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Shonen Knife stays sharp after decades of rock

Tour marks Japanese power trio's 35th anniversary

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In 1981, three female office workers in Osaka, Japan, inspired by the punk rock sounds rumbling out of Britain and America, started their own band. Over buzz-saw guitars, pumping bass and ricocheting drums, Shonen Knife — consisting of Naoko Yamano, her younger sister Atsuko and Michie Nakatani — burst on the indie-music scene, singing with infectious enthusiasm about food, insect collecting, cats and more food. Amid a sea of sound-alike safety-pinned and leather-jacketed punkers, the trio's innocent yet rollicking tunes sounded weirdly subversive.

Three and a half decades later, Shonen Knife is celebrating its 35th anniversary with a world tour, a family reunion and a new record, Adventure. The album's title serves as a neat summation of the pop-punk power trio's surprising, eventful and unconventional career.

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To hear Shonen Knife's founder and leader Yamano tell it, launching an all-female punk band in the conservative environs of 1980s Japan wasn't easy.

"My parents were against my band in the beginning," Yamano says, noting that her mother couldn't bear the stigma of the neighbors seeing her daughter carrying an electric guitar. "But after we released an album from a major record label, (my parents) began to understand. They became much more supportive."

In 1985, the indie American label K Records released the trio's Burning Farm cassette, setting the stage for their maiden voyage to the U.S. in 1989.

"Going overseas to play a show was a big adventure for us," Yamano recalls. "At the time, there was no internet so I exchanged snail mail with our U.S. record label to set up (the show)."

At their first gig in Los Angeles, the trio was shocked that so many people had come to see them. Nor did they expect to attract the attention of illustrious – and influential — fans.

"When I finally got to see them live," said Kurt Cobain during an interview for Melody Maker in 1991, "I was transformed into a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert."

"I didn't know Kurt, L7 or Sonic Youth before we went to America," Yamano admits. "Now I'm very honored that they liked our music."

America's burgeoning alternative scene in the late '80s and early '90s embraced Shonen Knife as one of their own. The former office clerks toured with Nirvana, Sonic Youth and The Breeders.

Their cheerfully tacky "Riding on the Rocket" video played regularly on MTV's 120 Minutes and their exuberant cover of "Top of the World" stole the thunder from bigger-name acts like Sheryl Crow on the 1994 Carpenters tribute album, If I Were a Carpenter.

Shonen Knife
  • Shonen Knife

In the decades since, Shonen Knife has released close to 20 albums, all boasting the band's boisterous and catchy pop rock confections, a sound best summed up by the title of their 2007 release, fun! fun! fun! For the band's latest set, Adventure, Yamano's sister Atsuko, who left the band in 2008 to get married, returns to the fold.

"When our former full time bassist, Ritsuko, left on maternity leave, I had to find a bassist who can do a long overseas tour," Yamano explains. Atsuko, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband, signed up for the U.S. leg of the tour, and Yamano couldn't be happier. "I wanted to tour with someone who made me comfortable. When Atsuko and I share a hotel room, we can both relax."

The Yamano's sisterly reunion is not the only personnel change in Shonen Knife's ranks. After their longtime drummer left last year, the band discovered Risa Kawano at a gig, playing in their opening band Binky. Like Shonen Knife, Binky was a family affair, Yamano says. "Risa played with her younger sister and father. They're enthusiastic Shonen Knife fans and they cover our songs. As soon as I saw their set, I knew Risa was the perfect drummer for us."

Hiring the new band member naturally fell to Yamano, who's been the taskmaster and undisputed leader of Shonen Knife since the group's inception.

"My job is writing songs, doing the arrangements, thinking up album concepts, drawing flyers and making the schedules. It's very do-it-yourself," she says.

Yamano also composes all the songs, writing the lyrics in English before setting them to melodies.

"I record the songs using the 'voice memo' on my iPhone," she says. "I keep it very simple - just me singing and playing my guitar. I email files of the lyrics and guitar chords with the voice memo to the other members."

In the studio, the band fine-tunes the songs' arrangements. Everyone plays together live on the floor, but they isolate each instrument and marry them to click tracks.

"Anything that needs fixing we do in overdubs," Yamano says.

With their stripped-down melodic attack, Shonen Knife frequently draws comparisons to The Ramones. Yamano and her band mates even acknowledged that influence with an album of Ramones covers, 2011's Osaka Ramones. But for the new album, the band has broadened its palette.

"Adventure is Shonen Knife passing through the 60s and the 70s," she maintains, citing Judas Priest, KISS, The Beatles, Paul McCartney's Wings, The Four Seasons, Chicago and The Doobie Brothers as her current favorites.

Despite personnel changes and a growing list of musical inspirations, some elements remain constant in the band's recorded oeuvre. Adventure wouldn't be a proper Shonen Knife album without songs about food. True to form, the album contains three paeans to consumables — including the signature Japanese condiment "Wasabi".

"I've already written lots of songs about chocolate and candies, so I was looking for a more timely topic of my lyrics. I (noticed that) Wasabi is getting popular in western society."

