Sometimes the planets align. Hallowe’en was such a night for our resident Finnophile, Catherine Morris as she sat down with Ville Valo to talk about the relationship between HIM and Satanism on the eeriest of evenings…
What most people don’t know about the Finnish love metallers, HIM is that at the heart of the band, underneath all that soppy stuff, is a deep love and appreciation for all things weird and dark. That started in singer and principal songwriter, Ville Valo’s youth and continues to permeate both the band’s aesthetic and sensibilities to this day.
With that in mind, and with it also being Halloween, I sat down with Ville before the band’s sold out show at KOKO and decided to pick his brain about Satanism, the occult, and the celebrated day itself. Here’s what he had to say on the subject. (Clue: a LOT.)
It doesn’t seem like Halloween is really a big deal in Finland. Do people celebrate it there?
“It’s not necessarily big in terms of tradition, but it’s getting bigger. It’s still very far from what they have in, say, Los Angeles, but it is getting bigger in Finland, and this year it’s on a Thursday so it’s a big weekend. There’ll probably be parties and as you know, the Finnish are big drinkers, although people from Scandinavia are ashamed about their drinking, which is odd. In Scandinavia they only seem to talk about alcoholism, not party drinking – there’s nothing in between. I don’t drink before the gigs now, because then things go wrong… It’s good to experience those Jim Morrison moments but at the end of the day that’s not why we’re here. Save the Lizard King for later.”
Throughout the band’s history, Halloween has often coincided with dates such as album releases and gigs, so does it have some significance to you as a band?
“To be honest with you, regarding gigs or releases, it just makes it easier because you don’t have to look at your calendar since you know when it is. Although obviously we also grew up listening to Type O Negative and Paradise Lost, and that was a big part of it – trying to get Halloween to come to Finland – but really, it’s just a day. I’m not such a firm believer in souls walking upon the earth this particular night. If they do, I think they’re here all the time.”
Is it true that when you abbreviated the band’s name from His Infernal Majesty to HIM, it was so that people wouldn’t associate you with Satanism?
“I think the main reason was that it was really tough for people to remember. [It’s so much cooler, though!] Back then, we also didn’t know that there was this Canadian thrash metal band from the ’80s called Infernäl Mäjesty, and this was way before the internet so we couldn’t just check who had that name. So that was probably the reason. We just started to shorten it because people couldn’t remember it. They were like, ‘His what..?’ It’s a bit stupid to start a band with such a complicated name that people won’t remember it. HIM was so very simple.”
Recently, though, some of those Satanic elements seem to be creeping back, at least into the band’s image anyway (through the use of occult symbolism, wearing of Anton LaVey t-shirts, etc.).
“When we started out, it was at the time when churches started burning in Norway and that became a problem for us. It was a lot of hassle, that whole Scandinavian Satanic Panic kind of thing, and we didn’t want to be involved. I know that they tried – the Finnish Satanists or whatever, the LaVeyan posse – they tried to make it all a bit more official at that time. I knew a lot of those people but they didn’t want others to think we had something to do with them. So we were falling in between: the really religious people thought we were Satanic somehow, and the Satanic people thought we were just playing around, so we didn’t really know where we belonged. That’s one of the reasons why we kind of toned it down a bit.”
“Also, a lot of people started using these 666s all over the place and it became a bit passé, but it’s come back around and I think it’s cool again. When Electric Wizard started doing that, people – especially from our generation, I think – had the same sense of humour, and they understood the B-horror influence and the cult stuff, more so than the religious or political force that it could be. If you want to be a part of the bloodline of rock ‘n’ roll you have to know a bit about Aleister Crowley, and if you know about him, you know a bit about everything: Anton LaVey, the occult, psychedelic, even Scientology to a certain extent.”
