Let’s ROCK! An interview with Shonen Knife

Shonen Knife are Naoko Yamano (vocals/guitar), Ritsuko Taneda (bass/vocals) and Emi Morimoto (drums/vocals) / Photograph: Akira Shibata.

Since 2008, QAGOMA has worked with Brisbane-based music manager Paul Curtis to co-curate the music program for the Gallery’s Up Late series — a unique way to experience our major exhibitions after hours, with live music, talks and themed dining. We asked Paul to introduce one of the bands for ‘Future Beauty’ Up Late, internationally renowned Shonen Knife.

Japanese contemporary music culture, not unlike Japanese fashion culture, is known for its unique aesthetic, often fuelled by a variety of influences and approaches. One of the many Japanese music assemblages to achieve international notoriety1, Shonen Knife’s unique brand of sugar-pop punk sets them apart from their contemporaries. Drawing influence from the likes of 1960s girl groups, Bubblegum Pop, The Ramones and The Beach Boys, they are driven by a DIY aesthetic and iced over with fun, carefree lyrics covering a range of topics from animals and food to fantasy.

Shonen Knife was formed in Osaka in 1981 by long-term core member Naoko Yamano along with her sister Atsuko and Michie Nakatani. Taken from a Japanese knife brand, the band’s name literally translates to ‘boy knife’, perfectly capturing the mixture of cuteness and danger in their music.

In 1986 one of Shonen Knife’s tracks featured on a Sub Pop compilation in the US, bringing them to the attention of Sonic Youth and Red Kross, who invited them to tour there. Quickly gaining fans among many alt-rock bands of the time, a Shonen Knife tribute album was released in the US in 1989, titled Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them. Two years later, enthusiastic fan Kurt Cobain offered them the support slot on the Nirvana UK tour just prior to the release of Nevermind. Like many others at the time, Naoko had little idea who they were:

. . . so I went to a record store, and I bought their CD. And when I saw their photograph, I thought they might be scary persons, because their hairstyles and their clothes were very grunge. But once the tour had started, I noticed that all the members were nice, good persons.

This tour catapulted them to international cult status and in a sense opened up the world for other Japanese contemporary music artists. With this surge of interest they released their first major album Let’s Knife (Capitol) in August 1992. From there followed a never-ending run of tours and releases, with the trio having just launched album number 19, Overdrive.

Naoko Yamano (vocals/guitar) / Photograph: Akira Shibata

Paul Curtis | Speaking to Naoko prior to their US tour for Overdrive, I asked her a few questions, including how the current touring was going, what she was looking forward to most about their return to Australia in 2015, and what she thought about playing at GOMA:

Naoko Yamano | It’s been going very well. We’ve toured the United Kingdom, Europe and Japan and got good reactions from the audience . . . I’m looking forward to see our fans in Australia. I often see our fans from Australia at our shows in Japan. I’m so happy about that and it’s wonderful. I’ve never played at a major art gallery. Hmm . . . I can’t imagine but I’m so excited.

Paul Curtis | The band has a strong visual identity, especially in a fashion sense, emulating the costume and style of 60s girl groups – more often looking out of Japan, than within, as Naoko reflects:

Naoko Yamano | . . . we are influenced by British and American rock visuals. From the first place, we wore matching costumes. I like 60s and 70s fashion like Yves Saint Laurent, Mary Quant or Pierre Cardin, which is our basic concept for our costumes . . .

Our original drummer, my younger sister Atsuko designs and makes them. She left our band in 2006 because she moved to Los Angeles, but continues to help Shonen Knife. She was a professional designer at a Japanese clothing company in the 90s and her design is cute and comfortable. We get sweaty on stage and our costumes are made from water-repellent cloth.

Paul Curtis | So what came first for Shonen Knife — the look or the sound?

Naoko Yamano | ‘Both are important but the sound is a little more important for me. Music, the vibration of the air, effects to our mind.’

Paul Curtis | In asking what Naoko’s thoughts were on the current Japanese music scene, and what Japanese bands she liked, I discovered she doesn’t listen to much popular Japanese music as she explains . . .

Naoko Yamano | . . . because it isn’t ROCK but there are many cool bands at the underground scene. I’d like to introduce Extruders, Convex Level, Papalion, Red Sneakers . . . they usually play at tiny clubs. It’s difficult to explain but all of their music is unique. I like to listen to 70s British Hard Rock like Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Rainbow, Thin Lizzy, like that.

Paul Curtis | So after 33 years of performing, what keeps Shonen Knife on top of the world?

Naoko Yamano | I just look forward and never look back. I don’t keep myself fresh with conscious. Everything is without conscious and it’s natural . . . I want to keep making happy music. When I see our audience’s happy faces, it’s my favourite moment. I like to play tennis and watch men’s pro-tennis matches. I like to continue as long as I can. I have to keep myself healthy.

Paul Curtis | And finally, what can the Up Late audience expect from your upcoming performance at GOMA in January?

Naoko Yamano | We’ll play some songs from our new album Overdrive and play best hit songs, too. Our present members are great performers and everybody at our show can enjoy and be happy through our music. Let’s ROCK!

Shonen Knife are Naoko Yamano (vocals/guitar), Ritsuko Taneda (bass/vocals) and Emi Morimoto (drums/vocals). They perform at Future Beauty Up Late on Friday 23 January 2015. You can purchase your tickets in advance at qtix.

1  These include the freeform nature of The Boredom’s noise/punk melange and their spiral-structured, percussion-based psychedelia; the experimental pop generated by the likes of Buffalo Daughter or Cornelius; the space-trekking electronic dub convergence of Audio Active, and the doom/sludge pop of Boris; the atmospheric hip-hop of DJ Krush and bizarre J-Pop world of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu; the electronic future sounds of Ken Ishii and Towa Tei and ‘the new stereophonic sound spectacular’ of Pizzicato Five’s homage to 1960s pop and lounge jazz; Fantastic Plastic Machine’s twisted take on bossa nova and French pop; Melt-Banana’s mix of grindcore, pop and electronica; The’ surf/garage rock; and the mutant-big-band ska of the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra.