HIM's Ville Valo on Bam Margera and The "Tears" of His Favorite Artists
Finnish rock band HIM is known for causing a lot of weird controversy. First, a lot of people get angsty when it comes time to define their sound--the band has been categorized as everything from slow alt-rock to melodic metal to gothic metal. But they've been around since 1991, and they're the only Finnish rock band to achieve a gold record in the United States. The band members--frontman Ville Valo, guitarist Mikko "Linde" Lindstrom, bassist have an interesting array of influences, including The Stooges, KISS, Black Sabbath and Neil Young.
The band's eight studio albums span fast and heavy to mournful and rainy-day-friendly; the fifth album, 2005's Dark Light, was the band's breakthrough album in the U.S, partially because Bam Margera from the show "Jackass" loved the band so much you couldn't go one episode of his show without seeing HIM's signature heartagram symbol painted on his wall. This past May at the Golden Gods Awards, HIM even won the 'Most Dedicated Fans' award.
Front man Ville Valo is also known for a lot of things, too. He's an interesting person to speak with, weaving back and forth between existential topics, the media in Finland, and his favorite U.S. food cities. Up On The Sun talked with Valo about the problem with touring the U.S., why he hates writing on the road, and how vintage gear makes you perform in a certain way.
HIM's latest album, Tears on Tape, was released in April 2013. For the album, Valo mined inspiration from doo-wop of the '50s and '60s, examining personal relationships and the history of his favorite musicians. Or, as Valo puts it, "It's a love letter to the musicians I love."
How does Tears on Tape differ from your other albums, in terms of the concept behind it, or different techniques utilized? I could write a novel about it. It's little tiny changes here and there, like putting together a big puzzle. It took a long time for us to get it going on.
I think the main difference with this album is that the music extremes we usually have are kind of more mellow here. On previous albums we maybe had a really fast aggressive song, and that would be followed by something more mellow. But this album we had the idea to have both those extremes closer sound-wise and song-wise. But pretty straight in your face, organic, dirty--moreso than the previous one. Also more relaxed and more fun.
You've said the album represents "the tears from your favorite artists." I know you're inspired by artists like Elvis and King Diamond. I'd love to hear name off some of the artists that match with some of the songs? We have learned reference points after being musicians for such a long time, and when we mention them, it seems no one gets where it's coming from. Like the midsection for the song "Hearts at War" came originally from an old satirical black metal song. So that comes from little bits like a puzzle. They are just reference points for us.
And then the guitar for "All Lips Go Blue" that was influenced by the English band Cathedral. In terms of inspiration, there was a lot of folk music inspiration. And Chris Whitley? I love his album called Dirt Floor, which is just guitar and nothing more. Simple, but super powerful. Mood-wise, that's something I was really into. I started writing them very bare-boned, and once the main ideas were clear enough for me, that's when we started adding more rock and roll from our idols.
The songs in themselves aren't really complex. They are metalhead-y and straightforward, in essence, if you strip the production off. But it's nice to have ear-candy, with the effects, the keyboards, and atmospheric stuff. I love being involved in recording and producing albums. I think it's fascinating. Like being an old kid in a candy store. Playful seriousness, if that makes any sense.
I don't think any band should ever think about how a song is going to work live. Recorded music is a different art itself. We sort it out one way or the other.
Is someone had never heard of HIM, what album would you hand them to hear first that represented you guys? You should probably ask somebody else. I have all the reasons why I like each one. And it's always really personal. Musically, the last one would be a good one. Then Love Metal from 2003. That was the first album we really had the idea of our sound. Once again, as you know, when you hear a song from an artist for the first time, it's not necessarily the best song you hear... but that first impact is so important that you'll always remember that song and it will be something special for you.
So for a lot of people, in our case, that was the album called Razorblade Romance. From the year 2000. It was big in Europe. For people in UK it was Love Metal. And people in the US it was Dark Light. I'm happy there are people that still dig what we do.
Are you guys currently writing? I strum a bit, I hum a bit. That's what I do. Strum and hum. But, I don't seriously write when I'm on tour. I may come up with some fairly simple ideas and record them on an iPhone or something. But I usually throw them away. They aren't good enough.
I think it's important to be in a peaceful place. Not necessarily mentally, but physically. So I like to work on things back home where I have musically gear and can make demo and try arrangements. I think that tour is a place where you should be absorbing the culture and all the information. Read books, meet new people, see new cities and taste new foods. Get to know different cultures.
