Most rock bands today are experiencing downsized sales, which has transformed touring into an essential revenue generator. Dark rockers HIM are no strangers to globetrotting, although their recent tour for last year’s hard rocking Tears On Tape album has been pretty epic, spanning a year and a half across Europe, North and South America, Australia, and for the first time ever, China. It all wraps up with eight dates in the U.S. this month and then the Helldone Festival in Helsinki on New Year’s Eve.
There is still some retail life left for the Finnish group. The band’s current Love Metal Archives Tour celebrates the forthcoming CD and vinyl box set reissues of the group’s first four albums—Greatest Love Songs Vol. 666, their international breakthrough Razorblade Romance, Deep Shadows And Brilliant Highlights, and the seminal Love Metal—that includes extra live tracks, outtakes, and acoustic versions. Beyond their eight studio albums, they have unleashed a treasure trove of B-sides, remixes, and live tracks over the last 15 years, making them one of the most collectible modern rock bands and one that hardcore fans still buy religiously.
Prior to their forthcoming U.S. tour, HIM frontman Ville Valo called the Aquarian from Finland to discuss the tour, archival reissues, and musical philosophy. Valo is always down-to-earth, charming, and funny. He never takes himself too seriously, even when delivering his melancholic lyrics onstage.
You guys are touring like mad lately. Didn’t you go to China this year?
We’ve actually been twice. The craziest thing happened when we went there for the first time—I think it was April this year. We were booked for two festivals. We flew in, and it was kind of culture shock. It’s an interesting place and very few people could put together a sentence in English. I’m not saying we are good, but definitely in that country the communication was super, super tough, to be understood and so forth. We went to the first festival [in Shanghai] and all of a sudden people said that we can’t play. Or we can only play three songs or don’t play at all. We just flew 10 hours, and we’re supposed to be playing a one-hour set, so what the hell is going on? Nobody told us what was going on. We couldn’t understand anything, and then with a bit of bargaining we were able to play like six songs, then they threw us off the stage.
Later on we heard that they had supposedly oversold the festival, and they had some hassle with people trying to get out from the festival and into the festival. Nobody got hurt, but the situation was supposedly pretty serious. We said to ourselves we have one more gig, so we flew over to Beijing, then 20 minutes before the gig a massive sandstorm hit the festival that tore up the main stages including the roof. We were like, what the hell? We had traveled all in all five days, and we were able to play five songs. We were laughing about it. It was like 8,000 miles and one song per day. It was crazy. We so felt bad about it also because it seemed that there were people who enjoyed our band, enjoyed the music, and knew who we were, so we thought we could make it up and play over there again. We did a festival in September, and I was hoping we would be playing club shows to avoid the sandstorms. We played one club show that went perfectly, then another festival which went down A-OK as well. I can’t complain. It’s been quite an adventurous year, especially when it comes to HIM and China.
You still have some very devoted fans after all these years. Many of them throw things on stage for you, whether it’s T-shirts, letters, or poetry.
The poetry is great. That’s my main basis for the lyrics for the next album. I have a good selection thanks to everybody who’s educated me while on tour. I think a band cannot choose their fans, and you can’t choose whether you have fans or you’re going to be entertaining or lovable to anybody. You try to do what makes you feel good inside and what makes you forget about the shit in the world, the everyday stuff. It is escapism to a certain extent, yet at the same time it’s escapism towards your own truth about the world, so to speak. To somehow do something that resonates with people across the globe is amazing, and it feels strong yet at the same time a fragile connection that you don’t want to think about too much because you’re afraid you’re going to break it. It feels like that T’Pau song from the ’80s, “China In Your Hand.” It’s pretty but it’s so fragile. You’re glad that you have the experience, but you don’t want to overdo it or try to figure out what’s behind it, what makes the magic happen. I do enjoy [David] Copperfield, but I’m sure that he would be way more boring if we know exactly how he does his shit. Or Criss Angel.
There’s only so much you want to know about somebody anyway, right?
Tell me about it! At the end of the day, people are boring. I don’t like to think that Leonardo da Vinci farts smelled wonderful, you know? Everybody has their hidden sides and their boring aspects and their shithead aspects. Nobody’s just nice and beautiful and wonderful and intelligent 24/7. When it comes to the rock ‘n’ roll world, Dave Grohl is probably the closest, but I’m sure that he could be a bastard as well if he really puts his heart and soul and mind into it.
In preparing these album reissues, did you go through a lot of live tracks?
Yes and no. I don’t think there’s a lot. For the first album, it was troublesome trying to find any interesting stuff. Originally, the label was asking for a few tracks that had been released over in Europe already a while back as part of the compilation we had over here. I said if we have the opportunity, the possibility, and the time, I’d rather scour through my archives and hard drives to find stuff that hasn’t been released before full stop because I think it makes it more interesting. I don’t [know] if you have heard, but on albums like Love Metal, the demos are great. We did them with the same producer, and they came out really good. They’re rocking and super heavy and super grungy.
I was trying to get eight tracks for a bonus disc that would be something that hadn’t been released before for each and every album. For the first album it was tough to find any because at that time people didn’t record demos so much on Pro Tools. I was trying to find shitty old cassettes, and I wasn’t able to find that much stuff unfortunately, so the bonus tracks are live tracks from radio that haven’t been released before. You can’t have it all.
