LOS ANGELES Move over Jonas Brothers, the Kaulitz twins are moving in.
The 18-year-old Kaulitz brothers comprise half of Tokio Hotel, a German glam-pop quartet that is creating Beatles-like hysteria among the teen set in their native land. They've sold close to 3 million CDs and DVDs in their country and are hoping to replicate that rabid fan base in the U.S..
"They're the stepping stone between the 'tween stuff and My Chemical Romance," says Andrew Gyger, senior product manager for Virgin Entertainment Group, a few days after the foursome appeared at Virgin's Times Square store in New York in May to promote its English-language album, "Scream."
"The in-store was massive in terms of sales and the amount of girls that showed up," Gyger says, relaying stories of at least one girl fainting and screaming teens lining up around the block for the event. "The band seems to have come out of nowhere."
Actually, Tokio Hotel came out of the Internet. A YouTube search shows 123,000 video listings compared to 88,100 for the Jonas Bros. or 21,000 for a grizzled veteran like Bruce Springsteen. To further sate their young fans' appetite, for the last six months the band has produced weekly episodes of Tokio Hotel TV for its U.S. Web site.
For Tokio Hotel, the visual is as vital as the vocals and is propelled by lead singer Bill Kaulitz's anime look: straightened, teased black hair; heavy eye makeup that accentuates his delicate, androgynous, doll-like features; chain necklaces and vintage rock 'n' roll T-shirts. He's so thin he appears almost one dimensional on stage, adding to the cartoonlike appeal. But to hear him tell it, his look comes by way of Transylvania, not Japan.
When he was 10, Bill Kaulitz dressed as a vampire for Halloween and adopted the styling year-round.
"After that, I started to color my hair and polish my nails. I started to wear makeup and stuff. I'd never heard of (anime)," Bill Kaulitz said in an interview at the Avalon Hollywood before to the group's sold-out show in Los Angeles. He, his brother, bassist Georg Listing, 20, and drummer Gustav Schafer, 19, are squashed together in a leather booth in the lounge one floor above the Avalon stage. Both he and Tom speak very good, albeit heavily accented, English, although an interpreter stands by in case any translation is needed .
Tom Kaulitz, the older brother by 10 minutes ("A lot of people think Bill is the boss, but I am the boss," he laughs), developed his hip-hop/dreads look when he was 7 or 8, in part as a way to differentiate himself from his identical twin. "When we were 6, we looked the same," Tom Kaulitz said. "We had sweatshirts with (the names) Bill and Tom so that teachers had a chance to know who's who."
The Kaulitz brothers began playing guitar when they were 7 the instruments were gifts from their musician stepfather. By the time they were in their midteens, they were playing in clubs, often to fewer than five people, and Listing and Schafer had joined the band.
Their mother's backing was not only desired but vital: "We needed the support of our parents because we had no car, no money," Bill Kaulitz says.
Mom has long since stopped driving the band to gigs; the members have people who do that for them now as they have accumulated a team during their meteoric rise. The group's first single, "Through the Monsoon," went to No. 1 in Germany in 2005, a pair of No. 1 albums and sold-out European tours followed.
The fan frenzy in Germany has reached epic proportions, such as when a group of teen girls delivered a fan letter that was more than seven miles long. After seeing a young fan repeatedly at shows in different cities, the band later learned that she was a runaway who had left home to follow the group. "It's still crazy to us," Bill Kaulitz says of the distaff attention.
After witnessing the spectacle at the band's February appearance at New York's Gramercy Theatre, Amy Doyle, MTV's senior v.p. of music and talent, became a convert. "I could not believe the line outside of screaming teen girls," she said. "It reminded me of the audience of the late '90s and 2000 for Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync."
Following that performance, MTV added the video for "Ready, Set, Go" into heavy rotation, as well as highlighted the band online, on mtv2 and on "TRL." Tokio Hotel writes a tour diary for MTV.com, which, Doyle says, had elicited more reader comments than any previous tour diary.
But the band has a long way to go before they reach Backstreet or 'N Sync like sales since the group's CD was released in May, it has sold just over 23,000 copies. Tokio Hotel's U.S. label, Cherrytree/Interscope, has yet to take the first single, "Monsoon," to radio, but Doyle says the whole package is the band's selling point.
"Radio always helps, but there's a connection that clearly is made when the audience sees them that you can't connect with just a song; fans are making an emotional connection."
Indeed, at the Avalon show that evening, teenage girls packed up against the stage so tightly that security guards started a regular procession of lifting them over the railing as several teen become overcome by the nearness of their heroes and the pressure of those pushing behind them.
"It's so cool that we have fans already here. But we are at the beginning," Bill Kaulitz. "We really want to be successful in America, we really want to try it. There are not so many German bands who get the chance to come to America to play."
Tokio Hotel already has Madison Square Garden in its sights, but also knows it had to put in the footwork. On this trip, they went to the vaunted venue; not to perform, but to see Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige.
"It's a dream to play there," Tom Kaulitz says, shaking his head up and down. "Maybe in two years. You need goals in your life."