FINNS CAN ONLY GET BETTER...
Kerrang! May 01 2004
It's HIM's first US tour, and the strains of obsessive fan-worship, celebrity partying, moody equipment and petty law-enforcement are taking their toll on the Finnish love metal crew. Welcome to the insane asylum...
THE SHOP at number eight Delancey Street is a wart on the arse-end of New York's Chinatown. From the icons flankings its dilapidated neon signs - written in Chinese - it seems to sellawnings. And side from the tow shredded cuoches out front and the ragged American flag waving above it, it's as nondescript as a shop can get. In fact, the only thing that gives it any consequence is that it's next door to the Bowery Ballroom.
That, and it's the only thing a gaggle of 50-odd black-clad HIM fans vying to be the first inside that venue have to look at for the last 12 hours. They're just a soundcheck and tow support bands away from the first show of HIM's first ever American tour - every date of which sold out in under tow hours. So if 12 hours seems like a long time to wait, consider that they've already been waiting for seven years.
"The wait was totally worth it," beams a greening girl in a low-slang PVC top. "As soon as I heard HIM I wanted to know everything about them. I got up at 4:30am to drive over here. I'm headed to the next four shows, too".
That only mildly impresses the 20-something behind her. He drove up from Knoxville, Tennessee for the event. This won't be his first time. A few months back he overseas to catch the last leg of HIM's German tour.
"But bro," he adds, "I drove for 16 hours yesterday. In the rain. I listened to HIM the whole way up".
Just then, Ville Valo - already dolled up in black mascara and a Bob Cratchett-style pinstripe suit - exits a yellow cab and strolls up tp the venue door. Stunned disbelief ripples through the queue a nanosecond before they swarm him for autographs, happy-snaps, and a chance to bask in the long-awaited frontman's aura. Valo looks delighted to oblige before a security man whisks him inside.
"That was amazing," says a young girl, eagerly re-entering the queue. "I never thought they'd come here, ever."
A blue monochrome tattoo covers her right forearm. It's a festooned heart with a gothic-lettered 'Valo' in the centre. "I've also got a big Heartagram here, too," she says, pointing to her ribcage. "I got it a year-and-a-half ago, and I decided to get the one on my arm last month when I found out I was coming to these shows."
Are there any limits to your devotion?
"I don't know," she replies, briefly pausing to ponder the query. "What do you mean by 'limits'?"
DESPITE ITS shabby surrounding, the Bowery Ballroom is a shining jewel of a venue. With an art-deco stone facade and a hardwood interior illuminated by green stain glass windows, it's a harsh contrast to the harsh sounds bouncing off the walls. The soundchek has shown HIM's rented monitors to be fucked, and their earpieces are faulty. Even worse, they've just heard that New York City fire code prohibits anyone from smoking on the Ballroom's stage.
"What the fuck was that?" laughs Valo, stepping down from his pulpit. "I finished playing 'Sacrament' and turned around for my cigarette and it wasn't there. Suddenly I didn't know where I was."
It doesn t do much to relax the Finn.
"I used to play bass and drums, so I'm used to having something in my hand," he explains. "We could smoke onstage if we wanted to, but we don't want to be assholes."
He lets the statement hang in the air for a few seconds, glancing at a giant HIM poster emblazoned with a shirtless portrait of himself from the cover of 2000's 'Razorblade Romance'. A cigarette dangles from its mouth. An impish grin crosses Valo's face. "Don't get me wrong, we are assholes, but we don't like to be more than we want to."
The band retreats to the sanctuary of the sweaty backstage upstairs to finalise the set-list. As Valo explains, the band have "no idea" what the fans haven't heard. They want to be sure they play songs the fans already know.
Drummer Gas is sounding out the transition between songs with his bandmates, adding arrows and bizarre symbols to a set-list that already reads like an algebraic equation.
"So, 'In My Arms' and then da-da-dee-da-dada..."
"No, no," interrupts synth-man Burton. "It's da-da-DAH-dee-da-dada..."
Just then Valo's mobile goes off. It's a text message from his friendly neighborhood super-fan Bam Margera. The 'Jackass'/'Viva la Bam' star is jammed up in traffic just outside Manhattan. The information instantly shifts Valo's attention from the mechanics of the show tonight to making sure the production crew has sorted a VIP pass for Margera. The band continue working.
NOW IT'S half past 10 and the band are seconds away from stepping onto the stage. The room is a whirl of expectant fans, and in the smokeless space HIM's giant golden Heartagram banner dwarfs the stage. At last, they're on, and without missing a beat launch into a full-on love metal tirade. But despite the fervour of the crowd, the crying girls glued to the base of the stage, and the deafening roars of appreciation following every crowd-chanted number, Valo's looks stiff as a brick. Without the trademark fag dangling from between his fingers, his hands seems glued to the microphone.
