by Christian Anwander
After years in exile, Tokio Hotel are on tour again
and the culture establishment is crying. No more hypocrisy now.
A gentle bow to Germany’s most successful band.
Bill and Tom Kaulitz are like a red rag to style conscious Berliners who like to scroll design blogs in the afternoons and as of late fancy drinking filter coffee. Tokio Hotel, that’s a no-go of course. That’s uncool, provincial. Which is complete nonsense in our editorial team’s opinion.
You don’t immediately have to compare this band to the Beatles like “Der Spiegel”, to acknowledge how remarkable and rapid their rise from the German suburb to an international super act was. Their style is indeed still special nowadays, but definitely distinct, not the result of a marketing strategy. And at least this reporter has seldom if ever sat with two such pleasant and reflective 25-year-olds in an overpriced hotel room and talked about music and life. The topic of the Kaulitz-brothers, who live in LA by now, is a classic one in pop music: to work oneself up from the periphery to the big city, to be free there. There’s still power in that narrative, even if it may seem worn out. It’s reflected in the title of the new Tokio Hotel album “Kings of Suburbia”, which was produced by themselves with an effort in almost six years, it shows in their humility towards fame.
On one of the first days of autumn, Universal invites to an interview in the “Ritz Carlton” hotel in Berlin. In front of the hotel there’s a group of rubberneckers who are penetrantly and enviously scrutinizing everyone who is let into the foyer of the new-rich furnished hotel. Through windowless corridors I’m led into the press-suite. Bill and Tom Kaulitz are casually sitting at the window, with a view on concrete, the atmosphere is relaxed. A conversation about growing up in the suburb, freedom and life in a metropolis.
To the question of a journalist, if you ever had a normal youth, you responded with “Yes of course, we had that!” It’s hard to believe that.
BK: We only noticed that this wasn’t the case in the process of our career. When we were 15 our first single „Durch den Monsun“ was released and was, unlike we all expected, really successful. We didn’t have a plan back then, we got famous over the summer holidays all of a sudden. We only reacted.
TK: At the beginning it was great. Then when you get older, you notice that there’s no life outside of that bubble anymore. Yesterday we wanted to go to the hotel bar and only seconds after that 1000 people were standing at the window. The guy at the bar shut the curtains, and then we sat alone in the corner again, like in a zoo. That way you don’t get anything of life anymore of course.
A lot of celebrities often notice that too late and then wake up as alkies at the end of 40 in one of those hotel bars.
BK: That’s right, of course there are colleagues who just take this and don’t aim at something else anymore. Also for us our team became family and our closest circle of friends.
TK: That’s the comfort zone. As an outsider you may ask yourself „What are they even complaining about?“ But our goal is to make music for the rest of our lives. And you can only do that healthily if you can find a balance. Maybe a bit like Rammstein. Half of the band has a normal family life in New York, they are family daddys. And when they go on tour, they’re the hard rockers then.
Back then, when you became famous during the summer, your look has become, not quite mainstream, but presentable. Was that a problem?
BK: Of course I provoked with my look as a young man, I even went to school like that and always had confrontations with other students and teachers. Subtly I maybe even intended to provoke to set a statement. This feeling of freedom and self-determination are the most important things for me in life. I won’t let anyone tell me that men are not allowed to wear high heels, nail polish or mascara. But coming back to your question: Today I read about our “Wetten, dass…” performance: “The woman without boobs in a string vest.” I was meant with that. Of course I don’t care about that. But obviously my look is still provoking.
Tom, there’s this beautiful, personal moment in the making-of your song “Run, Run, Run”, where Bill puts make up on your face. You also always dressed yourself uncommonly, but Bill was still more eccentric.
Has that ever been a topic between you?
TK: Not really. It developed quite early with us. We’ve always looked different – already at the age of 13 or 14.
BK: …sometimes there were problems. Back then Tom was…
TK: …your opposite extreme. I was a punk and quite rebellious, ran around with Che-Guevara-shirts and dreadlocks…
BK: …he was in his punk- and I was in my raver-neoprene-phase.
TK: It was also like that on stage. Bill in neoprene, me in Che Guevara shirt. And everyone thought: “Tell me, what kind of band is that!” And people still think that today.
Dressing that eccentrically in a suburb surely wasn’t easy…
TK: First we moved from Hannover to Magdeburg and were put to school there. Already in primary school we dressed differently. Magdeburg is a city in which people don’t necessarily have a distinct sense for style, but we still got through. When our parents moved to a village with us then, it became, at least in the beginning, really hard-core.
BK: It was too crazy. Today I often look back on these times. As a young person and teenager you don’t think about it a lot, you have a greater self-confidence. In hindsight I can be glad that I didn’t constantly get my face smashed in.
TK: Often the situation was on the brink.
You experienced violence?
TK: Definitely, our stepdad sometimes had to…
BK: …pick us up with the dog and a baseball bat. And every morning in the bus, people looked at us like we were aliens. I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. That was definitely clear. That was the incitement behind all the things we did. We wanted to go to the big city. Preferably Berlin.
That’s almost classical. Like Lou Reed and John Cale sang “There’s only one good thing about a small town, you know that you wanna get out”.
