Music » Music Stories & Interviews

Beloved Japanese cult band and alt-rock influencers Shonen Knife return to the United States

Adventure time



In 1981, Osaka's Naoko Yamano floated the idea of starting a punk band to her younger sister Atsuko Yamano. At the very least, it was a long shot; punk was a scarce commodity on the island at that point, all-female bands even more so. And yet, fast-forward 36 years later and bandleader Naoko (guitar/vocals) and Atsuko (formerly drums, now bass) Yamano have helmed Shonen Knife from the humble beginnings of their Minna Tanoshiku cassette debut in 1982, through a brush with worldwide alternative rock fame in the '90s, to their current perch high atop the cult-rock canon.

To fully understand the Shonen Knife phenomenon, albums like Rock Animals and Burning Farm are good jumping-on points, but live is where they truly shine, a Technicolor explosion of Ramones-y urgency and immediacy and cybernetic Shangri-Las stagewear. (It's easy to see why they reportedly made Nirvana's Kurt Cobain cry with joy the first time he saw them in concert – soon after he invited them out on tour.) The band has rocked the pop-art, haute-punk outfits Atsuko Yamano designs and stitches since the beginning. This year's costumes are part of Shonen Knife's "2017 USA Ramen Adventure Tour" in which Naoko and Atsuko Yamano and drummer Risa Kawano tour the states, and in their off-hours sample and review ramen dishes from each city on the tour.

Naoko Yamano's current choice of favorite band T-shirt ("Judas Priest") and how "Imi (Emoji)" from Adventure reminds us of the late Lemmy Kilmister comes as no surprise – she listens to and is inspired by '60s and '70s heavy rock, saying, "I prefer major '70s music now rather than underground. I like Ramones, Buzzcocks and Raincoats. For major bands, I listen to Judas Priest, Heaven & Hell, KISS, Boston, Chicago, ZZ Top, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Doobie Brothers and classic rock."

In contrast to that classic rock playlist, in the late '80s and early '90s, Shonen Knife – a band named after a brand of pencil sharpener knives – were simultaneously playing with and acting as inspiration to musicians within the alt-rock and punk scenes; heavy hitters like Fugazi, Sonic Youth and Nirvana were unabashed and vocal fans. Mainly rocking the indie label over the last three decades, the band's 1992 Let's Knife album was released in the States by Virgin Records. Previous to that, in 1989, tribute album Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them was released: a grand meta project wherein 23 underground bands (L7, Lunachicks, Redd Kross) tried their hand at the Shonen Knife songbook. Thankfully, and perhaps unexpectedly, the band lasted through the alternative rock boom and crash, releasing over 20 albums across three decades.

Though Shonen Knife has stood the test of time celebrating the brighter, cuter things in life with straightforward lyrics underneath seriously hooky rock and pop-punk sounds (see "Cotton Candy Clouds" from Adventure, "All You Can Eat" from Pop Tune, etc.), Naoko Yamano says she is surprised at how many years have passed, and is humbled when asked about the band's accomplishments, admitting, "Accomplishment is a little too heavy for me." However, fan loyalty and overall satisfaction hits a sweet spot (kind of), as she admits, "I sometimes hear from our fans that they got happy because of our music. It's very honorable for me, but basically I'm lazy and don't have any concrete purpose."

Happiness, as a Shonen Knife priority, extends to the stage, where one of Naoko Yamano's favorite aspects of performing occurs: noticing faces in the audience marked by joy. She explains, "If people get happy through our music, I'm happy too. That's why I sing about positive things."

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