Ville Valo is a tabloid celebrity in his homeland of Finland. In the U.S., he's a cult figure men want to be and women want to be with. In a culture dominated with hip-hop stars, could the next big rock star be among us? With solid songs and charisma to burn, all eyes - and ears - should be focused on HIM.
You can tell Ville Valo is "somebody." It doesn't matter if you've never heard of the band, HIM; the stares he's getting in the hallways of Hollywood's Wyndham BelAge Hotel aren't from any of the 250,00 people in American who bought his band's last domestic release, 2003's Razorblade Romance. He just has it - that hard-to-define charisma that beams from people like Johnny Depp and Liam Gallagher. The fact that he's incredibly tall, dressed in black and wearing heavy eyeliner doesn't hurt, either. The Black Sabbath Heaven and Hell shirt? Merely icing.
If he notices the looks, he doesn't care. Graceful, alarmingly charming, instantly welcoming and warm, Valo doesn't complain when the bartender (far from busy on this weekday afternoon) forgets to bring him change from the 20-spot he dropped to buy a round of coffee. After waiting 10 minutes or so, he just forgets about it.
You've probably seen the "heartagram" symbol Valo drew up years ago as a logo for his band: you could be forgiven if you thought it was the logo for any of Bam Margera's various enterprises. But the prevalance of the symbol in the visual noise of youth culture hasn't gone to his head. "The best thing about our band is the heartagram. It's something you can tattoo [or] put on your wall," Valo says modestly. "It's universal. I've always considered that symbol to be bigger than the band. It's a symbol of a way of thinking."
HIM's four albums of Black Sabbath-worthy riffage and bittersweet crooning - Greatest Love Songs Vol. 666, Razorblade rRmance, Deep Shadows and Brilliant Highlights and Love Metal - have earned the band a cult following in the U.S. and superstardom worldwide. Valo's dashing looks have graced plenty of magazine covers; he's even in the tablids in the band's native country, Finland. He's the kind of figure who, band leader or not, guys want to be and girls want to be with - which makes his politeness all the more improbable. He's got a very rigid press schedule today; and, with HIM's tightly guarded new album, Dark Light, yet to be mastered, he's not supposed to play anybody music. It's a quick chat in the hotel bar, and that's it. But after five minutes, he changes the plan.
"You want to come up to my room and hear some songs?" he offers, abruptly ending the engaging small talk. "I'd love to play you some stuff."
Ville Valo doesn't let housekeepers into his hotel room. Thr first thing he says while swiping his entry card through the door is, "Sorry about the mess." And it is a mess. There are no TV sets dangling out of the window by their power cords, but there are cartons of Marlboro Lights alongside assorted empty bottles of Red Stripe, Budweiser, Sprite and Red Bull, and an assortment of musical instruments.
Ville lights a cigarette and lets the ashes hit the floor as he picks up an acoustic guitar. "A lot of guys, like B.B. King, name their guitars after women," he offers. "I name mine after Sylvester Stallone characters." He points to the headstock. It reads, "Freddy," the Italian Stallion's schlubby sheriff role in Cop Land.
Valo smiles. A lot. He cracks jokes that are clever but devoid of malice. And you know what? He's downright chatty. Not in the pretentious, let-me-tell-you-about-my-inner-demons way, either; he genuinely wants to get to know people. When he starts talking about his outlook on music and his music-school past, it begins to make sense.
"Finland is Lutheran, and most of the people are baptized and pay their taxes to the church, but it's not a very religious country," he says. "My dad didn't want me to be baptized or be in church. He said if I wanted to one day, on my own terms, I could. My mom? She's crazy. She goes to, like, Stonehenge, and does Tai Chi. She's spiritual."The first album Valo fell in love with was Kiss' Animalize (from their unmasked era); Ozzy Osbourne's The Ultimate Sin wasn't far behind. "I asked my cousin what good music is, and, thank God, she was into Rainbow and Kiss. And then later, my best mate's older brother was a metalhead. We thought he was the coolest dude on earth. That's how I started listening to Master of Puppets and Slayer." Then it was off to music school, where Valo discovered jazz, reggae and Dixieland, soaking in everything from Dinosaur Jr. to Napalm Death - call it his appetite for it.
