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Merging heavy metal's satanic symbol with love's shorthand icon, the heartagram ranks among modern music's most popular designs. "The symbol is better known than the actual music of our band," says H.I.M. singer Ville Valo, who invented the emblem.
Hundreds of H.I.M. fans, including MTV stunt dude Bam Margera and members of the groups Killswitch Engage and Bleeding Through, sport heartagram tattoos. Getting band-related imagery inked onto one's skin is perhaps the most profound compliment one can pay a musician. It represents not only an appreciation of existing work but also confidence that the performer will never undergo an embarrassing career transformation. Valo appreciates the gesture, though he stresses it isn't mandatory.
"I'm not saying that you have to have one to be a true fan," he says. "I don't want to see that in print, because then I'd get loads of angry calls from parents. The best compliment is just seeing so many people at the gigs, smiling, clapping their hands and at least pretending that they enjoy it."
H.I.M. has encountered universally approving audiences during its current American tour in support of 2005's Dark Light, its first album to be shipped simultaneously to the U.S. and Europe. The Finnish quintet's previous discs arrived here months after their initial release, if at all. But H.I.M. isn't limiting its set list to recent material. The group is an underground phenomenon (H.I.M. graced the cover of Revolver magazine, which focuses on cult bands, last year), meaning connoisseurs crave its obscurities. The crowd chants along with selections from H.I.M.'s out-of-print 1996 EP 666 Ways to Love ($275 on eBay) just as loudly as it embraces the MTV-approved single "Rip Out the Wings of a Butterfly."
"I'm positively surprised about how big a cult band we are," Valo says. "People are calling radio stations, wanting us to get more airplay. They're like our family, wishing all the best for us."
Valo derives equal amusement from the humorless black-metal purists back home who expend astonishing amounts of energy expressing their displeasure with H.I.M.
"In Scandinavia, a legion of black-metal fans with that fucking penguin makeup on their faces were in the front row, spitting on us, but they still bought the tickets," he says. "How stupid can they be? If you hate a band, why would you spend $20 to buy a ticket and travel to a show just to spit on them? I was laughing my ass off."
While most music fans endure a snobby phase, usually in their teens, Valo eagerly devoured all forms of music when he was a kid. He picked up the bass at age seven and ended up playing in seven bands, ranging from jazz to reggae to grindcore.
"I wanted to suck in all the information I could musically and pick up the best pieces," he says. "I've always been a big fan of Neil Young and Elvis Presley and Duran Duran and fucking W.A.S.P., and when we started out, we wanted to incorporate all that stuff. We didn't want to restrict ourselves."
Valo's androgynous appearance (thick cosmetics accenting his effeminate features) and frequent shirtlessness (revealing his own heartagram tattoo above his pelvic bone) enhance the unmistakable sexual energy of H.I.M.'s stage show. Several Dark Light tracks combine warm synthesizer melodies and slow-clicking percussion, making them candlelight mood music for stylish goth seductions. These elements differentiate H.I.M. from many heavy-music outfits that operate as if love and lust don't exist.
"Rock is not just about masturbation or doing drugs or driving fast cars or caressing silicone boobies," Valo says. "It can be something with a bit more substance."
Like Type O Negative, which Valo cites as a major influence, H.I.M. supplements its substance with a smirk. For example, the indelicate phrasing of song titles like "Killing Loneliness" is no accident. Plenty of the group's melodramatic followers take lines like "killing ourselves a kiss at a time" at face value, missing the mascara-caked wink. But Valo welcomes a wide range of lyrical interpretations.
"As a musician, you can't take yourself too seriously, shaking your hips and wearing stupid clothing and a bit of makeup every night and singing 'Join Me in Death,'" he says. "You've got to be able to laugh, but we're taking the music seriously."
On Dark Light, H.I.M.'s sound becomes more sweeping and cinematic, with Valo's booming tenor power-lifting the band's anthemic choruses. Keyboards play a prominent role, delivering melodies that sound like Iron Maiden guitar leads.
"We wanted to have balls-to-the-wall rock at the center, but to also have some weird ethereal melancholy going on," Valo explains. "Like the Twin Peaks soundtrack meeting AC/DC."
Valo's trademark croon has developed some gruff edges, which is part of his plan.
"My excessive smoking and drinking is changing my voice," he says. "In fifteen years, I'm hoping to sound a bit more like Mark Lanegan. He and Tom Waits are my heroes. I feel it's important to hear the life you've lived through the sound of your voice. A cigarette in my hand is like a wah-wah pedal for a guitar player. It's a vocal effect."
While maintaining his three-packs-a-day Marlboro Lights habit, Valo has shifted to nonalcoholic beer for a while, in order to stay alert after being robbed in Minneapolis. ("Someone spiked my drink and took all my credit cards," he says.) Also, H.I.M. has toned down its after-gig antics considerably since its first taste of stardom in Europe.
"We were excessive bastards back in Europe, getting fucked up and clubbing every night," he recalls. "It's not nice to travel from Finland to America and be drunk and hungover onstage every night and have shitty excuses. Now, if you followed the group, it would be the most boring reality show ever. It would be just a loop: waking up, drinking Red Bull, watching TV, doing a gig."
That's not exactly the lifestyle befitting a flamboyant figure that Metal Hammer magazine anointed "the new rock star," but Valo gives little thought to expectations.
"We're not the classic metalhead's choice, but who cares?" he says. "We're enjoying what we're doing, and we're doing it with full energy and all our hearts. We are doing the music we like for ourselves first, and then we hope it's going to please some people. We're not sonic prostitutes."