The Cover Story

Ville Valo: “It’s a continuation of what I’ve done in the past and what might happen next”

Half a decade on from the end of gothic rock heroes HIM, frontman Ville Valo is gearing up to release his debut solo album. And in Neon Noir, not only did the Finnish icon find a reason to keep going during the pandemic, it also sees Ville still very much enjoying his dreamy journey into the dark side…

Ville Valo: “It’s a continuation of what I’ve done in the past and what might happen next”
Nick Ruskell
Gobinder Jhitta

Come New Year’s Eve, it will be five years since Ville Valo stepped offstage with HIM for the final time. Over the two decades and change of the band’s life, the Finnish Love Metal icons had made a tradition of playing a show in Helsinki on the last night of the year. The fixture at the city’s Tavastia venue on December 31, 2017, came at the end of the band’s Bang & Whimper Tour. They’d said goodbye to London, to Paris, to Berlin, Amsterdam and Milan and many other places that had fallen in love with them and made them icons of a type of rock music that spoke more with its heart and its lips than with its fists. As they bid their hometown farewell, and Ville woke up on the first day of 2018, the singer realised something: “It didn’t feel like anything was different.”

Pondering this today from his home in Helsinki – sadly no longer the imposing tower in which he once resided – he still sounds like he expected to feel more grief, more sadness, more something than what he actually did.

“I thought that, since we played together as a band for such a long time, and HIM was and still is such a big part of who I am, that it would feel more like losing a limb or that there would be some sort of, at least psychological, but also maybe a physical change,” he says. “But there was nothing.”

“I thought it would feel more like losing a limb…”

Listen to Ville reflect on the end of HIM

The shows were good, he smiles. He was glad that the band “went out with music”. They’re still friends. The show at Tavastia, he adds, “wasn’t emotional”, but it was “the right way to do it”, even if "maybe we should have ended it a little earlier." Either way, it was clearly time to wrap up. And so, from million-selling global goth metal icon, Ville Valo effectively became an unemployed civilian overnight.

Half a decade on, and nine years since HIM’s last album, 2013’s Tears On Tape swansong, the dark light is beginning to shine again. In March 2020, having spent some post-HIM time doing “Hank Marvin type stuff from my parents’ record collection” with Finnish-language retro troupe Agents, the singer surprise-dropped a three-track EP under the banner VV, entitled Gothica Fennica Vol. 1. Now, having spent two years during COVID locked away in his own studio, playing every instrument himself – “Like the Dark Prince meets Prince” – Ville Valo is making a full return with debut VV album, Neon Noir.

It’s all very Ville. The songs are all cut from a similarly Sabbath-goes-post-punk-with-a-poetry-book cloth as one might be used to, touching on “Kyuss’ Welcome To Sky Valley, but also a lot of post-punk stuff like Siouxsie And The Banshees and Cocteau Twins”. They have stylishly gothic names like Run Away From The Sun, Loveletting and Baby Lacrimarium. When this is put to him, he laughs his charming, self-effacing chuckle and nods, “Yeah, that last one’s the most typically me title anyone could write, isn’t it?”

Having come to the end of the road with HIM, given himself and the world “a bit of a breather, some distance”, apparently you can take the goth out of the metal band…

“Doing this album, and doing it the way I did it, gave me a chance to reflect, in a way, or to have a different perspective of who I am or what I want to do and what I have done and what can be done better, and so forth,” he says, before bursting out laughing again. “Which then ended up being basically doing exactly the same thing I had before.”

Then Ville laughs some more. “So, nothing’s new under the sun.”

God, it’s good to have him back.

Neon Noir was put together during COVID. Though Ville says “it’s not the wisest thing to sit down and really start to think about what you’re doing, it’s better to just go with the flow,” he knew this thing was to be a true solo project – him alone.

“I always wanted to work on music, but I really didn’t want to put together a new band,” he explains. “It just felt like something I honestly don’t want to do, because 25-plus years [in HIM] was a lot. And there’s a lot of love for that band. It just didn’t feel right.”

Instead, he worked alone. He insists that “I’m a very limited fellow as a musician,” but as HIM’s principle songwriter, he’s also got a track record of being very good at it. But where other members of the band would previously have added their own flair to the music, here Ville had to look at his craft in a different way.

“We knew each other so very well as musicians that I kind of knew how Mige would play his bass and Linde [Lindström] would play his guitar and so forth. So I kind of wrote most of the songs with them in mind. This time around, since they weren’t around, I only had myself in mind.

“What I found exhilarating was the fact that I was able to continue to work if I found a melody I enjoyed,” he adds. “I was able to continue working on that particular melody straight from that point, until I fell asleep. There were no schedules, there were no rehearsals, there was no nothing. I just started working on the entire thing, sort of building the puzzle as I went.”

Admitting that he “quite enjoys solitude”, the album also provided Ville with an escape during the pandemic. With no deadline, and the boss of his own label that would be putting out the finished product, it was unlike any record of the dozen or so to which he had previously put his name.

“It enabled me to be in a creative space, or a meditative space, for more or less two years,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about anything else besides the album from the morning until I went to sleep. God bless my girlfriend for her patience. It’s hard to put into words but it was very intense, and it was like a journey into yourself. It makes you relearn what you appreciate, and relearn the little subtleties in music that make the world go around. That make my world go around.”

