HIM-fever in the United States.
Sold-out dates in L.A. and Chicago as Dark Light album sells briskly.
The Nevada desert at daybreak. HIM frontman and vocalist Ville Valo pulls out a semi-automatic and fires. Bassist Mikko "Mige" Paananen also fires off a volley of shots. His t-shirt is already riddled with bullet-holes.
"This is a new band ritual", Mige says later, wearing a grin and the tattered shirt on the band's touring bus. "We go out for morning target practice, and use shirts as the targets. But fortunately I wasn't wearing this one when it happened."
Keyboards player Janne "Burton" Puurtinen feels a need to blow a few holes in a modified American flag he picked up from a hippie store: the square in the top left corner where the stars would be has been replaced by a Peace logo. Tour manager Tom Furey suggests it might not be such a good idea. The locals could get uptight about someone shooting up a national symbol in this way.
When the band arrive in Las Vegas, Burton wraps the flag around the legs of his instrument. It is still there, draped across the organ for the fans to wonder at, when the gig gets going that night.
"I'm for the Peace Movement. This is a statement", says Burton.
As evening draws on, fans begin to gather in the foyer of the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino complex.
The foyer leads off to fifteen restaurants, hundreds of gambling tables and slot machines, thousands of hotel rooms and suites, and the House of Blues (capacity c. 1,800), which just a few weeks ago hosted an evening with country legend Dolly Parton.
The dark-clad HIM teenage fans in the casino foyer stand out in dramatic contrast to their grandparents' generation, dressed in shorts and loud vacation shirts and blithely continuing to stuff money into the massed ranks of one-armed bandits.
"HIM are the best there is", says 17-year-old Sally, who plans to get down to the front of the stage. "They have brought Goth-rock back to the States, and Ville sings beautifully. The lyrics are great, too, and they have inspired my own poetry writing."
Sally's little brother Ryan grins and reveals a flash of his dental brace. "It's not Goth-rock anyway. It's Love Metal. There's romance and power in there. Totally different thing."
These youngsters are not interested in the fact that the same evening features appearances in Vegas by Elton John, Tom Jones, Celine Dion, or the critically-acclaimed rock outfit System of a Down.
"I might have gone to see System if HIM hadn't been here", muses Sally. "But now the choice was obvious."
There is no age-limit for the gig, so the warm-up bands start at around 6 p.m. and have finished their sets two hours later.
And when HIM hit the stage at 20:40, the teens and young adults scream like those Beatles fans of old you can see on grainy film recordings.
They throw roses and cigarettes onto the stage. Ville Valo picks up a cigarette and puts it behind his ear, lights another one, gargles some beer in his mouth, and sings with a smile on his face of how ...this life ain't worth living...
The entire hall belts out the key line from the classic single Join Me (In Death), but they also seem to be well up to speed on the lyrics to the new album Dark Light, which has only been in the stores a couple of weeks.
Dark Light is the album with which HIM are reaping the harvest of previous CDs and two earlier tours of the U.S. The band has also received a good deal of flanking support from the MTV prankster and former pro skateboarder Bam Margera, who has pushed their music on programmes like Jackass and Viva la Bam.
Around 50,000 American HIM fans bought Dark Light in the first week of its release, enough to propel it up to #18 in the Billboard Top 40. This came as quite a surprise to the band-members themselves and to the record label, Sire.
This week the CD has slipped to #51 on the Billboard listings. At the same time, however, it is Top 10 material in several European countries - including Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece, Slovenia, Switzerland, Finland - and now also in Mexico, where the band will be making two appearances in November. Dark Light will probably shift considerably in excess of a million copies worldwide.
"I'm not making any predictions", says the band's manager Seppo Vesterinen.
"An initial shipment of 550,000 copies went out to stores around the world, and the rest depends on how well the tours go and how long the CD keeps selling."
In all, HIM have sold more than 3.5 million records. The second album release Razorblade Romance accounts for around a million of these, on the strength of the band's old single hit Join Me (In Death).
In the United States, the HIM buyers are young. You can see kids as young as ten years old at gigs, wearing the "heartagram" logo on their shirts and woolly Ville Valo hats (the Finnish word for the hat is pipo).
The band's logo is a pentagram - beloved arcane symbol of heavy rock acts everywhere - with two points curved to incorporate a heart symbol. One of the "heartagram-pipo" fans in Las Vegas is a veritable Ville Valo clone. He sings along from a position by the soundboard and his gestures are the spitting image of those of the HIM frontman up on stage.
"Ville's example made me into a singer. He's the man. He's sensitive", says 23-year-old Lennon with obvious enthusiasm.
"But the U.S. sucks. In Europe, HIM can sell out stadium gigs, but here they are playing in clubs like the House of Blues, because American sh*t-metal is so much more popular hereabouts than the genuine article, Love Metal!"
Young Lennon gives me a lecture on how Type O Negative [a Goth-metal band out of Brooklyn] were actually doing love-metal before HIM came along, but it was only Ville who gave the genre a recognisable name, under which bands like Charon, Entwine, Icon, To Die For, and others can now be categorised.
"But wait a sec, hey, can you get me backstage?", the devoted fan asks. And then another one. And then ten more follow in quick succession. At this point the visiting journalist is obliged to make a hasty escape from the frenzied HIM fans, into the venue's backstage area.
Strange for me, but for the band-members a much more familiar experience. "It's starting to get to the point where fans are staked out at the venues already in the morning. And Ville can hardly even poke his nose outside after a gig because it causes such a stir", says manager Vesterinen.
