“I’m a good actor. I’m the Jack Nicholson of rock’n’roll! I can do the one expression and people still believe it”: how Ville Valo became one of rock’s last great stars

HIM in 2004
(Image credit: Press)

Ville Valo and his band HIM were stars in their native Finland from the moment they released their debut album, Greatest Lovesongs Vol. 666, in 1997. It took the rest of the world longer to catch on, but when they did they really caught on. By the time Metal Hammer sat down with Ville in London in 2004 for this classic interview from the archives, he had been crowned the king of goth metal – and was officially one of rock’s last true stars.

We keep being told that there are no real rock stars any more. For fans and musicians alike the tag has lost its allure. The new breed of bands are regular kids from the street, doing exactly what you could be doing if you wanted to do it and are keen to distance themselves from what they consider clichéd pretensions. Rock’n’roll’s losing its danger.

It’s nearly all true, too. But there is a contender, a torch-bearer keeping the dream alive, but for him, it’s not a conscious thing. You can’t just tell people you’re a rock star, in the same way you can’t be crazy by shoving pencils up your nose and saying ‘wibble’, to quote Edmund Blackadder. It’s gotta be as natural as the way you walk, otherwise people can tell you’re a fake.

It helps that our guy’s the frontman with HIM. It carries a lot more sway that he’s also the songwriter. It gets even more believable because he’s a bon vivant playboy. And a chainsmoker. A drinker. A poet. A charmer. And an all-round Renaissance man. He’s all of these things and has acquired a fanbase by capturing the heartbreaking dark romance of Tim Burton movies within song and lyric, backed by his epic goth rock. By the time people know his name they are already utterly convinced he’s the real deal.

He is Ville Valo. And he is THE new rock star.

When you’ve finished reading this you’ll think we should have called the feature ‘why we like HIM’. We were asked that a lot when Hammer started covering the band – years before any other publication in Britain decided they could no longer ignore the people power vote out there.

HIM started infiltrating the UK on May 19, 2000 at London’s Garage in support of their second album, Razorblade Romance. Few people paid them any attention at the time, with even their record label saying, “Why are you coming over? We don’t need you here’. But HIM are not a band to be put off easily.

Even on that inaugural visit it was obvious that HIM were like no other band. They had a special something, but more importantly they had a special someone. Ville shone like a star with his blend of Mick Jagger posturing and Brandon Lee’s dark charms in The Crow. He’d already helped his band reach huge success right across Europe and it was plain to see he was destined to become as big here. It was only a matter of time before he truly hit his rock’n’roll stride.

HIM in 2004

(Image credit: Press)

“The week over with Bam [Margera, Jackass star] was definitely my most rock’n’roll experience thus far,” grins the Valo. “I met this girl a while ago who lives in New York, and after our London show at the Underworld in September we had a week off. So wasted man’s logic was, ‘Why go back home to Finland for a week and sit in my silly, filthy apartment when I could go to the States?’ So I asked our bassist – he never drinks so I needed his opinion – if he thought it was OK to just fly over to New York. He said, ‘Of course,’ so I ended up going straight from the venue to Heathrow, bought the tickets over the counter, got totally shit-faced on the plane and landed in the US the next morning.”

This is a normal day in the life for any of you, right? Just deciding to fly to New York for a girl you kind of know, and having the means to buy a ticket. No? Normal people just can’t do these sorts of things without planning. Rock star people can. And do.

“I woke up and didn’t know what had happened. I didn’t even know the address of the girl in New York but I had her phone number. So I called and found out where she lived. I didn’t know the area exactly so I kind of got sidetracked into a pub around noon. She came and met me there, I called Bam and he sent us a limo, which drove us to his place in Philadelphia. We continued to get shit-faced for five days. It was madness! Bam had a spare room at his house that we stayed in but because of jet lag I’d be up at six. I’d start my day with beer and a couple of fags, then just get drunk before the rest of them woke up. It was funny. I really think about every step I take in the band so it was really good to get away from everything and relax.”

