“The heart of darkness for me is a heart of honesty, it’s the heart of vulnerability”: how Ville Valo pulled back from the abyss and bared his soul on HIM’s Screamworks

A posed shot of HIM in the studio
(Image credit: Press)

In 2010, goth-metal superstars HIM were coming of the back of a decade of success and frontman Ville Valo’s struggles with alcohol. Ahead of the release of his band’s seventh album Screamworks: Love in Theory And Practice in February 2010 Metal Hammer travelled to Finland to meet the singer in his Helsinki lair, where he looked back over a rollercoaster few years and forwards to what the future may hold.

The big yellow sign on the door says, ‘I want to be alone’ and underneath it, ‘Thank You’. It’s currently minus 18 degrees celsius and spirals of footprints of varying size in the ice-sheathed snow are a telltale suggestion that this particular statement is falling on deaf eyes. Off in the darkness, a snail-like wireframe sculpture sits ominously in the cold, its purpose or significance impossible to judge, and yet somehow – in the dim light streaming from the windows of this particular suburban medieval tower – very little could seem out of place. It’s late in the evening of New Year’s day, and Hammer’s just turned up to Ville Valo’s home for a chat about his infernal majesty’s new record, Screamworks: Love In Theory And Practice. This is the first time any publication has been invited to do so on any such occasion. Come on in.

“Hellooo therrre,” says Ville, shoving the door open against a snowy barricade, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. “Get the fuck inside, it’s cold.”

This is not a Ville Valo you’ll know or have ever seen. This is a level of warts-and-all intimacy that’s without precedent. Exactly why the friendly baritone has decided to change that now, for us, is a mystery. Questions aside, we’re here to see his infernal majesty up close, and – to borrow a line from Lewis Carroll to whom we owe our cover this month – to discover just how deep this particular rabbit hole goes. 

When you’re past the point of caring and letting go is easier, then you’re in trouble.

Ville Valo

“Welcome to my office,” he says, taking a seat on a narrow, antique bench he calls a bed. “The actual bedroom upstairs has been converted into a home studio,” he explains. He’s looking tired. Just last night he headlined Helldone, a festival at Helsinki’s legendary Tavastia venue which he’s been curating for the last 10 years, for the fourth riotously sold-out night in a row. He played at midnight when the clock struck 12 and – in keeping with his Batman-like habits, swiftly eschewed his home city’s notoriously boozy New Year celebrations for the solitary confinement of his castle. 

A whirring laptop sits across from him, and just beyond it a giant widescreen bedecked by an Xbox and countless DVD box sets like The Sopranos and True Blood. Momentarily forgetting that we’re sitting in a tower built by a Finnish eccentric in the 19th century, it would all appear to be a typical workaholic’s lounge were it not for a steeple-shaped Bavarian altar at one side, the mammoth 15-foot oil on canvas depicting a latter station of the cross above the TV, another near it depicting St. Erasmus having his intestines pulled out, or – and let’s get this out of the way, almost everything here is antique – the antique Finnish pump organ at the other side topped by a religious diorama. A small portable reed organ sits at the base with a porn VHS tape, artfully titled Cunts, on top. Everywhere you look there are animals, dead ones; a huge stag atop a piano, a furry rug, a small bear, a black sheep Ville confesses is of questionable authenticity, and everywhere, 10, 12, no… at least 30 stuffed owls of every colour and size. 

“I just have a one-track mind. I got my first owl, a barn owl about eight years ago. You rarely see them here and they’re nocturnal; they’re rarely seen and there are a lot of myths. They’re quirky and thought-provoking – much more striking than, uh, mandrills for instance.”

A posed shot of HIM in the studio

(Image credit: Press)

Ville’s quick to point out these once- living artefacts are all pre-1947, so they’re classified as antiques and merely reflect his love of animals, an affair made impossible by his allergies. But seriously, is this some weird shrine?

“No,” says Ville, “it just all seems to go together. Oh fuck. Was that lightning?”

He glances out the window – not a cloud in the sky. Another flash goes off.

“OK, hold on for a second.”

He gets up to glance at dim black-and-white screen in the hallway through which a CCTV camera reveals a ghostly figure in the night snapping pictures of his home and attempting to peer into the high windows. Ville rolls his eyes and wonders aloud whether it’s the same person who was kicking his door at 5am this morning and prompted a police intervention. 

