"Goth-rock hero's darkest secret"
Ville Valo, lead singer of elegantly doom-laden Finnish band Him, tells Robert Sandall why he's such a big fan of John Humphrys.
Despite his perceived status as the love god of goth metal, Ville Valo, the lead singer with the Finnish band Him, is not a ladies man; or not tonight, anyway.
The poster boy of the Kerrang! community, whose pale, eyelinered presence on the cover of any of the hard rock mags has for several years guaranteed an immediate rise in circulation, appears to be more of a talker than a hellraiser.
An hour or so after Him finished their set at the Paradiso club in Amsterdam, Valo is back in the hotel bar studiously ignoring a gaggle of silently adoring female fans who have somehow managed to trace him here.
This tiny fraction of the girl-led mob milling around the venue after the show ended are now disappointedly cradling drinks while their hero presides over an all-male coterie comprising his bandmates, manager and an English journalist (me). Valo is holding forth on the appeal of being on the road - where Him have been since the release of their fifth album, Dark Light, last autumn and will continue to be until their biggest world tour so far ends in summer. "I f***ing love the fact that you can be on a bus with your old schoolmates, then turn up in a new place, play a show and make people happy maybe." The best bit, though, is what happens afterwards. "Then go and have a drink, and sit and talk about linguistics!"
This is not some strange Finnish joke. Language, particularly the English language, is indeed Valo's obsession. Take the title of the new album, Dark Light, for instance. Anybody unfamiliar with Him's lyrics, which are all his own work, might suppose this to be a moody gothic nonsense. "It's an oxymoron," says Valo. "I love it because it expresses a physical impossibility, the Yin and the Yang all mixed up together." Trying to find a balance between these opposed states is, he says, "what it's all about for me".
Next to music, reading is his favourite pastime. Dark Light is also the title of a novel by one of his favourite writers, the Norwegian novelist Mette Newth. And here, he points out, tattooed on his upper arm is the likeness of another of his literary heroes, a Finnish author who recently drank himself to death.
But the person who has helped him most recently in his battle with words and meanings is - no kidding - John Humphrys, the presenter of Radio 4's Today programme. "I just finished reading his book Lost for Words," says Valo. "I love people who are passionate about their language and appreciate the history of it."
Idiosyncratic might be the word to describe Valo and the band's career so far. The band formed as teenagers attending the same school in Helsinki in the early 1990s. At the time, Valo was working part-time in his father's porn shop, "which was weird because I had no sexual experience at the time. I came very late to sex".
Him were emphatically not conceived to speed his development in this area. "None of us had a clue about girls or drugs or booze, we were just big fans of Black Sabbath." Valo found the example of the Birmingham foursome inspirational - "such a great Cinderella story, these four not-so-good-looking blokes who made it big internationally" - and wanted to attempt a Finnish version. "Our traditional popular music, which I have grown up with, is very melancholic, like the Russian: dramatic, dark, diabolic almost. And it's not so much about the song as the lyric."
Eleven years of slow but steady progress later - "we've been haunting Europe like Casper the Friendly Ghost" - Him have built a solid fan-base and carved a distinctive niche for themselves.
Their songs are an intriguing blend of buzzsaw-guitar mayhem and elegantly doom-laden melodies, the latter delivered in a deep baritone by a vocalist who might have been styled by Hammer Horror.
Their cover versions are interestingly chosen, too. Him do a Ramones tune, Poison Heart, "because I like the way their songs are celebratory about being hopeless". Another live favourite is Chris Isaak's Wicked Game, "which is more gothic than anything the Sisters of Mercy ever did".
Why this preoccupation with inner torment? Valo's answer doesn't offer much encouragement to the girls at the back. "We have to torment ourselves to become better personalities and move on to the next spiritual level."