I think that's very important when writing songs too, because that's all the info that goes into making the music anyways is life.
How is touring in the US different from Europe? That remains to be seen. We haven't toured here in so long...I think the last time was in 2010. We had to take a break because our drummer had some problems with his hand and that took nearly a year.
I think the main difference at the end of the day is the driving distance. This country is so vast. You know, in Europe, or in England, the distance between cities is maximum 300 miles. And here you drive every day and every night, easily, 600-800 miles. You see the country from a different perspective then maybe a tourist might. We see the great skies.
And the audiences are different too, but that differs from state to state as well, which is similar to Europe. Some sing along more, some dance more... Wouldn't it be terrible if we knew that the best audience was in spot X and we didn't go anywhere else?
Is there a place you would like to spend more time in during you time in the U.S.? Well, we're missing a lot of the major places. It would be lovely to spend a day in Chicago. We have a day off in Denver I think. We actually had a day off in Phoenix the tour before. It was great just to walk around and absorb the vibe of the city. I also like Seattle, because it reminds me of where I come from, Helsinki. Windy and rainy. And great food.
When you'll be in Phoenix, you'll be playing with Volbeat, Halestorm, Avenged Sevenfold and many more. Have you toured with any of these bands before this year? I don't think so. You know, I know all those bands, I have some music and have met some of them along the way, but no... or maybe we've been on the same festivals before, back in England or somewhere.
I think the whole aesthetic is exciting. It's all kinds of music, and it will be interesting to see if people absorb it all and get it. It's a lot of variety. You know, the world of heavy metal... the amount of subgenres is ridiculous. It's an interesting package, all in all.
I think the cool thing about these package tours is everyone gets to meet each other.
I know it was a long time ago, but do you find it interesting that the band gained popularity here mostly because of Bam Margera promoting you on his show? Or do people follow celebrities that closely in Finland as well? I think unfortunately, it's getting closer to that. There's more tabloid-y sort of stuff going on there. And the world of Facebook and social media has changed everything globally over the past few years.
Well, and God bless Bam, and thanks for his help. We had a lot of other stuff happening at the same time, but it was just very good timing for us. [Sigh] I don't know... the cool thing about the world of music is that it's not magic or mathematics. There's no equation to success or happiness in it. It's not like cooking. There's so many variables, and a lot based on luck. Like living in Vegas.
So with Tears on Tape, you said you wanted to emulate the type of harmonies artists from the fifties used, like Roy Orbison. I recently went to Studio B in Nashville where Roy Orbison regularly recorded, especially during the death of his family, and it made me think--do you ever incorporate vintage equipment that he may have used? Well that gear is way better than ours! But I do like to collect stuff. Some of the stuff we used was modern and some were remakes. I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to recording. I tend to read as much as I can and try to figure out what someone used and why and when.
It's not necessarily about the vintage, but it's about the vibe. We used to really like Russian mics and odd combinations of pre-amps and equalizers and compressors, old and new. Then we also--experimentation is great. It's not as if we wanted to try and sound exactly like someone else. We wanted to take that adventurousness from them and bring in our style. It's an ongoing journey.
The equipment does affect the performance so much. If you have the right mic in front of your face that goes into the right amplifier which goes into the right equalizer and compressor, it changes how you perform. And that's what you're going to hear in your headphones. So if you compress it too much, you'll hear all the breaths in your voice and that will change the way you breathe. A lot of people don't think of those terms.
Same with drums. If you have a really cool...we use Helios amps? Remakes of the stuff the Who, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Black Sabbath, Jethro Toll, what those people used back in the day. They have this soft, dull, Rolling-Stonesy, kinda fucked-up late '60s vibe. And even though they don't sound modern on tape--well, while playing and hearing that sound, it makes our drummer play certain things because he knows that.
The gear makes you perform in a certain way, because it's a certain version of you in your ears. Playing into the gear and the gear plays you back.
HIM were awarded the 'Most Dedicated Fans' award at the Golden God Awards on May 2, 2013. Is it true you guys were sleeping during the ceremony? A few guys were there. That was right before we cancelled the remaining dates when the album came out. I had the onset of pneumonia, and I have asthma, so it got really bad. So the doctors told me lay down on a bed for eight days.
We did make the Golden Gods in England, where Metal Hammer does it.
That's a big honor to get the most dedicated fans award. It's one of those things that you can't buy with money. That's for people to decide, and you never start out with thinking that way anyways. People can be very faithful. There are people that have been by us from the start and that's kind of... I'd call it...awesome.
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