Q & A With Ville Valo
When HIM frontman Ville Valo asked LA Ink’s Kat Von D to tattoo three hedonistic writers on his right forearm—American author Charles Bukowski, French poet Charles Baudelaire, and Finnish novelist Timo K. Mukka—the characters were supposed to represent role models for Valo’s own decadent lifestyle. Between 1997 and 2007, the Finnish singer had spent only “about two weeks sober,” and while his drinking didn’t impair his creativity or productivity, it certainly decimated his health. In September 2007, when HIM finished mixing the brooding, metallic Venus Doom album, Valo was at death’s door.
“I went to a doctor who said I was going to have heart failure if I didn’t stop drinking and that I should go into an emergency room right away—to which I replied, ‘That sounds great, but I don’t have the time because I’ve got interviews to do,’” Valo says.
Soon after, the singer did check into a celebrity rehab center in Malibu, CA. And to the shock of many, he completely sobered up. He’s been clean now for two and a half years, and today the hedonists on his arm are a reminder of how low he’s liable to sink again if he’s not careful. But while getting sober has greatly improved his physical health, it’s come at a price. Not going to bars has left him with nowhere else to go, and being unable to dull his emotional pain with alcohol has made him feel anxious, depressed, and vulnerable. These emotions are evident in abundance on HIM’s new album, Screamworks: Love in Theory and Practice, a bittersweet disc that shivers with melancholy and clamors for redemption.
Catchier and more sonically eclectic than Venus Doom, songs like “Shatter Me With Hope” and “Ode to Solitude” are still loud, rife with buzzing power-chord volleys, cutting guitar lines, and granite-solid beats. But much of the music is woven with darkwave keyboards, layered guitar, and piercing pop hooks. And while Valo still mopes and screams like a cross between a depressed goth and a teary emo brat, his vocals are generally as infectiously tuneful as Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan.
The evening after his 33rd birthday, the clearheaded vocalist picked up the phone at his home in Helsinki to talk with INKED about his history with tattoos, the creation of Screamworks, why he almost drank himself to an early grave, and how he still smiles at funerals. INKED: Your band logo, the heartagram, is a popular tattoo. Where did it come from?
VILLE VALO: I came up with that design on the day I turned 20. I remember showing it to people and saying, “Now I finally got a cool logo for the band.” It’s ridiculous the amount of people I’ve seen it tattooed on over the years. It’s a great honor.
Were you intentionally trying to combine a symbol of love with one of evil?
The irony of it is that the pentagram is only the symbol of the devil in Christian propaganda and in Hollywood cinema. If you search for the origins of that symbol, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with any religious forces. And I’m not a religious person, so for me it was just a combination of Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil coming together with something like “Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear” by Elvis Presley—something overly cheesy and sentimental combining with something way more macho.
What was your first tattoo?
In 1998, I met a dude at the Roxy in Helsinki who played in a couple bands. I didn’t even know he was a tattoo artist at first. He did this little heart on my right wrist. That was a test to see how it would feel and what it was all about.
Obviously you passed the test.
That’s when I decided to do my whole left arm. I went from the most minimal thing to the biggest thing possible. It took months and months to finish because we were on tour a lot. Also, every time we got together we had the tendency to listen to Motörhead and get drunk. The sessions were short because it’s hard to hold a tattoo gun while totally off your head.
When did you become friends with Kat Von D?
We were working on [2005’s] Dark Light, which we recorded in Silverlake, CA. And I had an idea to have a big emblem tattooed on my back that would be the cover of the album. One of my mates told me about Kat and I didn’t know her work at all, but we set up a date at the Rainbow. The funny thing was, we were sitting next to one another for 90 minutes before noticing each other. Neither of our cells were working and then I just heard a friend of hers say, “Hey, Kat,” and I thought, Oh fuck, she’s been sitting here the whole time.
Why didn’t Kat tattoo your back for the album?
For some reason Kat and I started working on another idea, a portrait of a Finnish author named Timo Mukka on my arm. Originally, I was going to dedicate my right arm to all the authors that had inspired me. But we only got so far as to do him, Baudelaire, and Bukowski. And then I got the eyes of Edgar Allan Poe on my back. Kat did one and her ex-husband, Oliver [Peck], did the other one.
Do you and Kat see each other often?
We recorded the new record in Los Angeles, so I got to hang out with her a couple times, but she’s a busy woman and a workaholic like me, so whenever we have the chance to hang out, I don’t want to make her work. It’s been about a year since she’s done ink on my skin. There’s a picture of Klaus Kinski sucking his thumb with a naked chick that she did on the left side of my navel. He’s one of my favorite actors and one of those egomaniac lunatics that I admire. And then she also did a portrait on my breast of Maya Deren, a ’40s surrealist filmmaker.
What do you think will be your next tattoo?
I think it depends who’s doing it. I’ve always said to Kat that I’m her canvas. We’ve got a list of ideas—we just need to find the time. But I’m not in a rush. I’ve got plenty of ink in my skin, and I think my main goal and mission is to one day do my legs myself.
Are you any good at tattooing?
No, I’m shit. But no one’s gonna see my legs anyways, so I can just doodle on them. I was just thinking of writing my favorite lyrics on them so whenever I’m taking a poop I can read some [Arthur Rimbaud] or something. The thing is, when I was drinking I never had the courage to get myself the equipment. I was always afraid I’d wake up with something ridiculous like the word “pussy” on my face the morning after a party. And that would hurt like hell to remove.
Have you had any tattoos removed?
One drunken night back in the day, I had my then-fiancée’s first initial tattooed on my ring finger. I later removed it with cigarettes by using my finger as an ashtray for a while. We were on tour and it got infected really easily, but it’s nearly gone.