"I've always considered that phrase 'Keep your friends close but your enemies closer' [applicable] to music," he says. "If you are planning to be a professional musician, it's good to know about [all of it]. There's a reason why all of it is being done. There's beauty in everything. Country & western, for example: It took me a long time to appreciate Willie Nelson and David Allen Coe, but I do. You suck in as much information as you can, learn how to read sheet music and write and do everything. And then you abandon all that information on purpose and get into something totally against those rules. And, after a couple of years, you find your balance."
Pay attention: He's got examples. "If you listen to Bill Ward from Black Sabbath, [his druming is] totally shitty. If you are thinking about timing and stuff like that. But that's the whole key to that sound. Or, like, how Robert Plant is a bit flat when he sings. Anybody can be technical, but very few people can work within that technicality in a way that they can bring that soul and heart out."
Heart and soul - wrenched through the guts of metal - is what HIM have always been about, and never more so than on Dark Light, where Valo and his boys - bassist Mige, guitarist Linde, drummer Gas and keyboard player Burton - have honed their Type O Negative and Black Sabbath worship to a fine point and sharpened their brilliantly cheeky sentimentality to a similar edge. In [Alternative Press issue] 198, Valo said he wanted to make the new record sound like "U2 marrying Black Sabbath." It makes sense, then, that the band hired a producer, Tim Palmer, whose resume includes both of those icons to help craft arguably HIM's most important album.
"Rip Out the Wings of a Butterfly" could introduce the band to American radio. The song encapsulates what HIM do best: rocking riffs, clever worldplay and Valo's baritone crooning. When an observation is made that the song's guitar tone nicely recalls Billy Duffy's from the Cult, Valo smiles. "Now there's a good reference," he notes, adding that it's even more like old-school British goth outfit the Mission. When Valo sings about being "nailed to a cross together" in "Killing Loneliness," a song graced with as much falsetto as his typically low moan, the imagery is immediate. Dark Light is as cinematic as it is literate, and is readily identifiable as the archetypical HIM sound.
"I did loads of rock screaming on Love Metal," he says. "But there are so many people who do it better than me, and very few people have baritone in rock bands. I wanted to come back to that Bloody Kisses vibe. I wanted to be more of a crooner."
When Valo signed with Warner Bros' Sire imprint, HIM headed to Hollywood for the creation of Dark Light. The band holed up inside a Hollywood mansion that was built in the 1920s by an oil millionaire for his opera-singing daughter; its acoustics, Valo says, were incredible. "They claim it's haunted," he adds. "All the people who worked there said there are rooms they won't go in and they've seen weird shit happen." But the strangest sightings the band experienced during their SoCal stay were limited to a few ex-Beverly Hills, 90210 cast members. And while they were recording, the mansion was double-booked for photo shoots with Nicole Kidman and Cindy Crawford, as well as a Playboy Playmates video.
"Next time, we've got to be somewhere in Shitsville. We came here to have peace and concentration," Valo says, as though it genuinely didn't occur to him that Hollywood would be the worst place to get some privacy. "I didn't realize that Warner Bros. was in Burbank. There were loads of meetings. But they're nice people, and it was good for them to be informed about what we're doing - which is easier than when we're thousands of miles away."
But sometimes geography has its own reward. Like having the freedom to get down to the work at hand without having to field "suggestions" from record-label representatives. The conversation turns toward that elephant in the room: Is Valo prioritizing any ambitions to "breaking big in America?"
"We offer something that doesn't exist here right now," he begins. "It's a bit more emotional, and it's not based on anger or hatred; it's got the best of all worlds, hopefully. I think there's a spot for us. Everything in our career has been a series of lucky accidents, like meeting Bam: He came to one of our show, and he loved our music so much, he started putting our heartagram everywhere and [helping us]. If people aren't ready for us, then they're not."
He states his conviction by stubbing out another cigarette and gleefully unraveling a giant proof of the Dark Light album cover, a stormy picture of a Matrix-like high-rise building with lighted windows arranged in the shape of the heartagram. The photo looks more cinematic than the pictures at the multiplex this past summer. "We're still in a great position as an underground band here where we can sell out the Wiltern and Avalon in Los Angeles - back to back , even," he says. "And we've never had any radio, TV or proper press."
Valo sounds neither nervous nor arrogant, but downright Zen-like, in a way that undoubtedly would make his Tai Chi-practicing mother proud.
"I'm confident that things can't go too bad," he concludes. "Things shouldn't come too easy, [anyway]. When you work your ass off and you [achieve] victory, it tastes sweeter."
