Words by Yvonne Villasenor
Up until their disbandment in 2017, Finnish gothic rock band HIM had spellbound listeners since the ‘90s, merging dark, beautiful songwriting with metal and hard rock genres. Creating a style of their own coined as “love metal,” the band’s mesmerizing sound and frontman Ville Valo’s haunting vocals earned them a devoted fanbase.
In March 2020, Valo released his first solo EP, Gothica Fennica Vol. 1. under the moniker VV, surprising — and exciting — longtime fans that the possibility of more music was on the way.
Valo released his highly anticipated debut album, Neon Noir, last month via Heartagram Records. The 12-track album includes singles “Loveletting,” “Echolocate Your Love” and the title track. And it’s exactly what one might expect from the love metal pioneer: dark, romantic and mysterious.
But make no mistake — this isn't HIM 2.0. This is 100 percent Valo in all his gothic glory, soaking in ‘80s influence and carefully balancing the darkness and light.
Since its release, Neon Noir has debuted at number one on the Finnish albums chart and received high acclaim worldwide. Additionally, multiple dates on VV’s upcoming international tour have already sold out.
We spoke with Ville Valo, who wrote, performed, produced and engineered the album.
The Dr. Frankenstein Behind Neon Noir
HIM fans were devastated when the long-time love metal rockers announced their chapter would come to an end after a quarter of a century. But no one, not even Valo, could’ve predicted what the future would hold — nor that he would embark on a new journey as a one man band when he did.
“I worked on the album for about three years straight. Then, because of the pandemic, I wasn't really able to put together a band. Nor did I really want to,” Valo says. “I've always had the idea that I would like to try out how it would sound. Because I thought that with artists, such as Prince and maybe an Andrew Eldritch of The Sisters of Mercy, when there's one really strong-willed person doing that sort of like, racehorse with the blinders on, you get a glimpse of a very, sort of singular vision — both good and bad. But it's very undiluted, and it's very pure, and it's very that person. So, I wanted to try it out.”
Valo worked on “Run Away From the Sun” and felt it turned out great. Looking for a second opinion, he ran it by Tim Palmer, who would mix the album. Palmer also enjoyed the song, prompting the creation of Neon Noir.
“We thought, ‘Let's keep on continuing it.’ And then all of a sudden, all the lockdowns started and the possibilities of tour and everything stopped for a wee bit,” Valo says. “For me, the only thing that really kept me going and gave me some sort of focus and reason to exist, so to speak, was to work on the album.”
With his home studio serving as a laboratory to tirelessly assemble his creation, Valo says making Neon Noir kept him “more or less sane.”
“You have these projects that really take over your life that you just lose the will to live on occasion,” Valo says. “I'm really glad that I was able to kick my own butt whenever required and get this far and actually get the album in my hands, and now be rehearsing with the band and starting a tour, first in Europe and then in North America. So, it's a big deal for me personally.”
He continues, “After all, we were together with my previous band HIM for many, many moons. And, of course, I didn't have a clue if I could pull any of this off by myself. I didn't have any idea whether there'll be people interested in this sort of racket. I'm kind of shocked to be honest with you regarding all the positive, really cool and understanding constructive reviews, which is usually the best stuff. I'm almost close to ‘happy’ as a goth can be.”
He discusses what he’s learned throughout his decades of making music and how he carried that over to Neon Noir:
“I think that when you start a band at first thinking and hoping that you want to be in a band, you have these fantasies and these ideas of what it might be, but it's not based on truth. And little by little, you start learning. It’s like when you make an album and you think, ‘I gotta sing really hard. I'm going to show everybody that I can really pull this thing off.’ That sort of pretentiousness and cockiness is endearing, and it's very special and it's something you can never get back. It's important to have that down on tape. But as you grow up, the thing, which I feel is cool about Neon Noir, is the fact that it doesn't have to prove to anybody. It's very relaxed, even though it is quite hard hitting — not actually beating anybody up. It’s just the music is wanting to give the listener a really aggressive big hug, but it’s still a hug.”
When asked if the Friday the 13th release date was intentional, Valo, dressed in all black, smiles and says, “I was given the option, and I said, ‘Of course.’ I think that Jason Voorhees is a really important character to my upbringing.”
