"Ville Valo's Dream Became a Nightmare"
Depression, alcoholism, panic-disorders… Ville Valo’s dream became a nightmare
LIGHT IN THE DARK
How is Ville Valo really doing? On one scale weights 4,4 million sold records and gigs from here to eternity, but the other cup has been knocked over by depression, alcoholism, and panic-disorders. Samuli Knuuti met Valo, who is as before but at the same time a changed man.
The map is big, the size of the whole wall – a wall or a movie theatre’s silver screen. It has been divided into three parts, and on the surface of it is a spotted rash of small red pins. Exactly these kinds of maps you could imagine to be in the head offices of firms radiating dignity and stable income, grand banks or old day’s cinema companies. But this is not that sort of a place, this is a war chamber.
“It is badly out-of-date, especially on America’s part”, manager Seppo Vesterinen says and swipes dismissingly to the maps direction. The pins mark the places where the band HIM he managers has done gigs in. Europe is red with pins, but other continents are more deserted, in part because the pins haven’t been updated. One unconquered land is France, which only has two pins, for some reason.
There is a clear reason why the map hasn’t been updated. In this apartment, Vesterinen’s office located in Helsinki’s Uudenmaankatu, the charm of novelty in HIM’s success has already faded, it has become a dominating state, a stable climate in the manager’s office. Nobody anymore has the need or the time to stick pins anywhere.
If this is a war chamber, then Vesterinen is the general.
Then in walks a one mans army, Ville Valo, 30, radiating with health. Away is the facial hair that has thriven on his face for the last three years, which makes him look younger than he has looked in a long time. The apple red glow on his skin that has become familiar in the last years magazine pictures has disappeared. He is wearing a faded comical T-shirt, which in the area of his stomachless stomach says: “I don’t have a drinking problem. I drink, I get drunk, I fall down – no problem”, - the likes of which even only a few gas station-humorists had the nerve to wear without making a wry face. Underneath his sleeves wriggle out his tattooed arms.
It is the beginning of July, Valo has given interviews two days in a row and the next morning he has to wake up at five to go to Germany to recite the same rumba. Our discussion will be finalised later in August by phone.
“Take some beer” Valo points to the beer cans on the table that are put in a row like tin soldiers. “I won’t bother to take any on promo days”. Consequently, there is also an other reason for declining to take beer.
One of Ville Valo’s idols has always been Ozzy Osbourne, and for what other reasons are idols there for other than to offer footsteps, where you can try to put in your own feet, and follow behind. In the middle of May those footsteps lead Valo to the Californian Promises- rehab. When he entered the five star hotel disguised as a rehab, a place where celebrities and the rich came to dry out, he started to laugh. Ten years Valo had carried out the rock-dream, which during the spring finally turned into a nightmare – a nightmare that Promises promised an opportunity to wake up from with the price of 1200 euros per night.
The laughter was helped by six quickly consumed pints, taken just before signing in. Before those six pints was a week of round-the-clock drinking, whereas that week was prepared by two years of continuous and determined drinking. And there is nothing to laugh about anymore in that.
“I woke up in the morning and opened my first bottle of beer”, Valo describes his daily rhythm in the recent years. “About after eight bottles I’d achieve a hangover, and then I had to drink eight more to get drunk. A normal feeling didn’t get to surprise me at any point. When our new record got finished in spring, postnatal depression hit me, which forced me to understand, that something had to be done about the situation. First I went to a doctor in Beverley Hills, who would have taken me straight in to the hospital, because of alcohol my organism was due to dehydration in a state of emergency. I was a walking heart attack.”
Initially HIM’s new record should have come out already in the summer. The delay was Ville Valo’s fortune. When the record company decided, unaware of the artist’s problems, to delay the records publication to autumn, a month long window opened up in the tight schedule, to which’s spending Valo had exactly two choices: either to party himself to decay, literally, or to go rehab.
“There were 25 patients, and besides me only one had come there voluntarily”, Valo says. “Everyone else had come there forced by a family members, employer or court. According to what I’ve heard only eight percent are sober after three months. And I’m in that group, in spite of that I refused to take part in the AA-meetings or the whole 12 step programme. I shun the idea of giving my destiny into the possession of some higher being.”
The first rehab week Valo tried to sleep with the help of tranquillizers that kept away the muscle cramps. Then he started to enjoy himself. Gourmet food, therapy sessions with a beautiful female psychiatric, life with out cell phones and responsibilities – what is there not to like in such a life? Like interviews, gigs, the whole glorious craziness of being a rockstar, rehab was anthropology for him: a new educational experience.
When Ozzy has left rehab, he has usually been found in a bar soon. Valo left to a pub as well – but for a different occasion. “Immediately when I got out of there I went to see a friend’s bands gig in House of Blues”, he says. “What I was specifically forbidden to do, they said that I had to keep away from places, where alcohol is served. But I wanted to get back to my former life, just without booze. And it wasn’t hard. The chats were just as low class (v. liberal translation), even though I didn’t have ten pints under my belt.”