“I’ve read a gazillion books on Crowley. He’s an interesting character. I don’t really have an opinion on, say, Scientology. It’s all the same when it comes to money and belief – it’s like rock ‘n’ roll – or art – and commerce. They belong together, but if you make art, you don’t want to be a businessman. They go hand-in-hand but they’re their own entities. It’s the same with religion. When it becomes like, ‘Give me a buck so I can give you belief,’ that’s when it all goes south. At the end of the day we’re all just struggling with words to describe how people feel.”
Why do you think there’s been a resurgence of bands with that kind of pseudo-occult influence from the Scandinavian countries? One example that springs to mind is Ghost, from Sweden…
“And Watain, but they’re a bit harder I guess… with Ghost, it’s very tongue in cheek I think. I just think the music has changed; it’s gone back to that Mercyful Fate-type of stuff. And it’s more doomy as well. It’s not so restricted because the proper church-burning theistic Satanism was so restricted to black metal at one point, that was the only vessel for it musically, and now it’s branching out a bit. But you can’t really take it too seriously, I guess.”
Why do you think Satanism is ‘back in’, so to speak?
“I think it’s quite country-specific. In this country it seems to be very tongue-in-cheek and there’s a lot of that gallows humour, but in the States it’s more of a political statement, because the Church is so influential in some places. We’ve had to have some discussions with fans and their parents, to talk about these things… In a way it’s easier for Scandinavians because church isn’t a big part of life. For example, my mum is baptised, but she hasn’t gone to church, except for funerals and weddings, for forty years. In some ways the church does keep the community together, but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with belief. I think belief is okay if it helps you to cope with modern life.”
Symbols are a prominent part of HIM’s artwork and imagery, and on Tears On Tape you’ve got the Malachim alphabet, which appears in the video for the title track. Since then a lot of fans have had these letters tattooed, just like the Heartagram. Could the video be seen as a metaphor for the way the Heartagram has spread?
“Have they really? Cool. Well, that’s all Daniel P Carter’s fault; the Malachim was his idea. We’ve had all sorts of symbols on more or less every album. I always try to graphically create something different. The whole point with Tears On Tape was to create a confusion for the senses. That’s the whole point basically, because I adore Fields of the Nephilim and when I see their artwork I haven’t the foggiest what Carl McCoy means, but it gets your imagination to fill in the blanks and evokes feelings. That was the idea: to get that part of the brain into overdrive.”
Where do you think you would you be without the Heartagram?
“Dead, haha! Dead or in jail.”
I’d love to know what for… I’ve heard you describe Tears On Tape as a kind of homage to your favourite artists. You’ve been around for a long time, so, why now?
“Well, the title is, yeah. It’s good to remember where you came from and why you started but it wasn’t this big thing; we just started working on the music and we realised later that this stuff kept on recurring, sound-wise. As a band we do have our own identity and whatever we play sounds like HIM, so we can kind of unashamedly do, say, a Sabbath riff, which doesn’t mean a copy of one but rather everything that it represents to us. It’s an association game. One keyboard riff might remind you of an Immortal song, even if genre-wise it has nothing to do with that particular track. It’s easier now, in that we don’t have to be afraid of it so much. When you start out you think you have to be as unique as possible and it becomes a concern, but then when you grow a bit older you don’t have to worry too much because you can’t get away from the cage that you’ve built. You’re locked in, no matter what you do.”
Finally, if you were compiling a setlist and for whatever reason you didn’t have to play, for example, ‘Join Me In Death’ – would you still play it?
“What about if a set where we didn’t have to play at all? That would be lovely. [Or what about just covers?] No, like literally not at all. Like some sort of existential thing… [NB: This was meant to be a light-hearted question, but he totally ruined it with this depressing-ass answer] No, but seriously, we don’t have to play any of those songs, and the songs we don’t play aren’t ones that we hate, they just don’t work for the flow of the set. We can’t please everybody unfortunately; not even ourselves. We can only squeeze in so many. Plus I hate bands that play for like three and a half hours. God bless AC/DC but there’s a lot of beer breaks in between, for me anyway. So we try and keep it kind of short but sweet.”
Thanks for talking to us, Ville!
“Pleasure. And Happy Halloween!”