By Dan Grunebaum
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
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
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
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