Screamworks is much poppier than Venus Doom.
I think of it as a cathartic scream of creation—being laid bare and completely honest without being afraid what people might say about you. I wanted the album to have the similar uplifting melancholy of Depeche Mode. The songs are kind of bittersweet and sad, but they’re still something you want to party to and dance to. And production-wise, I wanted to find the sweet spot in between Depeche Mode and Guns N’ Roses or The Cult.
A lot of the lyrics are about tragic relationships. Have you given up on love?
I think I’m between relationships in the sense that I’m sincerely hoping there will be one someday. So let’s say I’m hopeful every five minutes, then I lose hope and I have to pick up a guitar and write a song. Then I’m maybe hopeful again for the next five minutes.
At least as a single guy you don’t have to feel guilty about scoring goth groupies.
I’ve never been into one-night stands because they’re way too much of a hassle. I don’t find it to be worthwhile for anybody just to go in a pub and pick up somebody, go somewhere, do the dirty deed, and then tell somebody to fuck off. I don’t feel that to be sensitive; I don’t feel that to be rock ‘n’ roll. I just feel it’s really disrespectful towards everybody involved. I’ve yet to experience a good one-night stand, but maybe I’ve just had bad ones.
If you’re not hitting bars or picking up women, what do you do with your spare time? What spare time?
I’ve turned from an alcoholic into a workaholic, and I’ve been concentrating so hard on writing music that it’s hard for me to do anything else. I haven’t read anything in about a year, and when I try to mellow out and watch a film I can only watch it in five-minute spurts because I have to pick up the guitar. I’m a moody fucker and I’m not comfortable in my skin, so if I don’t work and get a new song done, I feel like I ain’t worth shit. I validate myself with music, and whenever I write something new it gives me purpose and an excuse to exist. So whenever I have writer’s block, I’m always hell to be around.
Did being sober change the way you approached the music for Screamworks?
I think so. I was coming out of a very dark spot and trying to learn to live again, but without alcohol, which is really difficult because suddenly you’re not numb and you feel everything. You’re like a raw, open nerve. I saw a bit of a glimpse of hope of a better tomorrow and tried to write about that. The whole vibe of the album is fairly tragic in a positive sense. It’s about me understanding that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but not being quite sure whether it’s an oncoming train or not.
How did your drinking get so out of control?
I tend to be a rather excessive person, so I just wanted to see how far I could go, and how methodical I could be in my insanity to try to reach new levels of feeling like shit. I had the stress of working on an album and I had a relationship that was falling apart at the same time 5,000 miles away, so I self-medicated to the point where my only sustenance was alcohol. I had to wake up in the middle of the night and drink a six-pack of Pabst or Stella Artois just to be able to sleep the next two hours, and then I’d be shitting and vomiting blood and trying to work at the same time.
What made you finally decide to get help?
I was just ashamed of myself because I was doing all the things Ozzy Osbourne was probably doing—passing out at the table during important record company dinners. I just realized that music means more to me than a bottle of beer. It was a crazy time, but I think it’s very important for any self-respecting rock ‘n’ roller to be able to experience shitting blood. It’s very character-building.
Did you ever feel suicidal?
When you are in the throes of liquor, you are being suicidal. As Ozzy said [in “Suicide Solution”], “Suicide is slow with liquor.” And I think smoking as many cigarettes as I did is kind of premeditated, conscious, very stupid, slow suicide, in essence. I’ve had self-destructive thoughts as well, but that’s the classic Nietzsche thing where thoughts of suicide help you through many a sleepless night. I think everybody at some point in their lives thinks about how the world would be when they’re gone. But I’m still here, and I think, just out of spite towards life, I don’t want to go. It’s gotta be life that takes me away, not me.
In times of tragedy, isn’t it hard to make sense of life when you don’t believe in anything?
No, because for me, death is a celebration of a life hopefully well lived. I’m the guy at funerals who smiles and remembers the good things. When my grandma died and people at the funeral were weeping, I smelled the pancakes she used to make and the cigarettes she used to smoke and I heard the sound of her flip-flops on the floor.
Do you have any vices left?
Smoking. I’ve been trying to cut down for a long time, but it just doesn’t seem to work. I’m so stressed out I smoke three packs of Marlboro Lights a day, but now I only smoke one-quarter of a cigarette. A couple puffs and it’s gone, which is an incredible waste of good tobacco.
Give us one crazy story about hanging out with Bam Margera.
There are so many to mention, but they all include illegal stuff. I remember in 2002 I was seeing a lady who was based in New York. One day I flew in to see her, and when I got to the airport I called Bam, and he said they were having a big party at their house. So he rented me a limo to pick me up at this girl’s apartment in New York and drive us over to Pennsylvania. The limo pulls up and I opened my eyes and there are mini-ramps and all the skaters and everybody from Jackass just going crazy, shattering windows and mirrors and getting fucked up while Bam’s parents are shouting at everyone not to break things. It was like being in a movie. That was one of the wildest parties I’ve ever been at, and it was a good first date.
Many people who become sober find God in the process. Are you still an atheist?
As much as I’ve always been. In America there are very, very few rehabs that are not affiliated with the 12-step program, which is basically religious. It holds up to Christian values, and the steps are that you have to believe in a power higher than yourself. And you say the serenity prayer. I always said, “Ozzy, give me the serenity” to do this and that instead of “God.” But I never went to the A.A. stuff after I came out of the prison I was in. The Malibu experience was invigorating, but I still don’t feel that any part of me is willing to accept any of those scriptures that have only caused a lot of pain and suffering in so many people’s lives and 99 percent of all the wars.