For better or worse, the appeal of Shonen Knife in this country is largely based on just how adorable they are. Then again, it's hard not to fawn over three cute, upbeat Japanese women wearing matching '60s go-go outfits, playing a few simple rock 'n' roll chords and singing about a flying jelly attack.
After more than two decades, Shonen's musicianship has improved light years beyond their debut (1982's Minna Tanoshiku), even though their intelligibility hasn't grown quite as steadily. But, as it happens, the band members' endearing and enduring broken Engrish only seems to add to their charm.
That infectious (if a tad guilt-inducing) fun with grammar still comes across in an e-mail interview with singer Naoko Yamano, who says she can relate to the appeal of someone speaking (and singing) in a language that's not their own. “It's interesting that if American speak Japanese, not only language but their attitudes became like Japanese,” Naoko writes. “Yes. When Americans and foreign people are trying to speak Japanese, I feel cuteness.”
Naoko and her bandmates (including sister Atsuko on bass) have exuded enough pop-punk cuteness of their own over the years to attract legions of high-profile fans. The band first gained worldwide attention in the early '90s, thanks, in part, to rave reviews from bands like Sonic Youth and Nirvana (Kurt Cobain reportedly said he was transformed into a “giddy teenager” at his first Shonen Knife show).
Back then, the band hadn't achieved much success in Japan, and its members still worked day jobs to make ends meet. Now, a quarter-century later, they're a national institution at home while still continuing to tour the world regularly. Naoko says she's particularly excited that the band's 2007 “Knife & Dagger Tour” will bring them back to the West Coast.
“I like California a lot,” Naoko gushes. “I like San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles and more. Especially, I like the atmosphere of San Diego. It's sunny and have beautiful downtown. I can't wait to go to San Diego!” It's no wonder the Golden State appeals to Shonen Knife, given the band's seemingly perpetual sunny disposition. In fact, Atsuko—who started out as the band's drummer before moving to bass—left the band last year to move to Los Angeles. Temporary bassists have kept Shonen Knife going since Atsuko's departure, although for the current American tour, Naoko says her sister will rejoin the band.
“When we could find an official full-time bass player, we will play with her and when Atsuko wants to join, she can play the guitar of bass and full-time bassist will play the guitar of bass,” Naoko explains. “So temporary we can be a 4 piece band.”
That's right. The guitar of bass. Two of 'em.
After years of Spinal Tap-esque rotating drummers, Shonen Knife acquired a permanent beat-keeper in Etsuko “Ettchan” Nakanishi. But even with all the ebb and flow of the band's lineup, Shonen Knife still manages to release new albums regularly. The latest (the Japan-only release fun! fun! fun!) would seem to be an obvious Beach Boys reference, but, as it turns out, that's not the case.
“I always like Beach Boys,” Naoko says, “but I don't know it is a song title of the Beach Boys.”
The album, available at shows during the tour, uses a Shonen Knife formula that never gets old: some songs in Japanese, some in English, a band shout-out (“Forever Ramones”), a couple songs about random subjects (“Flu” and “Barnacle”) and, yes, a couple about food (“I Want to Eat a Cookie” and “Popcorn”). Where else can you hear a line like “Let's make a popcorn; the material is not GM [genetically modified]”?
The homage to the Ramones isn't just a passing tribute, either. Aside from any musical debts owed the N.Y.C. legends, Shonen Knife opened for the band on its farewell tour of Japan, and Naoko fronted a Ramones cover band, The Osaka Ramones.
“I [first] listened their music from a radio in Japan,” Naoko remembers. “We went to Hard Rock Café in Osaka with the members of the Ramones. All members were very nice guys.”
The fact that Shonen Knife—celebrating their 25th anniversary this year—have continued to endure as a touring act, in one form or another, long after the Ramones officially disbanded in 1996, isn't lost on Naoko.
“I didn't imagined that I could continue so long but I don't have a confidence I played so long,” Naoko says. “I'll keep rocking as long as there are Shonen Knife fans. I can't stop rocking.” Shonen Knife play Friday, Dec. 7, at The Casbah with Wildbirds and Juliet Dagger. Doors open at 9 p.m. 619-516-4746. www.shonenknife.com.