The victorious rebirth of goth metal's dark prince Ville Valo: "VV had a ‘V for Victory’ kinda vibe"

Ville Valo
(Image credit: John McMurtrie)

It’s a gloomy November evening in London and inside the crystalline bowels of the Universal Music tower there are dark goings-on under a winter moon. An arcane gathering of power brokers, decision makers and tastemakers has convened to hear the first, dulcet tones of a new record in its entirety – a lyrical and melodious exsanguination called Neon Noir

Less an album, the subject of tonight’s attention is more like a swan song played in reverse or a departed loved one’s voice heard in the wind. We’ll get to that. There are no robes here, such vestigial ornaments long since done away with to provide anonymity on public transportation, but the importance of these proceedings is in no way diminished. 

This is how the music industry in all its mysterious dealings determines where and when its various powers are to be invoked – an Illuminati-like network of aligned hands is this rogues’ gallery of journalists, label managers and festival promoters.

At the centre of the dim chamber stands a lone, flatcapped figure, his chiselled visage peculiarly, vampirically unchanged by the many years since he first graced the cover of an international publication such as this, and let it be said that he was never a stranger to these folios. 

If anything can be said of Ville Valo’s appearance it’s that he could teach anyone half his age a thing or two about self-presentation – and, for the record, they’d be 23 at time of publication. 

Svelte, casually besuited and elegantly understated in his attire – all different hues of black, obviously – he’s been affably chatting with the gathered conclave with such fluidity and confidence that anyone would think it’s something he does every day, and anyone who knows his incongruous penchant for reclusiveness when off the stage would suspect that maybe he’s changed since we saw him last.

For the record, he does not, and he has not. Ten long years have passed since His Infernal Majesty’s final release, the career summation that was 2013’s Tears On Tape, and it has been five years since Him played their final note on the second of two sold-out nights at the London Roundhouse in December of 2017. 

Their concluding song was the aptly chosen, syrupy dirge of When Love And Death Embrace, and the mortuary pallor of its refrains couldn’t have been better matched to the forlorn mood of that distinctly funereal moment. 

For many, it was a farewell to one of life’s few constants: Him were less like a band and more like a comforting gothic world to those who fell prey to its blackened enchantments, and as if further affirmation is needed, no one in the field of music has since emerged to even remotely fill the heartagram-shaped hole left in Ville’s wake. 

As the lights in the venue went up to reveal no shortage of streaked mascara, it would have been impossible to surmise whether we’d ever hear from Ville again – such was the finality of that tour and the deathly vibe of that night. More desolate still was the long silence that ensued after the 26-year adventure he spearheaded under an iconic banner designed by his own hand. 

Eight records, ten million sales and countless fans getting heartagram tattoos of variable quality were the tallies of Ville’s musical ledger. It was over. Him was dead. Their founder was gone. And then, quietly, headless blooms began to flank his headstone. 

First came the news that he was blowing off the cobwebs to undertake a tour of Finland to record and perform songs by the late, beloved Finnish singer-songwriter Rauli ‘Badding’ Somerjoki, with Somerjoki’s old band, Agents. The project smashed the charts in Finland before they eventually disbanded. 

More silence followed until March 2020, when an unheralded EP was released under a new banner, VV, complete with an updated reimagining of the famed heartagram. A portent of what was to come, Gothica Fennica Vol. 1 was far from alien to anyone familiar with Him’s long-established sound, but it also bore the hallmarks of a songwriter unbound by the restraints of collaboration or co-writing. 

As the world smouldered, it was a hopeful omen that perhaps not everything had been lost to the pandemic. We retreat from the listening session to a quieter room to shine to shine a neon light on the story of the rebirth and toil that followed, a res-erectionVille shoots a look as if to say, ‘You’re not gonna write that, are you?’ Well…

“Promo tours are like Bullet-point for my Valentine.” Ville has sunk into his armchair, a body deflated. We’ve just been talking about the sometimes less-than-rock’n’roll demands of album promotion, and how while just 10 years have passed since Him’s final release, a lifetime of change in the industry’s inner workings has followed. 

