It's been three decades since beloved all-female Japanese pop-punk trio Shonen Knife formed, and although they have only one remaining original member, singer/guitarist Naoko Yamano, they still pump out an endearing mixture of pop, punk, food and fantasy that has attracted fans all over the world, including members of heavier bands such as Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Red Kross. We spoke to founder Naoko a couple of weeks before the band hit the road for their 30th-anniversary tour of North America.
In the early '80s, I was bored with my daily life, and I wanted to start something interesting. I liked punk pop bands like Ramones and Buzzcocks at that time, and I wanted to start band like them. Then I put the name Shonen Knife for my band. It was a brand name of pencil knife in Japan. "Shonen" means "boy" in Japanese. The word has the image of "cute." And the word "knife" has the image of dangerous. When "cute" and "dangerous" are combined together, it's our band. A man who owned a record label saw our gig by accident, and we got an offer from him to release a record on his label, Zero Records.
When Shonen Knife first started making music, were there many other female rock bands in Japan?
Not so many, but there were some. We sometimes had a gig together. Each band played their unique music. I especially like all-female bands. Being an all-female band has been an advantage because we can be prominent, and many boys bands helped us a lot.
How did growing up in Osaka affect the music you make?
In Japan, everything is gathered in Tokyo. The major music scene is in Tokyo. Osaka is the second-largest city in Japan, but we have our own spirit. It is good for growing underground bands.
Do you remember the first time you heard a song by the Ramones? What was it like to meet them later on?
When I was a teenager, Ramones songs were aired on the radio. I rushed to a record shop and purchased their album. Their songs were very pop, and Joey's voice was so sweet. In 1998, we opened up for their farewell shows in Osaka. We went to Hard Rock Café in Osaka after the show. I was very excited to meet my longtime heroes. Every member was so kind to us.
You've said you don't need any politics in your music, but the Ramones and a lot of other bands you cite as influences got political, so how do you still relate to them?
I sometimes write about social problem in songs like "Economic Crisis" from our album Free Time, but our melody line is fun. I sing a little about serious problems with funny music, and I believe people can laugh away the problems.
Why does Shonen Knife write songs about food rather than more common rock/pop themes, like love and heartbreak?
I'm ashamed to write songs about love. I'd like to be different from other bands. Doing [things] different is rock, isn't it? I don't want to write negative songs because if people listen to such songs, they must be sad. I want people to be happy through our music. That's why I write songs about our favorite things, like food or animals. My favorite foods are delicious Japanese cakes, cookies, nuts, chocolate, noodles, bread, cheese, ice cream and more.
The first time that you did shows here in the United States was around 1989. How did your American audiences compare to your Japanese audiences?
Our record label at that time invited us to play one show in Los Angeles. At that time in Japan, our audience was polite during the show, but in LA, many people were jumping and dancing at our show. I was surprised at that, and I was excited, too. It became a good experience for me.
After seeing Shonen Knife perform live for the first time, Kurt Cobain said, "I was transformed into a hysterical 9-year-old girl at a Beatles concert." How does it feel to have inspired one of the most important rock stars of all time? How was it teaching him how to cover one of your songs when you were touring with Nirvana?
I'm very honored. Kurt Cobain was a kind of genius musician. I'm happy such a great person liked Shonen Knife. I just tell and show the guitar chords of my song "Twist Barbie," and he learned very quickly.
You were chosen by Matt Groening to play ATP Festival last year. Are you a fan of his work? Futurama is better than The Simpsons, right?
I've never seen Futurama. I like his drawings a lot. At ATP festival, I got his autograph on my backstage pass. He drew a fantastic picture for me. The Raincoats played at the festival, too. I like their music. Matt's choice was very nice.
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You did a pretty famous Carpenters cover. Who do you want to cover now that you haven't covered yet?
A Judas Priest song! "Breaking the Law"! I like all cover songs we've ever done.
What's the secret to Shonen Knife's longevity? After 30 years in the band, what have you learned about making music and performing?
Our basic part is forever, but I think I've progressed a little in writing songs and performing. Since I have new members, they play very energetically onstage, and our music has become louder. I never look back, and I don't feel so much time has passed.