Very few rock bands make it to 40 years. And for Shonen Knife, this landmark appears all of the extra unlikely – there haven’t been many all-women rock bands from Japan who turned their obsession with junk meals, cute animals and Ramones into a global profession.
Their breakthrough got here with 1992’s Let’s Knife, launched in Britain by Creation Information shortly after a career-changing tour with Nirvana. It was a punk album like no different, that includes lyrical observations on the envy frontwoman Naoko Yamano felt for unique American ladies with blond hair and blue eyes, alongside pontification on life’s extra frivolous joys: consuming jellybeans, driving a bicycle, fishing for black bass, and – moderately much less relatably – turning into a cat and rising whiskers.
“I used to be too embarrassed to put in writing songs about love,” says Naoko, 60, as we sit within the Tokyo workplace of Shonen Knife’s Japanese file label to replicate on the previous 40 years. “As an alternative, I needed to put in writing concerning the subjects that had been vital to me, like sweets and scrumptious meals, or cute animals. I’m not likely a really deep thinker, so I simply wish to write music that may make individuals really feel pleased.”
Shonen Knife fashioned in 1981 when Naoko and her schoolfriend Michie Nakatani cemented their love for the Beatles, the Jam and Ramones into one thing of their very own. With Naoko on guitar and Nakatani on bass, they enlisted Naoko’s youthful sister, Atsuko, on drums.
The trio entered a tiny room on the Rock Inn rehearsal studio in Osaka for the primary time on 29 December 1981. “It felt good to listen to the guitar and bass coming via the amplifiers, and the loud drum sound,” recollects Naoko of that first rehearsal, the place they performed covers of songs by British punk and pop bands comparable to Delta 5, Buzzcocks and Mo-dettes. Then, in March 1982, they performed their first gig at a small Osaka venue, the place younger Atsuko grew to become so overpowered by nerves that she broke out in a rash.
Among the many seven or eight songs they performed that night time was Parallel Girl, the primary music Naoko ever wrote. Later launched on their 1983 album Burning Farm, Parallel Girl set the template for Shonen Knife’s method to songwriting, with detailed observational lyrics about Naoko’s expertise of working in a manufacturing facility whereas dreaming of unveiling her true id as a rock’n’roll superheroine – the mundane writ implausible. In a punk scene the place bands snarled lyrics about class warfare, medicine, intercourse and violence, Naoko and Nakatani wrote songs that had been overwhelmingly constructive, harmless and enjoyable, making their music all of the extra disarming.
“Shonen Knife’s embrace of on a regular basis kitsch confirmed that different music didn’t need to be doomy and impenetrable – and that well-constructed pop wasn’t simply the protect of crack backroom writers,” says Gus Lobban, of London-based pop band Kero Kero Bonito. He hails songs comparable to I Wanna Eat Chocobars as “vibrant, ragged and hummable unexpectedly – they nonetheless really feel cheekily subversive right now,” and says their angle “altered my notion of what DIY expression may very well be”.
With the arrival of music streaming and social media nonetheless a long time away, Shonen Knife managed to construct a robust following within the US and Europe. Throughout a go to to Japan within the mid 80s, Calvin Johnson – founding father of Okay Information, a label on the coronary heart of the indie, punk and grunge scenes in Washington state – found an early Shonen Knife file at a Tokyo file store and, discovering Naoko’s house handle printed on the interior sleeve, wrote her a letter providing to launch an expanded model of Burning Farm within the US. This 1985 cassette launch led to endorsements from alternative-rock leaders Sonic Youth, L7, Babes in Toyland and Redd Kross, who all coated Shonen Knife songs for the 1989 compilation Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them.
Then, on the private request of Kurt Cobain, Shonen Knife toured with Nirvana in late 1991 – simply as they had been turning into the most important band on the earth. “I didn’t know who Nirvana had been earlier than that, however they seemed wild, and I used to be so scared, so I didn’t wish to tour with them at first,” laughs Naoko. “However by the tip of the tour we grew to become associates. Kurt Cobain gave it the whole lot he had each night time, screaming and taking part in guitar so arduous, so I revered Nirvana’s angle in the direction of taking part in music lots.” The opposite help band, Captain America, had been pelted with cups by the viewers at a gig in Kilburn, London. “However since we had been all feminine and we had come from a faraway nation, the viewers handled us extra politely.”
