Courtesy Oglio RecordsIt'sasickculturethatneedsthesugarcoatedsunshine Shonen Knife brings. And we're not talking about Japan. While they've got their own special psychoses—schoolgirl obsessions, Rapeman and sumo—it's America that craves, loves, needs and yet reviles the coy, childlike enjoyment Shonen Knife have been beaming out for 20-plus years. Just look at the ever-younger Lolita starlets, trotted out for pre-pubescent girls to worship and creepy dads to, uh, also worship. And as a microcosm of the society in which it exists, indie rock finds its own innocent(-ish) infatuations—that's why we can't get enough of Shonen Knife.
In the early '90s, Shonen Knife was the hip name to drop, thanks to Thurston Moore, the MacDonald brothers of Redd Kross, even Kurt Cobain. They embodied the same cheerful infantilism that put K Records on the cultural map—plus, indie rockers love Asian women—and Naoko Yamano and sister Atsuko made an international career out of singing power-popped punk songs about ice cream cities, eating chocobars, banana fish, the joy of cycling, and jellybeans as projectiles. "Tear down this shitsystem!" it ain't. But for those raised on punk as liberating license to do anything you want—feeling joy included—the Knife were the perfect antithesis to a militaristic, dogmatic, angry-guy legacy. Jonathan Richman seems like an obvious forebear, but he's not—echoes of Richman's ice cream and bakeries in the Knife's sweet-stuff songs are only coincidence.
"I like Jonathan Richman, but I couldn't understand the meaning of his lyrics when I was listening to his music," says Naoko. "I am writing about animals and food very naturally because I am very shy about writing songs about love. I like delicious food, so if I write songs about delicious food, people may become happy too."
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Naoko sees her band as something unique in rock, American or Japanese, even to the point of recording one version of most songs in each language. Rock music's natural language is English, she says. But Shonen Knife doesn't get stuck in that: "We don't just imitate American or British rock music," she says. "Some Japanese bands like to just imitate."
She explains: "Puffy Ami Yumi are very different from Shonen Knife. They don't write songs by themselves and they are very cute idol singers. We are the same with American rocker bands. Everything is do-it-yourself style. And Puffy has big management and big budget like pop stars. But a few years ago Puffy had a TV program in Japan and we were on their TV program once. We played video games together. But they are good people, though."
Still, given Shonen Knife's lyrical subjects and smiling schoolgirl navet, certain joyless people might not take them seriously. Fine. Despite claiming kinship with serious American rock bands, it doesn't bother Naoko. "I don't mind," she says. "We are just playing music."
Shonen Knife with Gore Gore Girls and the Forty Fives at the Galaxy Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.galaxytheatre.com. Thursday, March 24, 8 p.m.. $12.50-$15. All ages.