In conversation: Shonen Knife
Japanese pop punk favourites Shonen Knife have been making us smile with their music for 35 years. For the band’s new album Adventure, which we reviewed with almost full marks here, founding member and chief songwriter Naoko Yamano on vocals and guitar, is joined by original drummer Atsuko Yamanoon on bass, and new member Risa Kawano on drums.
We here at TMF Towers are in good company in our love of the band, Kurt Cobain famously describing them with the line, "When I finally got to see them live, I was transformed into a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert.” We’re very grateful to their only ever present member and creative driving force Naoko Yamano for taking the time to answer our questions around her band’s new album, now available via the Damnably label.
Now, as Naoko loves saying, “Let’s Rock!”
Hello Naoko. First off, thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to answer our questions.
It’s my pleasure.
‘Cotton Candy Clouds’ from your new album is a wonderful tribute to The Beatles. Sorry for asking such a predictable question, but what are your favourite bands that have influenced your band over the years?
I think I’m influenced by The Beatles the most. Other than them, I like Ramones, Buzzcocks, KISS and 70s British hard rock and American rock bands.
The new album contains many rock songs, and your rock song about the Tasmanian devil makes me smile. The Tasmanian devil can be a fearsome creature, but you make it sound cute. Do you think you could write a song about an even more fearsome creature like a Komodo dragon or honey badger and still make it sound cute?
For ‘Tasmanian Devil’, I actually saw it at Brisbane Zoo in Australia. I was so impressed by it because I imagined it was a plant-eating animal and surprised to see it was eating a mouse. If I go to a zoo and find some interesting animals, I might write songs about them even they are wild or ugly. I’ve also written about Bison in 1980s. They are ugly and stinky but the song became cute.
‘Tasmanian Devil’ is also a lovely song because you share vocals with your sister Atsuko for the first time. I imagine this is a lovely experience for you both too. If Atsuko remains with the band do you hope to record one or more songs with her on your next album?
I like sharing vocals. It was the first trial for us. The sharing vocal style is inspired by KISS. There is no plan for the next album but I’d like to try various vocal style like unison or octave.
As Shonen Knife’s only ever present member, do you worry about the constant rotation? It must be difficult for you to find band members. You’re good at it though as new member Risa is absolutely fantastic on drums!
Women sometimes forced to leave the band by child care or move by marriage. It’s difficult to continue the band for a long time with the same members. Our manager and I always make a big effort to find new members. It’s a miracle that I can continue the band.
Your fans are grateful for your wonderful songs about your love of food. Sadly, Britain doesn’t have a great international reputation for food. Do you have a favourite food when touring Britain, such as fish and chips or chicken tikka masala? Or do you prefer our sweets like chocolate, we’re good at these.
I like food in Britain. The quality of food in Britain improved year after year. Actually in 90s, there was no mayonnaise in sandwich but now I can buy delicious sandwich at supermarkets in Britain. I like sweets like chocolate and short bread and afternoon tea. Fish and chips at some pub tastes good. I’m looking forward to eat delicious food at the tour.
My favourite food is instant noodles, so you’re an inspiration for me to try better food. Thanks! May I ask what is your absolute favourite food?
I like Una-don which is teriyaki eel bowl. I also like macaroni au gratin which is baked macaroni and white crab. Other than that, my favourite is Spanish tapas. I’m happy to eat nuts, dairy products and mushrooms.
Your songs are often about food or every day items, but they also give us lessons about life. For instance, ‘Green Tangerine’ may also be about Risa’s, and Ritsuko’s baby’s futures. Do you think it’s important for your songs to have these life lessons, or sometimes is it enough to sing only about food?
‘Green Tangerine’ is a song about KABOSU tangerine which is produced in Risa’s home town Oita Prefecture. It used like lemon. I don’t like too much life lessons but tiny bit of it can be good seasoning for the song.
Your song lyrics are precisely crafted and show great care and attention. After the many years since you started to write lyrics in English for an American audience, do you now first think about your lyrics in English or Japanese, or are there no set rules?
From the beginning of the band I tried to write lyrics in English because English is a language of rock music for me. I was inspired by British and American rock music. They are sang in English. I’m not a native English speaker. I couldn’t write all songs in English when I started the band. Even now it’s very difficult for me to write English lyrics. I consulted dictionary thousands of times and looked for rhyme through internet, I wrote lyrics. English is worldwide language now. I’m happy if people as many as possible in the world understand my lyrics.
‘Dog Fight’ is one of our favourite tracks, and contains messages about the passing of time. The “dog fight” custom itself sounds enchanting, and is perhaps unknown to many British people. Could give a brief description of this Japanese custom?
When I went to Katsura Hama beach in Kochi prefecture in Japan, I watched Dog Fight. It’s very unusual. Dog Fight is now a Japanese custom. It’s held only there. Dog Fight is scary but I put sweet melody line.
For your 30th anniversary you recorded an album of Ramones covers. Can you imagine recording another album of covers from another one of your favourite bands, perhaps a rock band like Motörhead or Deep Purple?
How about Pilot? Pilot is a Scottish band.
You’re one of Japan’s best ambassadors, exporting enjoyment to North America, Europe and all over the world. Do you think you’re better known in some other countries than Japan (perhaps because of your American and British rock influences), and if so, does this bother you?
Yes, I do. I think we are more popular in UK/EU and North America than Japan. I don’t mind where we are popular. I’d like to go and play where there are many Shonen Knife fans.
Many of us relax by listening to Shonen Knife records as they bring a smile to our face and ease the pressures of every day life. What do you do to relax? You must be very good at tennis by now?
Thank you for your comment. Yes, I like to play tennis and watch men’s pro tennis match. I can keep myself healthy by playing tennis. Other than that, I like to eat delicious sweets. I sometimes make them by myself.
You’re soon playing gigs in British cities, such as Birmingham which also loves its own rock bands like Black Sabbath. We can’t wait to see your gigs. Thank you again for taking the time from your busy schedule to answer these questions Naoko.
Thank you so much! See you there!
Be sure to catch Shonen Knife on their British and Irish tour, all details are available on their website.