Tokio Hotel Aims To Translate Euro Success To U.S.

Tokio Hotel
Oliver Gast

Sometimes, much weirder things happen at the MTV Video Music Awards than Kanye West interrupting an acceptance speech.

Take the 2008 VMAs ceremony, for example, when the A-list glamour of Hollywood's Paramount Studios red carpet was upset by the entrance of four teenage cyborgs with preposterous hair that stood atop an enormous monster truck. Emblazoned with their band name in foot-high letters, the truck was the cyborgs' not-particularly-subtle way of telling America what the rest of the planet already knew: Tokio Hotel had arrived.

So far, so Eurotrash gatecrasher. Tokio Hotel -- a curious electro-Goth-glam-emo boy band that had climbed no higher than No. 39 on the Billboard 200 -- had what seemed a token nomination in the fan-voted best new artist category. It was up against the crème de la crème of U.S. female pop: Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Jordin Sparks and -- oh, the irony -- Taylor Swift. The likelihood of Tokio Hotel winning seemed about equal to that of Satan ice skating to work the next day.

"We were at the awards watching it outside on a massive screen," recalls Martin Kierszenbaum, chairman of Tokio Hotel's U.S. label, Cherrytree Records, as well as president of A&R for pop/rock at Interscope and head of international operations for Interscope Geffen A&M. "I was half-distracted because I didn't really expect them to win -- it just seemed a little...hopeful. But they announced it and suddenly [Interscope marketing executive] Bob Johnsen just punched me as hard as he could on the arm. Boom!"

The band and most of the audience were similarly dumbstruck. Yet no one saw the need to interrupt singer Bill Kaulitz -- the one who looks like a cross between a Bratz doll and a cockatoo -- during his incredulous acceptance speech.

"To be honest, it would have been a good moment if someone had come onstage," Kaulitz reminisces a year later. "I was onstage at the VMAs and I was speechless."

"We got very drunk," says his guitarist twin brother Tom with a laugh -- he's the one who looks like a cross between Predator and a Jonas Brother. "Even though we can't drink in the U.S. until we're 21."

The next day, they weren't the only ones suffering.

"Man, I had a charley horse from that night," Kierszenbaum says with a laugh. "But I'll take a charley horse any day if it means winning an award."

SPEAKING THE MOTHER TONGUE

One suspects many in the Tokio Hotel camp have been sporting similar injuries in the last four years. The band acknowledges the VMA win as "the biggest thing in our entire career," but in truth it was just another moment in a career trajectory that has defied conventional wisdom, international boundaries and, at times, logic.

Formed in the East German town of Magdeburg, the band -- which also features bassist Georg Listing and drummer Gustav Schäfer, the two who look like they've come to fix the Kaulitz brothers' car and computer, respectively -- began playing under the name Devilish in 2001.

A deal with Sony BMG followed. But Tokio Hotel was dropped in 2005 when the members were just 15 -- a decision that, in pure commercial terms, is starting to compare to Decca's rejection of the Beatles. Undeterred, the twins signed with Universal Music Germany and quickly became a hot property with their 2005 German-language debut, "Schrei."

And there, frankly, the story should stop. German-language pop music is right up there with English cuisine and American diplomacy as concepts that shouldn't travel and usually don't. At all. Not since Nena's 1983-84 hit "99 Luftballons" -- cited by Bill as a formative influence -- had songs with umlauts made it beyond the Maginot Line.

Yet "Schrei" didn't just reach No. 1 in Germany and Austria and top three in Switzerland. It hit the top 10 in Greece, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland and, almost unprecedentedly, No. 12 in France -- a country that traditionally regards German pop music in much the same way it looked at George Bush -- while peaking on Billboard's European Top 100 Albums chart at No. 5.

The follow-up, 2007's "Zimmer 483," did even better, peaking on European Top 100 Albums at No. 4. It hit No. 1 in Germany and No. 2 in France; went top 10 in Austria, Switzerland, Greece, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland; and charted everywhere from Finland to Italy. The band even performed in Tel Aviv -- a rarity for German-speaking artists -- after Israeli fans launched a petition demanding a concert.

"It was strange," Tom says with a shrug of such cross-border success, "but cool. Our fans started to learn German so they could sing along."

At the same time, however, executives and band members alike were at something of a loss to explain the group's appeal. Bill cites the band's formidable online presence as a factor, while executives cite Bill's exotic look as crucial in attracting media attention and a vocal female fan base.

Any time that might have been used to contemplate this puzzle the twins spent learning English in a bid to conquer the countries that hadn't yet embraced the group's cyber-Goth persona.

In 2007, Tokio Hotel released its first English-language album, "Scream," featuring songs from the first two German albums sung in English. It has sold 175,000 U.S. copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, spending 21 weeks on the Billboard 200. It was also a hit across Europe, bringing the band's first top 10 success in Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and Flanders. The French sent it to No. 6. They'll be eating English cheese next.