“No, that isn’t her,” he says, sounding relieved and grabbing a Coke from the fridge which is utterly empty save for more soda and a broken bass guitar at the back. Why is that there?

“Why not?”

He shuts it to reveal a signed picture of 50 Cent on the door. Doesn’t it bother you that someone’s outside?

“People are allowed to take pictures, that isn’t illegal,” he says. “It happens all the time.”

He grabs the latest batch of poetry to come through his mail-slot off the counter for effect.

“What people need to understand is that I need to sleep, and that I work here. This is the most wretched abomination of palaces but it’s also my home and it’s sacred. I shouldn’t be rude, my Mom says, but I live here. I try to be polite but sometimes it’s just like, ‘Get the fuck out.’”

But, playing Devil’s advocate for a moment, and on behalf of all mankind this question needs to be asked: Do you ever invite any of these women in?

“Watch One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and imagine the entire female cast at your door,” he says. “Some of these people have genuine issues. I don’t find that seductive somehow. Did I tell you I’ve met the descendants of Nefertiti, and the Queen of Scotland? She wouldn’t leave so I had to call the cops and she ran away.”

It begs the question of why, then, he’s chosen to invite Hammer inside…

“Well, maybe through this people will see it’s just a place,” he says, lighting the third or fourth of what will become dozens of Marlboros tonight. “It might have weird objects in it, or look like a cabinet of curiosities, or a warehouse. But it’s also like: ‘See? This is the room I can’t work in because you keep interrupting me!’ My good songs come from my muse, my bad ones are because of my postcode.”

Of course, this is also like a gallery of Ville’s personality, his taste for the macabre, the obscure, and the mystical. Books by Edgar Allen Poe, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the Gnostic Gospels sit comfortably next to an old coat topped by a buffalo skull used in his Funeral Of Hearts video. Casually leaning against a wall is a stained-glass window that once belonged to vampiric thespian supremo Vincent Price, a Gizmo knapsack from 1985’s Gremlins sits just above it.

“I read the Bible every day,” he says, grinning impishly as he switches the light on in his bathroom to reveal he’s wallpapered it with pages ripped from a King James edition. Flecks of blood from a recent shaving mishap Ville chose not to waste dot the scene. Curiously, the bass guitar the band blasted with an AK/47 in the California desert on a day off from recording is perched in the toilet. “Some days,” he says, giggling, “I read it twice.” 

Of course, there’s more to this than curiosities. This strange abode is the womb of Ville and indeed HIM’s creative output. Upstairs, past the all-black interior of the spare bedroom with the Knight Rider bedspread, is the master which now functions as Ville’s studio. A pew taken from a Lutheran church that used to serve as his headboard now lines the wall, and a music stand with lyrics to Anathema’s Angels Walk Among Us (Ville’s a long-time friend and fan of the band), to which Ville is contributing vocals, sits next to a mic. A big computer screen reveals the multi-layered effects of this month’s rather bizarre D/V/Ants (it stands for Dani and Ville) tribute to Black Sabbath, featuring Dani Filth on vocals and Ville providing spooky atmospherics. Ville shows off his rather extensive collection of rare, custom, and vintage instruments that a quick Google search reveals are very modestly described as ‘pretty fucking expensive’. He picks up a board with a metal hand on it and wires coming out of one side.

“There’s these guys in Oregon who make these. I drew them a picture of what I wanted and they did it. I call it the V-Bot,” he says, placing his hand over it to produce a low, sub-sonic hum.

Another, which looks like a metal plant, makes theramin-like howls, and another creates ghostly reverberations by placing a magnet on disused Commodore 64 discs. “I should totally do a dub album,” he jokes, switching on a couple of ultra-rare Wasp synthesisers that would easily sit in Nine Inch Nails’ repertoire. Weirdness aside, there’s a genuine biographical subtext to the lighthearted and admittedly bizarre track on this month’s CD. The poem, dramatically interpreted by Ville’s friend Dani Filth ‘because he had the right accent’ first featured in the original vinyl sleeve to Black Sabbath’s debut, which is celebrated in these very pages this month. The offer to produce a track came from Ville, who received the vocal track from Dani and completed the effects over his holiday. 

