Tag Archives: Shonen Knife

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.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7ZFeViTl4g[/youtube]

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.

The Happiest Place on Earth: Shonen Knife at Spaceland

These guys

came to see these girls.  They even sang-shouted along.  How could you not?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8dcYCL1bhw[/youtube]

Yes.  Those leather-clad, metal-studded, faux-leather-boot-wearing men all descended, some on Harleys, onto Spaceland late last Tuesday night to see, essentially, The Ramones by way of Sanrio: a trio of Japanese women collectively called Shonen Knife, a trio ripped from the pages of manga who sing about going to a sushi bar, and wanting to go there with you, maybe on Friday night.  They also, by the by, sing about furry animals, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Homegrown in Osaka in 1981, Shone Knife found an international audience when they opened for Nirvana during that band’s tour through the UK in late 1991.  Some context: Margaret Thatcher just left the Prime Minister’s office, leaving an enormous recession for incoming PM John Major.  The UK entered the First (or Second, depending on how you count these wars) Gulf War earlier that year, and between a war and a recession – well, this is a story that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Anyway, imagine, then, three tiny girls from Osaka facing a crowd of British urban youths who expected to see, and angrily mosh to, American grundge.  Indeed, lead singer Naoko Yamano’s account of first seeing Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic was something just short of pure fright:

Nirvana gave us an offer to join them on their British tour and, at that time, I didn’t know of them. Our management showed me their photograph and they looked very wild so I was scared.

Punk rock – or, as some prefer, rock the way rock was intended – was defined by artists so against something (the Establishment, the Queen, Simon & Garfunkel, etc) that the only means of releasing that anti- sentiment was through loud and louder music.  Shonen Knife, with happy songs cloaked in a genre defined by anger, turns that conceit on its head: they are so in favor of eating cookies that they can only release that happiness through hard rock.  They have axes to grind too, just happy ones.  And so they convinced Kurt Cobain and the rest of the restless urban British kids that songs about Barbies and jelly beans and chocolate bars were worth just as much as their time and moshing energy as songs about teenage rebellion in passive paralysis.  This is why when you go to a Shonen Knife concert now, you will run not only into indie hipsters who collect Giant Robots the way others collect tattoos, but also adult versions of the guys who went to those early rock concerts.  Yes, it’s still a little creepy, but it’s less so once you realize the history behind all of it.

Shonen Knife has cycled through different band members, and though Naoko Yamano is the lone original member, the Shonen Knife of today sounds remarkably like the Shonen Knife five years ago, which sounded like the Shonen Knife a decade before that, and a decade before that.  Ritsuko Taneda (who joined the band in 2008; she plays a hard, thumping bass that she combines with some good old fashioned head banging) and Emi Morimoto (who joined the band just this year; she is a drummer whose small size wields enormous power) were fans of Shonen Knife before becoming two parts of it.  Instrumentally, Shonen Knife sounds like The Ramones, The Buzzcocks, and Motorhead; vocally, you’ll hear melodies and stories inspired by The Byrds, Chicago, The Beatles, and 1960s oldies.

Most articles I’ve read about Shonen Knife use the word cute every other sentence to describe them.  It’s true – they are downright adorable – but it’s also a terrible disservice to Shonen Knife if you just stop there.  You can’t, for example, just say, “Katharine Hepburn was beautiful” without adding, “and a damn good actress” if you want to do her any justice.  Similarly, Shonen Knife is cute, but they are also damn good musicians.  They’ve had the talent and the sense to be around for nearly 30 years now.  That’s longer than Madonna has been around, and, unlike Shonen Knife, Madonna can speak perfect English, sometimes so perfect that there’s an Oxford accent sprinkled here and there.  I’d bet Shonen Knife can drink us (Madonna included) all under the table and, while we’re passed out and drooling on our bar napkins, Naoko would write a song about us called “Drunk Person.”  So cute!

Naoko mentioned in an interview that she likes the performance aspect of punk rock, which is why Shonen Knife always wears matching outfits during their live sets and have synchronized head banging.  On Tuesday, they arrived on stage, neatly single-file, holding up banners bearing their name.  They then took their guitars and drumsticks and proceed to rock the hell out.

