Today we celebrate 30 years under the Knife. Yes, it was on Dec. 29, 1981, that three teenage girls — Naoko Yamano, her sister Atsuko and their friend Mitchie Nakatani — entered an Osaka rehearsal studio for the first time. They emerged as Shonen Knife.
Perhaps the world’s sunniest band, Shonen Knife has carved out a niche playing poppy punk songs with Japanese and English lyrics about candy, animals and anything else that strikes them as fun. This approach has won them fans as diverse as Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening — and even Knife’s lifelong heroes, The Ramones.
Today, guitarist-vocalist Naoko is the only remaining original member: Nakatani retired from music in 1999 and Atsuko moved from drums to bass; she then quit in 2006 to move to Los Angeles and get married. But new-ish bassist Ritsuko Taneda and drummer Emi Morimoto exude the requisite rainbow essence. Below, Naoko reflects on some key moments in three decades of Shonen Knife. And from this writer: Happy 30th birthday, Knife, and thank you, thank you, thank you.
“Our first rehearsal was at a studio inside Rock Inn, an instruments store in Osaka, on Dec. 29, 1981. Usually in Japan in December, people prepare for the New Year. People have to clean out their home, but we escaped from our parents to rehearse. I forget which songs we played, but my first song was ‘Parallel Woman’ and Mitchie’s first song was ‘Miracles,’ so we might have played those songs. We were very excited and we had so much fun, because we could make a loud noise at the studio!
“People in Osaka like to make things fun. I’m from Osaka, and so I like to put humor and irony into my lyrics.
“Most bands write songs about love. I was too embarrassed to write love songs: I wanted to sing about my favorite things, which were food and animals. We don’t want to write sad, serious songs — I want to write fun songs, because I want our songs to make people happy. Sometimes I’ve hidden some lyrics about love in our songs, but I’m not telling you which ones! It’s a secret.
“Our first live show was on March 14, 1982. We were very, very nervous — especially Atsuko. She had a bit of a fever, ha ha. There was no dressing room at the club, so we prepared for the show in a very dark staircase. Actually, it wasn’t even a club but a big rehearsal studio (Studio One). We could only fit 20 chairs, so with 20 people it was packed. The tickets were ¥100, and we played just seven or eight songs.
“In August 1989, we played overseas for the first time — just one show in Los Angeles. But our bassist, Mitchie, couldn’t take any holidays; she had to work. So I asked my friend to play the bass. Our record label at that time in America (K Records) booked the show, and Redd Kross and Sonic Youth, they were all friends with each other and they came to the show.
“We played again in America in 1991, and Kurt Cobain came to our show in Los Angeles, and then Nirvana asked us to tour Britain with them in November and December 1991. It was our first long overseas tour — we’d never even played such a long tour in Japan, so we were very nervous and very excited. I didn’t know the members of Nirvana, so I thought they might be scary people. But actually they were gentlemen! During the tour, Kurt asked me to teach him the guitar chords to our song ‘Twist Barbie’ so that he could play it at a secret Nirvana gig in Britain.
“Other bands always play our songs very well — better than us! (Shonen Knife has been covered and remixed on four separate albums, by artists such as Sonic Youth, Alec Empire, Cornelius and Mo’some Tonebender.)
“This year we released a Ramones cover album, ‘Osaka Ramones.’ The Ramones have been my idols since I was a high school student, and we opened for them in Japan in 1998. So last year, when we played a North American tour, our American label owner, Robby (Takac) from Goo Goo Dolls, booked a studio and recorded us playing Ramones songs.
“Also last year, we played at All Tomorrow’s Parties in England. It was so fun! I got Matt Groening’s autograph (Groening curated the festival and invited Shonen Knife to perform), and lots of my favorite musicians played, like The Raincoats. Our merchandise booth was right next to theirs, so we talked a lot. Matt Groening was so friendly and so kind. He drew little Simpsons-style characters of Shonen Knife on our backstage passes.
“We played a lot of shows this year too. From August to early December we were very busy: We had a five-week tour in Europe and Britain, and then five weeks in North America. There was a period of more than 10 years when we didn’t play in Britain, until a few years ago, so I’m so happy to go back to the U.K. I like Britain a lot. The audience there this year was double the audience last year, and most of the shows were packed, so I think our audience there is getting bigger.
“Why do we still attract new fans after 30 years? Our music is always very happy and our melody lines are very pop and simple; anybody can memorize them easily. And the lyrics are unique and fun. I think that’s the reason.
“My happiest memory of the last three decades? I always feel happy on stage when I see people in the audience smiling. Every moment spent that way is my happiest moment. I don’t have any bad memories. Even when Mitchie (and subsequent members) left the band, I didn’t feel like we should stop.
“We’re not done yet. We will have a recording session in February in Osaka and we will release a new album (in 2012). I haven’t written the songs yet. I’d like to write pop, fun songs, but I haven’t decided what they’ll be about. As for another 30 years? I don’t know whether I can live that long! But as long as I live, Shonen Knife will continue. And after I die, it would be fun if the other girls could carry on without me. Then Shonen Knife would be like The Ventures!”
“Osaka Ramones” and the single “Sweet Christmas” are out now. For more information, visit www.shonenknife.net.