Meet Shonen Knife: Japanese Rock Band 38 Years into the Music Scene With a Nirvana Seal of Approval
Written by Rianne Akindele on October 16, 2019
R: How did you all decide to start a band? Seeing as you all (Naoko and Atsuko) are sisters, is this something that runs in the family?
Naoko: I started Shonen Knife in the late ’70s after hearing punk rock bands like The Ramones and Buzzcocks. I was heavily inspired by them when I was younger. During that time my daily life was boring, so I decided to start a band.
Atsuko: In the beginning, Naoko picked up guitar and her friend started practicing the bass. Since there was no drummer, Naoko asked me to play drums for the band. I had never played drums in my life, so I learned on my own. Now, I play bass in the band and we have a powerful new drummer, Risa!
R: What’s your favorite thing about making music?
Naoko: I like to make the melodies. For me, writing lyrics is very hard, especially in English as I’m not a native speaker. After 1990, I realized I needed to write lyrics in English because we became popular overseas and I wanted people to understand us. When writing in English, I felt like the lyrics needed to rhyme and back then there was no Internet to use for translations or even search up a rhyming word. I also don’t want to sing about negative things or love, so it was hard to find topics to talk about. I just wanted to write about my favorite things and animals.
Atsuko: I like playing music together as a group. You know I can practice and perform by myself, but making music together is great. We also love the live shows. When we perform it’s like we catch a ball of happiness.
R: How do you decide when to use English or Japanese lyrics?
Naoko: For me, the language of rock music is English. If I write lyrics in Japanese from the beginning, I think it will be less fluid and and those Japanese intonations will be apparent. When I write in English the music is wavier.
R: Where do you draw music inspiration from?
Naoko: I get inspiration from everything.
Atsuko: I remember when Naoko was riding bicycle around the neighborhood one day in Osaka and a melody just came to her mind so suddenly. She is like that all of the time.
R: What’s your favorite thing about your hometown Osaka or Japan in general?
Atsuko: I live in LA now, so when I go back I want to eat the food. We have Japanese food in LA, but it’s not the same as eating in back home.
Naoko: I love the public transportation because it is so clean and organizes. Also, we don’t have to tip in Japan. [laughs]
R: How do you all feel about the expansion of Japanese art like anime/manga and music on an international scale?
Naoko: I’m super happy about that. We’ve played at many anime conventions and it’s nice to see other people love your culture.
R: You all have been making music for a long time – what have y’all seen change in the music industry? Have there been any challenges being women in the rock industry?
Naoko: When we started back then, there was no Internet, so when people released their music it was on vinyl or CD. There was no streaming. I think streaming is good and easier for listeners, but for musicians it’s harder to gather royalties.
Atsuko: We haven’t face many difficulties if any being women in the music industry. I think just one difficulty we have is carrying the heavy equipment because we don’t have enough power.
R: I know that this was forever ago, but what was it like touring with Nirvana?
Naoko: When we got an offer to tour with them, I actually didn’t know Nirvana because they were just breaking into the scene. I really thought nothing much about it, but once the tour started all of the members were so kind. We toured with them twice. Once in the November of 1991 and again in 1993. Both tour went really well and on the the first one, since it was a smaller tour, we were close. The second was huge, as they had grown so much, so we didn’t have time and there were so many more people there as part of the crew.
Atsuko: One thing I remember is that they may look scary, but they’re super nice.
R: Tell me about the production process for your latest album, Sweet Candy Power.
Naoko: First, I make the songs at home with just using my guitar and I record vocals on my phone with Voice Memo. Then, I send them to band members and they add the bass line and drum tracks. We eventually get together at the studio to rehearse and make arrangements.
Atsuko: Since I live in LA now with my family, we have two assists in Japan to help with tracking. When I arrive in Japan to help bring it all together it’s the best time.
R: Do you have a favorite song to play live?
Atsuko: Now, I like playing the song “Sweet Candy Power” because of the audience’s reaction.
Naoko: Same. I like “Sweet Candy Power” or “My Independent Country” because it’s a hard rock song.
Naoko: [laughs] It’s these mint candies like Halls, in Japan we have various kinds and flavors. I love them.
Atsuko: She really has them everywhere she goes! It’s so funny.
R: What do you all think one of your biggest accomplishment in music has been?
Atsuko: I never look back at our past to decide a peak because new and great moments are always occurring.