Upon being reminded that this year marks rock band Shonen Knife’s 35th anniversary, singer and guitarist Naoko Yamano just smiles and shrugs.
“It has been so many years now, I can’t keep count,” she says with a laugh. “Fixating on anniversaries isn’t very rock ‘n’ roll, so I try not to. We made short-term plans, worked day by day and didn’t plan too much and before we knew it, 30-plus years had gone by. It never crossed our minds when we started that we’d be doing this for a long time … or quitting.”
The ease with which Naoko talks about being a rock star is perhaps Shonen Knife’s most endearing quality. There has always been an effortless quality to the band’s music. Naoko and her bandmates, bassist and sister Atsuko Yamano and new drummer Risa Kawano, aren’t into rock ‘n’ roll for fame and fortune; they’re a band because that’s just what they do.
Formed in Osaka in 1981 by the Yamano sisters, the group has become known for its poppy garage and punk-influenced sound. The band has a dedicated following overseas, too, with punk luminaries such as Nirvana’s late singer Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore among its fans.
The trio is releasing its 20th studio album, “Adventure,” on March 23 via P-Vine Records (Good Charamel Records will be handling the American release on April 1, while independent imprint Damnably will take care of European distribution). While all the qualities of a Shonen Knife record are present — from the Ramones-influenced pop-punk guitars, candy-coated melodies and simple-yet-charming English lyrics — the album is also a continuation of the hard rock and heavy metal-inspired sound of previous album “Overdrive.”
“When the band first started, I liked punk and new wave with straight melodies; pop punk like the Ramones or the Buzzcocks. I thought hard rock was lame then,” Naoko says. “But around the 2000s I started getting into it.”
In fact, for the interview she is sporting a black T-shirt with late Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister’s face on the front. She adds that she listens to everything from Cannibal Corpse to High On Fire, but it’s the hard and classic rock of the 1970s, like Rainbow and Judas Priest, that she is the most into, and which served as inspiration for Shonen Knife’s more recent material.
Naoko’s love of hard rock and heavy metal is evident on “Adventure,” especially on tracks such as “ImI,” which is meant to represent the emoji for the devil horns hand gesture that was popularized by Black Sabbath and Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio in the ’70s. The song is a tribute to Dio, but its guitar riffs and chugging rhythms also sound like a nod to Kilmister, who passed away in December.
“Lemmy came to see us when we played in Los Angeles in the ’90s,” Naoko says. “He signed my guitar. He was very cool.”
“Adventure” marks the return of original drummer-turned-bassist Atsuko, who retired from Shonen Knife in 2006. Currently married and living in Los Angeles, Atsuko flew over at the end of 2015 to record with the rest of the band. While sporadically returning to the band over the years, “Adventure” is her first full-fledged comeback.
“Adventure” is also the first album with new drummer Risa, who joined the band after previous drummer Emi Morimoto left last year. At 20 years old, she says she grew up listening to Shonen Knife and even performed covers with her family members.
“The first song I ever played on drums was a Shonen Knife song,” she says, clearly excited to be in the band after a lifetime of fandom.
The Shonen Knife family also consists of two other bassists, Ritsuko Taneda, who joined the band in 2008 to take over from Atsuko and is currently on maternity leave, and Naru Ishizuka, who has filled in for Taneda. The two take care of bass duties whenever Shonen Knife performs in Japan, and both contribute bass on the album. With a revolving roster and members overseas, it seems like it could be a challenge to keep things running smoothly.
“Women get married or have children so it’s difficult to be in a band. Men, too. If you need money and have a full-time job then you can’t go on tour. Rock music is pretty hard,” Naoko says with a laugh.
With members both old and new scattered across the world, it seems as though Shonen Knife is ready for anything, anywhere. After the release of “Adventure,” the band is set for a British tour (which will be Risa’s first trip overseas) along with an appearance at the Stewart Lee-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties 2.0 event in northern Wales next month. It’s clear from the tour schedule that the band shows no signs of stopping.
“There are a million new things for me, but my strengths are youth, power and stamina. I hope to test my limits and go all out with everything. That I’m confident about,” Risa says.
“Those are my strengths as well!” Naoko chimes in, smiling.
For a lot of people, being in a band is tough. Not for Shonen Knife. For them, being in a band isn’t even a job. It’s a lifestyle.
“Adventure” goes on sale March 23. Shonen Knife plays Club Vijon in Osaka on March 26 (6:20 p.m. start; ¥2,500 in advance; 06-6539-7411). The band also starts a seven-date cross-country tour at Pepperland in Okayama on June 24. For details, visit www.shonenknife.net.
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