Juha Mustonen

Ville Valo Comes Back Out of His Musical Coffin

A multi-instrumentalist and metal legend talks fighting the energy vampire in favor of something new – including a tour coming our way.

Six years ago, to the dismay of a multitude of fans, popular Finnish rockers HIM – purveyors of their special brand of tragic-romantic “love metal” – decided to call it quits after 26 years and eight studio albums. They embarked on a farewell tour in 2017 and then quietly disappeared. In early 2020, frontman and songwriter Ville Valo re-emerged with a three song EP in the vein of his former band but did not tour. He also recorded and toured with a popular Finnish band called Agents in 2019 to try something different, although their sound was a bit removed from what Valo’s fans were used to.

Then the pandemic hit. Needing music for comfort and motivation, but without his usual band setup, Valo proceeded to write tunes, play all the instruments, and record a whole album himself. The result: his solo debut Neon Noir released under the VV moniker that hearkens back to the music that made him popular while also updating his sound and allowing his recent life experiences to dictate the lyrical direction. He even updated the famous ‘heartagram’ logo to echo his current solo career.

“It getting started to get a bit musty in my coffin,” he quips, “so I had to do something about it.”

Valo sat down for a video call with The Aquarian to talk about his musical resurrection, how he views his artistic evolution, and why he voiced a cartoon animal.  The final U.S. dates of his Neon Noir Tour, which will feature solo songs and classic HIM tracks, will take place at Irving Plaza on Monday and Tuesday, May 8th and 9th.

You voiced the animated hippo Moto Moto for the Finnish dub of Madagascar II. How did that come about?

Well, for whatever reason, will.i.am wasn’t good enough for the Finns. That was a while ago – it was out of the blue. Somebody just contacted me about it because they knew that I had very low voice, a low baritone sort of thing. It took me a few hours. I loved it. I thought that was fantastic. That’s exactly the sort of thing that which I did after HIM disbanded, [like when] I sang with a Finnish band called The Agents – a 180. His music was very different and I thought that the hippo thing was very different when I did that, too. It’s good to do these weird U-turns. I think it keeps me on my toes and keeps the butterflies going. I think that that’s very important, no matter what you do, to get out of the zombifying curse of routine.

I assume it was a good payday?

To be honest with you, not a lot. I didn’t do it for the money. I did it for the love of hippos.

Speaking of Agents, you just played with them at the Emma Gaala, and you also recorded and toured Finland with them in 2019. Funnily enough, during HIM’s previous appearance there people were very sedate, but during your Agents song attendees were up and dancing. Clearly, that band has a history in your homeland.

He [guitarist Esa Pulliainen] has a lot of history. Agents are very appreciated in all sorts of generations. The rockers like what they do and they’re a legendary band here, but I started to get defensive; “Holy hell, was Agents better than my old stuff? Maybe I’m doing something completely wrong.” It’s those galas that are not really my cuppa’ [tea]. And then the audience is basically record company people, other artists. The wealthy Universals and Warners or whatnot, they’re sitting down there and doing their dinner thing and clinking glasses and making speeches. It’s a bit out of my comfort zone, but I was happy that we were invited. It’s a big deal here, so it gets a lot of visibility. After being away for such a long time, it’s a good way of showing people that I’m still in the land of the living – the undead way – so it’s good fun. And then at the end of the day, you have to do things at times that don’t feel the best. It’s a good test of your character.

I can hear how your crooning meshes with the atmospheric guitar playing that Esa’s doing which is very fifties and sixties. I can totally hear that now in your music.

I think that’s cool. Sensitivity and being emotional and being overwhelmingly small at times can sound bigger than having a ton of guitars. It’s one of those things that it’s important to be able to appreciate and to be able to build up the drama in whatever way the song dictates it to be built.

With this new album I think about the HIM song title “The Foreboding Sense Of Impending Happiness,” because even though there is that tragic-romantic Ville vibe going on here, it’s also getting a little bit poppier, a little brighter. I’m assuming that you’re happier these days.

