The hidden gem of German rock music: Zwo Eins Risko interviewed

Rock isn’t dead. Although many have long feared the death of rock music and all its glory, when faced with the latest, freshest, and most daring modern rock bands, it’s clear to see that the genre isn’t quite dead and buried. Far from it. But merely rocking is never enough. All those now-classic bands had tunes to go along with their chops, charisma and volume. And that’s exactly what any rising rock band will need to dent the mainstream ever again. Songs with a hook.

Luckily, 2023 was off to a great start with a number of solid releases under the rock umbrella, many of which are from trending new and up and coming acts in the scene. And we found one of the most interesting rock debut albums in years right in our neighborhood.

Hailing from Hamburg, Germany, two-piece Zwo Eins Risiko look set to shake the foundations of venues across the country as they just have released their eponymous debut album. On the album, brothers Leo and Val Kellner showcase their knack for writing unwaveringly catchy rock melodies and guitar hooks drawing on influences from bands like Royal Blood and Arctic Monkeys, although sonically louder.

Messed!Up met up with the band on the album release day and dug into a story about brotherhood, the transition from DJ sets and Mozart wigs to rock music, and facing the challenges of reaching out to an audience. And of course we learned all about Darkwing Duck.

From Mozart wigs to a rock outfit with attitude

Before we talk about anything else we need an answer to one thing: What’s the connection to Darkwing Duck where I guess you got Zwo Eins Risiko from? Was he some sort of childhood hero?
(laugh) It’s just a great childhood memory and was one of our favorite Disney shows. There were quite many fun Disney shows on TV but he [Darkwing Duck] was the only badass character, the only really cool character, and his catchphrase in German, “Zwo Eins Risiko” [meaning “Let’s get dangerous”], is kind of a cool way to start off gigs, like a countdown, “Zwo…Eins…Risiko”. On the other hand, we also have problems at times when people turn it around and write Eins Zwo Risiko instead (laugh).

Today you’ve finally released your debut album. It must be a fantastic feeling to have it out.
Yeah, but what’s fun is that we had the release party already in January and played in front of a sold-out Astra Stube. We wanted to have kind of a big party and do something special to celebrate the album, but two weeks ahead of the release show we got this call “Sorry, but we can’t deliver the LP’s and CD’s on that day”. We thought it would be something like a two-week delay, not two months (laugh), that’s the reason we only have a small celebration today.

But we’re doing a special for our fans tomorrow, the people that bought the album at the show or online, and we’ll go around Hamburg and deliver it to their doorsteps. We thought it would be a fun thing to do when we didn’t have any albums to sell at the release party. And we’ll sign it at their doorsteps if they want to (laugh).

But don’t get us wrong, it’s not that it doesn’t mean anything for us today, it just wasn’t how we planned it. We feel relieved to finally have it in our hands after all the hard work we put into writing and recording it.

I remember reading something about you starting to play together a long time ago and it wasn’t rock music. What was it before Zwo Eins Risiko?
Yeah, we had a band with friends and played a few shows in Hamburg but they left after graduation and moved to Berlin, and we stayed here and tried to continue doing something on our own instead.

At first, we had this electronic project sounding very much like Justice and the whole French House scene, and we did quite many shows in Switzerland, in Zürich, under the name Epic Epileptic and had these weird Mozart wigs when we performed (laugh). But after a few years in that scene, we missed playing real instruments because it’s a huge difference from standing behind the decks and tweaking the knobs. Electronic music also changed quite much from being this dark hard-hitting electronic beat to poppy EDM, and that wasn’t anything for us at all, it was too far off the French House chaos kind of music.

But the rock sound of Zwo Eins Risiko is quite far from the French House scene. How did the transition to rock music come about?
Rock music is our roots, that’s what we grew up with. We had two really dedicated heavy metal cousins – they are four and five years older than us – and they listened to bands like Megadeath, and were a big influence on us.