It’s Thursday and Ville’s already done the rounds in Berlin this week, plus a big photo session, too – rumour has it that a smoke machine for a cover shoot triggered a confrontation with security here yesterday. Whoever the photographer was that bolted the door shut so the shoot could continue remains a mystery at the time of going to press. 

But despite Ville’s tiredness after two days of media-based pokes and prods and his first international flight in five years, he’s still exhibiting a remarkably playful way with words: the product of voracious reading and self-confessed Anglophilia that can make it easy to forget this is his second language, although as we’ll soon discover there are some words that resist translation. 

We’re reflecting on how many times he’s appeared in the pages of Metal Hammer. I produce a photo from many years gone by, taken by Mick Hutson. It’s Ville, looking like a goth deer caught in headlights, sitting in the back of a limo between the late Dimebag Darrell and Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx on his way to the Metal Hammer Golden God awards. He smirks. 

“It was a playground, wasn’t it?” he says of the Ville of yore. “Oh my god, that was a weird one. I remember Dimebag – he’d been up all night, and there’s me stuck in the middle. I gave my Golden God award to Zakk Wylde’s daughter. He told me she was a huge fan and I’d had a sip too many, so…” 

And let it be said that by the time Him went stratospheric – a runway stretching between 2000’s Razorblade Romance and 2003’s definitive Love Metal – there were few publications that weren’t peppering their pages with images of Ville. Photogenic but, more importantly, hilarious, his wry and dismissive self-regard tempered the styled polish of his many covershoots. 

In a time when emo was king, Ville brought something current but gleefully out of step with fashion, musical and otherwise, but he persevered because, arguably, beyond the music he possessed that rare quality that escapes so many whose trade is on the road and in music studios. 

He was interesting, and Him and their legion of fans were their own movement. For a time, if you ever stood at the back of one of their sold-out shows, it looked something like Beatlemania directed by Tim Burton. What would you say to yourself back then? He smiles and takes a moment before replying. 

“It isn’t a horror movie thing, but my oldest self has whispered to my younger self many times. You know, I could have done stuff way wiser in the sense of trying to become more successful in terms of money, listening to record companies or whatnot, because people had a damn hard time trying to figure out what we were all about. I wouldn’t do anything differently because then I wouldn’t be here – that’s the beauty of it.” 

And, tracing the course of what Ville did, what he’s doing now, there’s little to suggest that anything has changed in terms of his resistance to the common methods of self-promotion. In a time of compulsive micro-blogging and algorithm-feeding content, the official ‘Heartagram’ Instagram account posts at roughly the same rate as the Vatican. Be it about the preservation of mystery or a refusal to play the game, let it never be said that he didn’t do it his way. 

“I’m a slow learner. I only learned about the eggplant emoji yesterday! But as for those whispers, it’s something to do with the nonlinearity of time,” he continues. “I had some foresight to the pandemic, though, and found myself a house with a photography studio which I turned into a music studio. 

It’s one big room that enabled me to spread around all the weird pieces of kit from all eras – sort of my creative central. During the pandemic, that’s all I did. There was no rhyme or reason, Ijust thought it was time to move on and do something different. It could have been my older self whispering to my younger self in the middle of the night, like, ‘Now’s a good time. You’ll understand it better in a few years.’ So yeah, it could be one of those things.”

Ville Valo

(Image credit: John McMurtrie)

We notice a white wall in the corridor is covered in dozens of Sharpie signatures from fellow artists who’ve passed through. Some are small, while pop groups Bastille and Westlife have gone big with huge cubital letters. Unimpressed, Ville reaches for a glow-in-the-dark VV sticker from his breast pocket and wryly sticks it up at the top. Always a rebel. Was it hard to decide which direction to go in after Him? 

“Musically, I’m a pair of bell-bottoms,” he says. “If you want to follow hits, you’re always going to be too late. Music and art is essential for my wellbeing, it’s the air that I breathe – it’s natural for me, but at times I’ve felt like a human among the lizard people, an infiltrator from another galaxy. The only thing I can do is the thing I can do.” 

Of course, it raises the question of how VV and indeed Neon Noir came about. That Ville has always presided over every detail of his music is no secret – there’s never been a doubt as to whose vision it all was, and the ending of Him is just as important as the beginning we’re here to discuss. 

As anyone who’s seen the end of a relationship will know, the signs of impending demise can appear long before the cracks emerge, and the conclusion of Him was no different. To paraphrase a singer named BB on the prologue to VV, the thrill was gone… 

“Expiration is funny when it comes to bands,” he says matter-of-factly. Whatever wounds may have been inflicted, they have long since closed, and he’s at ease when prompted on what went down. “It didn’t happen overnight – we’d started having trouble after Tears On Tape. Gas [Lipstick] had left the band and we found a new drummer, which was fantastic for a time, but we just couldn’t find it in ourselves – a new album. 

We started working on ideas, but they didn’t sound very good. The adult way to approach things is that if it’s something you really do love, you have to love them enough to let them go when the right moment comes. The spark was no longer there, so timing-wise, it was good – I wouldn’t have minded it to happen a little earlier because now I see the end of my own career in the distance. 

I never wanted it to feel like a job. You’ll see bands touring where it quite clearly is. Something so central needs to be full of passion and laughter and joy and tears – dramatic, like a pint of milk.” 

Dairy funny. Have you been in touch with the guys since then, we ask? “I haven’t been in touch with Gas in more than 10 years,” comes the reply. “And Linde [Mikko ‘Linde’ Lindström, guitarist] is quite a solitary fellow who’s not a big talker anyway.

But Mige [Mikko ‘Mige’ Paananen, bassist] was a bit of a Rick Rubin on the album. He was like this weird guru that came by every three months and gave me a stamp of approval, like, ‘Yeah, this is fine.’ He’s one of my earliest childhood friends and one of my best mates still, so we keep in touch – that’s rare. It’s been 35 years or something…” 

It was that relationship that provided something of the lifeline that Ville needed. He describes the feeling after Him’s final show as something akin to phantom limb syndrome, where amputees report sensation in appendages that are no longer there. 

“I felt like an outsider, an outcast,” he says. “[I felt like] I didn’t understand myself, and that the world doesn’t understand me or that I didn’t belong. It’s a profound feeling, you know, to existentially feel that you don’t understand the world or your place in it. Funnily enough, how I got through that was writing. 

The pandemic really painted everyone into a corner. I wasn’t suicidal, but there was a tinge of depression as well, not seeing tomorrow or the worth of the day after tomorrow. People reacted in different ways. I forced myself back to music, and music gave me the gift of song once again. I was able to pull off a couple of Sabbath rip-offs, so that made me feel better. That was a big deal.” 

Ville will go on to animatedly recount how the loss of purpose and trajectory coupled with the worldwide shutdown was in some sense the perfect reset post-Him, and while he hit a very low ebb, it was precisely the kind of downtime he needed and hadn’t had since Him’s formation when he was just a teen. 

“There was no scheduling, nobody to communicate with about what I was working on, so it was very unfiltered intuition, straight to tape or whatever recording medium, and I found myself having goosebumps like I’d never had before. Well…” his eyes impishly go to the ceiling, “musically, at least." 

"I’m scared of stuff being really repetitive – it’s nice to enjoy a binge watch on Netflix, but you’re never gonna get the time back. That doesn’t mean, ‘Don’t do it!’ But enjoy the now, take advantage of the time. That’s what we’ll be doing when we go on tour with the band next year, challenging myself to do lots of things and not step into a sort of zombified existence. People are so distracted…”

At the beginning of the Divine Comedy, the main character – Dante Alighieri’s Pilgrim – wrote of finding himself in a dark wood halfway through the walk of life; the straight path, lost. It was a roundabout way of describing the confusion that can come with middle age, but in his mid-40s and with the deep shadows and brilliant highlights of an illustrious career in the rear-view mirror, I wonder aloud if the same could be said of the current predicament. 