They went deep into their catalog and opened with a few early songs: “Riding on a Rocket” and “Catnip Dreams.” In between songs, there were a lot of Arigato!‘s and smiles. Right before they started playing songs from their new album, Naoko politely stated that they will now play songs from their new album, Free Time, and hopefully we will like them.  Yes, of course.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zl-ur8gIelA[/youtube]

Part of the reason for their following, I think, is that their love for rock, food, and cute things is genuine and honest, and you can feel that sincerity through their lyrics.  There is nary an ounce of irony, subtext, cynicsm, or overwrought metaphor in their songs. If, say, an American band sang about this animal

A capybara, for those who don't know their South American rodents. Image used under a Creative Commons license.

accompanied by clashing cymbals and frenzied power chords, we’d juxtapose the cutesy lyrics with the loud music and conclude it was a song about being caged and oppressed by The Man.  No, for Shonen Knife, the medium is the message, but so is the message.  When Naoko introduced “Capybara” to the Spaceland crowd, she explained that she saw this South American animal at a zoo in Japan.  So, “Capybara” is literally about a cute animal caged by man (“South American animal/Always biting grass”).  Nothing more, nothing less.

Similarly, their songs about food – of which there are many – are about their genuine love for food.  At Spaceland, Naoko noted the lovely Los Angeles weather and asked the crowd what they like to put on their BBQs.  The leather jackets were surprisingly shy;  the answer should have been, “RAW MEAT” but the skinny jeans part of the audience shouted out “Tofu!”  Someone else yelled out, “Vegetables,” prompting Naoko to say, “Wow, a lot of vegetarians.”  This was the preface to “BBQ Party,” where the primary chorus is “Pig out!  Pig out! Pig out!  Pig out!”  Yeah, have fun pigging out on tofu and veggies, guys.

If every food blogger could write about food the way Shonen Knife sings about food, then the food blogging world would improve by leaps and bounds.  Witness, for example, Naoko’s lyrical review in “Rock ‘n Roll Cake”, off of Free Time:

Fresh strawberries, banana, and melon
Wrapped and rolled in a soft sponge cake
Flour sugar butter
And eggs
Mix and bake

Roll cake
I want to sleep inside it

Roll cake
Great hibernation

It’s a sponge cake.  She wants to sleep inside it.  For a very long time.  What else do you need to know?

Shonen Knife always said that they want people to feel happy listening to their music, and they, more than Disneyland, consistently achieve that happy high.  Their encore was “Sushi Bar Song”, above, and afterward, they immediately went out to meet their veggie-loving audience and sign merch.  They’re more successful now than they were 30 years ago, but they still have that DIY mentality that harks back to Sid Vicious’ safety pinned shirts (true to form, even their matching stage outfits were personally designed and patterned).  A Shonen Knife concert is one of the happiest places on earth, and I have actually seen a girl cry at the end of one of their concerts – because of what, I’m not sure exactly.  Is it that we really don’t give ourselves permission to be honestly, guiltlessly happy anymore?  If so, that is sad, and if so, thank the punk gods for Shonen Knife.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ba360Dz1sQ[/youtube]

Bonus!  Check out my interview with Shonen Knife here.

Shonen Knife! Tomorrow!! Twice!!!

There are two times, generally, when I’m turned into a little girl: one is when I see Donald Duck at Disneyland (something about that waddle), and the other is when I see super, duper kawaii Japanese pop girl group Shonen Knife.  Kurt Cobain was similarly transfixed when he first heard the band’s Burning Farm album, so much so that he ranked it number 26 on his Top 50 Albums, as listed in his Journals.  Here he is, telling Shonen Knife why he loves them so much and how excited he is that the Japanese trio will join Nirvana on their 1991 UK tour in support of a little album called Nevermind.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNobHg3bhvc[/youtube]

Shonen Knife is The Beatles meets The Ramones meets the grocery store: they sing about their love for banana chips, chocolate, fruits, vegetables, brown mushrooms, pizza, and spam.  They also sing about cats and Barbies, and whatever else strikes their fancy.  Sometimes they cover great bands like The Monkees and The Ramones.  And sometimes I really have no idea what they’re singing about, but as The Magnetic Fields pointed out, nothing matters when we’re dancing.  The band’s brand of infectious pop is coming to LA not once, but twice, tomorrow.  First, they will make an in-store appearance at Amoeba at 5 (free), then they will head over to Spaceland for a proper show (a paltry $12 in advance, $14 at the door).  Seriously, apart from the gross old white dudes who love Shonen Knife a little too hard, I defy you to have more fun at another show this year.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wa95CvhESQ[/youtube]