Ville Valo and the forgotten absolute of love. Portrait of the artist as a mirror in pieces

In times devoid of grand love stories, it’s not easy to build an artistic universe based on a feeling that seems to have gone out of fashion. Forever spent are the days of Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, and even those of Rick and Ilsa („Casablanca”), or Jay and Daisy („The Great Gatsby”). 

As a matter of fact, this century of ours seems to be missing that one, big, defining love narrative. For a sentimental heart, the last 100 years have really been a bore, in terms of savoring art concerned with passion, desire and human warmth. The closest thing to a meaningful, „vintage” love affair is Francis Ford Coppola’s rendition of the connection between Prince Vlad and Mina, in his film „Bram Stoker’s Dracula”.

But then there’s HIM. The Finnish band recuperates the long-lost tropes of dear old ancient love and puts them in song, creating a unique musical idiom which shares the qualities of both Gothic ballad, and Metal dirge. They call it love-metal, and it’s not for nothing. In an age that has let its great loves die, HIM puts a heart into the Frankenstein of contemporary rock, giving it life, and a solid sonic boner.

We got the chance to speak about the essence of love, absolutes, idealism and mandalas with the Patron-Saint of Love Metal himself, Ville Valo, the lead singer and main composer of the Finnish band mentioned earlier with such aplomb. HIM is currently on tour in Europe, has finished the first leg which took them to countries like Germany, Poland, Romania, Hungary etc, and is getting ready for a few local shows at home (Finland), followed by a number of gigs in Russia.

What does Sherlock Holmes’s deductive method have to do with exorcising cynicism? How will the new record sound in light of Mika „Gas” Karppinen’s departure from the band’s drum-kit? How does the absence of faith give rise to beautiful metaphors about the sacred order and why does Ville see himself as a stranger, off-stage? Find out by reading our brand new interview with one of rock and roll’s most charming and intelligent frontmen.

 (Diana Pohl Photography)
Ville Valo of HIM

In 2006, you performed for the first time in Romania, and shortly after, in 2007, you released „Venus
Doom”, your darkest oeuvre yet. Since then, HIM seems to have found the light at the end of the tunnel, aesthetically speaking. Your music became more „optimistic”, more luminous. How did this transition occur?

That’s a great question. To be honest with you, I think each and every single album is a stepping stone from the one before. So recording something that is rather optimistic usually ends up being the reason for the band to do something really miserable afterwards, because it is boring to repeat your steps and repeat exactly what you’ve just done. I grew up with lots of different music and so did the rest of the guys. Particularly on „Venus Doom”, we embraced the old-school My Dying Bride aesthetic, and all those bands that, you know, are still my favorites; they’re still in my top 20. I don’t think there is any proper reason, or a decision that we made – let’s make the music this or that. I feel that the cool thing about being in this band is that we’re still trying to find the balance between our love towards stuff that is more uplifting, and stuff that is more „down-lifting”, so to say.

Every single one of your records has had a distinct identity. „Tears On Tape” seems to be your most eclectic yet, combining elements from the previous releases. What do you think its follow-up will sound like? What will define it?
Obviously the big change in the band is the fact that we have a new drummer now. Today (31.07.2015) will be the second gig with him so we’re still in our „Honeymoon” phase. I am sure that this change will affect everything. His influences are a bit different from the ones Gas had, even though they come from the same metal influenced world. However, the drummer is a great guy and he’s injecting us with newfound, bigger or whatever you want to call it positivity. It remains to be seen. I’ve been putting together a few bits and bobs back at home, some kind of skeletal ideas that are not fully realized yet. It’s hard to say because I’d wake up Monday morning and it would be great to do a really Type O Negative vibey one, and then I’d wake up on Tuesday and I’d love the record to be a really Turbonegro one. It keeps on changing and I believe that this is cool and important because it also means that we’re never sure how everything will sound until the album is done, which really keeps the band on its toes. It’s a constant struggle…but a very forgiving one.