A Musical Resurrection In Trenodia
Valo’s vampiric, moody and ever-so ethereal songwriting has enchanted fans for decades. Equipped with a gushing vulnerability and unequivocal eloquence, it comes as no surprise when Valo says he didn’t hesitate capturing the emotions in life’s bittersweet moments in Neon Noir.
“I can't take the emotional bastard out of me. I am who I am. I wouldn't have it any other way. My sincerest apologies to people who can't stand it, but I think that even those can respect the fact that I do stick to my guns, and this is my world I've been creating since the ‘90s. It has its own laws of physics and its own verbiage, lexicon and themes. It’s like a theme park. I've been building one joyride at a time,” Valo says. “It’s such a multi-tentacled beast — the whole thing. It's not about a certain decision. ‘Now, I'm gonna go solo.’ And now, it happens. I was thinking about the word ‘project’ as well because I thought that it's not the right word a lot of times to use because VV is not a ‘project.’ It's me.”
For Valo, “project” doesn’t carry much weight considering some musicians balance several projects at a time. The long-time musician describes himself as being “monogamous” with his musical expression since he “can’t multitask at all.”
The process of making Neon Noir was “serious business” and “quite demanding,” Valo confesses. He says it was difficult having no one to brainstorm with or change the topic for the sake of taking a break — something that comes easy when you're constantly around bandmates.
Despite the level of solitude and dedication the album required, he admits, “To be honest with you, I enjoyed every moment of it because I do enjoy the challenge.”
“I've done what I've done, building this world as I mentioned before, for quite a long time,” Valo says. “The most stupid thing I could do is to try to form HIM number two, or do things exactly the same, or get back into a routine of writing songs in a similar fashion.”
Even with his decades of experience, the seasoned musician says he learned a lot making Neon Noir. He emphasizes the importance of the journey rather than solely the outcome, particularly because the process necessary to produce the end result is something people never get to see.
“You learn quite a bit about yourself, and you learn new things — good things and bad things — and then try to make stuff better along the way,” Valo says. “I recorded everything by myself, so there was a lot of that in this album. I’m learning. So, to me, that was really endearing not to really know how to mic up a Tom or something quite simple because, of course, I can’t know it because I’ve never done it.”
Neon Noir is Valo’s balancing act of insecurity and determination to create a record entirely on his own. Taking inspiration from his favorite artists, like Black Sabbath, The Cure and Depeche Mode, he set out to stay true to himself and “fulfill his musical perversions.”
“I think Neon Noir> sounds quite different to the sound of current day's rock music. I think that's important too because I was thinking that most of the favorite albums I have; they all sound weird, and they're not necessarily the most hifi or the most cool sounding. I think that that gives some identity. That’s the reason why when you hear
He continues, “I think it's cool to play your own game and trust your own instincts and go with the flow — and whenever needed, against the grain as well. I think we all have to have a little bit of punk in us to survive.”
Dissecting the VV Music Videos
Immediately upon viewing, it’s easy to see the music videos for singles “Loveletting,” “Echolocate Your Love” and “Neon Noir” perfectly capture the concept of “neon noir.”
Valo wanted his music videos to be abstract, nonsensical and nonlinear for the sake of storytelling and maintaining creative mystique. He worked with Finnish director Kim Koponen, who knew exactly how to depict a visual representation of Valo’s music — and in a way that was strikingly cinematic and unconventional.
The first music video, “Loveletting,” features Valo and a black sheep. When asked about it, Valo smiles and shares that it was his first music video with a sheep, as well as the first time he had met a sheep. (There were two, in fact, with the second being a “stunt sheep.”)
As a fan of practical effects, Valo was highly enthusiastic about making the video as real as possible. Valo and Koponen discussed the importance of having a real animal in the video for powerful imagery and symbolism. When brainstorming, Koponen suggested incorporating a sheep. Valo insisted it be a black sheep.
“The theme around the whole Neon Noir is about feeling a bit left on the outside and not really feeling that you belong,” Valo says. “And while doing that, realizing there's a lot of people feeling the same or similar things — but it's still your own. Your pain is your own and nobody's going to take that away from you. Those are the thematic things behind those videos and the sort of surreal, dreamlike feel to it.”
