wears the trousers magazine

shonen knife: can’t stop the rock
July 13, 2009, 10:48 am
Filed under: feature, video, words in edgeways | Tags: , , , ,


words in edgeways with shonen knife

Shonen Knife are the all-girl trio from Osaka who (arguably single-handedly) made it possible for Japanese rock bands to break through to European audiences, tirelessly producing punk-pop classics like ‘Neon Zebra’, ‘Riding On The Rocket’ and ‘Tomato Head’ since 1981. It’s with some irony, then, that this famously indefatigable band are all pretty knackered when Wears The Trousers gets the chance to interview them. Packed into their small dressing room at London’s Bloomsbury Bowling Lanes, the Shonen Knife ladies are surrounded by journalists from three different publications and a tour manager wielding a camera for the band’s upcoming documentary. It’s their third UK date, and the last show of their extensive European tour. They are hungry and tired, and it doesn’t help that I seem to be the only journalist who doesn’t speak their native tongue.

We press folk had assumed the interview would be an open forum affair, but having been told minutes beforehand that we must pick just five questions each, we’ve all entered fluster mode, scribbling away trying to distil our itineraries down to five crucial queries. Wears The Trousers is last in the pecking order, and I struggle to pick questions from my long, structured list that haven’t already been covered by the guys who came before me. The group has undergone several line-up changes over the years, and the two newest members – drummer Etsuko Nakanishi and bassist Ritsuko Taneda – don’t seem to speak any English at all. Fortunately, original founding member and vocalist/guitarist Naoko Yamano speaks patient, if not fluent, English and is obviously more than used to gushing, bright-eyed interviewers/fans.

From the very beginning, translation help is required and picking through the broken English and verb confusion makes an already nerve-wracking interview that much more difficult. I begin by pointing out that rock and punk are genres of music often associated with the young and the rebellious, and ask if Naoko was considered rebellious when she was younger and first starting the band with her sister Atsuko and college friend Michie Nakatani. There is some confusion over the word “rebellious”, but once we’ve established a close translation of “resist”, she remarks, “I did feel a certain amount of ‘resist’ when I was younger. And I liked music. So I chose to express myself through that.”

I wonder how receptive 1980s Japan was to female musicians and ask Naoko if she feels her gender has been a problem in the industry, both then and in recent years. “I have never really had any bad experiences as a female musician. But for us, it is very hard to carry a heavy backline,” she jokes, to everyone’s amusement. It’s a sweet way to fend off a political question, but even the most alternative Japanese bands seem to comply with certain image-conscious dictates and it’s possible that a strong feminist statement could harm their friendly, likeable image. We may take her word that she really hasn’t endured any sexism in her decades-long career, though I wonder if maybe, like some women, Naoko is oblivious to the bias around her. I use the third of my allotted questions to push a little further with this idea; after all, being a ‘girl’ band is part of what has made them so famous.

I remark that with success and recognition comes a respect that under-the-radar female bands do not always get. Was this the case when Naoko first started out? “When I first started Shonen Knife,” she ponders, “there weren’t many all-female bands like us, so it was an advantage for us. When Sonic Youth and all the other great bands asked us to support them, it was because we were a girl band.” It seems that while Naoko hasn’t had to confront sexism in the industry, she has enjoyed the empowerment that comes with being in an all-female band, and takes no small amount of pride in this.

Asked if there are any other all-female bands from their hometown that we should be keeping an eye on, Naoko fails to come up with any leads. “There was a girl band that I liked, but they are no longer together now,” she muses. It’s hard to tell, mainly due to language differences and the general lethargy from heavy touring, but I get the feeling that the band are confused and slightly offended at this kind of request for sororal recommendations. Disappointingly, it’s obviously not a question they are asked very often. I move on, asking how important heritage is for Shonen Knife. The doors they opened for J-rock bands that followed them must surely give them a sense of pride. After some thought (and even more translation), Naoko explains, “Of course, yes. I write my songs in Japan, and they are about life in Japan, so it is an important part of our music.”

Sensing the restrained restlessness of a band eager to have ten minutes’ peace before having to perform to an excitable crowd, I use the final question left from my quota to leave on a more flippant, playful note. The band have a reputation for a love of food, listing extensive menus of their favourite dishes on their Myspace page, and an excited discussion before the interview had some of us vegetarians wondering dubiously about the ambiguously title ‘Deer Biscuits’, a cheerful, mellow pop number from the band’s latest album Super Group.

When asked to explain the mystery, Naoko recounts with a happy enthusiasm, “In Japan, there is a big park. There are many wild deer there and you can buy deer biscuits, which you can feed them with. They taste like soy beans.” Everyone laughs at this mischievous knowledge, the equivalent of a quick nibble on dog biscuits for a dare, and she continues: “If the deer see the biscuits, they gather around you. So many of them! It’s very scary.” I tell her that we were worried they meant biscuits made from deer, and the band laugh with friendly disbelief, happy to dispel this misconception. We end the interview with a series of photos, unashamed fans happy to have been granted a small memento.

Back in the early ’90s, Shonen Knife supported Nirvana on their UK tour, transforming frontman Kurt Cobain into, in his own words, “a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert” when he finally got to see them play live. High praise indeed, but it’s a fair indicator of the band’s performance in Bloomsbury later that night. Their enduring feelgood punk-pop had grown adults pogoing like schoolchildren high on penny sweets and marker pen fumes, singing along merrily and revelling in their choreographed headbanging and Naoko’s killer guitar solos.

Watching the trio of petite rockers bouncing around the stage in their matching outfits, it was hard to glimpse any of their earlier fatigue. Expert stars, they manage to simultaneously be cute and genuinely rock. While Shonen Knife’s music is undoubtedly fun, they have a lot of respect for their craft and a passion for what they do – motives that have kept them far away from the butterfly lifespan of more modern punk-pop acts, and have earned them some very famous fans. They may have been tired at the start of the interview, but they own the night with childlike energy. Fifteen albums into their career and they really don’t seem to have any intention of slowing down. Here’s to much, much more from Shonen Knife.

Charlotte Richardson Andrews
Super Group is out now on Tomato Head Records.


‘Super Group’


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