After Epic Epileptic we just felt that we wanted to go back to our roots and do something in that direction, not necessarily as heavy as Megadeath but something with a rock sound. And it was fun to go back to playing the instruments we learned to play as young, not only pressing buttons on decks. We also had lots of two-piece role models, like The White Stripes, Royal Blood and Death From Above, and basically tried to emulate a similar sound at the beginning.

You’re also brothers and have been doing music together for 20 years. Is it easier to work together as brothers because you know each other really well or just a pain in the ass?
(laugh) Well, when we were teenagers we really hated each other at times. We had a band together but let’s say that it may not have been the best vibe in that band. Once at our grandmother’s place we ended up in a fight and Grandma even thought we were going to kill each other. We still have scars from our teen fights (laugh). But we left all that behind us when we grew up. Of course, we can get pissed off at each other even today, but it’s not even close to how it used to be.

What’s different when you’re brothers is honesty. You don’t need to be polite or beat around the bush like people do when they don’t know each other well enough. When you grow up together you also get the same kind of music influences whether you like it or not. Our cousins’ taste in music affected us both and you also wanted to listen to what your brother listened to. What it means is that we think similarly about the music we write, and all that makes it a lot easier. In fact, we rarely have different ideas about music.

“All killers, no fillers”: Debut album talks

Two months after the release party, the Zwo Eins Risiko debut album finally arrived, and all their blood, sweat and tears finally paid off and sent the band into the unknown future for the next step in the Zwo Eins Risiko tale. But there’s some hard work left to do.

When you have a new record out, it’s time to hit the road. Touring is the way to build an audience and sustain the attention, and for Val and Leo playing shows is what Zwo Eins Risiko is about. But although they had an EP in the Top 25 of the German Alternative Charts a few years ago and got lots of airtime on Rock Antenne, one of Germany’s biggest radio channels, the band have to face the realities of the post-pandemic era when upcoming bands have a really hard time to get booked, even as support.

But those problems lay in the future. Right now it’s time to sit back and enjoy the release of the debut album. 

Let’s talk a bit more about your debut album; how much work has it been to put it together?
The response has been great so far. A friend texted us today, “All killers, no fillers” (laugh). That’s what you want to hear when you release your debut album.

But it has been a lot of hard work as we didn’t put any songs from older EP’s on the album, they’re all new. Putting older songs you already have released on the album is like cheating and it’s kind of boring to do. When you have the chance to release a full album of songs, leave the old ones out. It’s just sad to see bands recycle songs they released years ago.

But songs like “Speed” and “Serienkiller” are quite old. “Serienkiller” is actually one of the first songs we ever wrote but it never ended up on an EP or was released as a single. We’ve played it live for kind of a long time but never really wanted to put it out for some reason. But we knew it had something special, people loved it at our gigs and it wasn’t really possible to hold it back any longer (laugh). Testing songs live is a good way to find out if they should be on an album or not.

“Speed” is also an older unreleased song and one of those we love to open gigs with because it has this motorcycle sound intro and is a natural start to our shows.

I saw someone describe your music as a mix of Rage Against the Machine and Kraftklub, but I’ve also seen references to Royal Blood, probably because they’re a two-piece like you. But if you listen to your own album today, what would you say is the biggest influence on the overall sound?
We’re not really anything like Rage Against The Machine. The single “Bombengeschäfte” from last year is in that direction a bit because it’s a sort of protest song, but the album is heading in the alternative rock direction with influences of Royal Blood and Arctic Monkeys but also drawing on bands like Queens of the Stone Age – we’re huge fans. We have the same type of high-pitched backing vocals as them. The Kraftklub connection is probably about how we sing, especially the vocal rhymes which are kind of similar to how they do it.

But it’s not really possible to describe your own music, that’s for other people to do because we usually don’t hear the same thing. You don’t write music to sound like someone else, you write music you like to listen to.