For relax read ‘get drunk’. All day, every day for a week straight. At a famous bloke’s house. It’s a tale dreams are made of. When you’re sat at work bored out of your mind, you wish you were like Ville Valo. That’s exactly how it happened for him too, and it’s all the fault of a band fronted by Mr. Ozzy Osbourne esq.

“I grew up with the Rolling Stones and all of that stuff. I hated the shiny, happy Beatles; I needed something with danger. All I wanted was to have a band I was happy with that could play in Finland and maybe even get to tour it – perhaps a few gigs in Helsinki every now and again – and be respectful towards each other, as a tribute to Black Sabbath. It’s my opinion if you strip all the unnecessary bullshit away then Sabbath’s where it’s at! 

“The thing I’m really proud of, compared to other bands, is that we have totally different agendas and reasons to exist. A lot of bands aren’t music fans and that’s the problem. I’m a huge fan of lots of bands and I love music. I trade secrets with my friends, ‘Have you got any promos of so and so? I’ve got a CDR from blah blah…’ I had the biggest hard-on  of my life when we got a white tape cassette of October Rust by Type O Negative. We were sitting in a room somewhere with this tape that had four songs on it and we sat there in silence listening to it. I was so excited! That happens very rarely nowadays. There’s just not many bands you can fall in love with any more.”

Yet one of those bands that is left are HIM, and many people have fallen in love with them. Sitting backstage in the band’s dressing room after playing a sold-out London Astoria, Ville’s drinking his first can of Grolsch, inhaling one of the 80 cigarettes he’ll get through today – a habit which doesn’t sit well with his asthma, but doesn’t lead to the attacks he endured prior to giving up weed a few years ago.

Ville’s sitting on the floor against the wall below an open window, letting the fresh air flow over him, and carry in the excited chatter of kids waiting outside by the backstage door. The look on his face is that of content – not from arrogance – but one born from the pleasure of being in a position of being able to do what he’s always dreamed.

“We’re a bunch of loons travelling around the world in a shitty bus  and we’re still getting away with it. That’s what I’m happy about! There are things I’ll think about when I’m sat in my rocking chair  being fed Jack Daniel’s intravenously. I’ll be asking myself, ‘What the fuck really happened?’ There’s so many things going on all the time that I can’t take in yet so it’s not worth bragging about until maybe when I’ve got grandchildren…”

Ville is seemingly as comfortable onstage as he is sitting here talking about his music, although if you ask him about his performance he’ll say it’s not always like that: “I’m a good actor. I’m the Jack Nicholson of rock’n’roll! I can do the one expression and people still believe it. It’s exciting though, when you’re nervous, getting butterflies in the stomach is great,” he says with his now familiar Cheshire cat-sized grin.

HIM have only been a ‘known’ entity in the UK for a relatively short time but the band have already been together for a decade this year. As befitting such longevity HIM have just released a ‘best of’ collection called And Love Said No… 1997-2004. As the title suggests, it covers material from the ’97 debut Greatest Love Songs Vol.666, 2000’s Razorblade Romance, 2002’s Deep Shadows And Brilliant Highlights and last year’s breakthrough Love Metal. There’s also two new tracks, And Love Said No and Solitary Man. As you might expect, having pulled a 10-year tour of duty, Ville is also starting to wonder how much longer there is there left for HIM and, indeed, him.

“I’m beginning to feel old for the first time. When you’re young you can drink more without hangovers and you don’t think about your energy levels. Now I do. I’m also the guy who liked the gang mentality of our band but since our guitar player [Mikko ‘Linde’ Lindström] had his first baby a few months ago we’ve all started separating. I’m trying to fight back,” he says with some concern drifting away with the exhaled tobacco smoke. 

“We’re all better friends than we ever were but the rest of the band are like proper adults now. I’m becoming aware of getting older and having to grow up. When you’re a good bunch of people having a good time you don’t have to worry about other people. We’ve never had ego clashes in the sense that there’s no dictatorship in our band. We’re best mates who’re having a great time seeing places around the world – I don’t want it to be professional. I don’t consider this work but more a disease you can’t get rid of – which you have to keep medicated just to live on.”