The record that will be published in the middle of September is HIM’s sixth record. In rock culture there is a myth about record’s consecutive numbers. The first record is always the big opportunity. The second one doesn’t have to be as good, because behind it the first born is still pushing the speed. And then there is the difficult third record, which has to already be a step forward: if it’s not an escalator going upward, it’s an oiled slide to the depths.
But nobody can say anything general about the sixth record – so few bands get there: only the really big names and the round wrecks; those, who don’t have to, and those, who don’t understand to stop.
The depression followed by making the record didn’t come as a surprise to Valo. He has been diagnosed to have manic-depression, although according to him it is not deep depression, “the kind that you can’t get out of bed, you just piss yourself, because nothing matters.”>br> “Making a record is pretty emotionally hard. Every record is harder to make than the one before it, because you have to prove to yourself over and over again that you are worth it. And then when you add bad relationships to it, the soup is ready.
The panic attacks from a few years back got Valo to try mood stabilizers. He describes the affect of the medicine pretty minor: just the hangovers were a little less bad. But the happy pills were not good for his creativity. Because Valo is a full-blooded advocate for the romantic artist-ideal, he believes, that any truly touching expression has to be searched from dark places: and if it happens that there is no fitting inferno in the surroundings, a similar has to be set on fire inside the artist itself, and then search there for the music.
“With those medicines I didn’t get to the dark atmospheres”, he complains. “Those feelings, that the world is a shit place even though the sun is shining. My job is to find my way to the extremes of my mental health, and if there are no valleys there are no peaks either. I don’t feel like playing with my own creativity anymore.”
Will HIM still find new listeners? The last album Dark Light (2005) has sold world widely a little over one million copies, in USA over half a million, which is over the local gold record. In Europe the success has faded a little from the era of the hit Join Me, faded first but stabled then. America is however a different continent, a different world.
“USA is a big land, full with opportunities”, Ville says and leans back on the chair of his manager’s conference room and opens up an energy drink.
“You have to remember, that the record sales have come down so much, that you can’t compare them to some 80’s figures. Dark Light is however the first record people actually worked for there. I think only when you have three properly released records in America behind you, you can say where things are going and is the peak already behind us. As yet new listeners have always been found.”
“After the last record we were asked to do even a third American tour, but we decided rather to do a new record instead of playing the old songs to bursting point. 50-60 gigs were enough. And we after all had a bus under us: we had many warm up bands, which had gone around America in a small pick-up van. When you have to go hundreds of miles every night, I myself cried for mom and prayed for the devil, so I could keep going on the next day. In some van the faith for rock’n’roll would have been truly tested.”
Foretaste for touring USA HIM gets already before Venus Doom, because when this magazine comes out they are already ending their 30 gigs in Projekt Revolution tour. The engine of the tour is Linkin Park. Also My Chemical Romance, that has cut past HIM’s success. Only two years ago they opened up for HIM, but their Yankee hit Helena changed the power relations. My Chemical Romance still has the dew, the charm of novelty; they only have three records on their kilometre counter, and the rock consumers often have the same attitude to bands as for used cars.
And just on the interview day My Chemical Romance happens to play in Helsinki’s Jaahalli.
“What!?” - Valo leaves the room to go to shout at Vesterinen and the press officer in a pointedly theatrical, periodically irritated way of a star treated badly. “Why didn’t anybody tell me?”
“Would you want to go see them?” - the press officer asks him.
No, but he would have wanted to go and say hi to the band to their hotel. Well he is Finland’s only person, who could if he wanted go on stage with both My Chemical Romance and Kari Tapio.
Ville Valo searched for inspiration for Venus Doom from an unexpected place. Where HIM’s international rival The Rasmus’ Lauri Ylonen went to America to write a new record after exhausting the hits produced in Sweden, Valo, who actually has pushed himself into America’s markets, left to compose to Sirkankyla. According to him only hicks call the place Levi.
“The locals are really explicit about the name”, - he emphasised like he is pointing out a really important thing.
“It is a really peculiar place, because about 500 locals live there, and in tourist season there are 50000 people there. I was there off-season, sat around in a bar with people from all ages. There I laid under Siltakyla’s bar with vomit-medals on my chest.”
That was time before rehab.
“The people in the north are wonderfully direct; with them you can just sit down and talk about anything. Like for example reindeer management. Not once did I get into a fight, or had to sign autographs".
But a rockstar is a rockstar also in Lapland. Valo tells he rented the same cottage where “Madonna or David Beckham or both” have formerly stayed. And once he got a elicopter and left with his local drinking buddies to the classic bar in Poka’s village for a beer. In Valo’s speech is a nostalgically bittersweet flavour: this is remembering the former life, shots from a photo album that doesn’t fit any more photographs.
Lapland can also be seen in Ville Valo’s arm. He has tattooed the Lappish writer Timo K. Mukka, who died under thirty from poverty, on his arm right next to Baudelaire and Bukowski. But now Ville, say honestly, how many Mukka’s books have you actually read?
