40 years of Japanese rockers Shonen Knife: ‘Nirvana looked wild – I was so scared!’

With songs about jellybeans and feline transformations, the Osaka band brought joy and fun to a serious punk-rock scene. After decades of cult hits, frontwoman Naoko Yamano explains why she wants to end up the world’s oldest rock star

Very few rock bands make it to 40 years. And for Shonen Knife, this landmark seems all the more unlikely – there haven’t been many all-women rock bands from Japan who turned their obsession with junk food, cute animals and Ramones into an international career.

Their breakthrough came with 1992’s Let’s Knife, released in Britain by Creation Records shortly after a career-changing tour with Nirvana. It was a punk album like no other, featuring lyrical observations on the envy frontwoman Naoko Yamano felt for exotic American girls with blond hair and blue eyes, alongside pontification on life’s more frivolous joys: eating jellybeans, riding a bicycle, fishing for black bass, and – rather less relatably – becoming a cat and growing whiskers.

“I was too embarrassed to write songs about love,” says Naoko, 60, as we sit in the Tokyo office of Shonen Knife’s Japanese record label to reflect on the past 40 years. “Instead, I wanted to write about the topics that were important to me, like sweets and delicious food, or cute animals. I’m not really a very deep thinker, so I just want to write music that will make people feel happy.”

Shonen Knife formed in 1981 when Naoko and her schoolfriend Michie Nakatani cemented their love for the Beatles, the Jam and Ramones into something of their own. With Naoko on guitar and Nakatani on bass, they enlisted Naoko’s younger sister, Atsuko, on drums.

Shonen Knife performing at a festival in Osaka in 1984.
Shonen Knife performing at a festival in Osaka in 1984. Photograph: PR

The trio entered a tiny room at the Rock Inn rehearsal studio in Osaka for the first time on 29 December 1981. “It felt good to hear the guitar and bass coming through the amplifiers, and the loud drum sound,” recalls Naoko of that first rehearsal, where they played covers of songs by British punk and pop bands such as Delta 5, Buzzcocks and Mo-dettes. Then, in March 1982, they played their first gig at a small Osaka venue, where young Atsuko became so overpowered by nerves that she broke out in a rash.

Among the seven or eight songs they played that night was Parallel Woman, the first song Naoko ever wrote. Later released on their 1983 album Burning Farm, Parallel Woman set the template for Shonen Knife’s approach to songwriting, with detailed observational lyrics about Naoko’s experience of working in a factory while dreaming of revealing her true identity as a rock’n’roll superheroine – the mundane writ fantastic. In a punk scene where bands snarled lyrics about class war, drugs, sex and violence, Naoko and Nakatani wrote songs that were overwhelmingly positive, innocent and fun, making their music all the more disarming.

“Shonen Knife’s embrace of everyday kitsch showed that alternative music didn’t have to be doomy and impenetrable – and that well-constructed pop wasn’t just the preserve of crack backroom writers,” says Gus Lobban, of London-based pop band Kero Kero Bonito. He hails songs such as I Wanna Eat Chocobars as “colourful, ragged and hummable all at once – they still feel cheekily subversive today,” and says their attitude “altered my perception of what DIY expression could be”.

With the advent of music streaming and social media still decades away, Shonen Knife managed to build a strong following in the US and Europe. During a visit to Japan in the mid 80s, Calvin Johnson – founder of K Records, a label at the heart of the indie, punk and grunge scenes in Washington state – discovered an early Shonen Knife record at a Tokyo record shop and, finding Naoko’s home address printed on the inner sleeve, wrote her a letter offering to release an expanded version of Burning Farm in the US. This 1985 cassette release led to endorsements from alternative-rock leaders Sonic Youth, L7, Babes in Toyland and Redd Kross, who all covered Shonen Knife songs for the 1989 compilation Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them.

Then, at the personal request of Kurt Cobain, Shonen Knife toured with Nirvana in late 1991 – just as they were becoming the biggest band in the world. “I didn’t know who Nirvana were before that, but they looked wild, and I was so scared, so I didn’t want to tour with them at first,” laughs Naoko. “But by the end of the tour we became friends. Kurt Cobain gave it everything he had every night, screaming and playing guitar so hard, so I respected Nirvana’s attitude towards playing music a lot.” The other support band, Captain America, were pelted with cups by the audience at a gig in Kilburn, London. “But since we were all female and we had come from a faraway country, the audience treated us more politely.”