Your first EP Herz ended up in Top 25 on the German Alternative Charts and gave you lots of attention, especially airtime. Do you feel any pressure that you have to get equally much attention for the album and maybe airtime to elevate you to a level where it’s easier to reach out to an audience and to bookers?
Radio is super important to us. Rock Antenne had us on high rotation and “Speed” got a real push from it, and we’ve seen kind of a surge in interest with lots of people reaching out to us from all across Germany after that. In the beginning, we mostly had our listeners in the north of Germany, like in Kiel and Osnabrück, but today we have people sending us emails and messages from all across the country. You know, people from Bavaria write and ask if we can’t book a show in Munich, that’s a great feeling. All of that is because of airtime. We need to get our music on air.

The problem is that there are not many radio shows that play rock music in Germany anymore and it’s tough to reach out to them. But we don’t write music based on the idea that we have to get airtime, it won’t be good for our creative process and isn’t really how we are. Many of our songs are a bit too heavy for mainstream radio anyway but we won’t change the music just to fit the format. We’d love to hear our music on the radio but then radio needs to play more hard-hitting heavy rock music, not just hip hop and pop music.

What’s fun is that they [radio] say that “Tanzt wie du bumst” is that type of rock music that will work out on the radio at the same time as they say it won’t work out because of the reference to the word ‘bumsen’ [‘banging/shagging’], it’s too provocative for radio. We even got refused to promote it on YouTube (laugh). 

Rock music also changed during the pandemic, quite much actually. We got a lot of attention for our first EP because of its rock sound. The whole scene was more popular before the pandemic and more rock bands played at festivals, that’s when it kind of peaked.

Why is it so special to release an album in this day and age? Most bands, just like you, have released a few EP’s before they record an album. Isn’t it “just another record”?
The album isn’t special, it’s the format, to have it on vinyl. You know, just to have a physical product with your own music on it, especially on vinyl because it is the original format for releasing music. It means something if you grew up with music on vinyl.

It’s also a milestone to have released a debut album because it’s the start of something new. The record is out and the next phase in the band’s career is about to start which makes it super exciting right now although we don’t know what’s about to happen.

If you reflect on what’s going to happen now after the record is out, what’s the next step for you?
We’re going to enjoy that the album is out a few more days before we even start to think about anything else (laugh). It was so much work with it that we deserve to sit back and relax and not stress about the next step. We have started writing new music but this is primarily the time for celebrating the album release.

You know, there are some bands that hate their album when it’s finally out because the time between they’re done with recording the album and it comes out, they’ve already moved on and started on something new. We don’t want to be like that, just enjoy the songs we have and play them as much live as we can until we grow tired of them. That moment when we played the full album live at our release party in January, like two months before it was released (laugh), was just amazing and evoked the kind of feeling you get when something you’ve worked on for such a long time is shipped off and you’re ready to party again. It’s just pure excitement. And best of all was to see people love the new songs although they had never listened to any of them before

The record is released and usually it means lots of shows coming up to promote the album and spread the word about Zwo Eins Risiko. Do you have any gigs coming up soon, maybe even support slots and get even more attention?
Of course, we want to play live as much as possible and we’re pushing our booking agency, Karsten Jahnke, quite much but it’s really hard to get booked. It’s quite tough right now for all new bands because it’s not easy to sell tickets at the moment when people have to save money and can’t afford to buy concert tickets. On top of that, you have the economic crisis which makes ticket prices inflate and then you sell even fewer tickets.

We have a few smaller festivals coming up but not much else booked at the moment. As we said before, we’d love to get back to the feeling we had at the release show and play the album a lot more live. The songs are being reborn live and sound completely different than on record, it’s just a completely different vibe to it.

We have shows coming up in Osnabrück and Berlin in the near future, and in the next few months we’ll try to haul in a lot more, probably for the fall.

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Photographer: Julia Schwendner
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About J.N.

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.
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