With a dash of sugar, a sprinkle of spice and a hearty mix of classic rock and punk, Japan gave rise to the bubblegum pop trio Shonen Knife in 1981. The all-female band from Osaka performs in stage costumes, and has always been unusual; but despite the group’s peculiarity and aptitude for writing songs about flying cats and ice cream sandwiches—which for some may sit dangerously on the edge of being too camp or kitsch—Shonen Knife is regarded as an influential alt-rock giant.
The band was founded by sisters Naoko and Atsuko Yamano, along with their college friend Michie Nakatani. Since their first album, Minna Tanoshiku [Everybody Happy] debuted on cassette in 1982, Shonen Knife has cemented itself as a punk cornerstone with 19 studio albums to their credit, including critics’ favorite Let’s Knife, and their most recent, Sweet Candy Power, which came out in June. Even if you haven’t heard of Shonen Knife, it’s a testament to the group’s charming sunshine-and-rainbows approach to punk that those who have can’t seem to get enough of them.
The Knife’s following online, for example, is devout. If you dig deep enough on the internet, you find idolatrous gems like the “Shonen Knife Freak’s Homepage,” including a long FAQ section with banal questions like, “Where are Shonen Knife from, and who are they?” to more embarrassing material such as the cringe-worthy, “Am I the only one in the universe who thinks they’re the sexiest band alive? Do they have boyfriends?”
But perhaps one of Shonen Knife’s biggest fans was a 24-year-old Kurt Cobain. On the eve of his release of Nevermind and on his way to fame, Cobain saw the trio play for the first time in 1991.
“I turned into a 9-year-old girl at a Beatles concert,” Cobain said in an interview with Melody Maker magazine. “I was crying and jumping up and down and tearing my hair out—it was amazing.”
In fact, Cobain was so thrilled that he asked the band to join him on Nirvana’s U.K. tour that year, kicking off Shonen Knife’s golden years, a period full of international rockstar milestones. Soon after the tour, the Knife signed to the behemoth Capitol Records, releasing what would become the band’s major album, Let’s Knife. While I’m not sure it’s accurate to call it mainstream celebrity, the once-underground band started landing spots on American television with appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and MTV. Shonen Knife even found themselves featured on Beavis and Butthead and writing a song for the Cartoon Network show The Powerpuff Girls.
But before their success in the 1990s and early 2000s, the trio struggled to commit to Shonen Knife full-time. Naoko Yamano worked as a receptionist, Atsuko Yamano worked as a fashion designer (she designs the band’s Mondrian-esque outfits, too) and Nakatani worked in word processing. But even after their TV appearances and endorsements from bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth, the Knife clearly went through some difficult transitions due to continual shifts in the group’s lineup.
Nakatani left the band in the late 1990s, and her replacement, Mana Nishiura who played drums, died in a car crash several years later. Of the three founding members, Naoko has been the only constant, though her sister is back, touring in support of Sweet Candy Power along with Risa Kawano who joined the band in 2015.
The new album, with its off-the-wall lyrics about ice cream sandwiches and other confectionary delights, is a fun romp through ‘60s and ‘70s rock à la The Ramones, The Beach Boys and The Buzzcocks. The title track, the catchiest song off the album, opens with a few strummed chords and stripped-down vocals when suddenly the band erupts with the sonic embodiment of a frenzied sugar rush: “Am I/Am I/Am I/Am I/Candy!”
The album isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but counter to what you might think, the sometimes-overwhelming barrage of silliness and positivity doesn’t collapse in on itself. Rather, Shonen Knife’s very appeal is exactly that: They throw themselves headlong into a vat of bubbling happiness, and the result is unavoidably charming.
Shonen Knife’s commitment to this effervescent and unyielding soda-pop spirit, which has animated the group for nearly 40 years, is only natural given Naoko’s musical philosophy—or lack thereof.
“I get happy when I listen to my favorite ‘70s funk, disco music or death metal,” Naoko says. “I feel our intention with the band is to entertain the listener from such music. It’s important. I just don’t listen to self-satisfied narcissistic music.”
Whereas some bands might aim for a loftier, self-aggrandizing musical theme or concept, Shonen Knife’s approach is exactly the opposite—a simple and unabashed dedication to make the audience happy. That isn’t to say that the Knife’s music is necessarily shallow, but that perhaps the band derives its depth—or at least its success and quality—from an uncontrived, unpretentious, tacit understanding that their music is for other people’s enjoyment. Everything from playing shows, which Naoko describes as a transfer of energy between performer and audience, to Shonen Knife’s costumes, which she explains is an attempt to visually “entertain” spectators, seems to be for its fans.
It’s no wonder, then, that when asked why she writes such quirky lines like “Space foods are marshmallows, asparagus, ice cream/Blue-eyed kitty cat said, ‘please let me go with you,’” Naoko’s answer is straightforward.
“Marshmallows, asparagus and ice cream are my favorite foods, and I actually had a blue-eyed cat at home,” she says. “I’m always satisfied with my work. Of course I could spend more time recording or writing lyrics if I want, but there is no answer, no goal for art. When I make music that makes me comfortable, it can pass my inspection.”
And that’s clearly more than enough for Shonen Knife fans who continue to show up after 38 years, 19 studio albums and decades of worldwide touring. But the band’s longevity inevitably raises the question: Will the inimitable Shonen Knife ever come to an end? With a North American tour kicking off on Aug. 23, including a local stop at Sacramento’s Goldfield Trading Post on Aug. 28, the short answer seems to be no—at least for the not-so-distant future.
Although Naoko doesn’t see herself retiring from music, she’s quick to point out that touring as a DIY band, without the resources for a private jet like Paul McCartney might employ, is often tiring and complicated. But at the end of the day, the bottom line for Naoko is simple:
“As long as there are people who get happy when they listen to our music, I would like to keep on rocking.”
If you’re in the mood to rock out and be merry to some fast, cheery punk with Naoko, Atsuko and Risa, check out Shonen Knife at Sacramento’s Goldfield Trading Post (1630 J St.) on Aug. 28, 2019. Tickets are $20, doors open at 7:30 p.m. and fans of all ages are welcome.
**This piece first appeared in print on pages 22 – 23 of issue #298 (Aug. 14 – 28, 2019)**