Tokio Hotel's new album, "Humanoid," came out almost simultaneously around the world -- Oct. 2 in Germany and continental Europe, Oct. 6 in the United States -- in both German and English versions.

"It's necessary we stick to the German-language origins in some markets," says Cornelius Ballin, the Berlin-based director of international exploitation at Universal Music Germany. "But English is the international language of music and the band wants to be heard in that language as well. Each territory will focus on one version but as they have fans who want to get their hands on everything, [most countries] will put both out."

In the United States, a Best Buy-exclusive version of the album will feature the German album alongside the English one in a two-CD package. This time the band recorded two versions of every song at once.

"It's not a one-to-one translation this time," Tom says. "The songs are around the same topic but we had to view them as different things really.

"We're working twice as hard as any other band," Bill says with a laugh. "I feel comfortable with the English versions this time. I'm a perfectionist, so the first English record was very hard for me. I don't want to sound like a German guy trying to sing in English."

"Humanoid," which is more electronic than previous albums, is heavy on the science fiction (think "Terminator" or "District 9"). The first single is "Automatic" (or, if you prefer, "Automatisch"), a brilliantly ludicrous techno-rock anthem with a video featuring fast cars, robot sex and Bill looking like Björk if she had played the role in "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome." The rest of the album is almost equally over the top, and the fist-punching rock of "Noise" and the Tina TurnerDepeche Mode-style electronica of "Human Connect to Human" are catchy enough to appeal to teens from Berlin to Boise, Idaho.

For the album release, Universal has partnered with Media Markt, a Pan-European consumer electronics and entertainment retailer. The chain will give an item of band merchandise to consumers who preorder the album at stores in Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and Belgium. It will also set up displays dedicated to the act, and 13 outlets across the seven territories will present 3-D broadcasts of the band performing tracks from the new album. The band will play a live showcase at the opening of Media Markt's new flagship store in the Paris suburbs at the end of October.

"We need [entertainment] specialists in the market in Europe because that's the way we break acts," says Romain Delnaud, the London-based director of operations for commercial affairs at Universal Music Group International. "Media Markt have an international presence that allows us to coordinate the campaign across the markets."

The deal could help Media Markt as well. "Tokio Hotel is a good fit for us," says Wolfgang Kirsch, chief procurement officer of Media-Saturn Group. "Both of us started our career in Germany and expanded into other countries very successfully. The combination of music, innovative technique and a live experience is a perfect fusion."

The band members might also want to look at alternative uses for the 3-D technology if it can help them be in more than one place at the same time. Such is the devotion of the group's rabid fan base -- either hyperventilating teenage girls or more intense emo types, depending on the territory -- that the Kaulitz brothers can no longer have a quiet drink anywhere in Europe.

"It's not a job for me," Bill says with a shrug. "It's my life. Tokio Hotel is [an extension of] my personality and the whole look comes from that."

"It's totally cool that he gets all the attention," jokes Tom, who bickers -- good-naturedly rather than violently -- with his brother. "As long as I get more girls than him."

WORLDWIDE SUCCESS COULD BE 'AUTOMATIC'

Tokio Hotel's global sales are now at 3.5 million copies, plus 1 million DVDs, according to Universal. The international scope of the band's marketing campaign is obvious, and the act's official Web site is available in 11 languages. "Automatic" is a worldwide MTV video priority. The band will appear at the network's European Music Awards Nov. 5 in Berlin and headline MTV Day 09 -- broadcast worldwide as an MTV World Stage presentation -- Oct. 9 in Athens. Regular European tour dates will follow early next year.

The band will be in the United States Oct. 10-19, and Kierszenbaum expects to confirm appearances on major TV shows. (One already confirmed is MTV's "It's On With Alexa Chung.") With early media support from Rolling Stone, Seventeen and the New York Times, he intends to delay a major radio push to top 40 formats until "we've got real traction in the marketplace."

"The sky's the limit," Kierszenbaum says. "The band has turned in a great record, we did a lot of groundwork last time, and people are opening up to new kinds of music. Bill's an absolute worldwide superstar -- it's just a matter of time and we're going to make sure it happens."

Universal Music Germany's Ballin says South American markets are also a priority this time around, and an initial push in Asia is planned for next year. Even the United Kingdom, which now stands alone in declining to embrace the band, will receive the full Tokio Hotel treatment in 2010.

"Success is like a drug," Bill says. "We want to be successful everywhere. But if not, at least we can go on vacation to London."

Best not to book that holiday just yet, though. If anyone can make the Brits love German pop music, it's Tokio Hotel. Nothing -- not even Kanye West -- can stop them now.

Additional reporting by Wolfgang Spahr in Hamburg.