So the other albums include a lot of demos and live tracks?
I think most of them are outtakes. We’ve never been one of those bands that would record 37 different songs and pick the best 12 for an album and then release a few as B-sides and just leave the rest somewhere. It’s usually quite the opposite. We always write a bit less then we have to add some. We’ve always had that thing where we hone into details on less amount of songs because it takes its own time. You have to live with the songs. At least for us it’s not a fast process. That made it hard to try to find anything super new, but there are few things, including a couple of new acoustic versions I did. I recorded them over Easter. One of them is “The Heartless,” and the other one is probably “The Sacrament.” I did them in my kitchen during Easter just with a laptop, Pro Tools, a couple of preamps, amplifiers, and effects boxes. It was nice to do something new as well. But it’s still about those songs, so in that sense there are not going to be a lot of super surprising things. We didn’t go into the studio and rerecord anything or make a reggae version of the whole first album.
I did Brian Eno-y, atmospheric stuff with the vocals. I wanted to keep it really plain because especially with a song like “The Heartless,” which is one of the oldest songs. I wrote it back in ’91 or ’92, and we haven’t played it live in a long, long time. It was nice to go back and play them with an acoustic guitar so many years later. It’s interesting how through music you can feel exactly the way you felt when you were a bit younger. You can feel exactly all the emotions.
You can do the same when you’re a fan. For me, I started to relive through some Soundgarden stuff for some reason. I had listened to any of their stuff in ages, then I started listening to Superunknown, which wasn’t my favorite album but brought tears into my eyes, so many memories good and bad. Good music is a milestone and deserves a chapter in everybody’s sonic diary. It’s interesting how a couple of chords and a couple of lyrics can all of a sudden transform the world around you and the world inside you.
Was it interesting to go back to fully revisit the albums? Or do you listen to them enough already?
Terrible (chuckles). It was funny listening to the B-side stuff because it was more creative. There was a lot of stuff that I hadn’t heard in many, many years. I felt like a sonic Indiana Jones because I had to look through all the nooks and crannies for any special stuff. But the actual albums I’ve heard so many times, and songs like “Your Sweet Six Six Six”—to be honest, it was killing me. I play those live. To go back to the first album, all I hear are the mistakes. I also had to listen to them with an analytical mind, so to speak, because I had to listen to the masters [to make sure] they were technically correct, if they had too much top end or whatnot, so it wasn’t just enjoyable in that sense. And because there was some hassle at the vinyl pressing plant, I don’t have the test pressings. I actually haven’t heard the final cuts, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed, and I’m ready to get violent if they don’t sound right. I’m sure they will be good.
I heard that Bam Margera, who directed HIM videos during the Love Metal era and championed HIM heavily when you first came to America, posted a drunken video rant online, a sort of video letter to you that was later taken down.
Yeah, I heard about it. I don’t know what it was. It was some drunken “why can’t we be friends?” type of thing. The last time I saw Bam we played a festival in England during the summer, and he was great. [Skater Brandon] Novak was there. It was nice sitting down because we hadn’t had the time. Bam was in Iceland for a long time, and he was working on his own stuff. We had been touring and never had our paths cross along the way, so in the past five years we’ve only seen each other maybe three or four times. We used to be like brothers and hang out all the time. Obviously it’s odd, but once again that’s how life treats you. I’m not disappointed or feeling bad about it. It was good seeing him again. Maybe he’s going to be around for the tour and we’ll be able to say hi and hang.
You’re planning on working on new music early next year after you take a break from this tour. I’ve been wondering what your next album might be like, and I think it would be cool to do something radically different. HIM obviously has an established sound that people really love, but at the same time you personally have worked with everyone from Finnish folk musicians to pop singers to black metal bands. I’m wondering what other kind of influences you could bring in. Would you worry about straying too far from the sound you’ve established?
No, I think that all rock bands want to create their Back In Black, something that’s perfect and says it in so very few chords and few elements and says everything there is to say about rock music or whatever. The perfect album about everything that you’re trying to put together. We’re looking for the perfect song produced in the perfect way for ourselves, so our identity as individuals and as a group would come through. I think we’re still searching. Love Metal was pretty close, and there are some cool things about each and every album. It would be nice to do an album that would be even more rough around the edges, more live, more punky. The guys in the band are really good players.
Remember Jane’s Addiction—the first album was half studio, half live. A lot of bands used to do that in the ’70s. Neil Young was doing that. You get a really cool vibe during a gig and record all the gigs on tour, then you go back and figure out what’s the special evening where the songs are really working. Then you might record some backing vocals on top of it. It’s like a Frankenstein monster—it’s not a live thing, it’s not a studio thing, it’s somewhere in between. When it really works you get the best of both worlds—you get ear candy and the finesse from the studio record, yet at the same time you get the rough around the edges, punky, snot running down your face kind of a thing that you can’t get in the studio. Something like that would be miraculous. I don’t know how people would react to it, but at the end of the day it’s always like playing Russian roulette.
HIM will be playing at Webster Hall in New York City on Dec. 9 and the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ on Dec. 11. For more information, go to heartagram.com.