Interview with Shonen Knife: Living a Catnip Dream

Shonen Knife has been one of my favorite bands since the mid-’80s. Every album they’ve ever put out has plastered a smile on my face from beginning to end, and that isn’t something you can say about many groups these days. Never pretentious or boring, they are my idea of a perfect band. So when I heard they’d be playing at the House of Blues in May 1997, I decided to meet these women myself. Lorraine, a former writer for the now defunct ‘zine Ben is Dead, was nice enough to come along with me.

Jason: How was America for you this time?

Naoko: It went very well. We went to some small cities, so many Shonen Knife fans came to our shows. So we think that’s good.

Jason: Did you play a lot more smaller cities than you have before?

Naoko: We had two brand new places, [including] St. Louis. So there are many new Shonen Knife fans. We visited thirty cities in six weeks.

Jason: How long were you together as a band before you played outside of Japan?

Naoko: Total, over ten years, but after our major debut, five more years.

Jason: So ten years together before you left Japan to play. Wow! 

Lorraine: Is there a difference among audiences from Japan and America?

Naoko: There is no difference. Every Shonen Knife fan already knows our songs, and they sing along with us, so…

Jason: You have a reputation for being cute girls from Japan, and it seems sometimes that image takes precedence over your music and lyrics. Does that make you angry?

Naoko: I think we are very ugly!

Jason: No!!!

Naoko: We don’t mind if people say something bad or good, we are just playing music.

Jason: There are a lot of new Japanese bands that owe their popularity in America to you guys coming over here and breaking through. I was wondering if you ever considered doing a tour of the States with Pizzicato Five, Super Junky Monkey, the’s or bands like that, like a big Japanese Monsters of Rock tour?

Naoko: Ah, but we are from Osaka and they are from Tokyo, so Shonen Knife and them are very different. We formed Shonen Knife over 10 years ago, so the standing point is very different.

Jason: Do you think they are jealous of you?

Naoko: I think there is no competition with music as there is for athletics. For music, it depends on person’s taste.

Lorraine: Don’t lump them all together.

Jason: Oh, I’m not, I was just hoping I could get them to fight each other…When I was in Osaka last year, I noticed a lot of girls on the trains reading manga (Japanese comic books).

Naoko: Yeah!

Jason: And all my friends had huge bookshelves full of series of manga, and I was wondering: do you read manga? Are you fans of comics?

Naoko: I don’t read manga that much and even when I was a child, I didn’t read manga.

Jason (to Michie and Atsuko) Do either of you read manga at all?

Atsuko Yamano, drummer (also Naoko’s sister): I don’t.

Michie Nakatani, bassist: When I was young, I wanted to be a cartoonist.

Jason: You did?

Michie: Yes, I wanted to draw manga, uh…manga for girls, because there are different kinds, boys’ manga and girls’ manga. I’m a big fan of girls’ manga.

Jason: Which ones did you like the best?

Michie: Someone named Hagio Moto [a girls’ manga artist most famous for a vampire family epic called Hagio Moto Po No Ichizoku, which translates as “Vampire Po’s Family”].

Naoko: And she even drew manga stories! I think they were great!

Michie: I don’t know, but I used to send those works to publishers, but…

Jason: No? You should try it now.

Naoko: I read [Michie’s] manga book and I thought the stories and drawings were perfect for me. I liked them very much!

Lorraine: So would you guys rather be cartoon characters or comic book heroes?

Jason: That’s a hard one.

Naoko: My favorite cartoons are some American cartoons like “Josie and the Pussycats.” And also I like to watch the animation from the Beatles.

Lorraine: There should be a Shonen Knife one, huh? That would be great, Josie and the Pussycats meet Shonen Knife!

Jason: There are actually some American comic artists that have put you in their comics, did you know that? Like the comic Love and Rockets, they have a character who has a dream that they are at a Shonen Knife show and one of the main characters’ favorite band is Shonen Knife.

Naoko: Really? Wow, we had no idea, we didn’t know that.

Jason: On one of your records,  you have a song called  “I Am A Cat.” Isn’t that about a popular Japanese cartoon character?

Naoko: No, that is the title of a Japanese famous novel. About one hundred seventy eighty or five hundred years old story by a very famous Japanese author.

Lorraine: Do you guys collect things from TV shows and comic stuff?

Naoko: Recently, I started to collect many things about Yoda from Star Wars.

Lorraine: They have a new Yoda Pez dispenser.

Naoko: Pens?

Jason: No, Pez. It’s a candy.

Naoko: I only have a pencil cap. Now I am collecting Yoda.

Jason: My wife is from Osaka. She likes you guys too, and she reads manga all the time. She’ll get like 30 really big thick manga magazines and I won’t hear from her for like two or three days. I day I wondered what was so interesting, so I opened one of them up and there was tons of sex going on (Shonen Knife cracks up over this). Girls in America don’t read that many sex comics, you know. I was wondering, do you think Japanese women are more relaxed about seeing and talking about things about sex?

Naoko: Yeah,  I think we are getting old, but Japanese high school students, female high school students, become more free. Free for talking about sexual things.

Brand_New_KnifeJason: About your album [Brand New Knife], I noticed that a lot of the lyrics are quite serious in nature. I get the feeling especially in the first two songs, “Explosion” and “Wind the Spring” that you’re trying to tell people to do something with their lives. It seems like you are exploring new topics in your songs. The song “A Perfect World” in particular seems to stand out on the album as a very serious and lonely kind of song. I was wondering what took you so long to express those feelings on your records. Did you think that they wouldn’t fit the Shonen Knife image, serious songs?

Naoko: “A Perfect World” was written by Michie. “Explosion” and “Wind the Spring,” I wrote them. I think we…I think we’ve learned very much if we compare this with our old stuff. So we started to write about something serious.

Jason: So you’re getting more philosophical as you get older.

Naoko: Ugh, yes.

Jason: Do you have any favorite Osaka bands or artists that you could recommend to us?

Naoko: Kokeshi

Jason: If one were to go to Osaka, what restaurants or clubs would you guys suggest? I usually hang out in Minami, but there are so many places to go! What’s the best place?

Naoko: I sometimes go to a rock club called Bears and Fandango.

Jason: Okay, last question. What’s next for you? Are these any videos in the near future and will there ever be a Shonen Knife movie? Animated or a movie about your career.

Naoko: Now we are shooting our documentary, no, actually rockumentary video. We are going to release that rockumentary video in September in Japan.

Jason: Will it be here too?

Naoko: Uh, now there is no plan to release here.

Jason: Damn.

Naoko: And also in Canada, we are in a movie. Do you know the movie director Bruce McDonald? Anyway, we will be in his movie in Montreal. He is a very big movie director in Canada and he is directing us for the Canadian people. [In the movie,] we pretend to like something, so it’s only for one or two minutes.