In 2013, the Finnish band - which is led by singer Ville Valo - issued their eighth studio album, Tears on Tape. Valo told us about the songwriting behind the new disc, his love of Type O Negative, his friendship with Bam Margera, and the stories behind some of HIM's classic tunes.
Ville Valo: When there's a moment in time that I can't get my emotions out by a regular discussion at the pub with friends, is when I pick up a guitar. It's been a method of self-expression since I was a kid. It seems that after an album's done and before you start touring, your hard drive - the brain - is still filled with those tracks. But after the tour is done you seem to defragment it naturally. And that's usually the time to start working on new stuff.
It's not as if I would wake up in the morning and decide, "I'm going to write a new song." It's more about something's missing in your life if you don't write one. So that's the way it's been since I was a kid.
I usually start songs best from strumming the acoustic guitar or playing around with the piano a bit. And then once I have the skeletal structure of the song, the melodies and the basic structure, then I take the ideas to the rehearsal place for the guys to judge, seeing how they like it. That's when we turn up the volume and put on all the distortion pedals and go with the flow and see where the song takes us.
Sometimes there are songs that don't work at all, and we just throw them away for the time being. When there's the next album, that's when we try out some old ideas and start building from that.
We've been together for a long time. So it seems to be more or less the same process every time. Then when it comes to production and working on the actual album, it's a big deal where we're going to record it and who's going to be the producer. It depends on what the songs dictate, whether we want the album to be a bit more hard-hitting or a bit more melodic and moody, or something in between. I always say, "let the song lead the way."
Songfacts: Songwriters often say that some of their best songs come easy, but they have others that are hard work and sometimes take a while. Can you give some examples of songs that were easy to write and some that weren't?
Ville: No song is easy. You have to go through something at least subliminally to make it work. On our previous album Screamworks, there was a song called "Disarm Me (With Your Loneliness)." I started working on that back in 2001 and recorded it in 2009. Eight and a half years to get it working. It's a simple song, but that's the problem with the simple songs. It might be that the infrastructure of the song sounds fine and it sounds beautiful and it will play on acoustic guitar, but then when you try to arrange it to be played by the whole band, then it loses something. It's especially true in our case, because we're balancing on the razor's edge between the more sentimental and melodic stuff versus the really hard hitting stuff, so we have to get that balance right.
I think the most important thing I've learned along the way is that you can't force a song. We tried that in the past when there's a chorus I really like but nothing else seems to be working, and then we go into the studio and try to force it. In that case it doesn't necessarily work.
There was a song back in the day called "Join Me in Death," which we recorded on an album called Razorblade Romance back in 1999. It was one of the biggest hits we've had so far in Europe; it was #1 in a lot of countries and a big crossover. The actual writing of the song took like 15 minutes, but then arranging it took two and a half years.
That was a time when there were no iPhones, so nobody was bootlegging gigs all the time. We were actually able to play that song 100 times live to see what the right things and the wrong things with the arrangement were, and that the tempo and the key for the song is correct, just by following how people's hips were moving to the song. It's like being a songwriter in a very Las Vegas style. You just have to trust your instincts and that gut feeling.
On the latest album, the last song is called "When Love Starts to Die." I hummed the basic riff while on my way to the rehearsal place, so that took about one day to finish up the entire thing, more or less. And by a day I mean like five hours. Then there's the song "Tears on Tape" and another song called "Drawn and Quartered," on which I worked for about two and a half years. I just wasn't happy. It's also about how it feels to me. When you pick up a guitar and start strumming and humming along to the song, you'll notice if there's something wrong. It's like cooking: you have to figure out when you're adding too much salt and when there's not enough.
Songfacts: Is there a particular instrument that you write your songs on?
Ville: Well, it depends what we do. I don't have a big rehearsal studio or a big studio at home, so I rarely play drums or play guitars full blast. I tend to be a copycat of Neil Young: I still believe in the fact that if a song works on acoustic guitar and a voice, then it does have possibilities. I like to start from there and that's the emotional journey. Then after that it's more trying to get the Iggy Pop on, going to rehearsal first and turning up the amps. Then I play the guitar, as well, and when everybody in the band feels like they want to bang their heads more than ever, then we have something right going on.
But it is an odd combination, what we're trying to do. Tears on Tape has a lot of pretty good moments within a three and a half minute song that also has really sludgy and doomy and kind of dirgy moments. So getting that balanced right without either of those extremes losing what they're there for, that was a tough task.
Songfacts: Let's talk about memories of writing specific HIM songs. Let's start with the title track from Tears on Tape.