TK: Absolutely. There was no bigger wish for us. That’s why we performed every weekend as a band, we wanted to make our name famous, so that one day we would be able to live off our music.
How can one imagine the role allocation between you?
BK: Concerning the band, it’s Tom now who cares about everything that has to do with the music. If it’s the production in our own studio in LA or the live performances. I rather care about the visual things, look which interviews we want to make and with whom which video or photoshoot.
TK: In our private life I’d say that I’m the responsible-minded one and Bill is the gut-feeling-person. I always have to drive Bill around.
BK: Our great-grandfather always took Tom aside and said “Tom, don’t let Bill drive the car”.
Both: “…and always take care of the money!”
TK: He became 104 years old and said that until the end. Actually he’s a bit right.
You wouldn’t get along alone?
TK: No, we compensate each other.
BK: But you have to say that Tom is even more dependent than me.
TK: I think Bill talks himself into believing that.
BK: No, that’s true! Even all our friends say that.
TK: They only say that because they find it funny.
BK: It’s really quite cute. He doesn’t do anything without me. I can fly alone to New York for a few days, but when I’m landing, I already have 20 messages from Tom: “And? Did you have a good flight? Send me some pictures, will you? Next time I come with you.”
TK: Of course, because I’m worrying. He’s interpreting it now as if I couldn’t get along on my own without him. But for me it’s rather a big-brother-syndrome.
BK (laughs): Such a bullshit!
TK: I always had to protect him when someone wanted to beat him up.
BK: Oh, such a bullshit!
TK: You could finally admit it!
You have always cared about your own management, furthermore you have built up a studio in LA. It may be a kind of freedom, but it also is a big burden.
BK: Totally. But Tom and me, we’ve always had a big mouth. At Universal we already sat in the record company meetings with the age of 13. With 15 we basically ran a big company. You have lawyers, tax consultants, managers, they all stand on your payroll, so you have responsibility. Of course this can be insanely exhausting. But if it’s going wrong, at least I know who’s fault it is.
After years of touring you moved to Los Angeles some time ago. Please describe your first impressions there.
BK: The first times in LA we really thought: „Amazing, vacation!“ But for me it’s rather a city where you should move when you’re over with work, when you only want to relax in your life anymore.
TK: In LA it is like that. You go out, meet friends and friends of friends and all come and first tell you their success story. There’s no city that’s as much “success-driven” as LA. Namedropping without end.
BK: You meet up and first compare twitter-followers, FaceBook-friends, Instagram-likes. We always sat there and just thought that hopefully nobody would approach us now.
How did the city visually influence you?
TK: In public I always claim that the city hasn’t influenced us at all. But of course you wake up differently there. Every day the sun is shining. Every day blue sky and palm trees.
BK: But LA is not a fashion city. That’s totally bothering me. Everyone’s running around in flip-flops, shorts and tank tops. You have to take care to not look too much like LA after a while. New York is much more inspiring in this matter.
In Germany people who are interested in fashion are still generally seen as stupid or superficial.
BK: But fashion is super important. For me it goes hand in hand with music. Fashion does something to you. To create a look always gets me in a special mood. But it should never be dressed up. Because of that we don’t dress Georg and Gustav with crazy clothes, that would be bloody stupid. Gustav doesn’t care two figs about fashion.
TK: And for Georg it’s most important that his shirt isn’t too long, because otherwise it’s annoying during playing the bass for him.
On your recent album you worked for almost 6 years. How has your music changed in this time?
TK: In the course of the album we dealt a lot with sound-design, synthesizers and effects. How you produce a song really awesome, which bass-drum, which snare-sound, this was extremely exciting and really brought us further. We taught ourselves almost everything since the beginning. No one of us learned playing his instrument professionally, no one plays by notes. I got the guitar with the age of 7 and I’m playing by ear and feeling. I often have the feeling that those professionals know too much. And all this knowledge can also stand in your way sometimes.
BK: That’s how music gets out of fashion very quickly. It’s similar to the attitude of German musicians at the beginnings of the ‘80s. Drummers like DAF’s Robert Görl said, of course, we were at the conservatory and now we have to forget all of that again.
TK: Yes, exactly! It becomes too technical otherwise.
BK: I had vocal coaches in between. But I always abandoned it after the first lesson. It started like that: “On stage you have to arrange yourself like a cardboard.” And then you stand there and think: “What? I’m wearing a big jacket there and run from A to B, I don’t fucking arrange myself like a…”
Also in fashion, fashion photography, you have the impression that people start to retouch less.
BK: Right. People always did more and more of that [retouching], but it needs to stop. Otherwise we’ll all become robots and everything will get artificial.
TK: People often think it’s a contradiction what we say because they say that the new album is so electronic, there’s nothing pure anymore. But it’s not easier to play a synthesizer than a guitar. And a guitar is not necessarily more natural than a synthesizer.
Is there still a pressure for you to always be number 1 in the charts?
BK: We’re more relaxed today, it’s already the fourth album.
TK: For us it’s rather the sum of chart positions that counts. Most important for me is to work with this record for a long time. It has cost us a whole lot of energy. Therefore I want to profit from it as long as possible.
– Sexy Shoots