Shonen Knife’s Naoko Yamano talks to TRIN about Kurt Cobain, Lemmy Kilmister, and singing about “delicious food and cute animals.”
Words By Aldus Santos
Illustration by MC Galang
It’s strange but it’s true. Of the many stages Shonen Knife has graced around the world, the seminal Japanese punk outfit hasn’t played Okinawa yet. Singer-guitarist Naoko Yamano has thus far only managed one visit; she did some sightseeing and thought it was wonderful, with its “great nature and friendly people.” All this will finally get rectified when the band headlines Music Lane, a festival-conference hybrid happening February 20 and 21.
Since its inception in 1981, the Osaka trio has been resolutely no-frills, adopting a tasty amalgam of ‘60s girl-group harmonies, New Wave, and generous helpings of Ramones and Buzzcocks to great effect. One can even say the band has written the same record, what, twenty-two times over now. But really, Shonen Knife’s longevity is the best reminder we have of the potency of the visceral, so no one’s complaining.
“[Our] melody lines are pop and simple, and the lyrics are easy to understand for all people in the world,” Naoko tells The Rest Is Noise, stressing how their preference for the prosaic (“We sing about delicious food and cute animals,” she half-kids), penchant for irony, and their ever-colorful garb have all contributed to their mythos. “We are an all-girl Japanese group with matching costumes,” she says in almost-audible deadpan, and you just know they wield this self-awareness like a blade.
And while there’s a Shonen Knife tune for every inebriated moment, the music—whether it’s originals or their adorable takes on hits like “Top of the World,” “Blitzkrieg Pop,” or “Beat It” (which they gleefully mangles as “Eat It”)—has always had a stunning lucidity. It’s fun, it’s seriously unserious, and it’s sexy. The world beyond Osaka knew as much since 1983, when the band put out its English-language debut “Twist Barbie,” a take-no-prisoners celebration of feminine sexuality.
A song which, incidentally, Kurt Cobain dug.
In 1991, Nirvana enlisted Shonen Knife as an opener on their U.K. tour. Naoko didn’t know who the band was but was floored when she finally got to catch them live. “During the tour, Kurt wanted to play my song ‘Twist Barbie’ at [a] secret gig. I taught him the guitar chords and I was surprised that he learned [them] very quickly,” Naoko recalls of the late singer, whom she described as “quiet but friendly.”
Much of Shonen Knife’s popularity beyond Japan has been attributed to the giddy endorsement of Cobain, who upon catching Naoko and company for the first time claimed he “turned into a nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert, […] crying and jumping up and down and tearing my hair out.”
Raves from other luminaries—including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and famed English DJ John Peel—followed suit, and a mere year later, Shonen Knife would be signed to Capitol (through which they’d put out Let’s Knife), play Reading alongside Nirvana and Mudhoney, and rejoin the Seattle big boys on a Midwestern American tour in support of this obscure little record called Nevermind.
They would eventually go on the road with other top-tier acts, including their heroes the Ramones: no small detail for a band who’s occasionally billed themselves as the “Osaka Ramones” and has cut a full record of covers of that band’s songs. People like Lemmy freaking Kilmister went out of their way to catch Shonen when they’re in town, so yeah, they aren’t short in up-there names on their guest list.
“I’m happy to [get] good [opportunities} to see great musicians and I’m just [thankful] to them,” Naoko says.
But far from the Western gaze, Shonen Knife has remained prolific in their home base, peeling away at their brand of punk with sustained relish. And if their newer releases are any indication, nobody can accuse the band of resting on their laurels. Riff-based hard rock, for instance, are in great abundance on Overdrive (2014) and Adventure (2016), while their latest, Sweet Candy Power (2019), goes all encyclopedic in its display of Mersey beat, garage, and Southern rock.
“I like classic rock [and I’m] basically inspired by such music and [the punk spirit],” Naoko volunteers. The singer-guitarist may be rockist to a certain degree—an analog, hard-rock apologist who thinks desktops and rock just don’t mix—but one can’t help but swoon when she reticently asks, “I think we’re developed, too, don’t you think?”
If all that hairsplitting sounds too abstract for the Shonen-uninitiated, fret not, because the band’s much-awaited invasion of Okinawa is nigh. The group’s Japanese touring lineup, flanking Naoko, includes bassists Ritsuko Taneda and Naru Ishisuka, alongside drummer Risa Kawano. Original bassist Atsuko Yamano, now based in L.A., often sits in for American shows.
But no matter, Naoko shares, because “Each member has their [own character of playing]. Even [when playing] the same song, everyone has their [own] taste.” Though she differentiates the old lineup as having a “primitive charm” and the present personnel as being “improved and powerful,” the key thing, she shares, is to “make people happy through music.”
The band promises to play different sets, including their “best hits,” in the two shows they’re slated to perform. “I can’t wait to play in Okinawa,” the original Twist Barbie of Osaka half-shrieks.
Music Lane from Okinawa and Trans Asia Music Meeting are organized and produced by Music from Okinawa, Music Town Oto-Ichiba, and Sakurazaka Theater. For Japan-based music fans who wish to attend the live shows, you can purchase tickets from their website.