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Shonen Knife: Cuts Like a Knife

Direct from Osaka, Japan, these sweethearts of the underground translate American power pop into a language all their own

Shonen Knife

Shonen Knife backstage at Lollapalooza 1994 at Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, CA. on August 28th, 1994

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

Shonen Knife may not be the loudest power trio, but onstage before a packed and nearly frenzied crowd at Los Angeles’s Roxy Theater, these Japanese cult heroes prove that there’s nothing remotely small about the sound they’re pounding out together.

Imagine if Pink Lady were possessed by the spirit of the Ramones or perhaps a more punkish, Japanese version of the Go-Go’s and you’ll have a good idea of the unique sonic and visual appeal of this Osaka-based outfit. The Marshall amps behind the band seem scaled to size, and though the women’s stage movements are limited to constant, broad smiles and the occasional wave to the audience, the steady blast of winning guitar riffs keeps the adoring crowd on its feet.

The three women — who first came together in 1982 — only last year gave up their day jobs back home and recently recorded their major-label debut for Virgin, Let’s Knife, which includes such cutting Knife classics as “Bear Up Bison,” “Black Bass,” “Twist Barbie” and, of course, “Tortoise Brand Pot Scrubbing Cleaner’s Theme (Sea Turtle),” sung entirely in English (a first for the band). But these pioneering power poppers have long been a favorite in the American underground. The threesome has already inspired a loving tribute album, Every Band Has a Shonen Knife That Loves Them, featuring such bands as Sonic Youth and L7, as well as some deservedly effusive praise from critics and colleagues like Sonic’s Thurston Moore and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, who seemed to sense a kindred spirit from afar.

“Nirvana asked us to be front act two years ago,” says Naoko Yamano, the group’s guitarist and main singer-songwriter and the best English speaker in the bunch, “and so we went to record store and bought their album and saw their appearance. They looked a little bit wild and dirty. We felt scary. But after we meet them, they are very kind and so nice. The drummer, Dave, helped us set up our drums, and Kurt made me a sandwich — peanut butter and strawberry jam together! It was too sweet for me.”

Even if something gets lost in the translation, the members of Shonen Knife — Naoko, her drummer and sister, Atsuko Yamano, and bassist Michie Nakatani — seem almost too sweet to believe themselves, although in traditional star form, they do refuse to divulge their ages or marital status. “We are a little bit young in age,” says Naoko. “Our ages are a secret. You can imagine it.” But don’t let their lovely dispositions fool you. They know how to take care of business. At the Roxy, the band knocks out one tune after another, pausing only a few times to push product. Naoko warmly encourages the crowd to “go to record store” and buy Let’s Knife, while Michie — whose lead-vocal turn on “Cycling Is Fun” is a standout of the show — kindly informs the audience that “we sell our T-shirts over there — we have no plans to be back here soon, so now is a good time to buy.” Some things apparently are universal.

The next day, over hamburgers and fries at Barney’s Beanery, a famed rock & roll watering hole, the members of Shonen Knife are still buzzing about the fact that metal god Lemmy of Motorhead fame dropped by to see the band’s late show last night. “He was so cool,” says Michie. “He writes his autograph on my guitar and takes photos. He was so kind and gentle.”

As for the history of rock in Japan, Shonen Knife is rather dismissive. “I think there is no real rock band in Japan,” says Naoko matter-of-factly, failing to credit the contributions of such Japanese pioneers as the Boredoms and the Ruins. “I think Shonen Knife is the first rock band in Japan.” Such groundbreaking was not without its complications, however. “Our parents are very conservative people,” says Naoko, “so they hate us to be in a rock band. Now they are understanding more and more.”

The band is quick to acknowledge that being an all-female group helped get it a lot of exposure. “It was convenient that we are all-women band,” Naoko says, “because many boy bands ask us to have a show with them.” As for the band’s name, a shonen knife is a small pocketknife for children. “Shonen means boy and is a cute word,” she says, “and knife is a sharp word. I like mixing the two.”

Shonen Knife’s musical influences were all from overseas and include the Beatles, the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, XTC and Jonathan Richman. This helps explain why the group’s songs have been written largely in English. One can even detect a hint of Richman-like lyrics in such songs as “I Am a Cat” or “Flying Jelly Attack,” with its infectious refrain “I’m gonna eat jelly jelly jelly jelly/Jelly jelly jelly jelly beans/You’re gonna eat cherry cherry cherry cherry/Cherry cherry cherry cherry drops.” Yet Naoko is quick to challenge those critics who would dismiss her work. “I think the people from the British press are very cynical,” she says. “They take everything so seriously, they even said our music isn’t serious enough. It’s second-class, not first-class. I couldn’t understand why British press people cannot understand our ironical part of songs.”

Such naysaying can’t wipe the smiles off the band members’ faces, particularly with the group’s fast-growing popularity. After years on small labels at home and abroad, the band is on major labels in both places, allowing the women to dedicate themselves full time to their music. Naoko had worked as a receptionist at a doctor’s office, Michie did word processing, while Atsuko worked as a clothes designer, a talent she has long used to dress Shonen Knife. The group’s fab, girl-group-influenced fashion is, says Atsuko — the group’s least confident English speaker — “colorful pop.”

Making colorful pop is what Shonen Knife intends to keep right on doing. “We are very happy to quit our daytime jobs,” says Naoko. “Music is my life, so I am very happy to spend all day for music.”

Not, of course, that Shonen Knife is all work. Asked to describe her long-term goals with the band, Atsuko perks up. “I want to be like the Beatles,” she says. “And I want to tour with pretty, handsome boys’ band.” 

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