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40 years of Japanese rockers Shonen Knife: β€˜Nirvana looked wild – I was so scared!’ | Music

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Vvery few rock groups reach 40 years old. And for Shonen Knife, that landmark seems all the more unlikely – there haven’t been many all-female rock groups in Japan who have turned their obsession with junk food, cute animals, and the Ramones into a career. international.

Their breakthrough came with the 1992 Let’s Knife, released in Britain by Creation Records shortly after a career-changing tour with Nirvana. It was a punk album like no other, with lyrical observations about the envy singer Naoko Yamano felt for exotic American girls with blond hair and blue eyes, as well as a pontification on the most frivolous joys of life: eating candy, riding a bike, fishing for black bass, and – less aptly – becoming a cat and growing whiskers.

β€œI was too embarrassed to write songs about love,” says Naoko, 60, as we sit in the Tokyo offices of Japanese label Shonen Knife to reflect on the past 40 years. β€œInstead, I wanted to write about the topics that were important to me, like candy and delicious food, or cute animals. I’m not really a very deep thinker, so I just want to write music that will make people happy.

Shonen Knife was formed in 1981 when Naoko and her school friend Michie Nakatani cemented their love for The Beatles, Jam and Ramones into something all their own. With Naoko on guitar and Nakatani on bass, they enlisted Naoko’s younger sister, Atsuko, on drums.

Shonen Knife at a festival in Osaka in 1984.
Shonen Knife at a festival in Osaka in 1984.

The trio first entered a small room at the Rock Inn rehearsal studio in Osaka on December 29, 1981. rehearsal, where they performed covers of songs by British punk and pop groups such as Delta 5, Buzzcocks and Mo- debts. Then, in March 1982, they performed their first concert in a small venue in Osaka, where young Atsuko became so nervous that she erupted from a rash.

Among the seven or eight songs they played that night was Parallel Woman, the first song Naoko ever wrote. Released later on their 1983 album Burning Farm, Parallel Woman set the pattern for Shonen Knife’s approach to songwriting, with detailed observational lyrics about Naoko’s experience working in a factory. while dreaming of revealing her true identity as a rock ‘n’ roll superheroine – the banal fantasy writing. In a punk scene where the bands scolded lyrics about class warfare, drugs, sex and violence, Naoko and Nakatani wrote overwhelmingly positive, innocent, and fun songs, making their music even more disarming.

“Shonen Knife’s embrace of everyday kitsch has shown that alternative music doesn’t have to be dark and impenetrable – and that well-constructed pop isn’t just the preserve of crack writers.” , says Gus Lobban of London-based pop group Kero. Kero Bonito. He hails songs such as I Wanna Eat Chocobars as “colorful and jagged and hummable at the same time – they still feel brazenly subversive today,” and says their attitude “changed my perception of what the phrase might be. DIY ”.

With the advent of music streaming and social media decades away, Shonen Knife has managed to build a solid following in the United States and Europe. During a visit to Japan in the mid-1980s, Calvin Johnson – founder of K Records, a label steeped in Washington state’s indie, punk and grunge scenes – discovered a first Shonen Knife record in a store. Tokyo Records and, finding Naoko’s home address printed on the inside sleeve, wrote her a letter offering to release an expanded version of Burning Farm in the United States. This 1985 cassette release led to the endorsement of alternative rock leaders Sonic Youth, L7, Babes in Toyland, and Redd Kross, who all covered Shonen Knife songs for the 1989 Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who compilation. Loves Them.

Then, at Kurt Cobain’s personal request, Shonen Knife toured with Nirvana in late 1991 – just as they were becoming the biggest band in the world. β€œI didn’t know who Nirvana was before that, but they looked wild, and I was so scared, so I didn’t want to tour with them at first,” Naoko laughs. β€œBut at the end of the tour, we became friends. Kurt Cobain gave him everything he had every night, screaming and playing guitar so loud, so I really respected Nirvana’s attitude to music. The other support group, Captain America, was bombarded with cups by the audience during a concert in Kilburn, London. “But since we were all women and came from a far country, the audience treated us more politely.”

