"People can’t help but stare when Ville Valo walks past. They don’t know who Ville Valo is, but they know he must be someone, for he oozes the sort of insouciant cool that only the staggeringly confident and achingly hip can pull off. To walk alongside Ville through the hateful tourist trap that is London’s Leicester Square on a chilly spring evening is to know how it must feel to be invisible, for passers-by are blinkered and focused as their puzzled eyes lock on the Finn’s chiselled features, searching for clues as to his identity. They’ll search in vain, for in this country Ville Valo is a nobody, albeit a decidedly handsome nobody.”
With these words, in 2003, readers of the world’s largest weekly rock magazine were introduced to the frontman of fast-rising gothic rock band Him. The date was February 25, and walking alongside Him’s lighting engineer, and this writer,
Ville was bound for the UK premiere of Jackass: The Movie at Leicester Square Odeon, at the invitation of cast member and pro skateboarder Bam Margera, one of the then- 26-year-old vocalist’s best friends, and, at the time, Him’s most vocal, evangelical and high-profile fan.
Perhaps predictably, aided by models in nurse’s uniforms serving up limitless free shots in plastic ‘syringes’ at the post-screening party, the night would get loose very quickly. At which point, with the release of his band’s fourth album, Love Metal, imminent, a more calculating, opportunistic musician might have sought to capitalise on the night’s networking possibilities, and worked the room to ingratiate himself with the capital’s media ‘faces’ and celebrity guests: instead, an unfazed, unconcerned and happily pissed Ville dragged a sofa into the men’s bathroom to hang out with his friends, politely declaring the club’s music “too noisy” to allow for proper conversation and meaningful connection.
“I remember that party, and I also remember the hangover that followed,” says Ville with a laugh, speaking to Hammer today from his studio in Helsinki. “We were staying at the Metropolitan [arguably London’s most ‘fashionable’ hotel at the time] and I woke up the next day, and walked out of the hotel to get some air, all bleary-eyed, and was met with this blinding explosion of paparazzi camera flashes. It turned out that [actress/pop star] Jennifer Lopez was staying there too, and so instead of capturing her looking beautiful, they caught our five seconds of shame! A surreal moment. And that kinda set the tone for the year that followed, because things got kinda wild and weird with Love Metal.”
That at the outset of our conversation today Ville apologises profusely for being all of 10 minutes late, a knock-on effect of a food delivery driver struggling to locate his studio when dropping off a chilli vegan curry dinner-for-one, is a measure of the man’s class. So too is the fact that he’s one of those vanishingly rare rock stars who’ll enquire as to recent developments in his interviewer’s life before fielding the same sort of questions himself. And though Him are in the past and he’s occupied with his much-acclaimed ‘comeback’ project VV, he’s a most gracious and generous host when asked to take a trip down memory lane to revisit the “rollercoaster ride” that Love Metal initiated for Him.
“It’s really nice, you know, to still be remembered by a few,” he says, in a typically self-deprecating manner, “and there also seems to be interest from quite a few young individuals, who, I guess, find the early 00s sort of cool in a vintage manner.”
Obviously, the Him story didn’t start with Love Metal, but as far as the UK was concerned, it kinda did. While the band (completed by guitarist Mikko ‘Linde’ Lindström, bassist Mikko ‘Mige’ Paananen, keyboardist Janne ‘Burton’ Puurtinen and drummer Mika ‘Gas Lipstick’ Karppinen) were already a big noise in their homeland, and in Germany since the dawn of the millennium – with Join Me In Death, the lead-off single from their second album, 2000’s Razorblade Romance, topping the singles chart in both ‘territories’ – Britain, for the most part, remained aloof.
When Him undertook their first full UK tour in May 2002, promoting the previous year’s Deep Shadows And Brilliant Highlights album, they were playing to, Ville estimates, “20 people or less” each night. “And we loved it,” he stresses. “We loved every second of it. We’d go to Germany to make money in order to be able to spend it all on playing empty pubs in Britain, and it was well worth the experience.”
More upsetting, though, was the knowledge that they hadn’t done themselves justice on their third album. While Ville explains the often-repeated suggestion that Him were close to disbanding after Deep Shadows And Brilliant Highlights has been overplayed – “Are you even a proper rock’n’roll band if everyone doesn’t quit the band a few times a year?” he asks with a laugh – he says that the album suffered from having “too many chefs in the kitchen”, and notes that the band paid too much attention to directives from their record label.
“So then you find yourself touring an album that you’re not super-proud of and it makes you angry and depressed,” he says simply. “And then you have to prove to yourself and to everyone else that you still have something special about you.”
Ville might have felt less confident about the future had the band not already been working on a hard-hitting, Stooges-inspired new song in soundchecks – working title, Buried Alive By Love – which he considered “a melodic middle finger to people who wrote us off”. While his bandmates went away on holidays, Ville shut himself away in his new Helsinki apartment – black bin bags covering the windows to discourage local teenagers snapping photographs of the homegrown rock star in their midst – and began writing new songs on an old ‘orchestral’ guitar from the 1940s.
