“Monday I go to watch Sumo wrestling/It’s an easy day to get a good ticket” (One Week from Brand New Knife, 1996)
Their songs bounce from jangling, smiling pop all the way through bashing, smashing punk. They are Shonen Knife, three Japanese grrrls who mix topics of buying Barbie dolls, drinking beer and watching Sumo wrestling with frontal, crunching guitars. With the biggest question being ‘how the heck did these three break from the purely conservative Japanese music mould’, the answer can somewhat be found in their lyricism – it’s still cutesy Japanese youth culture, but the instruments virtually yell with the same excitable fervour of these three battling it out on the Twister board.
The Japanese city of Osaka could well be one of the most unforgiving of territories for a punk band, especially an all-female three-piece whose penchant for The Ramones and The Buzzcocks is now quite legendary. As lead singer and guitarist Naoko Yamano of Shonen Knife reflects, her broken English a product of countless interviews with smirking Western journalists, I find that a simple ethos of existence was probably the hardest task for these three, and very twee, Japanese women.
“When I started Shonen Knife my mother did not like it,” Naoko giggles, her simple statement probably shielding an extremely difficult scenario of acceptance over the past fourteen years. “My mother is a very conservative woman. Now, our parents are a little more understandable. When Brand New Knife was released (in August, 1996) my father bought ten copies and gave them to his friends!”
Shonen Knife, whose fourteen years of existence have been punctuated with three albums, a cover of The Carpenter’s On Top Of The World (which appeared around the world in Microsoft commercials) and their very own tribute album featuring Sonic Youth, L7, Redd Cross and well over twenty others, arose from the virtually non-existent alternative and independent Japanese music scene which Naoko continues to foster when not touring. For even though Shonen Knife would be one of the most well-known Japanese musical products, their lead has yet to produce similar breaks from the ultra-conservative Japanese market.
“People in Japan take Shonen Knife as a rock band, a strange thing. Mainstream music is very pop music, a rock band is very rare in Japanese mainstream music. There is usually one young, pretty girl singer and a producer makes songs for her, so Japanese mainstream is very plastic.
“Rock bands like Shonen Knife are very independent. In Tokyo there is a strong, mainly mainstream music scene, but in Osaka, where we live, many bands are not controlled at all by the music business. Most underground bands just play in clubs and their CD releases are very rare.”
In fact it took seven years for them to get a gig outside of Japan, the US college radio and fanzine circuit having built them a home away from home with tremendous coverage of their indie releases. At home in Japan, their fanbase is equally enormous, especially amongst the internet community who include any scrap of information they can find in their fan homepages. And while Naoko’s English is very simple, their multinational praise literally begs them to release both an English and Japanese version of their albums.
1994 saw Shonen Knife embark upon the world’s greatest touring circus, Lollapalooza, which Naoko says she “enjoyed very much”. Hanging out with the bands, their shyness and giddy, giggling star-gazing again warmed their tour compatriots. With their Big Day Out appearances only weeks away, Naoko can’t wait to get amongst the action again.
“I love playing. On stage we will be very hard, my guitar sound is very distorted, a heavy sound. I jump and move very much and I will shout!
“It will be our first ever visit to Australia in January and I know it will be very hot. I must bring my hat and sunglasses,” she laughs heartily, trying to comprehend the differences between one week ice skating in Osaka, the next tackling forty degree heat from Auckland to Perth.