There was a time before J-pop and K-pop were common genres to be discussed by indie music magazines, tapped in music critics, or even by the hipster elite. In the early 1980s as punk was becoming new wave, an all female punk/pop group out of Osaka, Japan emerged drawing critical praise and the championing of some of American music’s biggest players. People from Thurston Moore to Kurt Cobain championed the sugary, playful music of Shonen Knife. Now, about to embark on a massive US tour in support of their 18th! album, Pop Tune, Shonen Knife has taken time to engage fans both new and old with their particular style of punk influenced pop that helped usher in an awareness of J-pop with the indie elite in the first place.
SSG Music News Editor Timothy Grisham had the chance to talk with co-founder and guitarist Naoko about the bands past, present and future.
TG: This year Shonen Knife is celebrating 30 years as a band. What was the climate like in Osaka when you formed the band? What hurdles did you encounter being an all female band in the early 1980s?
Naoko: There weren’t so many bands like today but the music scene was more aggressive. Playing in a band was special and new for people. There were several all female bands in early 1980s, too. They are welcomed by the audience, only my mom didn’t like me playing rock music. She was conservative.
TG: Naoko, as the sole original member of the group, what do you feel is your responsibility to maintaining the band’s legacy?
Naoko: I just look forward and never look back. I am not consciously thinking about the legacy. I just concentrate to entertain our fans with our music with present Shonen Knife members.
TG: How did Ritsuko and Emi first get exposed to Shonen Knife, and how did they end up in the band?
Naoko: They said that they were fans of Shonen Knife when they were college students. They played at other bands. I asked Ritsuko to play the bass temporarily in 2006. Then she left and played her own band as a singer/guitarist in 2007. In 2008, she said that she would like to play at Shonen Knife again. Then I invited her as an official member in 2008. For Emi, her first show as a drummer of Shonen Knife was March 22, 2010. She quit her main band, and I asked her to be our drummer.
TG: Now with Ritsuko and Emi, how do you operate as a group, is it a collaborative environment?
Naoko: They were fans of Shonen Knife before they join into the band. It’s very easy to get together. They have the DNA of Shonen Knife. I feel they have been long time members.
TG: Pop Tune is the band’s 18th album; how do you approach writing your 18th album? How is the process different, or the same as writing your earlier albums?
Naoko: I approached to write POP songs for this album. Free Time and Osaka Ramones were a kind of punk album. I wanted to make a pop album. I’m lazy and started to write songs after the recording studio was booked. I wrote a song per a week in December 2011 and February 2012 and recorded in March 2012. I tried to put fun instruments into this album like a recorder and a kazoo.
TG: What roles do the band members play in writing the album?
Naoko: I write all songs. Ritsuko and Emi make arrangement of bass and drums.
TG: I believe the first time I recall hearing about your band was through a cassette of Burning Farm that K Records out of Olympia, WA put out, how did that release come about? And how has your relationship with the Pacific Northwest (K Records, Sub Pop) shaped your American career?
Naoko: We released an album on Zero Records in Kyoto, Japan in early 80s. Calvin Johnson from K Records travelled to Japan and he bought a lot of independent records, he bought our album, too. He made contact with us because he wanted to release our album on his label. Other label guys listened to the cassette album and got to know about Shonen Knife. Since then, we’ve released our albums from other American labels.
TG: The covers album, Every Band Has A Shonen Knife Who Loves Them, seems like a big milestone in helping expose people to your band; how did you receive the album, and what is your favorite track?
Naoko: Bill Bartell from Gasatanaka Records in Los Angeles contacted us and he said that he wanted to release the cover album. I like all tracks. It’s difficult to choose one.
TG: A lot of people know your band in America through the championing of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. What was your first impression of Cobain? How was the touring experience with Nirvana? All these years later do you feel that the Nirvana association is a blessing or a weight to carry?
Naoko: It was long time ago. Kurt has beautiful deep blue eyes and he was a calm person but has passion to music. Touring with Nirvana was so impressive. They are very kind and help us a lot. I don’t feel it was a weight to carry. It was a good experience.
TG: Shonen Knife signed to the major label with Virgin; what was your experience working with the majors, and do you prefer your experience working with the majors or your experience working with independent labels?
Naoko: I don’t mind if a label is major or independent but the label should be good one.
TG: When I was in high school you released Rock Animals, which contains the song “Butterfly Boy.” My girlfriend put it on a mixtape for me and the song has stuck with me for years; how did Thurston Moore come to play on the track?
Naoko: “Butterfly Boy” was written by our original bassist Michie. I don’t know the meaning of the song but it’s a great one. The album was mixed by Don Fleming. I think Don and Thurston are friends and he came to the mixing studio. Members of the band didn’t go to the studio in New York, just our producer Page Porrazzo went to the studio.
TG: Your last album was a wonderful Ramones tribute. What have the Ramones meant to you as musicians, as fans?
Naoko: Ramones are one of my rock heros.
TG: At 30 years in, what goals do Shonen Knife have?
Naoko: Hmm… There is no goal for music, but if we can have our private jet for touring, it would be fantastic.
The following interview ran July 13, 2012 on ssgmusic.com.