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By Dan Grunebaum

Shonen Knife

23 years since forming, the groundbreaking group asserts control over its affairs

With women-fronted bands a well established phenomenon since the days of Heart, and with a long line of strong female songwriters from Janis Joplin to Joan Jett to Alanis Morrissette established as legitimate rock voices, it's easy to forget that it wasn't too long ago that rock was an overwhelmingly male province.

All the more so in Japan, where women are still mostly positioned as idoru, R&B divas or novelty acts like pop duo Puffy. Legitimate female rockers like eX-Girl remain consigned to the underground.

One would perhaps have expected, then, that when rock trio Shonen Knife first formed in 1981, they would have encountered resistance from a chauvinistic, patriarchal Japan. Not so, says guitarist/vocalist Naoko Yamano in a recent interview at a Shibuya cafe, where she appeared with her young daughter and manager. "Rather than facing discrimination, boy bands wanted to play with us. We got a lot of chances to perform, and were treated as something special."

While part of their appeal was sheer novelty, a certain if small audience in Japan and the West was ready for something female, rock and Asian. Shonen Knife, named after a Japanese brand of pocketknife, were soon making a slow but steady ascent to major label status and semi-stardom.

Word first began to get out abroad in the mid-'80s, when a cassette tape the trio had released on a Kyoto indie imprint made its way to K Records out of Olympia, Washington. K decided to issue the album in the states, and soon Shonen Knife were getting offers from a range of labels, as well as getting spun by the late, great British radio DJ John Peel.

Improbably for a trio of Japanese office girls, they became a hip name to drop by the rock glitterati of the time, with a range of alt-rock bands recording takes of Shonen Knife's poppy, punky songs on 1989's Every Band Has a Shonen Knife Who Loves Them.

Yamano, her drum-playing sister Atsuko, and bassist Michie Nakatani made their first trip overseas the same year. "We'd released an album on a US label. They invited us to play, we took off from work and went for a one-off gig," recalls Yamano. "We played with the Tater Tots, a jam session band with members from Red Cross and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth. At that time we didn't know these bands, but afterwards we listened to their music and were glad to have played with them."

The beginning of the '90s was a whirlwind of activity for Shonen Knife, particularly overseas where they played yang to Nirvana's ying, backing the group on a UK tour just as Nevermind was about to break. The notoriously difficult Nirvana frontman was particularly friendly, says Yamano.

"Kurt Cobain was quiet, but very nice to us as it was the first time for us to tour abroad. He invited us to eat with them and share their catering. They also did a secret 'live' where Nirvana played one of our songs-we never jammed together, though."

The peak years for alternative rock were also the peak years of commercial success for Shonen Knife, with the group joining the Lollapalooza traveling alt-rock festival and major label Virgin signing them for 1993's Rock Animals. The album spawned a popular MTV video for "Tomato Head," landing a spot on Beavis & Butthead, while the group also offered a cover of "Top of the World" to the Carpenters tribute album If I Were a Carpenter.

But as alt-rock's fortunes began to wane in the late '90s, Virgin dropped the group. Since 1997's Brand New Knife, the trio have been released by independent labels, and like many bands, they have formed their own label to take better control of their business.

"Until now record companies have owned the rights to songs, and they could do what they wanted with them," chips in manager Atsushi "Tomato Head" Shibata. "The band had no control. But from now on, even if we license albums to a distributor, we'll retain the rights. We think this will be in the band's interest over the long term."

Named after their first album, Burning Farm, the label has also supported Japanese bands favored by Shonen Knife, now a duo since the exit of Nakatani. "We've already released two albums," says Yamano. "The first was a compilation of minor Japanese bands that we like called Wonder World vol. 1. We did a tour to promote it with lots of local bands from each area. The second release was by Tokyo-based band Adel. They sing in Japanese, but they have an ironic feel that sets them apart, and strong melodies."

With her long experience in the music industry and popularity overseas, Yamano knows more than many about how to market Japanese music abroad. In fact, she's currently in Tokyo to participate in a symposium organized by the government on the topic of overseas distribution of digital contents.

Since the birth of Yamano's daughter Emma four years ago, Shonen Knife have slowed down a bit. But they still record and tour on a regular basis, with 2003's Heavy Songs their last release. Meanwhile, their first four albums are to be re-released in the US by Oglio Records in February. They'll tour to support it, and also plan to begin recording a new album this winter.

Yamano says her songwriting has changed since she became a mother, although it still retains the exuberant but slyly ironic quality that has long defined Shonen Knife. "In the early days I wrote a lot about food and animals. These days I've become a bit more socially aware in my lyrics, a bit more serious, but still cynical. I have songs that touch on things like anime and its appeal overseas, and in the song 'Rock Society' I say to people who've succeeded, and those who've not, and even those who once had success, to continue to play."

With Emma getting bored of her manga and beginning to squirm in her chair, I decide to end the interview. Does Emma want to be a rock star like her mom? Shyly, she admits, "I want to play too."

Unit, Dec 19. See concert listings for details.

credit: Smash

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