LONDON (Billboard) - 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 who 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 gate-crasher. 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 creme de la creme of U.S. female pop: Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Jordin Sparks and 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 twin brother, guitarist 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.”
One suspects many in the Tokio Hotel camp have been sporting similar injuries during the past 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 Schafer, 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 as a concept that doesn’t travel. 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 regards German pop music in much the same way that 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 the European Top 100 Albums chart 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, “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.
Time that the twins might have used to contemplate this puzzle they instead devoted to 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.
Tokio Hotel’s new album, “Humanoid,” came out almost simultaneously around the world — October 2 in Germany and continental Europe, October 6 in the United States — in both German and English versions.
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. The first single is “Automatic” (or, if you prefer, “Automatisch”), a techno-rock anthem with a video featuring fast cars, robot sex and Bill looking like Bjork if she had played the Tina Turner 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 Depeche Mode-style electronica of “Human Connect to Human” are catchy enough to appeal to teens from Berlin to Boise, Idaho.
The band will be in the United States October 10-19.
In Europe, such is the devotion of the group’s rabid fan base — mainly hyperventilating teenage girls and intense emo types — that the Kaulitz brothers can no longer have a quiet drink.
“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 with his brother. “As long as I get more girls than him.”
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.
“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.
(Additional reporting by Wolfgang Spahr in Hamburg.)
Editing by SheriLinden at Reuters