Although the sound is interesting, the HIM mixing desk has the same old problems. How is the technician to get the band to sound sufficiently ballsy without blotting out the wonderful tonal range of Ville Valo's voice? He eventually comes down in favour of safeguarding the solid sound, and Valo's vocals are occasionally drowned out in the mix.
At the beginning of Play Dead, Ville explains the lyric fragment that prompted a response from no less an authority than the New York Times. "I cry like God cries the rain", rhymes Valo. The very positive NYT album review admits it is a pretty lame line, but that it works in Valo's hands and voice.
"This is [about] the situation where you don't want to get out of bed in the mornings. Told by someone who is close to being mentally ill", Valo explains to his audience.
And then he starts singing. His register extends seamlessly from a deep baritone through the normal central range to a nasal vibrato reminiscent of ‘80s Finnish glam-rockers Dingo and right on up to some stunning falsetto notes. ,br> At the pub karaoke nights, taking on a HIM song would almost certainly be a licence to make oneself look and sound ridiculous. Although the choruses have a strong anthemic appeal, there is often a lot more going on, in the way of really difficult and impressive vocal melodies to be negotiated.
At the top right of the House of Blues stage there is a VIP box, in which three middle-aged Finns are seated. One of them is Kari Valo, a sex shop owner from Kallio in Helsinki. This is the rockstar's father's first visit to the United States.
"I came on vacation with a couple I know, and this just had to be seen. I've only caught Ville's band previously at Tavastia." [a Helsinki rock-club] So did Ville's father, when seeing those early gigs at Tavastia, have any idea that it would all come to this for his son? An international career? "Well, I started to get the sort of feeling it might when they were on tour in the U.K. My hairdresser, who follows music a bit, said that there was no way the Brits would go around sending invitations just for the sake of it."
Father and son meet after the show winds up with the new single Rip Out the Wings of the Butterfly and the band have trooped off the stage. Ville invites his father to the upcoming Los Angeles gigs, but later he thinks it is more than likely that Dad will take a raincheck.
"He's into old cars, and there's some Ford spare parts and accessories trade show going on in L.A. at the same time."
The band gather together in the rather ordinary-looking dressing room area for a late dinner. Some of the band members have a beer or two, others drink sodas. There is no suggestion that they should go out and hit the nightclubs or the Vegas tables.
Already by about 11 p.m. the band-members are heading towards the tour bus. There they get themselves ready to sleep during the overnight drive to Los Angeles. The musicians sleep in bunks set up on either side of the central aisle in the bus. The tour manager gets a lower berth.
"These guys are so responsible", says tour manager Tom Furey with a hint of wonderment in his voice.
"They've gone through a lot less beer than we had planned for. Even Ville seems very happy and is smiling all the time on stage."
"Hey, it's not that we are responsible, but we've already done Vegas", laughs bassist Mige.
"During our first tour over here some of the band went out to the tittie-bars and an oxygen bar, where you can get to sniff pure oxygen through a mask for twenty bucks or so. The casinos, they don't interest me in the least."
According to Migé, the band "kicks back and kicks ass" when the time is right, but with the sort of gruelling concert and travelling itinerary they have at present, nobody can really be a rock'n'roll animal on a 24/7 basis.
"So yes, we go off to sleep when the bus heads out to the next venue. In the morning we wake up in a new place, drink our mochas and wash our weenies, and hopefully we also get to do a bit of shooting. Then it's time for the soundcheck, then the gig, and then we are back where we started again."
Ville Valo also has the main responsibility for interviews with the media. He spends around an hour and a half each day giving interviews to the main papers in the next towns along the way, in order that the HIM headlines will be prominent when the band are in town.
This day-to-day regime, started in Portland, Oregon on October 5th, will be maintained in the U.S. and Canada on a tour encompassing around 40 dates, ending with two gigs at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia towards the end of November. Then there are two appearances in Mexico City, before a month-long break that is interrupted by the band's traditional (and instantly sold out) New Year's gig at Tavastia in Helsinki. January 2006 will see them touring the UK and Ireland, and in February it will be the turn of Central Europe. In March the band are slated to go to Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Spring will herald yet another trip to the States, before the round of summer festival appearances in Europe.
How long can you keep this up?
"I think we'll make two or three more records", says Ville Valo. ,i>"Definitely one, that's a certainty."
"It really all depends on the sort of feeling we have, and if everyone is completely committed to the cause. I don't mean anyone in particular by that remark. Right now the mood is pretty good, and you can even sense it at concerts", he continues.
Time to get moving. The driver starts up the bus for the trip west to Los Angeles. The band are booked for two nights at The Wiltern (formerly the Wiltern Theater), a hall with a capacity of around 2,300, depending how the floor is set up. Music journalists will be flying in from as far afield as the New York Times, and even Finland's own Ilta-Sanomat is sending someone to cover the gigs. "The Wiltern is a pretty typical venue in terms of size on this tour. The band are touring halls with a capacity of something between 2,000 and 5,000, and for instance in L.A., Chicago, Boston, and pretty soon at the Hammerstein in New York City, too, the gigs are already sold out", reports a satisfied manager Vesterinen.
The band will stop over in Los Angeles for several days. On Monday 17th, they are booked for a private gig at the Viper Room, owned by actor and occasional slide guitarist Johnny Depp, and on Tuesday they will be shooting the video for the single Killing Loneliness, taken from Dark Light .
"We should be able to relax and rest up a bit in L.A., too", says Ville Valo. "I'm going to buy a guitar from there tomorrow and start to write some stuff for the next album. The album could come out in September 2007."
So, what is the song you are working on going to be about?
"Who knows? It could be about that giant squid they caught on camera the other day", replies the songwriter. "I was reading a book about them this afternoon. They live very deep down, and they are probably behind many of the old legends about sea-monsters."