“Dani and I met at a Finnish festival a few years back and we ended up singing King Diamond tunes with [ex-Cradle Of Filth drummer] Nick Barker until 5am. I was out of my head and so was he.”

As for why he volunteered, well, despite what you may assume from HIM’s decidedly forlorn, ballad-summoning timbre, Ville’s one of the most dedicated Sabbath fans you’ll come across.

“I was born in 1976 and my parents went to Rolling Stones gigs,” he says. “I got into Ozzy first, and I had friends and relatives who were into 70s rock but at that time it wasn’t considered cool, so I heard Paranoid for the first time later on, and then Zeppelin and Free and Mountain, but Sabbath had that magical unexplainable quality, and then speculating that they were from such a desolate area – it wasn’t totally dissimilar from Helsinki because me and Mige were thinking if those Brummie bastards can get out of Birmingham then maybe there’s some hope for us too.

“It was listening to cassettes of Sabbath and Mige humming along perfectly to every Iommi solo and me drumming along to every fucked-up Bill Ward drum fill. Originally HIM was called Black Earth, to combine Sabbath with what Sabbath was called before. We might have been called Polka Earth (taken from Sabbath’s first incarnation as ‘The Polka Tulk Blues Band’) as well come to think of it. We used to play Sabbra Caddabra live all the time. Even Technical Ecstasy is great. Dirty Women is a great song, by the way. If it had some more Geezerish weirdness about it it’d be better…”

HIM’s Ville Valo onstage at the Download festival in 2010

(Image credit: Brian Rasic/Getty Images)

It’s perhaps there as much as HIM’s Sabbath-infused sound that gives Ville his sense of kinship with the band that started it all. He’s a word-man after all, labouring intensively over the phrases that eventually become songs. A student of literature, his lyrics – from gothic references to turns of phrase in both English and Latin on the new album like In Venere Veritas simply have to be perfect.

“Words can have a lot of power – it’s like writing a fucking movie script. In 90 minutes you can say many different things. Conan The Barbarian is an awesome movie but so is Milk. A lot of bands forget that you can give a melody new meaning by not throwing lyrics in straight from the cookbook.”

Just then there’s a knock at the door. Ville tries to ignore it but puffs anxiously, looking annoyed. A few more moments pass, and then… BOOM BOOM BOOM!

He jogs downstairs. A young woman holding a bag is standing there.

“I need to speak with you,” she says, getting her foot in the door slightly and handing him an envelope.

“Yeah, but you were the one knocking on my door at 5am and that was your mistake. Bye.”

The door slams behind him. There’s a slightly worrying context to all this. Just this morning, 2010 kicked off with the chilling news that a gunman killed four people on a random rampage in a mall in the nearby town of Espoo. It isn’t difficult to wonder whether, in a country where two of its five million inhabitants own guns, Ville Valo is safe. He’s touched but dismissive of the suggestion. 

“I’m fine,” he says, sounding self- assured. “Most of these people are nice, just a little misguided.”

He returns to the subject, or indeed veneration, for Black Sabbath.

“Metal’s changed so much, I can’t believe it’s been 40 years,” he remarks, hovering his hand over his V-Bot to produce a sound not unlike a dying robot and looking very amused with himself. “It’s such a multi-tentacled beast. Look at what I just did with Dani – we’re both descendants of Sabbath, we both know what metal is. I remember when Reign In Blood and Master Of Puppets came out. I remember the first time I heard Celtic Frost. I mean, it’s legal to fuck people who were born after [Nirvana’s] Nevermind or [Soundgarden’s] Badmotorfinger. That is a shocking concept to me. Just think about it. People who have no memory of albums before [Jane’s Addiction’s] Ritual de lo Habitual are now fuckable. It’s now old school,” says the 33-year-old, sounding bemused and disbelieving. “Listen to the old Ratt or Poison stuff. That was metal. Maybe hair metal, but it was metal. So was Black Metal by Venom. It’s a beautiful abomination.” 

Just near the window, you can see a statue of a nun that looks suspiciously like the one used on the cover of Screamworks. As it turns out, it is.  

Which brings us neatly to the new record and, ostensibly, a new chapter in Ville’s life. The well-documented circumstances of his troubles – OK, apocalyptic meltdown – with alcohol lead many to wonder whether he’d lose his edge. It wasn’t long ago that, after a catastrophic gig supporting Metallica in London, he found himself in LA about to create a new record, 2007’s Venus Doom but also ended up at Promises, rehab centre to the stars after his manager Seppo had to break into his hotel room at the Chateau Marmont after seeing him shirtless and unmoving through the window and suspected he was dead; an extreme swing of a pendulum by anyone’s reckoning.

