Oh the joys of the email interview. An impersonal process involving questionnaires, middlemen and stilted responses. Were Shonen Knife not a seminal Japanese punk band living some 6,000 miles away, this might seem more hassle than it’s worth. Thankfully, despite the occasional one line answer and language barrier, frontwoman Naoko Yamano writes openly about the band’s beginnings and memories of Ireland.
Forming Shonen Knife in 1981, the Osaka three piece consisted of Naoko, her sister Atsuko and college friend Michie Nakatani. Despite having only a rudimentary grasp of their instruments the band always possessed a peerless ear for pop. Writing infectious songs which were part Buzzcocks and Beach Boys, they’ve gone on to release 15 studio albums.
Naoko recalls her early ambitions for the band: “My first hope was playing a show in front of audience. After the purpose was cleared, our aim became ‘release an album’. In this way, we progressed step-by-step”.
Around this time, Naoko first heard the music of the Ramones. A major influence on the band, Shonen Knife’s own Ramones tribute album Osaka Ramones was released last month.”I first heard the Ramones when I was a teenager. Joey’s voice is so sweet and musical performance is pop and simple. I love that.”
For those of a grungier disposition, Shonen Knife are something to be revered. Releasing albums on Sub Pop in the early ’90s, the trio enjoyed a cult success that sustains them to this day: “Our first release in the US was in 1985. I couldn’t imagine what was happening in the US. It might be one of our turning points but I think every moment could be a turning point”.
Undoubtedly, Shonen Knife were helped by the support of superfan Kurt Cobain. Consistently championing the band, and claiming he was moved to tears by their music, Cobain took the Knife on tour with Nirvana: “I didn’t know them before touring but after I listened to their music, I thought they were great. The tour with Nirvana became my good memory”.
An unpredictable success in the US, Shonen Knife signed a major label deal with Capitol Records in 1993. Does Naoko think a Japanese band could achieve such popularity in the modern music industry?
“When we went abroad, there was no Internet. I exchanged snail mail and made phone calls with overseas musical people. Nowadays, it is very easy to play abroad and many Japanese bands play overseas. I think if the band has original, unique character, not just imitate western rock music, and be able to communicate in English with English lyrics, there will be a chance to be popular in abroad.”
Naoko cites the band’s fans for keeping them going after 30 years: ” I want to try to measure up to their expectations. I could keep on rocking by the encouragement of the fans. ”
Ahead of touring here this summer, Naoko recalls the band’s first and only Irish gig over 18 years ago: “The last time we played in Ireland was April 1st 1993 in Dublin. I remember people in Ireland were very friendly to us and we had tasty Irish beer, too. I met Niall from Sultans of Ping FC. It was so fun. This will be our second time to play in Ireland. I’m very excited to go to Ireland and see our fans.”
What can we expect from next week’s live shows? More than one year has passed since our drummer Emi joined to Shonen Knife and I think our show became more tight and groovy. We’ll play songs from our new album Free Time and if people are OK with it, we’d like to play some Ramones songs, too. I hope you enjoy our show.
Shonen Knife’s 15th studio album ‘Free Time’ is out now . See them live at the Blackbox in Belfast (7 Aug ), the Róisín Dubh in Galway (18 Aug) and Whelans in Dublin (19 Aug).