in Europe as well.  The whole band is super ecstatic about that and … [the audiences are] going to be those people that know all the songs and we’ve prepared kind of a special set list.

So the gigs will be a bit different.  The idea is to come back to the states in early autumn.  We’re still booking and figuring all the times and all that stuff out. The album is coming out so late in the springtime that we don’t have the time to properly tour before the festival season starts.  That’s like a no-no when it comes to touring in Europe because everybody is saving their money for the weekend festivals.  So we’re doing a few on the weekends here.  When the schools start in late August, that’s when we’re going to hit the road again.

Do you enjoy playing festivals?

When it’s dark or when we have the possibility of playing in a tent. It should be banned by law for a rock band to play in the daylight.  It works for bands like Black Crowes.  It works great for different sorts of artists.

I’ve seen bands like Type O Negative or Black Sabbath play in the daylight.  And even though they’re fantastic bands and I’m such a fan, it still looses some of its magic.  You can’t see the dry ice … you don’t get the mirror ball effect.

A few years back we were invited to be one of the bands on Linkin Park’s tour, Projekt Revolution.  Even though it was fun and great we ended up playing during the daytime and we always felt too exposed.

When you’re a kid it’s not an intellectual process when you see a band. You can’t separate the music from the light show or the light show from the characters on stage or from the audience. It’s one whole mutual experience between everybody involved.

With HIM more than 20 years old, can you still tap into the fans when you’re planning a set or creating music?  That is, can you see and hear the band from a fan’s perspective when planning the live show?

Hopefully we are.  I think it’s like dancing on a razor’s edge.  We’re not necessarily fans of our own band, but we are fans of the bands who made us exist.  I still follow bands and I’m still waiting for new stuff to happen.  I get all giddy like a kid in a candy store when I hear a good rock album.

Nowadays it’s pretty rare.  Last time around I started ordering T-shirts was when I heard a band from England called Electrical Wizard do this really Sabbathy, stonery kind of really grungy and ugly pseudo satanic like B horror movie influence racket.  It’s a great band.  It think that’s the limit.  When you start buying merchandise, you can consider yourself a fan – proudly wearing that.  It’s a rock ’n’ and roll thing, being a part of a tribe.  It’s really tribalistic as opposed to pop music.

If you could step into a time machine and go back to 1992, what would you tell a young Ville Valo who is just about to embark on this journey?

I would laugh at myself straight in the face and say, “Keep on going.”  You have to make mistakes, otherwise you never learn.  The bad thing you can do is not to learn from your mistakes.  You learn from mistakes so you can make new mistakes.  The variety of mistakes in humandom is ridiculously fat, a never-ending jam.

Photo: Paul Harries
“That it means to me personally is just the fact that if music, like good literature, enables the imagination to run wild, then you’ve succeeded.”

HIM will hit the European summer festival circuit, playing the Ursynalia festival in Warsaw, Poland June 1; the Download Festival in Derby, England, June 14; the Nova Rock Festival in Nickelsdorf, Austria, June 15 and the Ruisrock Festival in Turku Finland, July 6.

For more information, please click here for HIM’s website and don’t forget to check out the band’s Facebook page.