“I haven’t read them all”, - he admits and lights another cigarette, “They are pretty heavy books in a lot of different ways, and they demand their own unique atmosphere. All the time I intend to dig them up again, but haven’t achieved to do that. Tabu is maybe the best book I have read so far. But I don’t know, if reading everything and digging everything is so essential. I don’t like every piece from Melleri, but that doesn’t lighten his importance for me. The lives of Mukka, Melleri and Karvo Palsa all have the kind of Finnish persistence and independency, which you can’t find so easily in the lives of foreign artists. Some certain barrenness and despair.”
But Palsa, Mukka and Melleri were all in their own way very tragic stories, died young or with chosen lifestyles made themselves old; two of the above -mentioned were neglected and misunderstood during their time, even held in contempt. The gates of an Californian rehab wouldn’t have opened for any of them. And none of them ran a firm, they barely filled tax forms. Valo has three firms: Voskon, Himsalabim and Heartagram, which each in it’s way takes care of gigs and record sale incomes.
Already at the start of his career Valo said that he reads rock star biographies to avoid doing the same mistakes as the legends. With alcohol he didn’t entirely succeed, but in many other things he has.
In all what happened there is a surprise, that HIM’s record is nothing surprising: it is branded HIM, its basic sound is as tightly accordant with the trade mark as the band’s logo, the heartagram. Or all right, it is heavier and less of a pop album than the previous one; it is like HIM with Dark Light by way of trial wanted to see, how many listeners they could make to hop on board, and now they try, how many will stay on board when they push the pedal down.
“The record company didn’t try to lead us in any way. Our idea has always been that we, the orchestra and Seppo, could keep one step ahead from the record company. In every record company every employee takes care of many bands, but we have the freedom just to concentrate on ourselves. If we would let other people do our decisions for us, we would all of a sudden have a record ten times more expensive, and recorded in Singapore and a duet with Elton John. And still it would sound like shit. And the a&r-person who controlled the project wouldn’t get the blame, we would.”
Venus Doom wasn’t recorded in Singapore and it doesn’t sound like shit; it was made in Finland and it sounds like HIM, as you can see from the song titles: “Aamunkoiton Suudelma” (Kiss of dawn in Finnish), “Intohimon Teurastamo” (Passion’s Killing Floor), “Kylmaverista Rakkautta” (Love in cold blood), “Kuolleiden rakastavaisten katu” (Dead Lovers Lane), “Unissakavely toivon ohi” (Sleepwalking past hope). In Finnish songs like these wouldn’t go trough. Valo knows that and grins.
“I’m not going to change into anything”, he laughs. “I won’t evolve as a songwriter. Love and death – what else is there after all? If that was enough for romantic poets, then they’ll good enough for me. If I did songs for example from cell phones, they wouldn’t have any lasting value.”
But indeed eternal things can be materialized also. For the new song Passion’s Killing Floor is in Transformers movie, which is not so much about love and death, but about big toys attacking smaller ones.
“You don’t loose anything”, Valo says. “In a good case you expose tens of millions of people to your music. If the movie flops, so what. Transformers has been fantastically marketed: it hits the family dads who lived their youth in the 80’s, and now they road their kids to the theatre with them. It is a different thing to give music to advertisements, but who would want us for that. I at least wouldn’t like to chew on a chocolate bar, that has been advertised with our lyrical offerings".
In the end of August Ville Valo has three months of sobriety behind him. What is ahead – a whole life? To that Ville doesn’t want to say anything. He hasn’t said absolute goodbyes to alcohol yet, but on the other hand on his horizon doesn’t glitter the mythical day, from which many with alcohol problems, despite having gotten treatment, dream of – the day when you can drink again.
“Never say never”, he says on the phone from a Virginian hotel room, which’s minibar hasn’t been cleared out.
“Right now even the thought of grabbing a beer bottle makes me sick. I made myself so sick with alcohol, that I’m not interested at all to get back to those atmospheres. And I haven’t found any other drug interesting since I was a teenager. Alcohol is legal and easy to get, you don’t need any extra drama or adjustments to get it. I have always been more of a basket of beer a day- kind of guy.”
When Depeche Mode’s singer Dave Gahan after five years of drugs and alcohol returned to stages sober in autumn 1998, he was for a long time only a shadow of himself. The acclaimed showman had become a careful performer, who was spinning the microphone like he was afraid that somebody would say something against it.
When HIM opened up Metallica in the Olympiastadioni in July Valo’s stage performance seemed more cautious that in what we have been used to. Indeed in the former gigs Metallica fans had greeted HIM with outstretched middle fingers and refreshments thrown to the stages direction. But even though Helsinki’s home audience was benevolent, Valo didn’t search any contact to it. He just sang, better than before, but still timidly, like he was trying to hide in the spotlight, that didn’t exist in the sun shine.
“Well I have hardly ever been on stage horribly drunk; and I don’t think I have been a different persona now that I’m sober. I only have to find my feet again, and when I do, I don’t doubt for a second that they won’t carry.”
There’s a knock on the Virginian hotel room, is Mr. Valo coming? He is going on stage, to practise his profession.
“The most important thing after all is that you don’t screw everything up that you have achieved with doing hard work. In the end of the day, I don’t want anything else but my mom and dad to be proud of me.”
Credit by Faithfull