Interview with Ville Valo of HIM: Shattered By Hope
—by Bryan Reesman, February 4, 2010
HIM frontman Ville Valo sounds a little overwhelmed when he gets on the phone from Finland. He has been juggling press, mixes for special releases and preparations for a world tour that will start in Australia in late February, head to the UK, then arrive in the U.S. in late March. But things are not so rough—the group has had a bit of a break, having not toured since 2008 nor released a new studio album since 2007’s heavy and somber Venus Doom, an album which was influenced by Black Sabbath. While it did not match the gold sales level of its predecessor—everyone’s album sales keep falling in general—it continued the group’s artistic evolution and took them into new territory.
The new HIM album, Screamworks: Love In Theory And Practice, is the group’s seventh studio release and offers a nice contrast to its predecessor—an energetic manifesto of hard rock aggression and pop melody, combining ‘80s-style synths and crunchy guitars, with Valo crooning, screaming, even chanting over the infectious mix. For those who thought that this five-piece band might be running low on new ways to explore the dark and tragic side of love, this album offers a strong rebuff to that notion. The tunes are shorter and punchier (13 tracks spread over 45 minutes), and even the ballads rock more than on their earlier releases.
The singer reports that making the new HIM album was a similar experience to creating the band’s fifth album, Dark Light, which was released in 2005 and made them stars in America. In both instances, he wrote the music in Helsinki during the winter, when the country is “pretty dark and melancholy,” then flew to L.A. to record it. “It gives it a nice yin and yang effect,” Valo explains of this bicontinental process, adding that the producer this time was Matt Squires, who has worked with Panic! At The Disco, Boys Like Girls and Taking Back Sunday. “I wanted to have that big, American drum sound on the album, and keeping the synths really synthy as opposed to copying real instruments—as in piano, strings or whatever—keeping it like Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and kind of ‘80s in that sense. Matt and I were both born in ‘76, so we more or less grew up listening to the same sort of stuff. The unholy trinity for us was Depeche Mode, The Cult and Guns ‘N Roses.”
Even within the brooding nature of Screamworks, one cannot help but notice that, for all of its moody mystique, the music sounds somewhat brighter, even a bit hopeful. Ultimately it sounds like someone is in love.
“You know, I was on that verge for awhile, working on the album,” confesses Valo. “It’s probably not the only thing that affected the mood. This is the first album I worked on being fully sober. I’ve never written songs while being messed up, but I was not going over to the pub after a long day of rehearsals. This time I went back home and started working on Pro Tools, so basically I spent at least double the amount of time just working on it than I have on any album we’ve done. I spent a lot of energy on this one.”
Getting back to that love thing for a moment—was the crooning frontman in love during the making of the album, and is he still? “Let’s just say I didn’t believe—not necessarily that I would’ve lost hope—but I wasn’t caring too much about the possibility of meeting somebody that all of a sudden would make my jaw drop down to the floor,” he admits. “Then it happened, and it was a fantastic thing. But my quirky sense of living has made it such that I basically wrote more about it on the album than I ever talked about it with her. Hopefully it’s an ongoing thing, to be honest with you, but it’s easier said than done. I travel so much. I’ve said that I want to be in balance myself and have this mental or spiritual equilibrium to be able to offer somebody something rather than just take. A lot of people, when they have relationships or find themselves in a relationship, are there just to take stuff. They never give anything. I’d rather have a good vibe going on and then have some new adventures. Let’s say I’m working it out.”
Valo has usually been private about his romantic life, but it is clear that he is working things out on the latest HIM platter, the music’s dark tones often coated by his tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. On the track “Scared To Death” he sings coyly, “I’m not afraid to say that I love you…any more than I used to be.” Then there is his amorous ode to “Katherine Wheel” (which is kind of akin to writing a ballad for an iron maiden), not to mention titles like “Shatter Me With Hope” and “The Foreboding Sense Of Impending Happiness.” He may be in touch with his inner goth, but he is aware that even within his tragic-romantic milieu he can go over-the-top.
“There are a lot of scary things about being happy,” Valo counters. “It’s ridiculously funny how I’ve been turning into a bit of a hermit myself and living a solitary life working on the [new album] tracks. All of a sudden you grow up, and especially being sober, you’re so sensitive to everything around you, and you just don’t want to fuck up. You have a sense of something beautiful, like a beautiful flower in bloom, but you’re not sure what to do with it. It is so beautiful as it is that you’re not sure whether you want it to blossom and then at some point wither away and die. You’re not sure which part you want to witness, or do you have to do it all? Or don’t you? It’s more like a junior high philosophical question.”
The singer’s abstinence from alcohol, which began around June of 2007, has been a journey that has opened his eyes to many things, but it has also been enlightening in less obvious ways than people might expect. He says he has not any touched drugs or booze. That’s been the easy part. “Then again, I keep on saying, when people ask me how I feel about it—me being sober and being in a rock band and playing bars and clubs and all that—with a clear head you see clearer how fucked up a lot of things are,” he reveals. “That’s how it is. Nothing changes. You just see the evil in the world in a bit more detail because it’s not so blurry. But it doesn’t change for the better.”
That sounds like a rather grim metaphysical assessment, but Valo learned things about himself during his odyssey of sobriety. Indeed that interior analysis also offers illumination into the recurring themes of love, loss, pleasure and pain that run rampant throughout his entire body of work. “I’m exactly the same as I was when I was 14,” the frontman concludes. “I’m interested in the same things and easily adjust into my own world full of music and weird movies and all that. I was just having a discussion about it with my mother a couple of months ago, and she said that getting old is about your body getting old, not your mind. Your mind and your thoughts are exactly the same as they ever were. You learn bits and bobs from mistakes. You know not to put your fingers into an electrical socket, but you always find a new variation of it, more or less, and you make new mistakes and hopefully learn from them. And especially not to carry a burden of your past mistakes just for the sake that you’re able to pass them on. People say that they come with baggage or that somebody is carrying a cross, but a lot of people tend to, especially in relationships, just pass the cross on. ‘Won’t you carry my shit for a while so I can relax?’ And I don’t think that that’s fair. But then again, everything is fair in love and in war, as they say.”
Sometimes that war is being waged inside oneself. During Screamworks’ opening track, the deceptively upbeat, chugging “In Venere Veritas,” Valo proclaims “there are wounds that are not meant to heal.” This statement is made in reference to what he sees as a tendency by many people to sweep bad memories underneath the rug to try to forget about them. “I ended up in a situation where you just can’t avoid them,” he adds. “You can’t just forget that stuff, so I’d rather take them as lessons learned. I consider life, more or less, being a series of mistakes, and you learn from the old ones so you won’t make the same mistakes again. But then you open yourself up to new mistakes. It’s all about fucking up.”
In the end it seems that the singer is as entranced by the mysteries of love as he is in trying to fathom its complexities. One song which addresses that very theme is “Love The Hardest Way,” which includes the phrase “Baudelaire in Braille,” referring to the famous 19th century French poet’s work, whose literary oeuvre was considered both romantic and scandalous back in his time.
“For me it is a nice phrase,” says Valo. “It’s similar to the first line of the song, which goes, ‘love’s the devil counting teardrops in the rain to the sound of a chalkboard symphony played with nails.’ The point being that it doesn’t make any sense, and it’s very complex. It’s very poetic and lofty. Baudelaire was this debauched yet very entrancing, mesmerizing character, and his work does encompass all these different aspects of that personality, maybe exaggerated. For me, love is like Baudelaire in Braille. It’s a mathematical equation that I don’t know the answer for and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know the answer for.”