Anyway, I wanted a big, anthemic '80s type of thing. I had that melody and I was playing around with that for about eight months. Then since we started working on new stuff with HIM, I thought, "Let's try it out. It's a bit different than the rest of the songs."
Lyrically it's my tribute to the music I grew up listening to. It mentions church bells tolling and thunder roaring, and that's a dedication to the first Black Sabbath album and so forth. There are two or three different stories going on at the same time. In one, it describes music verbally, and my favorite songs. And on another level it's a bit more of an emotional journey and relationship-related little ditty.
Songfacts: What about the song "Wings of a Butterfly"?
Ville: That was a while ago. I guess we just wanted to copy the main vibe of The Cult and The Mission. We had the idea for the song, and then it sounded really mediocre. We played the idea to Tim Palmer, the producer. We were recording in Silverlake in Los Angeles, and we rented this beautiful old mansion called Paramour. The song really happened because we just changed a couple of the little doodles on the guitar and figured out the entire arrangement.
That was one of the songs that we thought sounded okay, but was nothing spectacular until we got it really together at the studio. So on occasion stuff like that can happen, too. That makes music interesting, at least for me. Because it's not exactly the same journey each and every time.
Songfacts: What about the song "The Funeral of Hearts"?
As a band, especially a rock band, when you think in terms of albums more than songs, you tend to put all your effort into the X amount of songs. Once all that stuff is out of your system - meaning recorded and produced - then all of a sudden you feel a breath of fresh air, this sense of relief. And that time is really, really good for getting new stuff done. We've had that in the past with a few songs. We have a song called "Gone With the Sin" on Razorblade Romance that happened exactly the same way.
So these days when we're booking studio time, I like to leave an extra week at the very end in case we have some ridiculously good idea that we still want to try out.
I kept on hearing it at rock clubs, and it took me a long time - because I was broke at the time - to actually buy the CD. That was way before the time of the Internet. They're still one of my all time favorite bands. I think that Bloody Kisses would probably be the desert island disc for me. I had the opportunity of meeting the lads back in the day, and that made the whole thing even stronger. I think that was a great band. And rest in peace, Peter Steele.
Songfacts: As far as modern day rock and metal, who are some bands that you think are good songwriters and also writing good music at this moment?
Ville: To be honest with you, I haven't been listening to a lot of music. When we're working on new stuff, there's too much music happening every day in the studio, and it's too noisy. I prefer just silence. Oddly enough, I'm like a fanboy, so I tend to fall in love with a band once every five years. Then I want to get all the albums by that particular band and that's it. I don't listen to a lot of "one-track wonders," so to speak. I can't remember the last time I would have listened to new music. I always listen to a lot of '70s stuff. I've got my vinyl player back together.
I love Chris Whitley, the guy who did really different kinds of albums, like folk-y stuff and bluesy stuff and electronic stuff. Great resonating guitar player and a great voice. He passed away in 2005.
I tend to listen to a lot of different kinds of music as opposed to just rock. I was just going through my CDs, since I'm going on a retro trip, digging old Sisters of Mercy and stuff like that as opposed to really listening to anything super new. There's a band called Lonely the Brave from the UK, and they're sounding pretty good. I think they still haven't released their first album, but some people will grab their first song or first single or something. So maybe you should check that one out.
Songfacts: Regarding the term "Love Metal," did that come before titling the album, or was that a description that was used prior to that album title?
Ville: I think it happened a bit before. It seemed in Europe they had a tough time categorizing what we were doing. Some people called us a goth band or straight rock or a metal band, and we thought that we had so many different spices, you couldn't just call it one thing. I've always been a fan of the black metal genre, and as you know, there are so many sub genres in black metal and metal in general, so I just thought that is was very un-metal to call your stuff "Love Metal." It was at the same time testing the limits of the humor of the people within the genre of metal.
Ville: Memories, thank God I've blacked out most of them! I met Bam Margera in 2001. We became really, really good friends. He was traveling around Europe doing his skate demos and stuff, and he didn't have a lot of friends in Scandinavia. So whenever he came to Helsinki, I was always showing him around, and we went out, getting messed up and just enjoying the scenery.
Then things were going really well for him so he wanted to start helping us out by wearing our T-shirts everywhere possible. At the same time he wanted to start directing videos for us, so we worked very closely together for many, many years. Now I haven't been in touch with him in a while. I think we saw each other in the last American tour back in 2010. But hopefully we're meeting up again. He's playing with this odd project in two weeks in Finland, so hopefully it's going to be fun and there will be time to hang out and exchange pleasantries.
August 29, 2013
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