NEW ORLEANS - Kengo Hioki could well be described as eccentric.
With his hair and beard both dyed neon yellow, Hioki has taken his stage name, “Peelander-Yellow,” to heart. The musician and artist rarely dresses in anything other than his signature color.
“I look like a weird guy because I have a yellow beard and no hair (on) top,” Hioki says, referring to his bald head. “I look like your grandfather. I’m crazy loud … I’m so excited to meet new friends in Japan.”
After more than two decades of fronting U.S.-based punk band Peelander-Z, Hioki is embarking on his first proper solo tour of Japan. The musician and artist is currently in the early stages of a five-week tour that includes concerts and live painting events.
After studying art in Osaka, Hioki emmigrated to New York in 1993 to focus on making a career as an artist. Since founding the band Peelander-Z in 1998, he has juggled his two careers.
On its website, Peelander-Z describes itself as “Japanese action comic punk” in reference to the Japanese musicians’ energetic performances. Members of the group dress in costumes with designated colors. Currently, Yumiko Kanazaki (Peelander-Pink) and Akiteru Ito (Peelander-Purple) perform alongside Hioki in that band.
“We came from another planet! We are not Japanese! We are not human beings!” says Hioki about his band. The group’s actual story is frequently hidden behind Hioki’s insistence that the group came from outer space. His lyrics are often light-hearted. He sings about food, wrestling and, of course, outer space.
When he left Japan in 1993, he was simply Kengo Hioki. Now, he returns as Peelander-Yellow.
Hioki has developed a reputation for energetic off-kilter performances. Peelander-Z’s shows almost always feature “human bowling,” limbo and band members bringing attendees on stage to play their instruments.
During this year’s South By Southwest Music Conference and Festival in March, Hioki donned a red squid costume and jumped into the crowd from the second story of the Mohawk live music venue in Austin, Texas. He performed similar stunts during most of the band’s recent seven-week tour of the United States.
Hioki is just as wild during his solo acoustic performances. During a sidewalk performance in Kyoto in 2017, he ran up and down the street and made observers sing ad-libs about their favorite foods. At one point, he jumped on top of a red mailbox while an audience member strummed his guitar.
His painting events tend to also be interactive performances during which he brings audience members up to paint.
Hioki has held multiple exhibitions of his art in Japan, most recently in 2017 and 2018. He has also painted murals in different parts of the U.S. His murals are particularly prevalent in Austin, his current home, and New York, where he lived for more than 20 years.
When asked how he describes his own art, Hioki replies, “I don’t want to say anything.” Instead, he encourages viewers to draw their own conclusions from his works. Hioki’s art frequently depicts bold creatures of different sizes and shapes, but he doesn’t want to restrict what they are to viewers. “If you like, you can make your story yourself. I just draw to you,” he explains.
Hioki’s time at the Osaka University of Arts helped shape his future careers. At the university, he met fellow classmate Hideaki Yamasaki, aka Rocket Gold Star. The pair have repeatedly collaborated on art projects in both Japan and the United States. In recent years, the duo has painted murals across the U.S. Hioki says his goal is for them to paint a mural in each of the 50 states.
In addition to their artistic collaborations, Hioki preserved Yamasaki’s adopted name on Peelander-Z’s 2001 album “Rocket Gold Star” and its title track.
Although Peelander-Z’s music is frequently compared to the Ramones and other punk rock groups, Hioki is far more obsessed with idol pop than punk. He claims that around 90 percent of the music he listens to is idol pop. The remaining 10 percent is a mixture of genres that include soul, blues and punk.
During his trip to Japan last year, Hioki took his idol appreciation to new levels. In Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa, the artist collaborated with members of the group Pink Cres during one of his painting events. He describes the group’s leader, Miyabi Natsuyaki, as “my favorite girl.” “Me and her, we painted together,” he says enthusiastically. “That is my dream! That is my dream!”
Hioki also created a design for idol group Babyraids Japan. Last year, he attended one of the group’s events and spoke with members. He recalls one member also came to his art show in Tokyo. “That is my dream too! Do you know why?” he asks. “Because I am a Japanese idol geek, (an) otaku!”
Babyraids Japan has disbanded since his last trip to Japan, and Hioki began this year’s Japan tour with a performance at Tiger Soul Fes., a fan event dedicated to the defunct idol group.
During this tour, Hioki will reunite with longtime associates Electric Eel Shock, performing five shows alongside the Japanese hard rock trio.
Hioki says his relationship with Electric Eel Shock predates that band’s 25-year existence. He says he met its members during college while watching their previous bands.
He recalls Bonnie Duck!?, a group that featured future members of Electric Eel Shock. “They had already released on a major label but they looked for a new singer,” he says.
“They asked me, ‘Hey Kengo. Do you want to be the singer for my band?’ but I said no because I decided to go to New York.”
Still, Hioki’s relationship with Electric Eel Shock survived his 1993 emigration to the United States. Since then, Peelander-Z and Electric Eel Shock have toured together on multiple occasions.
In 2001, Peelander-Z released a cover of Electric Eel Shock’s “Let’s Go to the Beach.” In 2012, the groups released a split 7-inch record featuring each band covering the other’s music. Electric Eel Shock guitarist Akihito Morimoto even earned the nickname “Peelander-Metal” for his contributions to Peelander-Z’s 2013 album “Metalander-Z.”
In 2017, Electric Eel Shock’s own label, Double Peace Records, assisted with the Japanese DVD release for “Mad Tiger,” a documentary film about Peelander-Z. Originally released in the United States in 2016, “Mad Tiger” follows Hioki as the band experiences major lineup changes. Portions of the film show Hioki returning to Japan and visiting family while contemplating major shifts in his life.
“I want to show you how to survive in the United States with crazy punk rock indie music,” says Hioki about releasing the documentary in Japan. “It’s not only happy like stage time. That is maybe 10 percent. Ninety percent is life.”
Hioki says his family in Japan enjoyed the movie because it allowed them to better understand his life in the United States.
“My father, he’s crazier than me,” says Hioki. “I think he really wanted to be an artist when he was young, but I was born (instead).” Instead of becoming an artist, his father worked hard to support Hioki, his twin sister and his younger brother.
“I think when I do something like music and art, he is happy,” says Hioki of his father. “I learned a lot from him. My father and my mother are my favorite humans.”
Peelander-Yellow will perform at Toast Bro in Shizuoka on May 31; Unlimits in Nagoya on June 1; Shimokitazawa’s Three in Tokyo on June 2 and Necoya in Yokohama on June 3. He will then visit various places across the country before the tour wraps up in Tokyo on June 23. For more information and tour dates, visit www.twitter.com/peeyellow.