Cobain, for his part, praised Shonen Knife’s performance on this tour. β€œI’ve never been so thrilled in my life,” he told Melody Maker. “They play pop music – pop, pop, pop music.”

Shonen knife with Nirvana in Osaka in 1992.
Shonen knife with Nirvana in Osaka in 1992. Photography: RP

A newly converted fan in the audience at London’s Kilburn National Ballroom on December 5, 1991, was comedian Stewart Lee. β€œIt’s easy to forget – before the internet – how Kurt Cobain’s patronage acted like a sort of bush telegraph,” recalls Lee.

β€œUnder normal circumstances, a Japanese female powerpop trio inspired by the Ramones would be a tough sell in anything other than a novelty, but Cobain used her stardom to push tons of extremely interesting music down the line. I have loved Shonen Knife ever since.

Lee booked them for the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival he organized in 2016. β€œThey arrived, Naoko still at the helm at 55, in futuristic space gear, and sent big waves of joy 1-2-3 -4 to the crowd. Women were marginalized figures in the era of music from which Shonen Knife emerged, and they were, and still are, true trailblazers.

Following the Nirvana tour, the release of Let’s Knife in 1992 was set for Western success, the first of many albums to be recorded entirely in English. Slight grammatical errors or strange pronunciations are part of the charm of Shonen Knife, reinforcing the innocence of their sound.

β€œI don’t want to sing perfectly in English,” says Naoko. “I prefer to look original.”

If such a happy band can have a dark time, for Shonen Knife it started in the mid-1990s. The band went without a label in Europe for over a decade from 1994, then in 1999, Nakatani – the bassist, co-founder and songwriter of the group – resigned after their wonderful album Happy Hour, citing the tension of touring.

Despite this difficult time, Naoko says she never considered surrendering. β€œMichie’s departure was a bit difficult for me, but I felt I had to move on,” she says. β€œWhen people become happy with our music, it makes me happy too. That’s why I make music. This is what motivates me to continue. I never even thought about giving up.

After Nakatani left, Naoko’s sister Atsuko switched from drums to bass, opening a revolving door of supporting drummers, and later in 2006, she herself left the band for an extended period to move to Los Angeles. Atsuko is back in the group now, but Naoko has been the only consistent member.

Naoko Yamano earlier this year.
Naoko Yamano earlier this year. Photography: Akira Shibata

Despite all of these obstacles, Shonen Knife has released music regularly since its formation, and in 2009 they signed with UK label Damnably, ending their wild years in Britain. Having also joined Good Charmel, the US label run by Goo Goo Dolls bassist Robby Takac, it marked the start of a joyous new era in Shonen Knife’s career: they have released eight new studio albums since 2007 and made around the world several times for a new generation. of fans.

β€œOver the years I have been involved with Shonen Knife first simply as a fan, then later as a label owner, producer, roadie, van driver and after many outings and tours, as than friends, ”says Takac. β€œI have always been struck by the commitment, dedication and attention to detail that Naoko and the band have shown.

Naoko and Atsuko are now joined by the always radiant Risa Kawano on drums. The band are already planning their next album, which Naoko hints could have a psychedelic influence from the late Beatles.

β€œIf people look back and say, ‘There was this really fun group from Osaka,’ that’s enough for me,” she says of their heritage. I ask her what advice she would give her 40-year-old now. β€œI don’t have any advice,” she laughs. β€œI am very free and I am not serious. So even if I gave some advice to Naoko, the youngest 40 years old, she would not follow them, and I would not follow hers!

I ask her if she has a favorite Shonen Knife album or song, but she also pushes it down: “The next album will be the best.” Etc. β€œI never look back and never regret,” she said, adding that she will probably never retire. β€œIf I can live another 40 years, I can be the oldest rock musician in the world,” she laughs. β€œThe happiest memory is still in the future. “

Shonen Knife will play 18 shows across the UK April 13

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