Yamano says writing "Wasabi" is her effort to make the spicy condiment popular throughout the world.

On "Cotton Candy Clouds," Yamano sings the praises of the fluffy confection, which is still not common in Japan. "I love cotton candy. I get opportunities to eat it when I'm on tour."

"Green Tangerine (Kabosu)" takes its title from produce local to Japan's Oita prefecture, the home turf of new drummer Risa. "I got Kabosu green tangerines from Risa's mother and they are delicious. They taste like limes."

In their decades-long career, Shonen Knife has recorded an impressive array of songs about cats — "I Am A Cat," "Catnip Dream," "Giant Kitty," and "Like A Cat."

"There are so many cat lovers in the world," says Yamano, explaining the band's focus on felines, adding that she likes cats "because they are cute and selfish."

In a departure from form, the trio has tracked no new cat songs for their current collection. No worries though, because Shonen Knife still gives a shout-out to pet lovers with the crunchy canine-themed rocker "Dog Fight."

Shonen Knife
  • Shonen Knife

After 35 years of rocking and still counting, Shonen Knife remains upbeat, enthusiastic and energetic. An unforced innocence remains key to their appeal. Though Yamano and her colleagues seem to view the world through a child's eyes, she maintains she's never made a conscious decision to do so, and that purity and optimism may come naturally to her and her band mates.

"I look at the world through the eyes of someone my age," she says, "but I try to keep my outlook fresh."

Shonen Knife Discography

This Japanese trio is a cult band if there ever was one, and if you haven't heard of them, you've got a lot of catching up to do.

1982 Minna Tanoshiku Release date: August 15, 1982, Label: Independent, Format: Cassette

1983 Burning Farm Release date: July 21, 1983, US re-release date: June 1985, Label: Zero Records/K Records, Format: LP/CD. The album that introduced Shonen Knife to America. Kurt Cobain included it in his list of top 50 albums of all time.

1984 Yama-no Attchan Release date: May 25, 1984 Label: Zero, Format: LP/CD

1986 Pretty Little Baka Guy Release date: June 20, 1986 Re-release date: September 25, 1991, Label: Zero/Tokuma Japan, Format: LP/CD

1991 712 Release date: July 1, 1991 US re-release date: August 1991 Label: Nippon Crown/Gasatanka/Rockville Format: CD

1992 Let's KnifeRelease date: August 29, 1992, US release date: January 26, 1993, Label: MCA Victor/Capitol Records, Format: CD. Consisting of re-recorded versions of existing Shonen Knife songs plus a handful of new tunes, this is the album that launched Shonen Knife on the world stage. For those new to the band, this is the best place to start.

1993 Rock Animals Release date: September 8, 1993, UK release date: January 10, 1994, US release date: January 25, 1994, Label: MCA Victor/Creation-August Records/Virgin, Format: CD

1996 Brand New Knife Release date: August 21, 1996, US release date: March 13, 1997, Label: MCA Victor/Big Deal, Format: CD

1997 Happy HourRelease date: June 24, 1998, Label: Big Deal, Format: CD/cassette

2000 Strawberry SoundRelease date: February 20, 2000, Label: Universal/MCA, Format: CD

2002 Heavy SongsRelease date: February 2002, Label: Confidential, Format: CD

2003 Candy Rock Release date: May 22, 2003, Label: Warner Indies Network, Format: CD. One of Shonen Knife's few albums not to be released in the U.S. All songs are sung in Japanese

2005 Genki Shock! Release date: June 3, 2005, US release date: Apr 11, 2006, Label: Glue Factory, Format: CD

2007 fun! fun! fun! Release date: July 6, 2007, Label: Blues Interactions, Format: CD

2007 Super Group Release date: August 11, 2007, Label: P-Vine, Damnably, Good Charamel Records, Format: CD

2010 Free TimeRelease date: January 2010, Label: P-Vine, Damnably, Good Charamel Records, Format: CD

2011 Osaka RamonesRelease date: July 19, 2011, Label: P-Vine, Damnably, Good Charamel Records, Format: CD. The cover art is an homage to The Ramone's Road to Ruin.

2012 Pop Tune Release date: June 6, 2012, Label: P-Vine, Damnably, Good Charamel Records, Format: CD

2014 Overdrive Release date: April 14, 2014, Label: P-Vine, Damnably, Good Charamel Records, Valve Records, Format: CD

2016 AdventureRelease date: April 1, 2016, Label: P-Vine, Damnably, Good Charamel Records, Valve Records, Format: CD

Related Releases

1994 - Various Artists - If I Were a Carpenter A tribute to The Carpenters featuring covers of Richard and Karen's tunes by Grant Lee Buffalo, Cracker, The Cranberries and more. Shonen Knife contributes a blistering take on "Top of the World"

1998 - Various Artists - Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them A compilation of Shonen Knife covers, played by members of America's alternative rock scene – L7, Sonic Youth, Lunachicks, Redd Kross and more

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