He says, “It's good to give yourself a challenge. I think it's good to go against the grain. I think is a memorable video even if you don't like the song. It's very different. And I think that that's something we truly did succeed and make a video where everyone’s like, ‘Huh?’ after they saw it. I'd rather do that and go completely wrong than do something that's very generic.”
The diabolical duo of Valo and Koponen further discussed visuals for “Echolocate Your Love” and took inspiration from Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, combining their experimental camera angles, strong colors and stunning cinematography, respectively.
Valo shares the differences in musical interpretation from both a fan and musician’s point of view:
“I know as a fan of music that when I was listening to Black Sabbath or Faith No More’s Angel Dust, for example, I had no idea then. There was no Google. I have no idea what the band meant with any of it, which is kind of great. It's like comparing a movie to a book because a book makes your imagination do a lot of the work and you build your own little characters in your colors and scenarios. With music, the cool thing is it doesn’t matter what I thought. Once the song is out there or the video is out there, it's your call what you want to do with it. It’s not mine anymore.I think that it's very important as well; there's no wrong or right way to interpret that stuff.”
Returning to the Stage Post-Pandemic and Album Release
In celebration of Neon Noir’s release, VV performed shows at Tavastia in Helsinki, Finland on Jan. 13–15. Valo says the experience was filled with “a lot of firsts” and a “roller coaster of emotions” leading up to the shows — in the best way possible.
“There were a lot of layers because that was the first rock gig I've done in six years. So, in that sense, that was a big deal,” Valo says. “The last one was with HIM, and that was on New Year's Eve 2017. The gigs we did now happened at the same place where we finished off with HIM … And then for the first time in 30 years, I was playing HIM songs with another band, so that was quite interesting. To put it mildly, It was great.”
The setlists featured a 50/50 split of VV and HIM songs, which is what fans can expect on the upcoming tour.
Valo says getting back into the groove of performing shows has been a learning process over the past few months.
“When the adrenaline kicks in and all the variables of a gig — all the lights, smoke and the audience as well — you're in a different zone,” he says. “That's something that, at least I haven't found a way to prepare for in advance, which is cool because life without getting the butterflies is no life at all.”
Considering the amount of time it’s been since Valo was on tour along with a pandemic in between, he says it seems that now is a time when people are out enjoying music and feels it’s the right thing to do now. He insists he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The whole realm of music and rock and roll and all this is very exciting, and it's great to be a part of it. It’s such a roulette … there are so many weird turns and zigzagging and stuff you really can't tell in advance,” he says. “I've been quite blessed to be able to continue this for such a long time … It's a special thing, I'm very happy for it.”
A New Chapter in Valo’s Gothic Tale
Though he has a new solo career, Valo’s essence and influences remain the same. For an ‘80s kid like Valo who grew up loving horror films and dark romantic literature, it’s the melancholic and atmospheric music, films and books that make him feel alive and keep him inspired after all these years.
“I don’t know why, there’s no rhyme or reason, but that’s how I was built and that’s what I follow. I think that the demons within need to be not only exorcized, but they also need to be exercised. They need their workout to keep the whole system in a balance,” he says. “We’ll try to find our own way, and with me, it’s a place where I feel comfortable in.”
After making music for over 30 years, Valo, 46, reflects on his journey:
“I think that all the good stuff and all the mistakes and everything, it's all part of the course. It's definitely as they say, ‘nobody's perfect’ — like in the end of Some Like It Hot, one my favorite films of all time,” Valo says. “I've gone through the wringer on various levels, and I didn't come back unscathed, but I do have some scars from the war and stories to tell, but I think I'm better for it. I'm here to make new mistakes, hopefully not repeating the old ones — that's an important distinction to make.”
The VV / Neon Noir Tour 2023 kicks off with special guest Kælan Mikla on Feb. 14 in Warsaw, Poland. before closing out the international leg on March 15th in London. Valo will then head across the pond for a run of 31-dates in the U.S. Score tickets — HERE.
Neon Noir, the latest album from Ville Valo is currently available via Heartagram Records and distributed by UMG/Spinefarm. Get the album - HERE