"Okay," he mutters. "I want to be a perfect gentleman, but if you see me disappear for a moment I'm going to fuck up my lungs."
Ah, so THAT'S why. As he returns from stage right, the refreshed-looking frontman careens into a stunning rendition of Neil Diamond's 'Solitary Man'. Every mouth in the room moves with the words. They already know it by heart - and this being a teenage majority, they don't seem the most obvious Neil Diamond fans.
An hour after the show an exhausted Valo appears at an aftershow party held in the Ballroom's basement bar. A handful of paparazzi immediately shove their way toward him to take a slew of rapid-fire snaps as he saddles up at the bar. It's an uncomfortable moment - this is treatment befitting an A-list Hollywood star. Here - when it's Valo they're after - it seems totally incongruous, and the normally laid-back singer is clearly agitated.
"At times this is like being a monkey in a zoo," he admits. "People just taking pictures of us, laughing at us, and clapping their hands just to see what stupid new tricks we'll do. Sometimes we want to just go sit in the corner."
He steps out into the nearly-abandoned midnight street and immediately a brawny, short-haired man strides directly toward him.
"Listen man," he says, "I know you get a lot of fans approaching you, but I spend nine months in Iraq." He grabs Valo's hand. "I just wanted let you know your songs got me through it. Thanks."
In the street-lit shadows of Delancey Street, the singer's face is aglow.
ACCORDING TO Ville Valo, the touring process is not unlike watching a time-lapse movie of a decomposing banana. Today he's in Philadelphia - Margera's hometown - and by the looks of the dark, boozy-induced circles under his eyes, his is a fire assessment.
He's sitting in the bowels of South Street's Theatre Of The Living Arts - an expansive venue in the middle of Philly's illustrious South Street. It's vibrant avenue, chock-full of tattoo shops and retailers the likes of 'Condom Kingdom' and 'The Erogenous Zone'. If you stand around long enough you might chance upon someone taking a pet boa constrictor for a walk.
Outside, a 200-fold queue is already snaking its way around the venue's narrow alleyway. Valo won't see any of it. He's just finished another soundcheck, and the evening's fully booked by interviews with MTV camera crews clear till stage-time.
"I can't understand it," he says of last night's encounter. "But I understand that when you're in certain situations that are life-changing, there's a soundtrack to it. There s been albums that have pulled me out of deep waters.
What he s referring to is the time before HIM when he wasn t sure whether to press on or get a job. His rescue was not an album, but a band. Black Sabbath s always been there for me, he says. In fact, he ll reveal that Sabbath is why he started HIM in the first place. That s why he ll never forget the first time he played in Birmingham. And that s why this tour is so important to him.
A proper tour is about spiritual tourism, he explains. It's going to your Meccas. We were supposed to have played CBGB's last night, and I was really disappointed because Blondie and Iggy Pop and the Ramones played there, so I insisted that we had to play the Whisky or the Roxy in LA, he beams. Now we're doing both.
But from the looks of tonight's activity Margera's stardust, the gig flyers that read HIM: As seen on CKY , and the omnipresent MTV crews this tour is about far more than an artist s pilgrimage.
Well, of course it's good to have celebrity friend, he replies, looking a little uneasy. It s like the Mafia. The only difference is it s totally legal, he smirks, returning to his more familiar, jocular self.
But media connections or no, even the most casual HIM observer has probably noticed something particular about Bam Margera's adoration of Valo and his band. The celeb skater has a giant HIM tattoo adorning his torso. He's an avid collector of HIM memorabilia. He sank a pot of his own money into producing HIM's Buried Alive By Love video. He hung a giant steel Heartagram on his living room wall. And he's riding a helicopter to catch their next show.
The greatest thing about us and Bam is he fell in love with the album and loved what we did, and he came backstage after a show and we really liked each other, Valo explains. Since then we've just been great friends.
As Margera later elaborates backstage, he flew to Amsterdam to see Valo play, and was so enamoured that he flew to London to see HIM again and meet Valo. They instantly hit it off.
Ville's like an older brother to me, he grins. He gives me proper advice. Sometimes the kids don't know if the Heartagram is mine or his.
Later that night, HIM will take the stage soon after the stage spotlight shines on Margera, conjuring chants of Bam! from the crowd. Back in the limelight, Ville will be allowed to smoke, and he'll play a flawless set to a rapturous response.
But whether this tour becomes the one where Finland s finest are subsumed within a larger, altogether different entity we'll only know in retrospect. It's worrying, but it calls to mind something Valo was saying earlier in the day. Something to do with how he's 27, and how all rock-legends die at 27 . It's oddly reassuring.
It's better to live for the moment, Valo had said, grinning. If you start thinking about what's going to happen, you'll lose. Sometimes you ve just got to put your finger in an electrical socket just to see what it feels like. And then don't do it again.
HIM's new single, "Solitary Man" is out now
sent by Himera XXX