The darkness of the album is of the romantic stripe with which Ville long ago made his bones, echoing professionally miserable British doom bands like Paradise Lost, Cathedral and My Dying Bride. He jokingly calls it, “an evolutionary tale of what happens when you lock a Finnish musician in a home studio for the entire duration of the pandemic with no sunlight in sight”. But even by Finnish standards of gloom, where the sun is down for almost half the year and the long, freezing winters do their best to kill you, the pandemic still managed to cast its shadow.

“I wouldn’t call it ‘suicidal’, but most of the stuff was written during the pandemic, and there weren’t many rays of sun hitting me,” Ville shares. “Everybody was in the mental gutter. Times were tough. This album was the kind of like the lifebuoy for me. It gave me a reason to wake up every morning and work on something else and try to shut the world outside. When I was working on the music, maybe it was selfish to a certain extent, but also it was a matter of survival.”

“It was a matter of survival”

Hear Ville describe how making Neon Noir was like a “lifebuoy” during the pandemic

In putting this into words Ville, a man who’s written more than one song about the dark side, discovered that his quill was far from dry. Basically about love and darkness? Yes, mainly. But that’s his whole bit.

“It seems that mankind needs a bit of a breather from all this shit, myself included. So I tried to put all that frustration onto paper,” he says. “And if it’s love and darkness, and all sorts of things like that, that’s probably because it’s my vocabulary. Hopefully, the words have been rearranged in a fresh order this time around. But me trying to do something completely different, just because, that doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”

Talking to him today, not much has changed about Ville Valo at all since we last encountered him. Or, indeed, when first we did. Now aged 45, he refers to himself as “an old dog”, but his pretzel-dry sense of humour, louche demeanour, boyish laugh and warm charm are as present as ever. He still talks with a cheeky, curiously upper-class English twang, occasionally sounding like a Finnish Terry Thomas, and though he admits to not having listened to his heroes Black Sabbath in a while (currently he’s on a goth tip, giving the thumbs up to mysterious, face-painted Brit duo Zetra), Ville still references them half a dozen times over the course of conversation.

To call him humble isn’t quite right. Modest would be a better word. As a man now able to look back from a distance at being the face of a band as big and important as HIM – 2003’s Love Metal breakthrough sold over a million, while the constant patronage of Heartagram-tattooed Jackass bloke and superfan of the band Bam Margera put them on TV screens across America in the 2000s – this is perhaps not unexpected. But even in the eye of the storm, Ville was always like this, even when he was a Kerrang! cover fixture and being hailed as the sex symbol rock’n’roll had been missing for so long.

“If people come up and call me an icon or something, I start to blush,” he smiles. “I feel uncomfortable, and I switch bars. When I’m in a situation like that, I do enjoy compliments. But you know, as everybody does, but I’m not too social of a person. I feel awkward in situations like that. I think at the time I just drank my way through it all. That wasn’t good way of handling that – go to the pub, go to [sadly shuttered London drinking den] The Crobar. That saved me and destroyed me at the same time.

“But I’m glad for both, you know, I was burning my candle at both ends,” he continues. “I don’t think I would have done anything different. It would have been maybe good to have somebody tell us, ‘Maybe you should relax for a wee bit.’ And by relaxing, I actually mean relaxing, not to go to the pub and not to write more songs. Just to recharge your batteries, because every rock band burns themselves out at one point or another. But I'm not complaining. And it’s great that I did all those mistakes – I don’t have to make them now.”

‘Now’ for Ville Valo means a new album, and a new tour. Next year, he’ll return to London to perform for the first time since 2017. He’s nervous, but more than that, he’s excited.

“The size of the butterflies in my stomach are gargantuan, something that I never knew existed,” he smiles. “I have, not necessarily high hopes, but I think next year will be a colourful one. It’ll be filled with new experiences.”

And for those wondering about setlists already, “It’s going to be half-and-half new stuff and HIM stuff. It’s not as if we’ll just play Buried Alive By Love as an encore and that’s it.

“It’s a continuation of what I’ve done in the past and, you know, what might happen next,” he says. “Basically I’m just doing exactly what all the rock’n’rollers are doing. The only thing I’m not doing these days is going topless – you know, by that I mean older gentleman behaving like they’re 20 and cool.”

After so long, if not quite in the wilderness, certainly not as visible as he once was, it’s heartening that Ville Valo is the same as ever. Neon Noir does have familiarities, but there’s a personality of its own upon which everything else is built. Most importantly, this is just who he is and what he does. Sex and darkness again, is it? Well, what else is there?

“I’m not very good at planning or doing Plan Bs,” he says. “[After HIM] I wasn’t really thinking about an alternative, because I don’t like studying too much. Not a great student – my patience is nil. Maybe I’d be a roadie or something – I like carrying stuff around. Maybe I’d be doing gardening, that’s kind of the same thing.”

“Maybe I’d be a roadie!”

Ville ponders what else he might do if it weren’t for music

But for now, gardening’s loss is still very much rock’s gain. Although even after all these years, you probably still have to convince Ville that he’s not a blagger and that he’s meant to be here.

“I still consider all the HIM guys to be fanboys in essence,” he finishes. “We started because we loved Sabbath and KISS and Maiden and whatnot. And we still do. We felt like visitors in the in their land, in their realm.

“I kind of still do think that,” he laughs. “I’m stuck in limbo between heaven and hell.”

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