Not many bands can say that Grunge heavyweights Nirvana were fans of their music, but for Japanese punk-rock trio Shonen Knife they can do just that. Formed in Osaka in 1981, they began to make waves overseas after their second album Burning Farm got into the hands of an American music producer by chance. The album was released in America in 1985 and things began to move forward very quickly for the band after that.
They gained a lot of recognition abroad, and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was just one of the big-name musicians to profess his love for the band and their music. In 1991 Shonen Knife were asked to tour with Nirvana as their opening act during their UK tour and also toured with them in America in 1993. The band have been going strong since then, releasing 19 studio albums the latest of which, Adventure, came out in the UK and Europe this month through independent record label Damnably.
They have been in the business for 35 years and are, without a doubt, one of the pioneers of Japanese rock music in the West. Leader Naoko Yamano, original bassist Atsuko Yamano, and new drummer Risa are touring the UK right now to promote their album and celebrate their 35th anniversary as a band. MCM Buzz had the chance to talk to the group at their “secret” London show ahead of the tour.
Your new album Adventure continues to use the ’70s rock style of your previous album Overdrive, why did you decide to continue using this theme?
Naoko Yamano: “Our last album Overdrive was inspired by ’70s music, and for this new album our music is more developed from Overdrive. I like ’70s British hard-rock a lot so I was inspired by many of these bands when it came to both albums.”
Which particular bands are you inspired by?
NY: “In terms of British hard rock bands I like Judas Priest, Ronnie James Dio, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Rainbow.
Many of your songs focus on food, and in your latest album you have three songs on the topic: wasabi, green tangerines and cotton candy. Why do you like to write about food so much?
NY: “I think many bands write about love but I am too embarrassed to write about it so I sing about food instead. It is an important part of life for everyone, and it is very easy for people around the world to understand regardless of language barriers. Everyone loves delicious food! Although this time we sing about wasabi and it’s not really delicious but very spicy!”
2016 marks the band’s 35th anniversary, how does it feel to have been performing in the band for this long and achieving the level of success that you have?
NY: “I have not been very conscious of the fact that it is our 35th anniversary, and I don’t want to think about it. Many people may be surprised, and will think we are very old! Our label guy wanted to put on something special for our tour, but I don’t mind what anniversary it is!”
What is the meaning behind your band name?
NY: “Shonen Knife is a brand name of pencil knife in Japan and it’s very tiny so it’s cute but since it’s a knife it is very dangerous. So the combination is cute and dangerous, which is just like our music. Now it is not so difficult to explain the word shonen to international audiences since people are aware that the word shonen means boy in Japanese thanks to many manga and anime.”
Atsuko, this is your first time touring with the band in the UK since 1993. What is it like to be back with them again?
Atsuko Yamano: “I am very excited to be touring with the band again. Last time I helped Shonen Knife sell t-shirts and I played a couple of songs as a guest, but this time I play the bass for the whole tour, so I am looking forward to seeing people.”
NY: “Last year in June we had an American tour with C J Ramone and Atsuko played the bass for Shonen Knife all through that tour because our former bassist Ritsuko had to take child-care leave so she got to join us then.”
You also returned to the band to play the bass for the recording of your latest album. How many songs did you perform for?
AY: “I played eight songs on Adventure; Ritsuko played for one song and then our other bassist Naru played on the other one.”
NY: “Since Ristuko and Naru live in Japan and Atsuko lives in Los Angeles they play for Shonen Knife in Japan.”
Risa, you are quite a new member to the band and you’ve said that you were a big fan of Shonen Knife when you were growing up. What’s it like to be part of a band that you admire so much?
Risa: “It’s amazing! I am very happy and excited to play with them.”
AY: “It is her first tour abroad!”
R: “It’s my first time in the UK as well, and I really like it. It is my first foreign country too.”
NY: “Since we arrived in London, she’s said everyday, ‘Wow it’s so beautiful, I’m so happy!’ and telling us how much she likes London. We arrived on 10 April and we got to sightsee a little bit, going to the London Eye, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace.”
Do you find that your international fans react to your music differently to your Japanese fans?
NY: “I think the reaction of the audience is the same; it doesn’t depend on countries but cities. In some cities people are very energetic and in others they are just smiling. So places like Osaka the audience is very happy and are dancing a lot, but in cities like New York or Tokyo they are more polite.”
Naoko you write the music and lyrics for the band, where do you find inspiration for them?
NY: “I like the Beatles a lot so when I was a Junior High School student I started to listen to music and them and they were the most inspiring for me. I also like to listen to Kiss or ’70s hard rock bands, so they influence me. But for my own lyrics I don’t have any special bands who inspire me, it is my own style. I write them about my daily life or I found topics that I can talk about.”
Naoko you’re a big tennis fan and wrote a song for your last album about the sport. As a big fan of tennis and rock music I really loved that combination. Do you think you would ever write about tennis again?
NY: “Do you like Andy Murray? Kei Nishikori is great!”
MCM Buzz: “I love him, but my favourite is Juan Carlos Ferrero who is now retired so I don’t know if you know him.”
NY: “We know him! He’s very handsome. I would love to write about tennis again. When our last UK tour finished two years ago Atsuko was there to help us with merchandise so we went to see the Aegon Championships in Queens and it was really good. There were many of my favourite tennis players there like Ernest Gulbis, Feliciano Lopez, and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. It was a lot of fun, so I should write another song about tennis! If Kei Nishikori plays in the London finals I will definitely come back.”
You have received the praise of many big bands over the years, and some even took part in covering your songs for the tribute album Everyone Has A Shonen Knife That Loves Them. Kurt Cobain was a particularly big fan of yours, and got you to tour with Nirvana. What is it like to have so many bands support you?
NY: “It was an honour for us. I don’t know why those bands decided to support us but I would love to thank all of them. We also toured with Nirvana twice, the first time was in 1991 in the UK and the second one was in America in 1993. The first tour with them was just when they were becoming big, since Nevermind had just come out, so every show was packed. At the time it was the very first long tour for Shonen Knife, we played for three weeks which we had never done before and we did not know how to tour for that long. So every day they supported us and gave us advice, and every night the members of Nirvana – especially Kurt Cobain – would come and watch our show besides the stage so I was really happy about that.”
Shonen Knife’s latest album Adventure is out through Damnably now, and the band’s tour continues until next month.