HIM’s Ville Valo dressed as The Crow onstage in London

Ville Valo dressed as The Crow onstage in London (Image credit: Jo Hale/Getty Images)

Hammer and Ville have decamped to our mutual fave hangout, the Crobar, off London’s Charing Cross Road, to talk. Ville’s as much a local here as anyone can be in this infamous band hangout and he likes the fact that they have “great customers, great music, great staff and everyone’s there.” The Offspring’s Dexter Holland breezes in to prove Ville’s point but the lanky Fin doesn’t even notice, as he nonchalantly takes a drag on a ciggie. Then he suddenly launches into a story about the dangers of taking medication while under the influence of alcohol; a tale of warning and woe that concerns HIM guitarist Linde, pints of urine and a small hotel in Luxembourg…

“It’s a tiny country. They only have one major hotel and to get a gold record there you just need to sell 500 copies. That tells you something about it. Linde was sitting in the bar after a gig and was completely fucking wasted – as he always used to be. He didn’t have the energy to go into the gents to relieve himself so he took a piss in the corner of the bar. The staff said they’d kick him out if he didn’t clean it up so he cleaned it up, still shaking, then after that he still couldn’t find the interest to go to the gents so he pissed in a couple of empty pint glasses. He was really big on drinking Jack Daniel’s and he had this huge, huge glass of Jack that he downed in one swig. Of course the elevator effect kicked in so he felt he needed to puke. In order not to hurl he decided he’d put something else in there to keep it all down. So he looked around at all the pint glasses on the table and picked the one with his own piss in it. To wash that down he picked up another glass of his piss. He then tried to go and throw up somewhere but puked inside the elevator instead. Then he got kicked out and straight away in the morning we had to leave the country. So now HIM can play gigs in Luxembourg but we can never stay overnight in the country again ever!”

This is an example of the things Ville misses about his band now they’ve cleaned up their act, which is why he’s now migrated to Bam for drinking companionship. On the latest HIM DVD release for the Funeral Of Hearts single, Bam professes an inability for self-control after he’s been drinking whiskey, which he illustrates by flinging himself into a metal roller door with no concern for his own safety – the likes of which made him famous in the first place after all. Ville doesn’t go anywhere near Bam’s sorts of physical excess but the androgynous frontman does like to surround himself with people living a carpe diem attitude, one that he finds increasingly lacking in his band members’ current repertoires.

Yet however much Ville likes the rock’n’roll myths he prefers the ones where people have survived. At 27 years old he’s the same age as a lot of rock stars who have cashed in their life cheques early – Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison to name a few.

“I am worried about being 27. I need a bodyguard to protect me from all those falling pianos. Jesus didn’t die till he was 30 so I s’pose I’ve got a couple of years yet. Morrison was an intriguing character; he was this depressed poet but there’s plenty of them. It’s weird how people create legends when they die young.”

Maybe in light of that, none of HIM have ever endured a ‘drugs phase’. Ville confesses that his only vices are fags and booze: “for me it’s all about the drink. I’ve seen so many bands get close to or actually achieve killing themselves from years and years doing heroin, speed or whatever so I’ve never really been interested. At the moment I can’t see my life without drinking but for sure in the future. It’s not a problem in that sense. I’m a pretty stressed-out individual so that’s the one thing which calms me down. I’m not usually drinking this much, though…” he smiles as he quaffs another pint.

If you are one with a penchant for rock’n’roll deaths, you’ll also notice a link between bands and a certain red-horned fellow who pissed God off and was kicked out of Heaven. HIM’s name – His Infernal Majesty – was stolen from Deicide. Ville assures us the devilry is all in perfectly good faith.