With the new drummer, Jukka „Kosmo” Kröger, is it like in a fresh relationship, after the end of a longer love affair? Is there any heartbreak involved when you get up on stage with him and Gas is not there? What does it feel like.
I think it’s a challenge. We’re too old to be sad (laughs). At the end of the day, Gas was with the band for a good 15 years and he had his reasons to leave. It takes courage to admit that your heart is no longer in it anymore. In a sense, it was not necessarily heartbreaking, but a bit sad and it was something that I had to congratulate him on because it is brave to change your life completely and not out of a whim, but because of something you’ve been thinking about for a long time. In the end, it’s a breath of fresh air to change things from now and then, whatever might happen. I think that all the obstacles have to be considered with a positive outcome. Otherwise, if you’d be heartbroken by every little obstacle in the world, in general, you couldn’t leave your apartment. I believe such challenges were put there for the solution to be found, which is important for the band and for the individuals to grow. So yes, I think that it’s a growing process.

HIM is a band that is either adored, or very harshly criticized, either revered, or very badly misunderstood. Why do you think that the reaction to your art is so „polarized”?
We come from a kooky country…It’s an odd place, Finland. We’ve never bowed down to anybody, and Finns are well known for being stubborn. They will do everything exactly as they want to do it, with no compromise. However, they can be stubborn to a fault, and that’s not necessarily a positive thing.  I think that this is something that people can find either beautiful, great, or idiotic. And then there’s the fact that the realm of hard rocking music is still very, well,  not necessarily misogynist, but very, very masculine, and we’re not Manowar. They have the world’s fastest bass-player and that’s always something to look forward to. I believe it’s more of a metalhead thing, to see music like a sport – the one that plays the fastest, the loudest, is the coolest, which, frankly, doesn’t make much sense. 

Is it far-fetched to assume that many of your critics secretly listen to your music in their basement, and cry to the songs?
It’s tough to say. A lot of metalheads love pop, but metal itself is physical catharsis. Playing something really hard that makes your ears ring is beautiful in itself but, at the end of the day, it’s just one part of the musical world. Lots of people always say that it’s good to know your enemies, it’s good to study music in all of its diversity, study life, in general, for that matter, to be able to pick up the best pieces for you, as opposed to just putting yourself in a corner politically or musically, or from any other point of view.

Let’s talk a bit about the love element in „love-metal”, since you mentioned rock machismo earlier. The kind of love that your music deals with dabbles in the absolute; it’s idealized, very deep. It’s the love found in „Romeo and Juliet”, „Tristan and Isolde”, and many other classic narratives. Does this perception reflect in your personal life or are you more of a cynic?
I think both. I’m an idealistic cynic (laughs). I think everybody has to have a little bit of cynicism and sarcasm, or whatever you want to call it. A bit of self-deprecating humor is necessary because life itself is something that is out of anybody’s control. You just have to live with it. But, at the same time, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have ideals or something to look forward to…You know, it’s the journey that makes the trip; getting there is way more important than being there. It’s the same thing with love, pain, suffering or whatever. I have something that I like to call the „Sherlockholmesian Deductive Method”. You take love and the idealistic version of love is the love deducted of all the shit around it. So, basically, you try to take away everything that is not at all important, get rid of the crap around it, to be able to see the pure form of something, which helps you out, next time around, to appreciate the essence, or whatever you wish to call it. It sounds a bit freaky or odd, I know, but why would I not sing about pure love and this essence of it…why would I sing about any other kind of love. It’s like meditation. My mandala is love, so to speak. It’s something you concentrate on. You concentrate on the purest form to forget yourself and forget the world around, which leads you to escapism, which music is, at its best. You forget about the trouble of everyday life by listening to whatever music and, in my case, it has always been cathartic. Listening to hard-edged music or to music that is considered sad has always been cathartic. It’s odd but that’s the magic of music. I don’t know why Black Sabbath makes people happy, since the songs are pretty miserable, doomy, and gloomy. Logically speaking, it should do the opposite.
Regarding the „sacred” element in your lyrics, there are a lot of religious references in songs like „The Sacrament”, „In The Nightside of Eden” or „Heartkiller”. It’s particularly interesting since you’re an atheist. How come you have this fascination with such symbolism, in the absence of „faith”, per-se.
Well, you know, the concept of a „leap of faith”, or the concept of „faith”, in general, is a beautiful thing and not having faith makes me want it more because it’s not something that is given, it’s not something that I was born with. It seems miraculous to me how people can believe and how they can find solace in something that I don’t understand… They’ve been making and creating beautiful art for centuries, aided by that faith. That is something that ,to me, is fascinating, it’s something to be appreciated. I think it’s wonderful but I see myself as an outsider looking in, so I guess it’s the same thing with a lot of topics. Seeing it from the outside makes it a bit more analytical, because I am not involved deeply, as far as I know. It remains to be seen. I am not anti-religion, I am anti-assholes and, unfortunately, in the religious realm, there are a lot of assholes. But, then again, there are a lot of them everywhere, so anti-assholes pretty much sums it up for me.