While Ville Valo's iPod is packed with many of the lovelorn goth acts, Euro-metal and stoner jams you'd expect him to groove on (Carcass, Clutch, Cradle of Filth, Depeche Mode, Emperor, Interpol, Joy Division, Katatonia, Mazzy Star, Paradise Lost, Portishead, Sentenced, Tiamat and Type O Negative, to name just a few), [Alternative Press] did find a few surprises when he offered us a tour through one of his most valued possessions. "There's [some] shit in the iPod I really don't listen to that much," he admitted. "But I'm one of those guys that just likes to put the CDs in there."
"I was big into hip-hop when I was a kid. At first it was the poppy stuff, like Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee, when I didn't know any better; and then Grandmaster Flash and 'White Lines.' My all-time favorite is 'Follow the Leader' by Eric B. & Rakim."
"Of course, that's for the tour bus. It's always Alice Cooper, AC/DC and Neil Young, especially [in the U.S.]. Neil Young fits the roads here so well."
"That's the guy who does [all the music] for David Lynch, like Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet. He's very influential to me. The theme for Twin Peaks is one of the best pieces of music ever written."
"I still have posters of him on my wall, unless my girlfriend has torn them down. I met him a couple of weeks back when we played the same festival. The only album I've got in [my iPod] is his latest, Devil's Playground. It's a great album. Billy Idol is very underrated as a songwriter."
Corrosion of Conformity
"I love the Sabbath kind of stuff they did, like Deliverance. I think it's the most underrated rock album ever. [Hums "Albatross."] That's, like, the greatest riff."
"They're just interesting to know [about], like Elton John. I always knew a couple of songs, so I went and got their greatest hits to get into it."
H.R. (Bad Brains singer)
"Bad Brains are one of my favorite bands of all time. My favorite album is Quickness. I've got all of [H.R.'s] records back home. I listen to a lot of reggae and dub."
"Heavy Horses, that's my favorite. It's a cool trick to pull off to have an album about farm animals that makes you feel emotional. There are some great lyrics on that one. They consider it to be their worst album, because they were going through some management hassles and they were depressed, but you can feel that; it's very sad and happy at the same time. It's one of my favorite albums of all time. I love the fact that he's talking about how heavy horses aren't needed anymore because the trucks are coming; you know, the tractor is on its way. It's like the end of a world. That's something I love about the album."
"I was hanging out at this bar in Silver Lake, and they had a jukebox playing 'Smile Like You Mean It.' That's the sone for me. They are maybe trying to be a bit too British. They could be a bit more American, because [that's] nothing to be ashamed of. There are elements I like about the album, but that song, to me, that's the one. I was listening to that, like, 100 times a day."
The Lost Boys (original movie soundtrack)
"I loved it when I was a kid."
"I was never into the Smiths so much. 'There is a Light that Never Goes Out:' I love that song. I love his [recent] song 'I Have Forgiven Jesus:' That's a great angle. That whole album, You Are the Quarry, is pretty good."
Siouxsie and the Banshees
"They're overrated. Our producer gave me a couple of songs to listen to when we were doing the album, for guitar sounds and stuff like that. That's not my cup of tea."
The heartagram logo has overtaken the band and the man who created it. And in case you aren't clear: That would be HIM, and singer/guitarist/songwriter Ville Valo. Bam Margera loves Valo's band so much, he put the heartagram on his front door, seen every Sunday night on the Jackass-refugee's MTV show, Viva La Bam. You can all see the symbol in the show's closing credits and on Margera's merchandise, including his skateboarding pro model and shoe. The question remains: Is that a good thing at this point?
Well, the symbol itself is a good thing; there's no denying that. "Every band wants their own 'heartagram' now," sighs Don Clark, co-owner of the Seattle design firm Asterik Studio, which has worked with bands like Funeral For A Friend and Norma Jean. "[Bands] don't understand that it's not that simple. The AC/DC and Metallica logos are legendary because those bands became legends, not the other way around. You can't always create iconic imagery; sometimes it just happens."
Valo's idea to combine symbols of good (a heart) and evil (the pentagram) was a stroke of genius that perfectly summarizes his band's vibe. And while some diehard HIM fans have gone so far as to get heart-a-tats, the focus in America on Margera's use of the icon has eclipsed the band responsible for it.
"Our mission is to reclaim the heartagram from Bam," Valo says with a well-meaning smirk. "He has done more good than harm to us. He's our friend. He hasn't been trying to 'steal' the thing for himself. He's just enthusiastic about it."