Interview: Naoko Yamano (Shonen Knife)

This interview originally appeared in Tonedeaf

shonenknife3It’s fair to say that any band who have been going strong for over thirty years and have tasted relative success over that period obviously have the ambition, dedication and ability needed to make a career out of this blood thirsty industry.

Welcome then to the world of Japanese trio Shonen Knife, the all female group who have been mashing their brand of pop orientated punk and new wave influences such as The Ramones and Buzzcocks, with their love of 1960’s girl groups, the Beach Boys and The Beatles since 1981.

One would be forgiven for thinking that Shonen Knife are purely a band affiliated with the rock underground as their songs are rarely played on the radio. However for a band to have released 20 albums, opened for the likes of Nirvana, Mudhoney and Fugazi, had their songs released by Capitol Records, Sub Pop and K Records, recorded John Peel sessions for the BBC and appeared on the soundtrack to the Power Puff Girls, Shonen Knife are not your average alternative rock/pop punk combo.

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With Nirvana in ’92

Oh and they have also had their own tribute album released, Every Band Has A Shonen Knife Who Loves Them, which featured Sonic Youth, L7 and Redd Kross.

Vocalist, lyricist and guitarist Naoko Yamano is the sole original member left in Shonen Knife and on the eve of the band’s Australian tour she was in high spirits, despite the cold weather in her home city of Osaka, when she spoke about their latest record Overdrive.

With Overdirve having been released in the first half of last year the three piece have more or less been on the road ever since, so how has it gone so far? “We toured UK and Europe last Spring, then in the Summer we had a Japanese tour, in the Autumn we went to North America and also to India last year. At every place many people liked the Overdrive album and it’s going very well.”

For a band who have toured relentlessly throughout their career one could be forgiven for thinking the idea of preparing for yet another round of promotion would become more of an irritant, however Yamano rather spritely admitted, “I always like to visit overseas or other cities, so I like touring and I like to see many people. Especially having been to India where it was the first time for us. I couldn’t imagine how India was, but it was very beautiful and the people were so nice. We played in Goa, in the southern part of India, and they have beautiful beaches there. The music festival was fantastic too!”

From chatting with Yamano it became pretty obvious that she loves being able to do this for a living and it’s as much a highlight for her, if not in fact even more so, to see all Shonen Knife fans having fun and dancing at their gigs, then it is for their albums to be commercially successful.

One of the ways Yamano tries to inspire her audience is through her light hearted lyrics, which on Overdrive cover topics ranging from loud birds on “Black Crow”, shopping on “Shopping”(!) to her love of dancing on “Dance to the Rock” and robots on “Robots from Hell”. She says that, “Topics are from my daily life, so I don’t want to write about something sad or hard political things. I just like to write happy things.” Such endearing subject matter has always been an aspect of the Shonen Knife way of life as Yamano adds, “Actually I am trying to get happy because if people listen to sad or angry songs, people will feel that way, but if they listen to happy songs they will feel like that more often, and I like to see people in a happier place.”

Back in 2011 Shonen Knife celebrated their 30th anniversary, but instead of re-releasing their back catalogue with a heap of extra tracks like many bands have a knack of doing these days they decided to put out a tribute album to one of their biggest influences, The Ramones. Entitled Osaka Ramones, the album was recorded between Osaka in Japan and Buffalo in state of New York, where the band undertook a tour of North America to promote it.

Hey Ho!! Lets Go!!

Hey Ho!! Lets Go!!

Their Osaka Ramones name isn’t a moniker they play under that often, however anyone who will be in attendance at the opening night of this years Mona Foma festival in Hobart will be lucky enough to witness the trio plough through their favourite Ramones tracks. Noako didn’t give anything away when it came to what songs they would be covering, but did admit: “I will be very nervous, I have to memorise many songs,” she laughs, “the full Osaka Ramones show we have only played a few times. We usually do a 30 minutes Ramones set then a 30 minute Shonen Knife set on the North American tour. But recently we didn’t play as many Ramones songs as we played one song for one show. But for the first night of Hobart festival we will play a whole Ramones set!”

The upcoming Australian tour will be kicking off in Tasmania and working it’s way across the country and even though Shonen Knife have toured here a number of times their Mona Foma performances will see them play their debut shows there. “Yes it will be the first time for us to visit Tasmania. In the 90s when we toured Australia I saw a Tasmanian Devil at the zoo,” she laughs, “it was cute but very dangerous, but I am looking forward to going there a lot.”

When you listen to any of Shonen Knife’s older material their influences are clearly obvious, however with their newest album Overdrive, they have brought more of a 1970s heavy rock vibe to proceedings. Yes their happy-go-lucky writing style and infectious harmonies are still present, but with every chord that is struck it is evident that records by Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy and The Runaways were gobbled up by the band.

After such a long career and being known for a certain style of playing, why did Yamano decide to change direction now and what bands helped influenced Overdrive? “I started to listen to 70s music I think more than 10 years ago. But when I was a teenager I was thinking hard rock was out of fashion and that punk and new wave was very cool. But I got old and found that 70s hard rock was good and I started listening to classical 70s rock. Especially recently I’ve been to a Judas Priest show and they were so cool and I got into more 70s heavy rock like Thin Lizzy, Bad Company or Sabbath or Rainbow that way.” Does she have any specific favourite heavy rock albums though? “I like many, but I really enjoy the Ronnie James Dio with Black Sabbath Heaven in Hell album”

Costumes at the ready!

Costumes at the ready!

With the band’s line up changes having been pretty minimal over the course of its 33 years, has there been much of a variation in the way the group write or record nowadays? And after a moment or two of reflection Yamano comes back with “Of course the technology of recording has improved and also our recording skill has also improved,” laughs Yamano. “Our present members Ritsuko (bass) and Emi (drums) are both very powerful musicians, so we could record songs very quickly for Overdrive. In the 80s or 90s we had long recording sessions, but recently we can play well and faster.”

Once Shonen Knife have landed on Australian soil what can their local fanbase expect to witness on this tour? “Ahhh we will prepare our best songs, some new Overdrive songs and we will wear new stage costumes and our stage performance will be wild. I am looking forward to the reaction of our audience!” She laughs. “We made new costumes for our new album, Overdrive and to bring on the tour as well, and bring one more costume for spare! We sweat alot on stage so we need the two costumes!”

So for anyone unfamiliar with the musical output or live stage shows of this Japanese tour de force make sure you don’t miss out on this opportunity to witness Shonen Knife in the flesh in the not too distant future. When you have a frontwoman whose final words of the interview echoed everything the band stands for: “We will play fun fun fun shows, I promise you will get happy through our shows and our music. Lets have fun!”. You can’t help but want to see it in action.

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