INTERVIEW: Shonen Knife | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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“When I finally got to see them live, I was transformed into a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert.” – Kurt Cobain

You’d imagine – having seen Nirvana in the comparative small Kilburn National in 1991, just as Smells Like Teen Spirit went nuclear – that you’d remember how hard they rocked, or how cute Kurt’s hair looked. But no, my main memories of that gig are of Shonen Knife; three Japanese women in love with punk rock, matching dresses and jellybeans, who arguably blew the headliners off the stage. Even then, the band – known as the ‘Osaka Ramones’ – had been in existence for a decade and were just reaping the benefits of becoming darlings of the US indie rock scene (not least because of a tribute album called Every Band Has A Shonen Knife Who Loves Them, which featured the likes of Sonic Youth and Babes In Toyland covering their songs).

And 25 years later, Shonen Knife are still going strong – indeed, they’re having something of a critical and commercial resurgence. Naoko – singer, guitarist, and the only consistent member through some labyrinthine line-up changes – is predictably surprised.

“I didn’t imagine this would be happening. It’s all thanks to the people who support me, that I could continue the band. When I have a good reaction from our audience, I get power to continue to rock.” And apparently, in that whole time she never lost her love of music.

“I never get tired. Because I’m lazy. If I’m earnest, I may start another project, but I always have my hands full with Shonen Knife. Although I do play tennis in my spare time. It’s good for stress reduction!”

Although known primarily for beautifully simple, effortlessly catchy bubblegum punk, there’s always been more to the Shonen Knife sound than Sheena Is A Punk Rocker and songs about candy and animals (like the mighty Making Plans For Bison). Way back in 1991 they were singing about Blue Oyster Cult and there’s always been room for some rock in amongst the buzzsaw pop.

Developing the style of their last album Overdrive, their latest Damnably Records release, Adventure, is surprisingly ‘rawk’ in places, at least in a Shonen Knife fashion. Talking about Overdrive, Naoko explained that “passing through the 70s, the music genre which was born as rock ’n’ roll developed to ROCK. This album is like that.” Adventure ups the rock ante even further, from the positively Judas Priest-esque cover to the ‘live at Budokan’ riffs of Rock ’N’ Roll T-Shirt. Naoko clearly loves this stuff. “I really like 70’s and 60’s rock. I often listen to it and I’m inspired by those records without really thinking about it. I think 70’s rock is more pure and enjoyable. It was a good era of rock music.”

When I have a good reaction from our audience, I get power to continue to rock

Naoko explains that rather than having a conscious plan about how the album was going to sound, the songs suggested the approach. “The arrangements were mostly done in my head when I was writing songs. I just realised it in the studio. When I write songs, I don’t have any conscious intentions.” Another track, ImI, is like Ace Of Spades through a dayglo prism, and it seems Lemmy is, perhaps surprisingly, one of Naoko’s heroes. She did get to meet him back in the day: “It was 1991 or 1992, when we played at the Roxy in Los Angeles, Lemmy came to our show. I got his autograph on my guitar and took a picture together. He was so kind and cool.”

Seasoned Knife fans won’t be surprised by most of the track titles – the usual litany of food, animals and irrepressible poptism (although the misleadingly sweet-sounding Dog Fight is something of a curveball). I mistakenly assumed Calabash was about the gourd, but this time Google let me down, as Naoko explains. “Actually calabash isn’t a food. It’s a lucky charm and a trade mark of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was a famous samurai and a lord of Osaka castle. I liked making a song about my hometown!”

Although Shonen Knife kept releasing music in Japan, they were largely absent from the UK and Europe for a long time. The reasons for the lack of touring is surprisingly straightforward. “No one invited us for 15 years – from 1994 to 2008. And then George from our UK label Damnably invited us in 2009.” And Naoko is clearly pleased to be coming back again more regularly. “I always have very good time in the UK and Europe because I can see many fans there.”

While Naoko has been a constant, the rest of the line-up has been pretty fluid (often bewilderingly so, with members quitting and re-joining). For this tour, comparatively long-term bassist Ritsuko will be absent (she’s just become a mother) and original member Atsuko will re-join in her absence, alongside newcomer Risa. As Naoko explains, relationships and children make things tough. “It’s hard for women to continue being in the band. It takes a big effort.”

We should all be glad that Naoko kept the faith. Come bathe in their candy-coloured clouds.

Shonen Knife play Sage Gateshead on Wednesday 27th April. Adventure is released via Damnably on 1st April.


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