Cobain, for his part, raved about Shonen Knife’s performances on that tour. “I’ve never been so thrilled in my whole life,” he told Melody Maker. “They play pop music – pop, pop, pop music.”

Shonen Knife with Nirvana in Osaka in 1992.
Shonen Knife with Nirvana in Osaka in 1992. Photograph: PR

One newly converted fan in the audience at London’s Kilburn National Ballroom on 5 December 1991, was the comedian Stewart Lee. “It’s easy to forget – before the internet – how Kurt Cobain’s patronage acted as a kind of bush telegraph,” recalls Lee.

“Under normal circumstances, a female Japanese Ramones-inflected powerpop trio would be a hard sell in any capacity other than as a novelty, but Cobain used his celebrity to push loads of massively worthwhile music over the line. I’ve loved Shonen Knife ever since.”

Lee booked them for the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival he curated in 2016. “They arrived, Naoko still at the helm at 55, in futuristic spacewear, and sent out great waves of 1-2-3-4 joy to the crowd. Women were marginalised figures in the era of music Shonen Knife emerged from, and they were, and still are, true pioneers.”

After the Nirvana tour, the 1992 release of Let’s Knife was primed for western success, the first of many albums to be recorded entirely in English. The slight grammatical errors or strange pronunciations are part of Shonen Knife’s charm, enhancing the innocence of their sound.

“I don’t want to sing perfectly in English,” says Naoko. “I prefer to sound original.”

If a band this relentlessly cheery can have a dark period, for Shonen Knife it began in the mid 1990s. The band found themselves without a label in Europe for over a decade from 1994, then in 1999, Nakatani – the band’s bassist, co-founder and joint songwriter – quit after their wonderful album Happy Hour, citing the strain of touring.

Despite this tough period, Naoko says she never once considered surrender. “Michie leaving was a little hard for me, but I felt I should go forward,” she says. “When people become happy through our music, that makes me happy too. That’s why I make music. That’s what gives me the motivation to keep going. I’ve never even thought about giving up.”

After Nakatani left, Naoko’s sister Atsuko moved up from drums to bass, opening a revolving door of support drummers, and later in 2006 she herself left the band for an extended period to settle down in Los Angeles. Atsuko is back in the band now, but Naoko has been the only constant member.

Naoko Yamano earlier this year.
Naoko Yamano earlier this year. Photograph: Akira Shibata

Despite all of these obstacles, Shonen Knife have consistently released music since they formed, and in 2009 they signed with UK label Damnably, ending their wilderness years in Britain. Having also joined Good Charmel, the US label run by Goo Goo Dolls bassist Robby Takac, this marked the start of a joyous new era in Shonen Knife’s career: they have released eight new studio albums since 2007 and toured the world repeatedly for a new generation of fans.

“Over the years, I’d been involved with Shonen Knife first simply as a fan and then later as label owner, producer, roadie, van driver and after many releases and tours, as friends,” says Takac. “I’ve always been struck by the commitment, dedication and attention to detail Naoko and the group have shown.”

Naoko and Atsuko are now joined by the forever-beaming Risa Kawano on drums. The band are already planning for their next album, which Naoko hints may have a late-Beatles-style psychedelic influence.

“If people will look back and say, ‘There used to be this really fun band from Osaka,’ that’s enough for me,” she says of their legacy. I ask her what advice she would give now to her 40-year younger self. “I have no advice,” she laughs. “I’m very free and I’m not earnest. So even if I gave some advice to the 40-year younger Naoko, she would not follow it, and I would not follow hers!”

I ask if she has a favourite Shonen Knife album or song, but she bats this away, too: “The next album will be the best one.” And so on. “I never look back and I never feel regret,” she says, adding she will probably never retire. “If I can live for another 40 years, I can be the oldest rock musician in the world,” she laughs. “The happiest memory is still in the future.”

Shonen Knife will play 18 shows around the UK from 13 April

Daniel Robson

The GuardianTramp

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