Sometime around 1980, three girls from Osaka, Japan, fell in love with the Ramones. Unsatisfied with being mere fans, one of the girls, Naoko Yamano, finagled a guitar somewhere and learned the three chords necessary to play along with her Ramones records. Her sister, Atsuko Yamano, was recruited on drums and with friend Michie Nakatani on bass, the three took Japan, if not by storm, then at least by siege.
Playing high-energy power pop with lyrics about simple pleasures like collecting insects and eating cookies, Shonen Knife developed an almost cult-like following both at home and abroad. By the end of the ‘80s, the band was touring the U.S. regularly, playing with devotees like Red Kross and Sonic Youth. The group became a college radio darling with the release of its first U.S. album, Let’s Knife, and a track on the influential Sub Pop 100 compilation led to a tour with Nirvana at the height of its fame.
Part of the appeal of Shonen Knife is that the group seems straightforward and mysterious at the same time. The vocals are syrupy sweet, but the guitars are like gravel. The band members pioneering figures in terms of women playing rock, but they almost refuse to admit it. And for all the lightheartedness and fun, there’s a distinctly Japanese sense of melancholy running through many of their songs.
Naoko sings about astronaut cats and how you can’t eat gum in Singapore, about paper clips and ghost trains and burning farms, all with total sincerity and commitment. And while Shonen Knife’s stock in trade is mostly recycled Ramones and Ventures riffs, it still sounds fresh and unique, like no other band.
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Who is in the band at this point and how did you meet?
Shonen Knife are Naoko, Ritsuko, and Emi. After the original [members] left the band, I had to find new members. Both Ritsuko and Emi played at local bands each other. I think it’s the most powerful line-up.
You started in 1981, influenced by the punk/New Wave movement. How is the Japanese music scene different now than then?
When I started the band, the number of bands and clubs are not so many like today, but they were fresh. Recently there are so many and young people [who] like to listen to Japanese music more than Western rock music.
I had the luck to visit Japan as a child around the time you were forming, and in Tokyo I remember they closed off whole streets so young people could dress up and dance to 1950s American rock. It seemed that Japanese at that time were very influenced by American culture. Now, in America, you see anime conventions and other events where American kids are dressing as Japanese characters and emulating your culture. What is it about our two cultures that makes us so fascinated with one another?
People tend to like faraway things and different things from themselves. American culture and Japanese culture are totally different. That’s why people fascinated each other.
What differences do you find between live audiences in Asia, the U.S., and Europe? In which country do you attract the most creeps?
It depends on cities and opportunities not depends on countries. People in western and southern cities tend to be cheerful like our hometown Osaka, and in eastern and northern cities are more gentle and polite like Tokyo and New York. But I can’t say make clear answer. Our audience are always great!
You have so many great songs about food. Is it true that fans bring your favorite food to shows for you? And do you eat it? It must be hard not to overeat on tour.
I sometimes got chocolate and candies. I like sweets a lot, but I don’t overeat during the tour because I always [am] careful for my health.
Many all-female bands, especially those associated with punk rock, feel the need to sing about women’s issues and politics. Shonen Knife seems more interested in things that are quirky, personal, and fun. Yet it must have been hard for you to succeed as women in rock. Was it a conscious decision to stay away from politics or just something that doesn’t interest you?
I’m trying not to write songs about political ideological things. I want people [to] get happy through our happy music. Angry, sad, complaint songs [are] sometimes too much.
Japan has endured hard times in the past few years, with recession, natural disasters, etc., yet J-rock and J-pop seem as sunny as ever (as evidenced by your latest album, Pop Tune). Is it part of the Japanese character to be optimistic, or perhaps the music provides an escape?
I don’t know, but if people get happy through our music, it’s great.
Most pop groups write nothing but love songs, yet you have few. Is this a punk influence?
I’m just ashamed to sing about love.
Naoko, your guitar tone is always so great. What equipment are you using lately?
I used Daisy Rock guitars for our North American tour 2012. In Japan, I use my custom made guitar which made by Fujigen Guitar in Japan. I sometimes use Gibson Flying V, Rickenbacker, Mosrite Johnny Ramone model for Osaka Ramones show.