Shonen Knife on Hamburgers, Love Songs, and Why They’re Not J-Pop

The first time I heard Shonen Knife – a three-piece all-girl band from Osaka, Japan – was after an episode of The Powerpuff Girls.  Apparently, the Cartoon Network show was so cool that it got its very own tribute album.  The track list is pretty impressive: Shonen Knife joined the likes of Frank Black, Devo, and Bis in a soundtrack ode to Bubbles, Buttercup, and Blossom.  Zach Braff should be so lucky then next time he curates a soundtrack.


So you can very well imagine my pee-in-my-pants excitement when I had a chance to interview Shonen Knife right before their Spaceland show last week (read my recap of the show here).  The band was in the early leg of their 21-city US tour in support of their new album, Free Time. This is the band’s 17th album – pretty impressive, considering the fact that the band has been around in some form or another for nearly 30 years.  Naoko Yamano, Shonen Knife’s singer, lead guitarist, and primary songwriter, has been with the band from its start, so she is a seasoned pro at these tours.  It was bassist Ritsuko Taneda’s second tour in the US and drummer Emi Morimoto’s first.

Hi!  How is your tour going so far?

Naoko:  Tour is going very well!

Ritsuko: Oh, it is very fun!

Emi:  Exciting!

A constant theme of Shonen Knife is food. They love food.

What kind of American food do you like?

[Unison] Hamburgers!

Ritsuko: Blue cheese hamburgers!

They mentioned they would be in LA for another day and would probably go to Santa Monica.  I told them that there was a really good pizza place there called Joe’s, at which point they all lighted up and, again in unison, said, “Pizza!”  Naoko asked if I meant Joe’s Crab Shack, and formed her hands into crab pinchers, and all band members then started miming crab claws.  Based on their blog, they didn’t hit either Joe’s, but it looks like they did have a pretty awesome time at Bubba Gump, Hollywood, and the Grove.

The conversation turned to their new album, “Free Time.”

You [Naoko] don’t usually write about love or politics, but the new album has both a “Love Song” and a song called “Economic Crisis.”  What motivated you to write those two songs now?

Everybody ask me, why don’t you write about [love]?  I just wanted to explain.

[“Love Songs” is really about why Naoko doesn’t write love songs (“I need you I want you/Musty phrases embarrass me”).  Naoko might have resisted the impulse, but I think Shonen Knife has written some of the greatest love songs of all time – except these songs are about heartbreak over not having any strawberry cream puffs readily available, or they’re odes to a Rock ‘n Roll Cake (also on “Free Time”).  This perhaps is the most honest love song of all: you can tell an awful lot about how a person loves another by observing how they love inanimate objects.  Are they the type to sleep inside a soft sponge cake, or will they rip it apart in their frenzied need to possess it and swallow it whole?  In other words, are you Shonen Knife or are you Cookie Monster?]

And the song “Economic Crisis” is … it’s not so dark song.  I’m just singing about the phenomenon.

Even their autographs are kawaii.

Why is your album called Free Time?

Naoko:  I want people to listen to our album when they have free time!

What do you do on your free time?

Naoko: For me, I play tennis.  Vamos Nadal!

Ritsuko:  Reading comics!  I like manga.  I like Bleach.

Emi:  My mother has her own Japanese sweets shop, so I help her.

What kind of sweets?

Sweets like mochi!  Very good!

One more thing about your album: it seems to be more rock-oriented than your other albums have been.  Is there a reason why you did that this time?

Naoko:  Recently, I was having been inspired by ‘70s British hard rock, so that’s why I went for some hard rock songs.

What are you listening to now?

Naoko:  I listen to various kinds of music.  My favorite British ‘70s band is Judas Priest, and Motorhead, and also Black Sabbath.  I also like ‘70s American rock – Doobie Brothers, Chicago, and also I like to listen to classical music, too.  And also some other bands like recently I saw [LA local metal rock band] Bigelf.  They were very nice.  I saw them at a music festival in Osaka.

Shonen Knife at Spaceland last Tuesday.

In prior interviews, Naoko states that she sings in English because she believes that the language of rock is English.  The choice in language is a marked difference between the various music scenes in Japan; I asked Naoko to expand on the differences a bit.

Can you talk a little bit about the music scene in Osaka, like how it compares to Tokyo?  I know there is a lot of talk of J-pop, and that’s different than your music.

J-pop music scene is just in Tokyo.  Most or all of J-pop songs are sung with Japanese lyrics, and Japanese language is very digital.  English is kind of analog, wavy.  The melody line would be naturally different than Japanese music.  But Japanese J-pop musicians like to play just like Western musicians, but actually – still a little bit different.    That’s why I speak in English for my songs.  We are all from Osaka, and the underground scene in Osaka is different from Tokyo.

Free Time was originally released in Japanese, right?

Right.  And Japanese version has Japanese lyrics for 30% of songs.

Last question: for thirty years, Shonen Knife has always been an all-girl group.  Have you ever thought about letting boys in, or have you always wanted to keep it only for girls?

The three girls laugh.

Naoko:  I like all-girls band.  It’s very fun, and also very convenient and we can share hotel rooms.  Also, we can talk in girls way.

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