Heartagrams and heavy living with H.I.M.'s Ville Valo
Merging heavy metal's satanic
symbol with love's shorthand icon, the heartagram ranks among modern
music's most popular designs. "The symbol is better known than the
actual music of our band," says H.I.M. singer Ville Valo, who invented
Hundreds of H.I.M. fans, including MTV stunt dude Bam Margera and
members of the groups Killswitch Engage and Bleeding Through, sport
heartagram tattoos. Getting band-related imagery inked onto one's skin
is perhaps the most profound compliment one can pay a musician. It
represents not only an appreciation of existing work but also
confidence that the performer will never undergo an embarrassing career
transformation. Valo appreciates the gesture, though he stresses it
"I'm not saying that you have to have one to be a true fan," he says.
"I don't want to see that in print, because then I'd get loads of angry
calls from parents. The best compliment is just seeing so many people
at the gigs, smiling, clapping their hands and at least pretending that
they enjoy it."
H.I.M. has encountered universally approving audiences during its
current American tour in support of 2005's Dark Light, its first album
to be shipped simultaneously to the U.S. and Europe. The Finnish
quintet's previous discs arrived here months after their initial
release, if at all. But H.I.M. isn't limiting its set list to recent
material. The group is an underground phenomenon (H.I.M. graced the
cover of Revolver magazine, which focuses on cult bands, last year),
meaning connoisseurs crave its obscurities. The crowd chants along with
selections from H.I.M.'s out-of-print 1996 EP 666 Ways to Love ($275 on
eBay) just as loudly as it embraces the MTV-approved single "Rip Out
the Wings of a Butterfly."
"I'm positively surprised about how big a cult band we are," Valo says.
"People are calling radio stations, wanting us to get more airplay.
They're like our family, wishing all the best for us."
Valo derives equal amusement from the humorless black-metal purists
back home who expend astonishing amounts of energy expressing their
displeasure with H.I.M.
"In Scandinavia, a legion of black-metal fans with that fucking penguin
makeup on their faces were in the front row, spitting on us, but they
still bought the tickets," he says. "How stupid can they be? If you
hate a band, why would you spend $20 to buy a ticket and travel to a
show just to spit on them? I was laughing my ass off."
While most music fans endure a snobby phase, usually in their teens,
Valo eagerly devoured all forms of music when he was a kid. He picked
up the bass at age 7 and ended up playing in seven bands, ranging from
jazz to reggae to grindcore.
"I wanted to suck in all the information I could musically and pick up
the best pieces," he says. "I've always been a big fan of Neil Young
and Elvis Presley and Duran Duran and fucking W.A.S.P., and when we
started out, we wanted to incorporate all that stuff. We didn't want to
Valo's androgynous appearance (thick cosmetics accenting his effeminate
features) and frequent shirtlessness (revealing his own heartagram
tattoo above his pelvic bone) enhance the unmistakable sexual energy of
H.I.M.'s stage show. Several Dark Light tracks combine warm synthesizer
melodies and slow-clicking percussion, making them candlelight mood
music for stylish goth seductions. These elements differentiate H.I.M.
from many heavy-music outfits that operate as if love and lust don't
"Rock is not just about masturbation or doing drugs or driving fast
cars or caressing silicone boobies," Valo says. "It can be something
with a bit more substance."
Like Type O Negative, which Valo cites as a major influence, H.I.M.
supplements its substance with a smirk. For example, the indelicate
phrasing of song titles like "Killing Loneliness" is no accident.
Plenty of the group's melodramatic followers take lines like "killing
ourselves a kiss at a time" at face value, missing the mascara-caked
wink. But Valo welcomes a wide range of lyrical interpretations.
"As a musician, you can't take yourself too seriously, shaking your
hips and wearing stupid clothing and a bit of makeup every night and
singing 'Join Me in Death,'" he says. "You've got to be able to laugh,
but we're taking the music seriously."
On Dark Light, H.I.M.'s sound becomes more sweeping and cinematic, with
Valo's booming tenor power-lifting the band's anthemic choruses.
Keyboards play a prominent role, delivering melodies that sound like
Iron Maiden guitar leads.
"We wanted to have balls-to-the-wall rock at the center, but to also
have some weird ethereal melancholy going on," Valo explains. "Like the
Twin Peaks soundtrack meeting AC/DC."
Valo's trademark croon has developed some gruff edges, which is part of his plan.
"My excessive smoking and drinking is changing my voice," he says. "In
15 years, I'm hoping to sound a bit more like Mark Lanegan. He and Tom
Waits are my heroes. I feel it's important to hear the life you've
lived through the sound of your voice. A cigarette in my hand is like a
wah-wah pedal for a guitar player. It's a vocal effect."
While maintaining his three-packs-a-day Marlboro Lights habit, Valo has
shifted to nonalcoholic beer for a while, in order to stay alert after
being robbed in Minneapolis. ("Someone spiked my drink and took all my
credit cards," he says.) Also, H.I.M. has toned down its after-gig
antics considerably since its first taste of stardom in Europe.
"We were excessive bastards back in Europe, getting fucked up and
clubbing every night," he recalls. "It's not nice to travel from
Finland to America and be drunk and hung over onstage every night and
have shitty excuses. Now, if you followed the group, it would be the
most boring reality show ever. It would be just a loop: waking up,
drinking Red Bull, watching TV, doing a gig."
That's not exactly the lifestyle befitting a flamboyant figure that
Metal Hammer magazine anointed "the new rock star," but Valo gives
little thought to expectations.
"We're not the classic metalhead's choice, but who cares?" he says.
"We're enjoying what we're doing, and we're doing it with full energy
and all our hearts. We are doing the music we like for ourselves first,
and then we hope it's going to please some people. We're not sonic