By the sound of things, these Finns have come screaming back with a seventh album that has all the woeful gothic jubilation, gallows humour, gloomy aura and skewering hooks to meet and then trounce all expectation. And if you’re wondering, yes, he’s still sober. What was it like writing without a crutch?

“That sense of nakedness has always been there anyway,” he says. “In this case, the heart of darkness for me is a heart of honesty, it’s the heart of vulnerability. Like with Katherine Wheel or Acoustic Funeral (a play on Sabbath’s Electric Funeral) or even Heartkiller – it sounds celebratory but there’s a lot of directness. When you’re pissed off you go out and have a drink and talk about it and you forget it. Without that, you need to find another. Anyone who’s done quality ecstasy and has cried watching a Disney film during the comedown will know how I feel. There’s no filter anymore.”

I recommend sobriety to anyone who thinks they’re macho men. Quit drinking. Just face s**t.

Ville Valo

Still, it’s possible to get the queasy sensation that Ville – who’s currently ignoring another knock at the door and the sound of the mail slot downstairs opening then shutting – regards his recovery from alcohol dependency with an almost detached bemusement, like a beginner’s chemistry experiment gone wrong. Or perhaps it’s that the culture of psychotherapy and public absolution isn’t a game he wants to play.

“Oh, I adored shitting blood. You need to shit blood in order to experience life fully,” he says, exhaling a huge plume of smoke through a widening Cheshire grin.  “It’s horrendous, obviously it was. I wouldn’t have sought help otherwise. When you’re past the point of caring and letting go is easier then you’re in trouble. I was at that point. I’ve gone from alcoholic to workaholic. To some, that’s negative, I’ve taken no time off, but what – I should go to a pub and get fucked up? With me being on a bender I might not have been on the Anathema album, or I might not have been here with you either. I recommend sobriety to anyone who thinks they’re macho men. Quit drinking. Just face shit. That takes strength. I find it challenging to use the term ‘demons’. It’s an exaggeration. For me, it’s about not being ashamed visiting your parents. I’d have to be a certain level of drunk just to be around them.”

But you’d written Venus Doom before you were in rehab, so are those experiences reflected on Screamworks?

“It’s more mysterious than that,” he says. “Like on Heartkiller – this is good because it’s the first single hahaha! This is the bit where Bugs Bunny appears on my shoulder and goes, ‘Buy it, kids!’ Kidding, kidding. Look,” he says, leaning in, and – sounding like a much wiser and only slightly older Ville than seen previously – says, “these days plumbers can get as much cocaine and pussy as rock stars. The only thing that makes a difference is writing a good song.”

He mentions that he read Hammer’s own interview with Geezer Butler not long ago, in which the legendary lyricist and bassist explained that the symptom in Symptom Of The Universe is love.

“That’s awesome, but do I really need to know that? My experiences are in the album in mysterious ways only I will know. That said, it would be impossible for me to write more honest or direct lyrics than now.”

Do you have any regrets about Venus Doom’s decidedly darker tones? 

“There was a ‘looking into the abyss’ vibe to it,” he admits. “I wish I wasn’t singing so low but life and beauty are as much about flaws as much as it is perfection. I don’t look at that like a different chapter in my life from now. Melodies simply change as the song goes on.”

Originally published in Metal Hammer issue 202

Alexander Milas

Alexander Milas is an erstwhile archaeologist, broadcaster, music journalist and award-winning decade-long ex-editor-in-chief of Metal Hammer magazine. In 2017 he founded Twin V, a creative solutions and production company.  In 2019 he launched the World Metal Congress, a celebration of heavy metal’s global impact and an exploration of the issues affecting its community. His other projects include Space Rocks, a festival space exploration in partnership with the European Space Agency and the Heavy Metal Truants, a charity cycle ride which has raised over a million pounds for four children's charities which he co-founded with Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood. He is Eddietor of the official Iron Maiden Fan Club, head of the Heavy Metal Cycling Club, and works closely with Earth Percent, a climate action group. He has a cat named Angus.