Cobain, for his half, raved about Shonen Knife’s performances on that tour. “I’ve by no means been so thrilled in my complete life,” he advised Melody Maker. “They play pop music – pop, pop, pop music.”
One newly transformed fan within the viewers at London’s Kilburn Nationwide Ballroom on 5 December 1991, was the comic Stewart Lee. “It’s straightforward to neglect – earlier than the web – how Kurt Cobain’s patronage acted as a type of bush telegraph,” recollects Lee.
“Beneath regular circumstances, a feminine Japanese Ramones-inflected powerpop trio can be a tough promote in any capability aside from as a novelty, however Cobain used his superstar to push a great deal of massively worthwhile music over the road. I’ve beloved Shonen Knife ever since.”
Lee booked them for the All Tomorrow’s Events pageant he curated in 2016. “They arrived, Naoko nonetheless on the helm at 55, in futuristic spacewear, and despatched out nice waves of 1-2-3-4 pleasure to the gang. Ladies had been marginalised figures within the period of music Shonen Knife emerged from, and so they had been, and nonetheless are, true pioneers.”
After the Nirvana tour, the 1992 launch of Let’s Knife was primed for western success, the primary of many albums to be recorded completely in English. The slight grammatical errors or unusual pronunciations are a part of Shonen Knife’s attraction, enhancing the innocence of their sound.
“I don’t wish to sing completely in English,” says Naoko. “I desire to sound authentic.”
If a band this relentlessly cheery can have a darkish interval, for Shonen Knife it started within the mid Nineteen Nineties. The band discovered themselves and not using a label in Europe for over a decade from 1994, then in 1999, Nakatani – the band’s bassist, co-founder and joint songwriter – stop after their fantastic album Completely happy Hour, citing the pressure of touring.
Regardless of this powerful interval, Naoko says she by no means as soon as thought of give up. “Michie leaving was a little bit arduous for me, however I felt I ought to go ahead,” she says. “When individuals turn out to be pleased via our music, that makes me pleased too. That’s why I make music. That’s what offers me the motivation to maintain going. I’ve by no means even considered giving up.”
After Nakatani left, Naoko’s sister Atsuko moved up from drums to bass, opening a revolving door of help drummers, and later in 2006 she herself left the band for an prolonged interval to cool down in Los Angeles. Atsuko is again within the band now, however Naoko has been the one fixed member.
Regardless of all of those obstacles, Shonen Knife have persistently launched music since they fashioned, and in 2009 they signed with UK label Damnably, ending their wilderness years in Britain. Having additionally joined Good Charmel, the US label run by Goo Goo Dolls bassist Robby Takac, this marked the beginning of a joyous new period in Shonen Knife’s profession: they’ve launched eight new studio albums since 2007 and toured the world repeatedly for a brand new technology of followers.
“Over time, I’d been concerned with Shonen Knife first merely as a fan after which later as label proprietor, producer, roadie, van driver and after many releases and excursions, as associates,” says Takac. “I’ve all the time been struck by the dedication, dedication and a spotlight to element Naoko and the group have proven.”
Naoko and Atsuko are actually joined by the forever-beaming Risa Kawano on drums. The band are already planning for his or her subsequent album, which Naoko hints could have a late-Beatles-style psychedelic affect.
“If individuals will look again and say, ‘There was once this actually enjoyable band from Osaka,’ that’s sufficient for me,” she says of their legacy. I ask her what recommendation she would give now to her 40-year youthful self. “I’ve no recommendation,” she laughs. “I’m very free and I’m not earnest. So even when I gave some recommendation to the 40-year youthful Naoko, she wouldn’t observe it, and I might not observe hers!”
I ask if she has a favorite Shonen Knife album or music, however she bats this away, too: “The following album would be the greatest one.” And so forth. “I by no means look again and I by no means really feel remorse,” she says, including she is going to in all probability by no means retire. “If I can reside for one more 40 years, I will be the oldest rock musician on the earth,” she laughs. “The happiest reminiscence continues to be sooner or later.”