Tokio Hotel: Back with a Bang
The German band return with a new electro-pop identity on their hard-won magnum opus, ‘Dream Machine’
It’s easy to forget that Tokio Hotel are somewhat of a veteran band. The German pop-rock quartet’s looks belie their experience of 16 years and 10 million records sold worldwide. Currently on tour to support their fifth studio album Dream Machine, the band’s schedule is tight but they are thrilled to be back on the road.
“The tour has been great so far. It was the 22nd show today—and no major fuck-ups,” says frontman Bill Kaulitz with a smile over Skype from Warsaw, Poland. The band are in the European leg of the tour and will head to Russia the next day. “We had so much fun. I think we’ve never been happier onstage.” Bill’s twin brother and the band’s lead guitarist Tom sits beside him while bassist Georg Listing is a silent but cheerful presence nearby. Drummer Gustav Schäfer stays out of the frame save for a quick ‘Thank you!’ when we congratulate him on the birth of his daughter.
Tokio Hotel’s shows on this tour are more intimate and artistic, designed to match the band’s new retro-synth sound on Dream Machine and help them connect more with the audience. However, as the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that the excitement around the record and touring was hard won; “With Humanoid and the last period of that time, we just weren’t engaged with what we did,” Kaulitz recalls about the exhausting tour for 2009’s Humanoid album. “It was more like a job, something we had to do and we weren’t passionate about it as much.” This led to the band’s infamous five-year hiatus. Usually considered career-suicide for most, the break helped the band build the bones of their current identity. While their big comeback with 2014’s Kings of Suburbia opened the gates to change, Tokio Hotel embraced it fully only on Dream Machine. Released in March, the album brims with mature lyricism, retro-synth and echoing falsettos, all wrapped up in glimmering, crisp production. All in all, it’s a more immersive experience than anything the band has done before.
In this exclusive interview, Tokio Hotel discuss their evolution, taking control of their own music and the journey to their magnum opus.
Is this tour more relaxed than ‘Feel It All,’ the tour for 2014’s Kings of Suburbia?
Bill: I think onstage we created a set where we could enjoy ourselves and enjoy the music a little more so it feels less stressed. I feel like the show before was a little more… let’s say powerful, while this one is dreamy.
Tom: But, musically it’s a little more challenging. The show in itself got more advanced: we have more instruments onstage, we have more keyboards, more laptops… So it got more technical. But the set has a lot of long breaks, long intros and we just play music.
How do you begin translating Dream Machine’s complex instrumentation and experience to a live show?
Bill: We were thinking of extending songs, going with the flow and making it longer than it is on the record. The album sounds cinematic so we wanted to support that with heavy light shows and big images, just get lost in the music and in the synth. Some parts we cut out—it’s always a journey to create the final set list for the tour. We start off just putting down our favorite songs, the songs we definitely want to play live, and we kind of section it off and have different sections to keep it exciting. The worst thing that could happen is when you get bored. So we found a nice mixture of new songs and old songs. I feel like it’s a good blend for all Tokio Hotel fans that discovered us as a band.
What’s your take on fans who don’t like your shift from rock to a more electro-pop sound?
Bill: I think it’s understandable because it’s so tough to let go of things and I know that’s because if you like a band once, you just want them to stay the same. But as an artist, as a musician, that’s impossible. At least for us, what is most important is that we are happy with our music and we are authentic with what we do. If we would stick to the same sound we were doing when we were 12 or 13 years old, that wouldn’t be our sound—that would be a money making machine, you know? And we are not about that. For us it’s about fun, it’s about enjoying ourselves and it’s about the music we love to make. So we’d rather lose people on the way but make the stuff we really love.
I noticed you guys were much happier when you released Kings of Suburbia  and Dream Machine in comparison to when you released Humanoid .
Tom: Yeah you noticed that because with Kings of Suburbia we started to write a lot more and do a lot more. I remember when we started to work on Kings of Suburbia with our producers and we heard the first demos, the outcome wasn’t what we thought was good. It didn’t feel right and so then out of frustration, we decided to build our own studio and really go into production even more than we did before. So that was like a turning point in our life and our career.
Bill: I think it was something that had to happen at one point and we were just like, ‘Okay enough. Now we take charge of everything.’ Artistically, I think we got too comfortable in our career; we got uninterested. With Humanoid and the last period of that time, we just weren’t engaged with what we did. It was more like a job, something we had to do and we weren’t passionate about it as much. It really took that change in our lives to be engaged again and be excited about the band and say, ‘Wait a second, this is our band. We love to make music, so let’s make music again.’ We took the time to go in the studio and make music that means something to us and not only go with A-list songwriters and producers and do something that’s hollow. We had to take that control in order to keep going and be excited about the band again.
When did you start working on Dream Machine? Did you have a clear idea of where you wanted to go when you began?
Tom: No we had no idea. We decided go back to the roots. We started off in January 2016 in Berlin and it was just the four of us going to the studio and no one else. We said, ‘Let’s do music like we used to do, just the four of us.’ We were in the studio for one or two months, just listening to music, writing new music. One of the first songs we wrote for this album was “Boy Don’t Cry.” In that time we wrote five to six songs that I took home to L.A., after that and I produced it. We finished writing the album in L.A. and then we came back [to Germany] and finished the record this year in January, right before we put it out.
That’s cutting it close!
Tom: Yeah! And when we announced the tour, we weren’t even sure if we were going to put out the record before because we didn’t know if we could finish it. It was really stressful, if I have to be honest.
Bill: It was a marathon. I think from December… Putting out [the first single] “Something New” in December and shooting that video, until today, it’s been a marathon. We’ve been working non-stop. But it worked out. We are totally happy with the outcome.
Now that the record is out and you’re performing it live, how has the reaction been from fans?
Tom: It’s been great. We’ve gotten great reviews on the album—I think the best reviews we’ve ever gotten for an album.
Bill: I feel like now people are more comfortable with us and they understand what the band is [about] now. Because with Kings of Suburbia, it was kind of a shock [to fans]. I feel like, with this record, we established the sound and what we are and how our live shows are.
Tom: The fans know what to expect and this is kind of our goal too. I just want to create something, a certain sound a certain signature to the band, you know what I mean? People know, ‘Okay, I know when I buy this next record from them, without even listening to it, I know what I can expect.’ I feel like we kind of started that with Kings of Suburbia and now did it with Dream Machine. We finally found that signature and that sound and we can move forward with it.
How does it feel being back on tour together? You both are based in L.A. while Georg and Gustav are in Germany—Gustav also just became a dad. Does it get harder to leave your private life each time?
Bill: I feel like now we understand this life and we accept it so much better than we were younger. For example, right now, you live in that bubble and you don’t see or hear anything else. We are in this Tokio Hotel bubble; we don’t know what time it is, we don’t know what day it is, it’s all about the show, the fans and it’s just about the music. Anything could happen and we wouldn’t hear about it. We enjoy that bubble, but only because we know we’re going to get out of this and we all have our private lives that we are looking forward to going back to. But the entire year is just going to be a tour year and we’re looking forward to just playing the record. And we’re going to shoot two more music videos and put two more singles out… So yeah, we’re going to work this record for a while. For us it’s really about all these different facets we have in our lives right now and we enjoy each one fully.
Click here to check out the story in the digital edition of Rolling Stone India.
Watch Tokio Hotel’s video for “What If,” the second single from ‘Dream Machine’: