Ville Valo talks ‘gothic Phil Spector’ solo album Neon Noir and life after HIM

Former HIM (His Infernal Majesty) frontman Ville Valo joins Headliner for an in-depth chat about the making of his “gothic Phil Spector” debut solo album Neon Noir, life after HIM, working in total isolation, and why now is the right time to strike out on his own…

You can listen to this interview here, or read on below.

Donning a jet-black hoodie and with a twilight blue curtain as his background, Ville Valo cuts something of a spectral figure when he enters Headliner’s Zoom meeting room. A pale, disembodied face seemingly floating in the middle of the screen, it could almost be the result of a Ville Valo filter effect, such is the chilly, gothic aesthetic.

Thankfully, the proverbial ice is broken almost immediately, the former HIM frontman almost surprisingly warm, chatty, and frequently funny in conversation. It’s a persona that sits slightly at odds with his well-earned status as one of the most enduring goth rock icons of the past quarter of a century. With HIM, Valo notched up eight albums, a Grammy nomination, much critical acclaim and in excess of 10 million record sales. Along the way he became one of the most venerated figures in rock and attracted one of the most devoted fan bases in music.

Today, he is joining us from his home studio in Helsinki, where he recently completed work on his debut solo album Neon Noir. Six years on from the cessation of HIM, it is a solo record in every respect. Each and every track was written, recorded, engineered, and produced by Valo himself, a result of lockdown restrictions and a long-held ambition to test himself further in the studio.

“It feels like losing my virginity with the release of my first solo album,” he grins. “By some miracle I’ve been able to pull this one off. It feels unreal, having worked all by myself since the pandemic. I was painted into a corner because of the pandemic, but I’m also a fan of Prince, Andrew Eldridge, and those dictators [laughs] that create very singular visions of what they want to hear, and I always wanted to do the same, so here we are.”

The fact that he was working alone wasn’t the only distinguishing feature on Neon Noir. Having spent over 20 years following essentially the same creative mechanics, Valo was determined to completely reinvent his approach to writing and accumulating material.

“Having a band that rehearses 15 songs for four months, then hits the studio, records, gets it mixed and puts it out… I’ve done that so many times and wanted to challenge myself,” he says. “Also, on this album I finished one song at a time. I’d do one song from scratch, including mixing it, and only then would I move on to the next one. I didn’t have any other ideas or melodies prepared; it was just one song at a time. I also had a weird setup – everything was set up in a circular fashion, so if I wanted to re-track drums at whatever point I had everything ready to go at all times. That’s what I loved about working on this album, it was so free.”

While there was a degree of learning on the fly while making Neon Noir, Valo explains that he had a clear idea of the sonic identity he wanted to convey.

“I wanted it to be a gothic Phil Spector record in stereo,” he states. “I wanted a massive, pompous wall of sound, but as a rock record. Phil Spector used to do lots of doubling of bass and drums, so it becomes this big wash. That’s something I’ve always loved but I want to bring a bit more Black Sabbath into proceedings. I was able to spend a lot of time on those details.

“Regarding engineering, because I was working by myself and on nobody’s clock, I didn’t have to compromise my time and it enabled me to follow the sound. I was writing and producing and recording at the same time, so if a sound tickled me in the right spots, I was following that sound until the very end to see where that sound and, in the end, that song would take me. That was such a creatively new experience because usually in bands they are separate processes – writing, rehearsing, tracking. This time it all happened at once and I have never gotten so many goosebumps working on music ever. And being an elderly chap, it was about time,” he laughs.

I wanted a massive, pompous wall of sound, but as a rock record. Ville Valo

With only a limited amount of engineering experience to his name, Valo found himself drawing from the engineers he has worked with in the past to navigate his way through the process.

“I’d tracked vocals before and done some lo-fi demos, but that’s the challenge,” he says. “Tracking drums is hard, it’s very complicated. You need a good space and a good set of drums, there are so many moving parts. It took about four months to get a decent drum sound, but I had all the time in the world. I’ve seen some legendary engineers in action at close quarters, so I have been amassing and absorbing information over the years. This was the time to put that into use. And the sound of the album is very unique. It’s very me because I was involved in every aspect of it, for better or worse. I’m the one to blame,” he smiles, “and I’ll gladly take the hit in both possible ways.”

A staple of Valo’s studio setup, centred around an API 32-track console and a raft of analogue synths and ‘70s and ‘80s outboard gear, is his Genelec monitoring system. A fellow iconic Finnish brand, he and esteemed producer and mix engineer Tim Palmer (David Bowie, Tears For Fears, Robert Plant, Ozzy Osbourne), who mixed Neon Noir, came to rely on an identical Genelec setup in their respective studios.

“I had other monitors for a while just for testing purposes, but with Genelec I have the best translation,” he elaborates. “I know Genelecs very well, and Tim Palmer who mixed the album has always been using Genelecs - I think he’s had 1031s for 30-40 years. I contacted Genelec here to see if they would be interested in helping us out, so we had an identical setup with sub and speakers. And they have the GLM calibration software, which is great and made things really easy. It was about trying to be as realistic as possible with certain aspects of the recording process so that I could be as unrealistic and wild and psychedelic with others.

“I used to have 1032s and I used them quite a bit,” he continues. “I’m now checking out bigger Genelecs like the 8351s, as now the album is over, I can mess about a bit more in the studio; there were certain things I didn’t want to change as the process was ongoing. And being a Finnish company, I don’t need to worry if anything breaks down. I’ve never had anything breakdown, but it’s easy to ship to them if I needed to, and they repair and service all the older stuff as well. They have been super supportive.”

I had other monitors for a while, but with Genelec I have the best translation. Ville Valo

Last year, Valo’s relationship with Genelec expanded beyond the studio walls when he was asked to come up with a visual design for a set of 8341, perhaps better known as The Ones, which would be auctioned for the Federation of Mother and Child Homes and Shelters (ETKL) charity. Previous initiatives would typically see an artist simply sign a pair of speakers, but in this instance, Valo wanted to offer something a little more unique.

“I thought, why not make it a bit more special,” he recalls. “I had the idea that if they give me the raw chassis without the speakers in, I could try to paint something on them. We have always been calling The Ones the Cyclops in Finland because of the one eye, so I thought it made perfect sense to make it look like an eye, kind of weird and spooky. There is a song on the album called Vertigo Eyes that is based on the Vertigo logo of Black Sabbath. They used to be on the Vertigo record label, and when you put that record on [the spinning logo] is really psychedelic and makes your head spin, so it’s sort of my tribute to that. It took me weeks because I’m not a good painter but I’m very enthusiastic. That’s the cool thing about Genelec, they were willing to go that far and let me do something crazy and hopefully not ruin their perfect product!”

For now, Valo’s focus is squarely on touring Neon Noir and seeing how his new material translates from the studio to the stage. He’s unsure as to what form any future projects will take, but the one thing he is certain of is that there is more music to make.

“There are a million different ideas I could look at,” he closes, “provided the muse is willing and giving. Maybe I could look at being more spacious instead of going for the wall of sound? I just have to follow the song and see where it takes me.”