I’m not sure. Maybe it was the rest of the guys [in HIM] that kept bringing me down [Laughs]. Musically speaking and vibe-wise speaking, I do enjoy the fine line between hope and despair. For example, Depeche Mode have always been great with that. At times it can sound overwhelmingly tender, but yet never losing the whiff of melancholy in there. For me, the darkness is not about being depressed or being suicidal or being put down in that sense. I’ve tried to figure out actually what it was. I was talking to somebody about semantics or how words can be interpreted in different ways in different cultures. The word melancholy seems to be one of those, but I realized that a word I haven’t used in a long, long time, which is quite weird in my case, is being a romantic. That’s a big deal of all the music I’ve been involved with – that sort of yearning that is quite desperate at times. It’s yearning before, it’s yearning during, and it’s yearning after, so it does have a sense of nostalgia even before it happens.

We all have a yearning towards something. It’s yearning for a better place, I guess, if we’re talking on a very philosophical level; a yearning for peace and yearning for a peace of mind and yearning for the heart to stand still for a wee bit. You know what I mean? In a sense that the romantic overtures are very important in what I do, it’s not a debilitating darkness, like that depression where you can’t get up from a bed and you’re in the darkness for days and when tomorrow loses its meaning. That’s always what I consider when you’re depressed. Things lose their meaning, even the simplest things, and they’re just not worth it. I’m quite the opposite. I think that even the most minute things have a mountain out of a molehill [quality]. That’s what I do. That’s how I embellish – make little things overwhelming, heartbreaking, Earth shattering events. I think saying that makes me quite a bit of a romantic, as well, so, bit by bit, I’m figuring out this whole mystery.

What would you say is the most personal song on the new album for you?

They have to come from a personal place for them to ring true. Feel-wise, I’m not sure if I’d use the word personal, but special is “Heartful Of Ghosts.” It has a bit of noise rock going and is musically a bit different from what I’ve done in the past. It’s not so riff/verse/chorus, riff/verse/chorus, something/chorus/end – it’s more like sustaining a mood that keeps on building building building building, and there’s something very lava lamp-like in that song. It’s kind of mesmerizing in a Twin Peaks way. I really dig that song.

Talking about personal, “Run Away From The Sun” was the first song I wrote after HIM was disbanded. I put that together in 2019. I started working right before the pandemic year. That is quite personal because it is a love song, yes, but it was me trying to figure out if I can do anything, because [I thought], “Am I done? Do if I have it in me to be able to write a song?'” I guess I was a bit depressed at that time, uncertain about what the future might hold – that is the feeling I get from when I listen to that song. It feels very raw and tender. It has this sense of frailty and strength coming together, and it feels that it might implode or explode at any given moment, but it stays together.

I was listening to “Zener Solitaire,” the instrumental near the end of your new album. It recalls parts of HIM’s Tears On Tape and it reminds me of the fact that there was that little Goblin / Dario Argento vibe going on.

Totally. I was thinking in terms of Phil Spector, because he has that Ronettes – that sixties girl group vibe. I definitely wanted that. I still love a good horror movie theme and it’s also a sort of tradition. Ozzy [Osbourne] and [Black] Sabbath included instrumental pieces that were used as the intro tape for their forthcoming tours. I think that that’s part of the tradition of metal and rock and roll. I thought it would be cool to have an instrumental track, and, actually, “Zener Solitair” does have lyrics, but they’re carved onto the vinyl. They’re on the dead wax. I sing about “dead wax poetry” in one of the lyrics and so it’s carved there. It takes all four sides.

Has anybody ever asked you to do a movie score, or have you ever wanted to score a horror movie?

