Peelander-Z just wants to chow down on your smiles. It’s what invigorates the self-described “Japanese Action Comic Punk” band and fuels their erratic shows, which play out as gatherings of grins structured around animated rock ‘n’ roll, frequent moments of audience participation, and the bowling of a half-cephalopod/half-guitar creature called the Red Squid into pins onstage. Some say Peelander-Z hail from Planet Peelander in some far away galaxy — others say Japan — but since their formation in 1998, Long Island City has remained their domain.
Singer/guitarist Kengo Hioki and bassist Kotaro Tsukada cofounded Peelander-Z and immediately adopted new colorful personas, with Hioki becoming Peelander-Yellow while Tsukada assumed the identity of Peelander-Red. Yellow and Red were the core members of Peelander-Z and released seven albums together, including the Ramones-infused pop-punk of 2009’s P-Pop High School and the 2010 kid-friendly collection P-TV-Z. A Peelander-Z song may not venture too far off from a few power chords and a couple of cymbal crashes, but Yellow admits the music is there chiefly to help foster the overall experience and provide the utmost entertainment — but there’s still something simplistically charming about an ode to a medium rare “S.T.E.A.K.”
Yellow and Red performed together up through 2012, when Red announced he would depart Peelander-Z by the end of the year. The slight turmoil that followed their separation was captured in the upcoming documentary Mad Tiger, named after one of the band’s more ferocious cuts, and debuts on November 13 during the 2016 DOC NYC festival. Co-directed by Jonathan Yi and Michael Haertlein, Mad Tiger follows Peelander-Z as the tour behind their album Space Vacation takes them across the country, over to Japan, and home to New York. For close to two decades fans have known the band with their personas held firmly in place, their colorful costumes seldom removed, but the opportunity to meet Peelander-Z has finally arrived, and the line between artist and person is blurring.
“Nobody was curious about me before [Yellow], so one day I decided that maybe a character would be more curious,” says Hioki, calling in from Detroit as Peelander-Z darts across the Midwest on tour. “Kengo is just Kengo of Japan. Kengo just do a little bit of painting, a little but of rock ‘n’ roll; but Peelander-Yellow – wow! He eats smiles, he gets on stage, boom, boom, boom! That’s why I decided to be Yellow. [In the beginning,] it was 95% Kengo and 5% Yellow, but right now it’s 75% Yellow and 25% Kengo. As Peelander-Yellow, change is my life.”
The current lineup consists of Yumiko Kanazaki (Peelander-Pink), Ryo Tanaka (Peelander-Green), and Akiteru Ito (Peelander-Purple). With a new cast of characters, Yellow sought to advance and continue Peelander-Z’s space saga. As depicted in the music video for “Ride on the Shooting Star” off the 2013 album Metalander-Z (a tribute to Eighties hair metal and, more specifically, Night Ranger), Peelander-Purple infiltrates the band and transforms each member into a new animal-based costume and role. “Before, Peelander-Z was like a superhero,” says Hioki. “Right now everybody is a monster. When Red joined Peelander-Z, I never thought about a new story. He’s gone; that’s why we made a new story. If we have a problem, it’s a chance to make a new story.”
Plans are set to begin recording a new album as soon as Peelander-Purple relocates to New York from Japan, and Yellow says that hip-hop, country, and bluegrass could lead to potential new musical directions for Peelander-Z.
Briefly shown during the trailer of Mad Tiger is a scene involving Yellow confronting Red over a lack of communication, leading to a sort-of-harmless head-butt. When this occurred, Yellow says it was almost as if the documentarians had disappeared. The veil had been lifted, but forgoing the schtick proved to be difficult for the performer.
“In the beginning, I was very nervous because I had never done that before — I’m always Aaarrrggghhh! – that’s easy,” acknowledges Hioki with his mighty whimsicality. “But when it’s Kengo sitting down and talking, it’s very hard to do that.”
Red’s final performance with Peelander-Z was at the Knitting Factory on November 23, 2012, and almost exactly three years later, he’s in full pursuit of a new goal: Opening his own venue. “I used to play in a band onstage but now I want to be the guy having the band play – that’s what I want to do,” he says.
Tsukada currently works as a bartender and manager at the Lower East Side music venue Pianos. He’s enjoying his life post-Peelander-Z and his hair continues to sport his signature color. “It’s still there; red is my color,” he says. “Peelander-Red, somehow, is still part of me. It’s in me but it’s in the past.”
Tsukada says he harbors zero negative feelings towards Yellow and the band – but his decision was influenced by the fading balance in distinguishing between the man on the stage and off.
“At some points at the very end of my band life, I was always being Red, Red, Red. Sometimes I was required to be Red [even] when I wasn’t doing the band stuff,” he says. “I got some kind of kick to bring it back to the ordinary. That was pretty much the big reason why I decided to say, ‘That’s it’ – I needed to get back to myself.”
Supportive and forever playful, Yellow doesn’t appear discouraged when considering the possibilities for his old friend.
“Now he has to be the leader. He has to make his world with his friends and family, his own something,” he says. “He already has Peelander-Z DNA so he can make a happy life for himself.”