Dante’s come up because, as is often the case with Ville, the subjects of language and literature are never far away. I ask him to elaborate on that tinge of depression he’s mentioned, and he says one thing and lets it hang in the air: “Kaiho.” Sorry? 

“Kai-ho,” he says again, slowly. It’s a Finnish word, he explains, that defies direct translation but describes the twist of emotions he was detangling in the wake of a lifetime on the road and in the limelight. 

“It isn’t a negative feeling. It’s a bittersweet reverie. I think Finnish people find it profoundly positive as well, because it also means that you have lived, you have loved and that you experience things that actually make a difference, at least to you personally, hopefully, for the people around you.” 

Did you struggle? “I had a month where I didn’t get out of bed,” he states. “Around that long, at least. I was pretty worried about it. I forced myself up and back to music through conversations with mates, you know, getting my spirits up a bit, but it was a weird feeling. 

It’s not like you can’t get up. You just don’t want to get up. You don’t want to do anything and you can’t really do anything: just super-tired, some form of post-traumatic stress after all the years. It could be that it took a while for it to hit, and it coincided with a pandemic. I wasn’t able to do anything, so my body and my mind told me to get the sleep Imissed back in the day. Thankfully I slept it off, but life doesn’t get any easier. It’s getting more complicated, more bittersweet – a tough combo. A pint half full, half empty…” 

Of course, the wrought-iron melody of Neon Noir’s various paeans to love and loss wouldn’t seem correct if they came from a place of emotional buoyancy, but if the slump Ville describes really was just making up for lost sleep-time, he’s making no bones about his desire to get back to work. 

“I’m not thinking about the end, but what I do realise is that, thinking in logical terms, it’s going to be really weird if I’m 60 and still in it, which means that I have less than that in terms of album cycles. It starts to get a bit scary because I’ve done music all my life, but then again, thinking like that makes me smile.” 

So how does a 46-year-old’s vision of love change from, say, a 20-year-old’s? “Well, maybe we haven’t had that ‘one true love’ in the traditional sense in Shakespearean drama: the overwhelming one that takes over everything. You can’t compare relationships and you shouldn’t – different times, different people, different chemistry, different reasons. Music is still at its best when it’s a soundtrack to important events.” 

So how does Neon Noir reflect your own life? “It’s very sincere – it encapsulates things. The indecisiveness on whether I belong to the camp of Black Sabbath or Depeche Mode, the constant struggle with good and evil. Run Away From The Sun is the first song I wrote and I didn’t know if I had a song in me at all, but I had to start from somewhere. 

I had all these ideas. I started to do it and follow my intuition. I wasn’t in a rush, I had no deadlines – I didn’t even know if I was going to continue, and that was the most fruitful ground, because it felt real and unadulterated by pressure…” 

As new as it all is for Ville, there are some things that have remained unchanged, or perhaps present is a better word. The heartagram was, after all, the gothic bat-signal of the early 00s onward… 

“It was everything Him stood for,” he says. “I just wiggled that one line and realised it has my initials, and that was the reason I called the project VV, and I liked that it had a ‘V for Victory’ kinda vibe to it, and visually it had the traditional aspect to it, a current iteration of the same idea. 

It’s symbolic, because I didn’t want to force myself to take a completely different route musically. I’m not an actor, and Him all happened very organically. I was finding my voice, or whatever you want to call it, through Type O and Black Sabbath back then, and I still am.” 

From the mood in the room it’s a welcome return indeed. It seems that for the first time in a lifetime he’s found his path – with the help of a little neon to hold back the darkness.

Neon Noir is out now via Heartagram Records. 

Metal Hammer line break

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.