If you took the torn clothing and brooding out of punk rock and replaced it with cartoon costumes, wrestling and whimsy, you might get something like Peelander-Z. One of the wildest constituents of the Japanese punk rock movement, the New York City-based trio rolls into the Dixie Taverne this Saturday to headline the club's annual Earbleed Festival. The four-night punk and metal festival kicks off Thursday night with a meet-and-greet party featuring local band Fight the Goober, two boxing matches, and an on-site tattoo and piercing booth.
Sonically, Peelander-Z is one of the lighter acts on the Earbleed lineup, but in the visual and theatrical departments, its show is off the charts. Band members Kengoswee (a.k.a. Peelander Yellow), Antonio Kazuki (a.k.a. Peelander Blue), and K.O. (a.k.a. Peelander Red) dress in Japanimation costumes with plastic wigs to match. They approach the stage from the house, high-fiving the audience with Mickey Mouse hands along the way. They carry cue cards to induce crowd response once the show starts -- with a song about steak and how it should be cooked (medium rare). If it makes the audience cheer, they have no qualms about 20-foot stage dives, sitting on each other's shoulders, smashing their instruments, or bowling their drummer into a single pin at the foot of the stage.
Since 1998, Peelander-Z has been rocking New York clubs like CBGB's and the Mercury Lounge and turning out CDs sporadically on its own Eat Rice label. In 2002, between frequent tours throughout the East Coast and Midwest, the trio began its own Japanese punk rock festival, Japunks Panic Jamboree, in New York City. According to Kengoswee, the event helps shatter traditional stereotypes about Japanese culture. "Before, they think Japanese people are very polite and just say hello," he says, "but now, after Japunks, some people will say Japanese people crazy, and everybody wants to come see us."
Japanese punk made waves in the States in 1997, when Bay Area band the Parasites released Japan Punk Will Kill You, a compilation of tracks from all of the bands that had opened for them during their tour of Japan that year. The genre is still far from mainstream crossover, but groups such as all-female noise band MeltBanana and Electric Eel Shock, who are being courted by major labels after playing to a crowd of 7,000 at Denmark's Roskilde festival last month, are seeing increasing success on American and European tours.
For now, Kengo has his own theory about the importance of Jap punk in America. Not only does it expose us to the irresistible kitsch of Japanese pop culture, it also helps us take our own music less seriously. "I love some American bands because they play splendidly," he says during a recent phone interview peppered with his excitable broken English. "But they are too high quality. We want fun more. That's why we chose punk rock." Punk rock, after all, is easy to play, and its cathartic qualities are undeniable. Kengo recommends taking advantage of that. "Some people don't need much thinking," he says. "That's why we say, 'Don't think too much.'"
Peelander-Z demands a certain code of conduct at its shows. The band does not tolerate seriousness of any kind. During the Asian Nite showcase at Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival in March, Kengo put down his guitar between songs to scold the stiff, schmoozing industry crowd for their stubborn reserve. "At home you act polite," he yelled, "but here, I want you go crazy!" As his yellow plastic wig slid off to reveal a head shaved to the skin except for two circular puffs of hair at his crown, he proceeded to shove his finger in his nose and wiggle it until those standing in the front few rows began to cheer him on. "Forget about your job. Forget about your school," Kengo ordered. "We need smile and screaming." Then, he told the crowd that Peelander People (a.k.a. band members) are actually extra terrestrials who came to Earth to save human beings from their own misery. "We came from Peelander planet because Earth has a big problem," he says. "They forget about smile."
Kengo claims that New Orleans ranks high on the Peelander audience scale. From his cell phone in Portland, Maine, he says that the people in Connecticut and Massachusetts need to see New Orleans people, so they can learn how to act at a punk rock concert. To ensure a "proper" response, Peelander-Z packs its show with audience-hyping techniques: stunts, jokes, call-and-response songs about psycho ex-girlfriends, and a show-closing onstage free-for-all when the audience takes over the stage to create a grand percussion ruckus. "Some people don't like punk rock," Kengo reasons, "but they may like hitting cow bells." The band encourages all patrons to bring something to bang at the Dixie Taverne this Saturday. "But if you bring a fry pan," Kengo advises, "ask your mother first."
- "Before, they think Japanese people are very polite and just say hello," says Peelander-Z's Kengoswee (center), "but now, after Japunks, some people will say Japanese people crazy, and everybody wants to come see us.'"