“My place was a mess, and I was smoking 100 cigarettes a day, but I was really focused on the music, this thing that I love. I was flying high,” he remembers. When his returning bandmates heard his new works-in-progress, their collective spirits soared anew.
“The mood was great, it was the five musketeers again, us against the world,” Ville recalls. “The camaraderie was back, we were a real band of brothers, and everybody really had each other’s backs. And that, of course, affects the songwriting as well, because when you’re strumming your acoustic guitar back home, you can’t wait to show off these new songs to the lads you really care about. And that excitement carried over into the studio. The vibe there was chaotic, but a good kind of chaotic.”
Reunited with producer Kai ‘Hiili’ Hiilesmaa – “a mad scientist, sort of the Lee Scratch Perry of stoner rock, the kind of guy who’ll get you to record naked, or wearing crazy masks” – who had worked on debut album Greatest Lovesongs Vol. 666, the quintet spent September and October 2002 in Finnvox Studios in Helsinki. Then they relocated to Los Angeles to mix with English studio maestro Tim Palmer (U2, Pearl Jam) at Scream Studios, the facility where Andy Wallace mixed Nirvana’s Nevermind album.
“It was such a great time,” Ville says, beaming at the memories. “We were staying at the Riot House [the Hyatt hotel on Sunset Boulevard] where Led Zeppelin stayed, and we had hired convertible cars and drove around LA with KROQ blasting out System Of A Down’s Aerials, and it just felt like everything had fallen into place, like we’d achieved everything we hoped to do. We genuinely couldn’t wait for everyone to hear what we’d done.”
Darkly romantic, atmospheric and hard- hitting, Love Metal was released on April 11, 2003, with Him’s now-iconic ‘Heartagram’ logo as the sole cover image – a signifier that this was, at this point, the definitive Him recording. Though it charted at No.1 in Finland and Germany, it peaked at No.55 in the UK, a result that could have proved deflating had the band, their management and label BMG not already discussed a patient, slow-burn marketing strategy to win over UK fans.
Previewing the album, a video for its second track, The Funeral Of Hearts, was aired constantly on rock channels Scuzz and Kerrang! TV, and when a multi-formatted physical release for Buried Alive By Love followed in May, accompanied by a Bam Margera-directed video starring actress Juliette Lewis, it charted at No.30 in the UK. That same month, sandwiched between Soil and Reef, Him played the Scuzz Stage at the inaugural Download fest, and sold out London’s 2,000-capacity Astoria.
Him had momentum, and with hardcore fans such as Killswitch Engage’s Howard Jones and Bleeding Through’s Brandan Schieppati and Marta Peterson sporting Heartagram tattoos, the Finns started to feel like metal’s coolest cult band, with their charismatic, charming and undeniably handsome frontman becoming metal’s new poster boy. Crucially, as he’d already been accorded ‘rock star’ status elsewhere since Razorblade Romance, Ville didn’t get distracted by his newfound fame, and stayed grounded, emerging as a figure- head for a resurgent, ever-swelling metal/emo/punk scene.
“I think I got my diva pretentiousness out of the way pretty early with Razorblade Romance, and had returned to Earth long before the success of Love Metal kicked in,” he muses. “Sure, we were a bunch of rock’n’roll morons, we could be really full of ourselves, but that comes with the job, that’s not a negative. Now we were just going with the flow, just trying to hold on tight as the momentum kicked in. It never got super-crazy in terms of ego or indulgences. Later, in the Dark Light era [2005-2007], I may have got a bit sucked into a deep hole of my own making: I’d read enough rock biographies to know that was coming, and I had to test it out for myself. But with Love Metal we were really on it, and just enjoying each new mad experience we faced.”
He remembers the time he flew to New York to meet a girl in the summer of 2003. “Bam sent a limo for me to bring me to his house, and there was this massive, wild party going on when I arrived,” he says. “We’d known Bam since 2000 – I met him when we played The Garage in London – and we’d taught him how to party, and he’d learned well! The whole time was a real honeymoon period for us. We were meeting with all these American record label executives, people like Seymour Stein and Jimmy Iovine, and they’d be telling these amazing stories, and we were just hypnotised and in awe. It was so cool, such a special time, a proper dreams-coming-true period for us. What a trip.”
Before he leaves us, Ville shares an anecdote that brilliantly illustrates how his life changed after Love Metal propelled Him to the forefront of the contemporary hard rock scene. In December 2005, the singer was in London once again, and had arranged to meet myself, and our mutual writer friend Alexander Milas, the future Editor of Metal Hammer, for drinks in Soho rock bar Garlic & Shots on Frith Street, when a familiar face gatecrashed the gathering.
“All of a sudden I felt this hairy tongue on my face. I looked around and it was Dave Grohl,” Ville laughs. “I’d never even met him before, so that’s how we got introduced. Now, I’m not sure if Dave Grohl does that to everybody the first time he meets them, but I kind of felt special for a moment. Love Metal might not be the biggest metal album ever, or even the biggest album we ever made, but that was a moment that made me realise we weren’t just another band anymore.”
Originally printed in Metal Hammer #378