Do you think you could ever become an „insider”, have a big revelation and follow the tracks of, say, Alice Cooper or other artists who have, across the years, committed to faith?
You know…never say never. When I was younger I was deeply against the idea. To be honest with you, I don’t care. It’s not important to me, in my life, right now. It’s something I shouldn’t be dwelling on. It just takes a lof of energy to be speculating on something  that I cannot understand at the moment. It’s a bit absurd. It’s like one of those things when people say that you can’t know what it’s like to have a child unless you have one. No matter how many stories you’ve been told about how it is and how it feels, you still can’t „know”. It’s a similar sort of thing with faith, because I am not involved in it, I don’t know what it feels like or what it does to me. It’s like a virus of sorts and it’s always tainted with some political things that you can’t know unless you’re in it, and I don’t like that, because it sounds like a threat.

My last question for you is who is the person staring back at you from the mirror, when the stage persona is gone and you’re stripped of all the rock star attire, glamour and repertoire of personalities?
I think the best answer is one word: a stranger. Living in this world, it fucks with your sense of self, because elevating this persona is something that is much needed – it’s part of the rock and roll thing that you are put on a pedestal, and you have to put yourself on a pedestal. A performer has to be everything, he has to be „all that”, so you usually split – the normal you, the one that takes the shit, and then the one that goes on stage, they become more separate. Normally, lives are more entwined – the good things with the bad things, your actions etc, but in the rock world, it’s more separate. You have the night side, and the day side, the night side obviously being the rock side. It’s kind of like those mirrors in pieces, like Roman Polanski’s „Repulsion”, the film. It kind of breaks you down to a certain extent, which makes you wonder who you are at times, but I do actually feel that, if you think in those terms, it’s a healthy thing, because you’re speculating on it, and you’re trying to find out things about the world and about yourself, as opposed to just breaking down completely, mentally. At its best, it doesn’t affect your perception of self, but it also depends on what part of the cycle you’re in – whether you’re touring, writing etc. Now that we’re speculating on what to do next, I think that, logically, it ends up being a moment of self-discovery. You’re trying to find out why you’re doing what you’re doing, what step to take next, how to become a better person or musician, or both, and that makes it a moment of self-inspection. It’s complicated but it’s a challenge, and that is always positive in my book.

A few shy and hasty thank-yous, goodbyes and wishes of well later, the steady, intermittent tone of the telephone goes off, casting Ville’s answers into the past, onto a recording and into memory. Luckily, HIM is far from done in terms of probing the musical depths of emotion and its peculiar bestiary. A very diligent toy-ghost for the lead singer’s demons, love, metal and absolute, is alive and well in the work of one of contemporary rock’s most fascinating bands. We can’t wait for the next album!

* Special thanks to Universal Music Romania and Taina for making this interview possible.

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