“We haven’t sacrificed any little babies! Basically, I loved horror movies – The Omen, The Exorcist… I grew up with Number Of The Beast and I loved all that. Black metal brings out the kid in me ’cos it’s dangerous and dark. We all need that. Black Sabbath – which is a horrible name, like most band names – stole it from a movie so we stole our name from Glenn Benton and an Anton LaVey poem in the Satanic bible… I think. That’s why when I’m on stage I say that you can’t play rock’n’roll if you don’t worship Satan. How I see it, we’re presenting more of the carnal side of human existence. Not necessarily evil, but more understanding spiritual values and young lust. Understanding it and appreciating it. You can’t just put all of those things in the closet which is why I don’t get all that religious shit.”

As well as the stories, the Satan ‘worship’, the excessively drinking and a seeming desire to live up to that James Dean rock’n’roll motto ‘Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse’, HIM have another great asset: the Heartagram logo. Like all great brands the logo sums up everything about the product in one easily recognised design. In HIM’s case the Heartagram represents love and metal in one simple shape, combining a heart with an inverted pentagram which makes it easy to remember. It’s also prime doodle fodder and it would seem, very tattooable.

“We have such terribly short memory spans that we couldn’t possibly think of having individual symbols like Led Zeppelin did,” smirks Ville the ‘heartist’, recalling why he came up with the instantly recognisable design. “The Heartagram stands for HIM as a band, as an entity and for love metal in general.”

HIM in 2004

(Image credit: Press)

HIM have everything that makes a great rock band, from being a three-million-selling success in Europe to having a star frontman. They’ve just started to make a dent in the United States and look likely to do as well there as they have here. 

It’s all on the up and up, but as Ville reclines on a sofa in London club Gossips, surrounded by fans and Bam’s ever-lunatic presence, he reflects that he judges his life more by the wonder of the actual moment. 

“We want to travel around like a bunch of gypsies and England is really important for us. We played Brum to 120 people ’cos Sabbath came from there and it was great. In 2000 we raised the money to pay for ourselves to come over and play Nottingham to 80 people and I’m proud of our committed workmanlike attitude. That’s the best way to show what a band’s about rather than taking a big ad in some ‘fashionable’ rock’n’roll magazine, if you know what I mean,” Ville smirks and quickly confesses that the way he prepares before a show is just to, “take a really big shit.”

“I prefer to be in a situation where most of our success has been because of the work the band has done. My big dream now is to do the same thing in America. Being with my best friends – my bandmates – and to play the Roxy or the Whiskey in LA. For me life’s all about those moments. Like when we stayed at the Riot house,” he smiles, referring to the Hyatt Hotel where Led Zeppelin famously ran ‘riot’ and frontman Robert Plant exclaimed, ‘I am the golden god!’ from his room’s balcony. “I was in there thinking about Zeppelin driving Harleys down the stairs. Most people walk around LA thinking in terms of movies and I don’t get that… when the sun goes down and I’m just there going ‘How did I get here?’, that’s what makes me happy. Being in Budapest or Paris for the first time… I’m not interested in doing tourist things ’cos it doesn’t work like that for me. But I end up in situations by accident – a photoshoot in the Tate Britain. for example, and unexpectedly seeing some William Blake paintings. It’s all improvised. I’m really happy about all that. “

“Finland’s a very random country to come from. To be from there and sell out the Astoria in London? That’s a bit weird for me so I’m going to enjoy it now ’cos it’ll all be over one day. I don’t want to ask for more.”

Ville polishes off yet another pint of continental strength lager (with ice, natch) and surveys the scene – his scene – and with a wry smile he leans forward readying himself to impart a typical Ville Valo secret:

“…I never expect anything because if you do, you’re usually disappointed. In the beginning it wasn’t as glamorous as I thought it would be and to be honest it still isn’t. The record sales might go up but your hangovers get worse. That’s the equation. The music has always come first, of course, but ever since we started touring things drastically changed. I haven’t been the same person since, but I just love it dear boy. It’s good to suffer.”

Originally published in Metal Hammer issue 125