I did some music actually for a virtual 360 game called Downward Spiral: Prologue, funnily enough, by some of the same programmers that did Max Payne and all that stuff. Finnish fellas. Anyway, I did some of that [in 2017] and I did talk about it a few times. Yes, I’m interested, but it takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of effort, and it’s a new realm. It would be a positively overwhelming experience to try to put something like that together because there’s so many different sets of rules these days. I’ve heard with movie music that it is very far from what it used to be when when you’d actually have the first cut and you’d do music for the score or what you’re seeing for the cut. These days they’re cutting and editing everything down to the last very second, so it’s very confusing. I guess with a bit more independent films that might be nicer, but with bigger films… I’ve read some interviews about the amount of tracks and the amount of maneuverability you have to have editing-wise [down] to the very last minute and different versions and all that. To me, that sounds a bit too much like work. Of course, if there would be a chance one day to do a cool Twin Peaks rip-off, I’d be there in a heartbeat.

You recorded this in the pandemic and you didn’t have musicians around you. Out of necessity you created this by yourself. What were the most liberating and challenging aspects of doing all of this by yourself?

It’s one of those things that it was easy to come up with the concept. Prince did it. Lenny Kravitz did it. Andrew Eldritch sort of did it. Why couldn’t I do it and just be the dictator for a moment? I just thought it was interesting because a lot of unique sounding albums have come from a single point source, one maker. It being really undiluted and really identifiable and unique sonics – I’m not necessarily saying that the albums are great. That’s not the point, but they come from a very unique place. I thought that it’s a thing I had never done before [and] that this was my chance. The easy thing regarding that was the fact that I could try and see how it works out. I didn’t have to release anything. That was an important part of it all because there was no record company, there were no deadlines. I wasn’t thinking straight, to put it that way. I just thought – once again, talking about the butterflies and the challenges – that it’s a ridiculous challenge that I had to see through.

I’m most pleasantly surprised about the fact that I was able to pull it all together because by song five or six you’re in this… halfway through a marathon or something. “Do I have it in me?” It felt quite tiring. Also because of the pandemic, which was quite an energy vampire, trying to find some positive out of being in that dark hole. Music was the thing that gave me a focus and gave me a reason to keep on going with everyday life and all that. I think that the biggest challenge was to get the whole thing done because it took perseverance and patience, and me being a sort of old dog in the business but a complete amateur when it came to recording. You just need discipline – if it doesn’t sound right then you need to do something about it, as simple as that. But at times the most simple things take a long time – getting drums to sound ok and stuff that may seem quite simple. It took a while at times, but what was the most enjoyable thing about it all was the fact that there was no noise, there was nobody else. I was able to focus entirely on music and let the music be my companion. It sounds a bit corny, but I was able to listen to the sound, wherever the sound took me.

Of course, I missed the camaraderie of being in a band, but, purely artistically speaking, I think that this was an amazingly good decision to go for because it was very meditative. I really lost myself in the music and I was able to hone in on the tiniest details, like weird oscillating delay sounds. I’m a big fan of dub reggae and stuff that usually you can’t do in the studio because people will be like, “What the hell are you doing? We’re running out of time, we need to get stuff done.” I wasn’t stuck in that thing at all. I was able to take a flight of whimsy whenever I needed to – and I needed that quite often, to be honest. That’s the reason why it took such a long time to get it done, but it was an incredible experience. I highly recommend it to anybody who works in the realm of music. The philosophical value of you start with nothing – there’s no sound, there’s no ideas, you pick up a guitar – and a month-and-a-half later, all of a sudden, the whole song is blasting from your speakers with all the instrumentation and everything… that’s quite something.

With all this, I’m not saying that the quality is exquisite, or that I’m a genius, or that the music is fantastic. I’m just talking about as an experience, doing it by yourself and building that puzzle and creating out from nowhere. That’s something I’ve never experienced before, and even if the future might hold another band or recording in a more traditional fashion, this is an important lesson learned [about] how intimate of a companion music can be. As fans, we know that when you love an album, when you love an artist, you never really have that connection when you’re working on your own stuff because you’re wearing so many hats that you can never hear your own song the first time as you hear somebody’s song that you really like, so that’s the dilemma.